Shaping the Republic of Letters/ Cultural Genealogies:The Epistemic Virtues & Vices

The theme of this course is the moral evaluation of epistemic practices and its cultural role. The approach draws on the combined resources of intellectual history and applied virtue epistemology. The aim is for students to become sensitive to, and acquire the analytical terms apt to help the understanding of, the virtue and vice vocabulary attached to historical and contemporary practices of knowledge. The objectives include a) an examination of the notion of `epistemic practices’ itself: how is knowledge or thinking to be understood as a practice? what are the premises of this view and what the consequences?; b) an examination of the moral vocabulary through which we assess success or failure in these practices, with an awareness of the long history that stands behind it; c) an inquiry into the role this vocabulary plays in the formation of cultural identities, the performance of cultural practices and the development of cultural dynamics.

The course has two components: A) The intellectual historical component addresses the formation of the modern vocabulary of epistemic virtues and vices in the early modern period (c17-18, with focus on the British space). B) The component of applied virtue epistemology looks at contemporary cultural identities and practices through the lens of the epistemic virtues and vices that go into their making.

Course Instructor: Dr Sorana Corneanu

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Brainstorming

Epistemic virtues & vices and contemporary practices of knowledge

Week 3: Setting the scene, with the help of intellectual history

Reading: Sorana Corneanu, ‘Early modern science and the virtues of the mind’ in Knowledge, Selves, Virtues (Bucharest, 2014)

Week 4: Impediments in the mind: the Baconian idols and their legacy

Readings: Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620), aph. 49-68; Sophie Weeks, ‘Francis Bacon’s Doctrine of Idols: A Diagnosis of “Universal Madness”’, British Journal for the History of Science 52 (2019)

Week 5: Early modern anti-dogmatism

Readings: Joseph Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661), chap. 23; John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706), para. 31-37, 44-45; Sorana Corneanu (ms. paper on dogmatism)

Week 6: Polite culture and the epistemic virtues

Readings: The Guardian no. 34 (1713); Isaac Watts, Logick (1725), pp. 208-214, 217-221; Improvement of Mind, pp. 11-21; Richard Yeo, ‘John Locke and polite philosophy’, in Conal Condren et al., eds., The Philosopher in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2006)

Week 7: Discussion

What use, if any, are historical insights to our current cultural self-understanding, with reference to the epistemic virtues and vices?

Week 8: Regulative epistemology

Readings: Robert Roberts and Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues. An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford, 2007), chapters 7 (Firmness) and 8 (Courage)

Week 9: Virtue epistemology and education

Readings: Jason Baehr (ed.), Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology (Routledge 2016), chapters 2 (Open-mindedness, Insight and Understanding) and 11 (Learning Intellectual Humility)

Week 10: Virtue epistemology and cultural practices

Readings: Tanesini and Lynch (eds.), Polarisation, Arrogance, and Dogmatism: Philosophical Perspectives (Routledge 2021), chapters 6 (Is searching the internet making us intellectually arrogant?) 12 (Science denial, polarisation, and arrogance)

Week 11: Virtue epistemology and cultural identity

Readings: Heather Battaly (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Virtue Epistemology (Routledge 2019), chapter 31 (Feminist virtue epistemology) and 33 (Virtue Epistemology and Collective Epistemology)

Week 12: Discussion

Vices and virtues to the trial: pick up your preferred epistemic vice or virtue, examine its contours (and dilemmas) and find (or produce) the best illustration for it.

Weeks 13&14: Discussion of essay topics and format


  • A minimum of 50% attendance
  • Participation in class discussions, counting for 25% of the final mark
  • An end-of-term written essay, counting for 75% of the final mark