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Caring for Esteem and Intellectual Reputation: Some Epistemic Benefits and Harms

  • Alessandra Tanesini (a1)


This paper has five aims: it clarifies the nature of esteem and of the related notions of admiration and reputation (sect. 1); it argues that communities that possess practices of esteeming individuals for their intellectual qualities are epistemically superior to otherwise identical communities lacking this practice (sect. 2) and that a concern for one's own intellectual reputation, and a motivation to seek the esteem and admiration of other members of one's community, can be epistemically virtuous (sect. 3); it explains two vices regarding these concerns for one's own intellectual reputation and desire for esteem: intellectual vanity and intellectual timidity (sect. 4); finally (sect. 5), it offers an account of some of the epistemic harms caused by these vices.


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1 See Cassam, Q., ‘Vice Epistemology’, The Monist 99 (2016), 159180 for a defence of the view that intellectual character vices are character traits that are an impediment to effective and responsible enquiry. Although I do not fully endorse his account, it provides a useful way to approach the issues with which I am concerned in this paper.

2 My focus in this paper is exclusively with esteem conferred by individuals upon other individuals.

3 Conferring esteem upon others may also be of prudential value when, for example, it induces them to reciprocate. My discussion in this section is indebted to the account of the economy of esteem developed by Brennan, G. and Pettit, P., The Economy of Esteem: An Essay on Civil and Political Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

4 There is empirical evidence that humans assess other people's qualities by comparing them to oneself rather than by adopting objective standards of evaluation. See Dunning, D. and Hayes, A. F., ‘Evidence for Egocentric Comparison in Social Judgment’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1996), 213–29.

5 In what follows, for the sake of brevity, I shall often use ‘esteem’ as a shorthand for ‘esteem or disesteem’.

6 The connection between admiration and the desire to emulate is defended by Zagzebski, L. in ‘I – Admiration and the Admirable’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 89 (2015), 205–21. Similarly, those who are held in disesteem are singled out as cautionary bad examples.

7 Much more would need to be said to defend these claims. See Brennan and Pettit, The Economy of Esteem, 21–22, and Tanesini, A., ‘Intellectual Humility as Attitude’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 96.2 (2018), 399420, at 403–4.

8 I use ‘testimony’ here rather broadly to include assertions testifying that one holds someone in esteem and other speech acts such as expressions of admiration.

9 When good or bad reputations become common knowledge, they can be described as fame or infamy. See, Brennan and Pettit, The Economy of Esteem, 57.

10 Brennan and Pettit, The Economy of Esteem, at 55 and passim refer to these markers as esteem services.

11 Barring insincerity, esteem markers manifest esteem. Esteem itself, however, may fail to track qualities that are worthy of it. This happens when one esteems someone, although this person is not worthy of esteem or vice versa.

12 Markers of admiration are often also as markers of esteem.

13 Other kinds of esteem markers include prizes, honours, credentials and giving credit to someone for a discovery or an innovation. See Zollman, K. J. S., ‘The Credit Economy and the Economic Rationality of Science’, Journal of Philosophy 115 (2018), 533, for a discussion of the epistemic value of the credit motive in science.

14 Goldman, A. I., ‘Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?’, in Goldman, A. I. and Whitcomb, D. (eds.), Social Epistemology: Essential Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 109133.

15 The presence of these problems is well-established. For a review of bias in peer review see Lee, C. J., Sugimoto, C. R., Zhang, G. and Cronin, B., ‘Bias in Peer Review’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 64 (2013), 217. For a powerful argument that less powerful individuals receive less credit or esteem than they are due for their contributions to collaborative research see Bruner, J. and O'Connor, C., ‘Power, Bargaining, and Collaboration’, in Boyer, T., Mayo-Wilson, C. and Weisberg, M. (eds.), Scientific Collaboration and Collective Knowledge, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 135157.

16 It is extremely unlikely that any one person would regard everyone else as their model regarding a relevant good feature.

17 See Ch. 1 of Brennan and Pettit, The Economy of Esteem. The notion of credit as discussed by Zollman, ‘The Credit Economy’ is also positional.

18 It is worth noting therefore that esteem is different from attributions of credibility or of authority. If I find a person more credible or authoritative than I did before, there need not be another person whose standing by my lights is therefore diminished.

19 Aristotle makes this point when he states that loving honours in the right amount and when conferred by the right people is a virtue which is flanked by two vices: that of the honour-lover who aims at ‘honour more than is right, and from the wrong sources’, and that of the person who is indifferent to deserved honour. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Irwin, T. (trans.) (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985), 1125b 1–25.

20 This desire is likely to be qualified along several dimensions. One may desire to receive positive evaluations for some features, whilst not caring very much about other qualities. One may seek the esteem of some people but not value the opinion of others. Finally, and most importantly, one may desire esteem only if it is deserved, rather than at any cost.

21 See Elster, J., Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

22 For a discussion of distinct kinds of respect see Dillon, R. S., ‘Kant on Arrogance and Self-Respect’, in Calhoun, C. (ed.), Setting the Moral Compass: Essays by Women Philosophers, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 191216. For some connections between arrogance and disrespect see also Tanesini, A., ‘I – “Calm Down, Dear”: Intellectual Arrogance, Silencing and Ignorance’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 90 (2016), 7192.

23 More needs to be said to support this claim. It is opposed by Roberts, R. C. and Wood, W. J., Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 239. See Tanesini, ‘Intellectual Humility as Attitude’ for a defence.

24 This position would be a kind of virtue reliabilism. For a useful characterisation see Battaly, H., ‘Epistemic Virtue and Vice: Reliabilism, Responsibilism, and Personalism’, in Mi, C., Slote, M. and Sosa, E. (eds.), Moral and Intellectual Virtues in Western and Chinese Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2016), 99120.

25 I wish to thank Charlie Crerar for pushing me to consider these issues. There are further complications here since virtue may require that not only one desires esteem in the right way but also from the right people. I shall ignore this issue here.

26 Vanity may not be the only vice characterised by a consuming desire to be esteemed. There might be others which do not share the other two features of vanity highlighted here.

27 Fear may not be the only motive. Thus, there may be vices of deficient concern for others’ esteem other than timidity.

28 Nuyen, A. T., ‘Vanity’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 37 (1999), 613627; Tiberius, V. and Walker, J. D. C., ‘Arrogance’, American Philosophical Quarterly 35 (1998), 379390; and Bartky, S. L., ‘Narcissism, Femininity and Alienation’, Social Theory and Practice 8 (1982), 127143 offer some discussion of the topic. None focus on the intellectual variety of this vice. An exception is Kieran, M., ‘Creativity, Vanity, Narcissism’, in Gaut, B. and Kieran, M. (eds.), Creativity and Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2017), 7492.

29 It is therefore opposed to humility as the latter is understood by Whitcomb, D. et al. ‘Intellectual Humility: Owning Our Limitations’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94 (2017), 509–39.

30 Thanks to J. Adam Carter for this example of vanity.

31 Theories about the nature of vanity have generally selected one of these aspects as fundamental. For example, Roberts and Wood, (Intellectual Virtues, 237) define vanity ‘an excessive concern to be well regarded by other people’; Walker and Tiberius (‘Arrogance’, 383) think of it as ‘having an excessively high self-estimation’. In my view, vanity is not a matter of thinking too well of oneself or of being too concerned that others’ think highly of one, instead it is a matter of developing a positive self-assessment which is driven by others’ alleged perception of the self.

32 Some, including Hume and more recently Kieran ‘Creativity’ argue that vanity is a vice close to virtue since one can use the desire to be esteemed that is characteristic of vain individuals and rely on it to educate them to care about being worthy of esteem. Hence, vanity can be instrumentally valuable. Nevertheless, the vain desires esteem irrespective of whether it is proportional to the evaluative respect that is due to one.

33 On how the desire to be admired can turn into envy see L. Zagzebski, ‘I – Admiration and the Admirable’.

34 Intellectual timidity is therefore a vice which is also opposed to intellectual courage. It seems possible and plausible that one vice may be opposed to more than one virtue. Timidity is opposed to courage in so far as it exemplifies excessive risk aversion and to proper concern with one's intellectual standing because it exhibits insufficient care for esteem.

35 On this point see Tanesini, ‘“Calm Down, Dear”’. For a contrasting higher-order evidence account of this psychological transition see Goldberg, Sanford, ‘Arrogance, Silence, and Silencing’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 90 (2016), 93112.

36 It should be clear to the reader versed in the literature on implicit bias and stereotype threat that the vice of intellectual timidity is one to which individuals who suffers from stereotype threat may be particularly prone.

37 See Cassam, Q., ‘Stealthy Vices’, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4 (2015), 1925 and ‘Vices of the Mind’ (book manuscript) for the point that some vices are stealthy. Stealth is a matter of degree. Other vices, e.g., intellectual arrogance, may be stealthier than either vanity or timidity.

38 My thanks to the editors of this volume and an anonymous referee for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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