Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind is all about epistemic vices. Epistemic vices are intentional and unintentional habits, behaviors, personality traits, and patterns of thought that hinder knowledge, information sharing, and accurate and adequate understandings of the world around us. Sometimes we intentionally deceive ourselves, sometimes we simply fail to recognize that we don’t have enough data to confidently state our beliefs, and sometimes we are intentionally deceived by others without recognizing it. When we fall into thinking habits and styles that limit our ability to think critically and rationally, we are indulging in epistemic vices, and the results can often be dangerous to ourselves and people impacted by our decisions.
“Knowledge is something that we can acquire, retain, and transmit. Put more simply, it is something that we can gain, keep, and share. So one way to see how epistemic vices get in the way of knowledge is to see how they obstruct the acquisition, retention, and transmission of knowledge,” Cassam writes.
A challenge that I have is living comfortably knowing that I have incomplete knowledge on everything, that the world is more complex than I can manage to realize, and that even when doing my best I will still not know everything that another person does. This realization is paralyzing for me, and I constantly feel inadequate because of it. However, Cassam’s quote provides a perspective of hope.
Knowledge is something we can always gain, retain, and transmit. We can improve all of those areas, gaining more knowledge, improving our retention and retrieval of knowledge, and doing better to transmit our knowledge. By recognizing and eliminating epistemic vices we can increase the knowledge that we have, use, and share, ultimately boosting our productivity and value to human society. Seeing knowledge as an iceberg that we can only access a tiny fraction of is paralyzing, but recognizing that knowledge is something we can improve our access to and use of is empowering. Cassam’s book is helpful in shining a light on epistemic vices so we can identify them, understand how they obstruct knowledge, and overcome our vices to improve our relationship with knowledge.