Is epistemic self-improvement possible? That is, can we individually improve the ways we think to become more conducive to knowledge? If we can’t, does that mean we are stuck with epistemic vices, unable to improve our thinking to become epistemically virtuous?
These are important questions because they determine whether we can progress as a collective and overcome ways of thinking that hinder knowledge. Gullibility, arrogance, and closed-mindedness are a few epistemic vices that I have written about recently that demonstrate how hard epistemic self-improvement can be. If you are gullible it is hard to make a change on your own to be less easily fooled. If you are arrogant it is hard to be introspective in a way that allows you to see how your arrogance has limited your knowledge. And if you are closed-minded then it is unlikely you will see a need to expand your knowledge at all. So can we really improve ourselves to think better?
Quassim Cassam seems to believe that we can. He identifies ways in which people have improved their thinking over time and how humans within institutions have become more epistemically virtuous throughout our history. After running through some examples and support for epistemic self-improvement in Vices of the Mind, Cassam writes, “none of this proves that self-improvement in respect of thinking vices is possible, but if our thinking can’t be improved that would make it one of the few things that humans do that they can’t do better with practice and training.”
I am currently reading Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World and he argues that human psychology both shapes and is shaped by institutions. I think he would agree with Cassam, arguing that individual self-improvement is possible, and that it can contribute to a positive feedback loop where people improve their thinking, improving the institutions they are a part of, which feeds back into improved thinking. I agree with Cassam and would find it surprising if we couldn’t improve our thinking and become more epistemically virtuous if we set about trying to do so with practice. Viewing this idea through a Henrich lens also suggests that as we try to become more epistemically virtuous and focus on epistemic virtuosity, we would shape institutions to better support us, giving us an extra hand from the outside to help us improve our thinking. Individually we can become better thinkers and that allows us to create better institutions that further support better thinking, creating a virtuous cycle of epistemic self-improvement. There are certainly many jumping off points and gears that we can throw sand into during this process, but overall, it should leave us feeling more epistemically optimistic about humans and our societies.