Thursday, November 15, 2007

Epistemic Responsibility

In consequence of the commitments he has made that led to his becoming a respected scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Gosee has epistemic responsibilities that, in a certain sense, transcend those of "ordinary" members of an epistemic community. He thus faces demands of epistemic responsibility of a more pressing nature than those that face an "average" enquirer. He is one of those who shape the standards of responsible enquiry; thus, when he proves no longer able to continue shaping those standards, his case is especially difficult to judge, particularly in view of the apparent worthiness of his reasons. Teachers, clergy, physicians, and scientists, among others, in their professional capacity, face special epistemic demands. One might be reluctant, in fact, to judge as intellectually virtuous a teacher (or physician or scientist) who is epistemically responsible in professional matters but is dogmatic, careless, and unscrupulous in private life.

Lorraine Code, Epistemic Responsibility, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH: 1987) 62-63.

The Gosse mentioned here is Philip Henry Gosse, who is indeed an interesting case. The point, of course, is general. It's remarkable, though, how easy it is to find academics who will unthinkingly say things that suggest that the greater one's successes as an outstanding part of the epistemic community, the less anyone has a right to demand or expect that you act responsibly as a member of such a community. It's curious how, for instance, some people are willing to give Nobel Prize winners almost a free pass for saying whatever they please. But there's a sense in which, if you're an academic, or a scientist, or physician, or such, that you never stop being one -- you continue to represent the academy, or the scientific community, or what have you, even when not engaged in strictly professional matters. Of course, you don't do so to as great an extent and there may be more room for foibles than there would in the stricter world of actual research and teaching. But signing on to be an academic is in a sense signing on always to be an academic. When people see you outside the academy, they won't say, "Oh, there goes so-and-so, who is a historian/philosopher/scientist when he goes to work." They'll say, "Oh, there goes so-and-so, who is a historian/philosopher/scientist, and so that's an example of how historians/philosophers/scientists act and think."

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