Stephen Grimm Interview

Dr. Stephen Grimm

The following is an interview with Dr. Stephen Grimm, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. He is the project leader for the Varieties of Understanding project (http://www.varietiesofunderstanding.com/), a $4.5 million research initiative on the nature of understanding. He is the author of numerous journal articles in venues like Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophical Studies, Mind, and Ratio, among many others. Thank you, Dr. Grimm, for this interview!

Can you give us a very brief overview of your own work on character and/or virtue in recent years?

I have mainly been working on the nature of “higher” epistemic goods, such as wisdom and understanding. This is a little different from the normal focus in epistemology, which is often concerned not with wisdom or understanding but rather with what it takes to know quite ordinary things, such as whether the car is in the driveway, or the cat is on the mat.

A question that arises when we switch our attention to epistemic goods such as wisdom and understanding is whether these require different cognitive capacities, or different traits of character, than more ordinary epistemic goods.

For example, to acquire understanding in some areas might require the exercise of empathy, or it might require having lived through particular experiences. Similarly, advancing in wisdom might require exercising moral virtues, such as self-restraint, in addition to developing epistemic capacities.

How did you get interested in issues related to character and virtue?

I mainly became interested in these issues because I felt like epistemologists had been neglecting a lot of interesting epistemic accomplishments. What it takes to know that the cat is on the mat, on my reliabilist view, is very straightforward and arguably requires no advanced cognitive abilities: it simply requires an ability to track how things stand in the world.

What it takes to understand or to acquire wisdom arguably requires much more, and brings into play more sophisticated epistemic abilities, or more morally freighted ones.

What do you see as areas of research where further work needs to be done on character or virtue?

I think we’re just scratching the surface on the study of wisdom in particular, and it promises to bring together a rich interdisciplinary matrix of scholars: epistemologists, ethicists, psychologists, people working on well-being, and so on.

I feel like epistemologists in particular have a lot to contribute to debates about the nature of wisdom, and I look forward to seeing more people take up the challenge.

What are the influences on your own thought and views?

My general orientation in epistemology has been most strongly influenced by Ernest Sosa at Rutgers, John Greco at St. Louis University, and Linda Zagzebski at the University of Oklahoma. All of these philosophers have done a great deal to broaden our appreciation of the full range of epistemic goods. In theology, I think I probably have the most to learn about understanding and wisdom from Cardinal Newman. In psychology, I have benefited a great deal from reading the work of Tania Lombrozo and Alison Gopnik at Berkeley, and I look forward to continued collaboration with them in our shared Varieties of Understanding project.