Ernest Sosa: Virtue, Knowledge, and Understanding

Sophi Says Philosobytes Level 3: Discover philosophical principles, some of which are tricky.Have you ever wondered about the nature of knowledge itself—what it means to truly know something? Enter Ernest Sosa, a contemporary philosopher who stands as a towering figure in the realm of epistemology, the study of knowledge. Born in 1940 in Cárdenas, Cuba, Sosa’s intellectual journey began under the swaying palms of his homeland, but it was in the hallowed halls of American academia where his ideas would fully blossom.

Ernest Sosa’s career is marked by a profound dedication to understanding how we come to know things and what it means to hold beliefs justifiably. A Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University, Sosa has penned numerous influential works that have left an indelible mark on philosophy, particularly through his development of virtue epistemology—a fascinating approach that parallels the concepts of moral virtue with epistemic virtues, or traits beneficial to intellectual inquiry.

With a twinkle of wit and a dash of rigor, Sosa invites us to reconsider the very foundations of knowledge. His work, dense yet accessible, challenges us to think critically about the processes by which our beliefs are formed and justified. Engaging with Sosa’s philosophies is like embarking on an intellectual adventure—challenging yet immensely rewarding. So, buckle up; let’s explore the intricate landscapes of his thought.

AI generated image of Ernest SosaSummary – Philosophies and Ideologies
  1. Virtue Epistemology: Ernest Sosa is perhaps best known for his development of virtue epistemology, a framework that examines knowledge through the lens of intellectual virtues. This theory draws an analogy between moral virtues and epistemic virtues, suggesting that knowledge is a form of cognitive success that comes through the exercise of intellectual character traits.
  2. Safety and Scepticism: In his exploration of knowledge, Sosa addresses the concept of scepticism by introducing the idea of safety—a belief is safe if it is true in nearby possible worlds. This concept helps to distinguish between true beliefs that are just luckily true and those that are reliably true, thus providing a robust response to sceptical challenges.
  3. Reflective Knowledge: Sosa distinguishes between two levels of knowledge: animal knowledge and reflective knowledge. Animal knowledge is akin to instinctual or basic cognitive success, while reflective knowledge involves a higher level of cognitive achievement where one has a perspective on their own beliefs and can thus endorse them through reasoning.
  4. Epistemic Agency: Delving into the role of the knower as an agent, Sosa compares the act of knowing to that of performing other intentional actions, thereby emphasising the agentive aspects of acquiring knowledge. This perspective views the knower as actively participating in the justification of their beliefs, rather than passively receiving information.
  5. Performance Normativity: Linking closely with epistemic agency, Sosa also discusses the normativity of performances, arguing that intellectual performances can be evaluated much like performances in other areas of life, such as sports or arts. This aligns epistemic judgments with broader evaluative norms.

These key areas form the crux of Sosa’s philosophical inquiry and have significant implications across various domains of philosophy. Next, we’ll delve deeper into the first of these concepts, Virtue Epistemology, to provide a clearer and more detailed understanding.

Virtue Epistemology

When you step into the world of Ernest Sosa’s Virtue Epistemology, you’re not just entering a realm of dry theory and abstract notions; rather, you’re engaging with a vibrant approach that revitalises how we think about knowledge. Picture the way a virtuous athlete achieves their goals through the honing of their skills. Similarly, Sosa conceptualises knowledge acquisition as an intellectual endeavour where success is mediated by the cultivation of epistemic virtues, such as attentiveness, intellectual courage, and integrity.

Fundamentals of Virtue Epistemology

At the heart of Virtue Epistemology is the idea that knowledge is akin to a successful performance where the success (truth) of a belief is attributable to a person’s intellectual virtues. Sosa draws a compelling parallel here: just as a sharpshooter hits the target through skill rather than luck, a true belief qualifies as knowledge if it results from cognitive skills or virtues.

Triple S Structure: Seat, Shape, and Aim

Sosa elaborates on Virtue Epistemology using his “Triple S” model—Seat, Shape, and Aim:

  • Seat: The source or foundation of knowledge, rooted in our cognitive faculties.
  • Shape: The form or structure of these cognitive processes, shaped by training and education.
  • Aim: The goal-directed nature of our cognitive efforts, aiming at truth.

This model underscores the intentional and skill-based nature of knowing, portraying knowledge seekers not merely as passive recipients of information but as active participants in the quest for truth.

Two Levels of Knowledge: Animal and Reflective

Expanding further, Sosa differentiates between two tiers of knowledge: animal and reflective. Animal knowledge is the basic level, where beliefs are formed correctly based on cognitive faculties operating effectively—think of it as knowing without knowing how you know. Reflective knowledge, on the other hand, is more sophisticated; it involves a meta-cognitive layer where the knower reflects on their beliefs and endorses them through reasoning. This dual-layered approach not only deepens our understanding of knowledge but also fortifies our defences against scepticism by allowing us to validate the reliability of our cognitive faculties.

Addressing the Gettier Problem

In the landscape of epistemology, the Gettier problem poses a significant challenge by questioning whether having a justified true belief is sufficient for knowledge. Sosa’s Virtue Epistemology offers a robust solution: a belief that arises from intellectual virtue is not just true by chance; it is “apt” and therefore qualifies as knowledge because its truth results from the exercise of intellectual virtue, thus sidestepping the pitfalls identified by Gettier.

Through Virtue Epistemology, Ernest Sosa not only enriches the dialogue on what it means to know but also empowers us, as epistemic agents, to refine our cognitive faculties, enhancing both the pursuit and the quality of our knowledge. This compelling framework thus provides not just a theoretical but a practical blueprint for intellectual development.

Safety and Scepticism

Ernest Sosa’s examination of knowledge doesn’t stop with the harmonious balance of virtues; he delves deeper into the mechanics of belief formation and justification through the concept of safety, effectively addressing the perennial spectre of scepticism that haunts epistemology.

Understanding Safety in Epistemology

Safety, in Sosa’s framework, is a key criterion for a belief to be considered knowledge. It addresses the concern that not all true beliefs are knowledge—some are merely true by chance. A belief is deemed safe when it could not easily have been false, meaning it is true in the knower’s actual situation and would remain true in all nearby possible situations. The emphasis here is on reliability across possible worlds—a concept borrowed from modal logic that enhances our grasp of how beliefs could vary under slightly different conditions.

Safety vs. Luck

Consider this analogy: If you correctly guess the roll of a die without seeing it, your belief is true but merely lucky. Sosa would argue that for your belief to be knowledge, it must be safe—your correct belief must hold across a range of similar scenarios, not just in one fortuitous instance. This formulation helps differentiate knowledge from lucky guesses, grounding knowledge in a more robust epistemic foundation.

Combatting Scepticism

Scepticism, particularly in its radical form, questions whether we can know anything at all. By integrating the concept of safety, Sosa provides a fortified response to scepticism. Safety ensures that knowledge is not just about having a true belief but about having a belief that remains true across various “nearby” scenarios, thereby reducing the space for sceptical doubt. This approach reassures us that our beliefs are not just accidentally true but are reliably so, thereby strengthening our claims to genuinely knowing things.

Practical Implications of Safety

The practicality of the safety criterion is evident in everyday reasoning and scientific inquiry, where the reliability of outcomes and theories must be tested across different conditions. By ensuring that our beliefs are safe, we ensure that they are not only presently true but robustly true, capable of withstanding varied testing scenarios. This is particularly valuable in fields like medicine and engineering, where the cost of error can be high.

Integration with Virtue Epistemology

Sosa’s concept of safety complements his virtue epistemology by adding an extra layer of reliability to the virtues that govern our cognitive processes. Just as virtues ensure that our beliefs are formed through good intellectual habits, safety ensures that these beliefs stand up to scrutiny across possible scenarios, enhancing both the credibility and durability of our knowledge.

By incorporating safety into his philosophical toolkit, Ernest Sosa not only addresses traditional and modern sceptical challenges but also enriches our understanding of what it means to know something deeply and reliably. This nuanced approach provides a comprehensive shield against scepticism, ensuring that our knowledge is both virtuously acquired and safely maintained.

Reflective Knowledge

In Ernest Sosa’s philosophical repertoire, the distinction between animal and reflective knowledge stands out as a nuanced approach to understanding the layers of cognition and awareness that constitute human knowledge. This differentiation helps us appreciate not just the acquisition of knowledge, but also our awareness and understanding of how that knowledge is formed.

Animal Knowledge: Instinct and Intuition

Animal knowledge, as Sosa conceptualises it, is the more basic form of knowing. It is instinctual and non-reflective, akin to the way animals operate in nature—based on intuition and immediate perception. For humans, this translates to the kind of knowledge we acquire directly through our senses or basic cognitive faculties, without actively questioning the processes or the validity of these beliefs. For instance, knowing that the sky is blue because you see it, without understanding the scientific reasons behind why it appears blue, exemplifies animal knowledge.

Reflective Knowledge: Awareness and Assurance

Reflective knowledge, on the other hand, represents a higher cognitive achievement. It involves a self-aware process where the knower not only holds a true belief but is also aware of the reasons or evidence supporting that belief. This type of knowledge requires an understanding of the relationship between one’s cognitive faculties and the truth of the beliefs they produce. It’s about being aware of why the sky looks blue, understanding the scientific explanations involving light scattering, and being able to justify this belief on demand.

The Role of Meta-Cognition

The transition from animal to reflective knowledge involves meta-cognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking. This is where intellectual virtues, as discussed in Sosa’s virtue epistemology, play a crucial role. Virtues like intellectual honesty, curiosity, and diligence help transform mere true beliefs into well-founded beliefs that the individual can validate and verify through reasoning and evidence.

Addressing Epistemic Challenges

The distinction between these two levels of knowledge is particularly useful in addressing epistemological challenges such as the Gettier problem and issues of epistemic luck. Reflective knowledge, with its requirement for meta-awareness and justification, helps circumvent these problems by ensuring that our beliefs are not only true but also held for good reasons, thereby strengthening their status as knowledge.

Practical Implications and Educational Importance

In practical terms, the concept of reflective knowledge encourages an educational focus not just on acquiring facts but on developing critical thinking and reasoning skills. It promotes an epistemic culture where individuals are encouraged to reflect on their beliefs, understand the underlying reasons, and cultivate a habit of seeking evidence and justification. This approach is particularly vital in an era dominated by information overload, where the ability to discern reliable information from misinformation is crucial.


Ernest Sosa’s distinction between animal and reflective knowledge offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the complexities of human cognition. It underscores the importance of not just acquiring knowledge but being cognitively engaged with the processes that lead to its acquisition. This layered perspective enriches our understanding of what it means to know something, enhancing both the depth and reliability of our knowledge.

Epistemic Agency

Ernest Sosa’s exploration of epistemology takes a fascinating turn with the concept of Epistemic Agency. This aspect of his philosophy highlights the active role we play in our own cognition, not merely as passive recipients of information but as agents who engage actively with the process of knowing. It’s a compelling addition that emphasizes our responsibility and capacity in shaping our own epistemic destinies.

The Agency Involved in Knowing

Epistemic agency refers to the idea that the act of knowing involves intentional actions akin to other forms of deliberate action. When we seek to know something, we are not just passively observing the world but are actively engaging in cognitive processes that involve making judgements, evaluating evidence, and forming beliefs based on our goals and values. This proactive stance transforms the quest for knowledge into a series of deliberate choices where the knower must navigate through information, decide on its credibility, and commit to beliefs deemed most rational and justified.

Linking Agency with Virtue Epistemology

Sosa’s concept of epistemic agency seamlessly integrates with his earlier discussions on virtue epistemology. Just as virtues guide moral actions, intellectual virtues guide our epistemic actions. These virtues—such as diligence, carefulness, and open-mindedness—ensure that our epistemic actions are not only effective but also ethically sound. By exercising these virtues, we enhance our ability to achieve true beliefs and avoid errors, thereby fulfilling our roles as responsible knowers.

Responsibility and Accountability in Knowledge

The emphasis on agency brings with it a sense of responsibility. As epistemic agents, we are accountable for the beliefs we hold and the methods we use to acquire them. This accountability is crucial in today’s world, where misinformation can spread rapidly. Being a responsible knower means actively questioning sources, cross-checking facts, and being willing to revise one’s beliefs in the face of new, compelling evidence. It also means fostering an environment where intellectual virtues are cultivated and cherished.

Empowerment Through Epistemic Agency

Sosa’s focus on epistemic agency also empowers individuals. It suggests that we have the power to influence not only our own epistemic environments but also contribute to the collective knowledge of our communities. This empowerment involves recognising biases, understanding the limits of one’s knowledge, and striving for a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the world.

Practical Implications for Education and Public Discourse

In educational settings, fostering epistemic agency can lead to pedagogies that emphasise critical thinking, debate, and reasoned argumentation, encouraging students to become not just consumers of knowledge but also creators. In public discourse, promoting epistemic agency can help cultivate a more informed citizenry capable of engaging in meaningful discussions about complex issues.


Ernest Sosa’s concept of epistemic agency is a vital addition to our understanding of knowledge. It reinforces the idea that knowing is an active, intentional, and virtuous process. By embracing our roles as epistemic agents, we can better navigate the complexities of the modern information landscape, contributing to a more knowledgeable and just society.

Performance Normativity

Ernest Sosa’s philosophical discourse takes another intriguing turn with the concept of Performance Normativity. This aspect examines the standards by which intellectual performances, akin to performances in sports or the arts, are judged. It broadens the scope of evaluation in epistemology by comparing cognitive acts to other performance-based activities, where success is measured against specific standards of excellence.

Defining Performance Normativity

Performance normativity refers to the idea that our cognitive efforts, like any performance, can be evaluated based on their success or failure to meet certain norms or goals. In the context of knowledge acquisition, this involves assessing whether cognitive acts—such as reasoning, perceiving, and believing—are successful in achieving truth and avoiding error. Just as a pianist’s performance is judged by its adherence to musicality and technical precision, an epistemic performance is judged by its accuracy (truth) and the adequacy of its justification (rationality).

Intellectual Virtues and Performance

Linking back to Sosa’s virtue epistemology, performance normativity emphasises the role of intellectual virtues in guiding successful epistemic performances. Intellectual virtues, like carefulness and thoroughness, enhance the likelihood of achieving true beliefs. These virtues ensure that our cognitive performances not only aim at truth but do so through methods that are reliable and intellectually sound.

Evaluating Epistemic Performances

The evaluation of epistemic performances involves assessing how well beliefs are formed and justified. Sosa suggests that just as we might critique a theatrical performance for its execution and adherence to dramatic norms, we can critique a cognitive performance for its methodological soundness and fidelity to epistemic norms. This evaluative framework helps in distinguishing between mere true beliefs and knowledge, which requires true beliefs attained through virtuous intellectual effort.

Implications for Epistemic Responsibility

Performance normativity also ties into the broader concept of epistemic responsibility. As active participants in our own knowledge processes, we are responsible for ensuring that our cognitive performances adhere to high standards of epistemic virtue. This responsibility is crucial in maintaining a healthy epistemic environment where truth is valued and misinformation is actively combated.

Practical Applications

In practical terms, understanding performance normativity can enhance decision-making processes in complex environments, such as business or healthcare, where outcomes depend heavily on the quality of the information and the methods used to obtain it. By applying the standards of performance normativity, professionals can ensure that their decisions are not only informed by true beliefs but also by well-justified and rationally acquired knowledge.


Ernest Sosa’s exploration of performance normativity enriches our understanding of epistemic activities by framing them within the context of performance evaluation. It challenges us to not only seek truth but to do so through intellectually virtuous means. This approach provides a comprehensive framework for assessing and enhancing the quality of our cognitive endeavors, promoting a culture of intellectual excellence and responsibility.

Importance and Wider Significance

Ernest Sosa’s contributions to philosophy, particularly in epistemology, have significantly shaped contemporary thought on knowledge and belief. His theories not only refine theoretical understandings but also have profound implications across various domains such as education, ethics, and practical decision-making. Let’s explore the broader impact and significance of his work.

Influence on Philosophical Thought

Sosa’s development of virtue epistemology has been a pivotal evolution in the field, offering a robust framework that integrates the concept of intellectual virtues into our understanding of knowledge. His ideas challenge and expand upon traditional epistemic theories, adding layers of complexity that address longstanding philosophical dilemmas such as the Gettier problem and issues of epistemic luck. By doing so, he has influenced a generation of philosophers, prompting them to reconsider the nature of knowledge and the processes underlying belief formation.

Educational Reforms and Pedagogical Impact

In education, Sosa’s emphasis on reflective knowledge and epistemic agency has encouraged a shift towards teaching methods that not only impart information but also develop critical thinking and reflective skills. His work supports an educational paradigm that values not just the absorption of facts but the ability of students to evaluate and justify their own beliefs. This approach is crucial in developing learners who are equipped to navigate complex information landscapes and who can engage thoughtfully with diverse perspectives.

Enhancing Ethical Standards and Practices

Sosa’s discourse on performance normativity and epistemic responsibility resonates deeply with ethical practices in various professional fields. For example, in medicine, law, and journalism, the quality of decision-making can significantly affect lives and societal well-being. By advocating for high standards of epistemic performance, Sosa’s work supports ethical practices that rely on the careful, informed, and conscientious handling of information.

Political and Social Implications

The notions of epistemic agency and intellectual virtues are particularly relevant in today’s global political climate, where misinformation can influence public opinion and policy. Sosa’s theories underline the importance of a well-informed citizenry capable of critically assessing information before forming beliefs. This is crucial for the health of democracies, where the quality of collective decision-making directly impacts governance and social progress.

Scientific Advancements and Innovations

Sosa’s ideas also intersect with scientific methodologies, where rigorous standards of inquiry and validation are paramount. His emphasis on safe beliefs and intellectual performances informs how scientific theories are tested and validated, ensuring that scientific knowledge advances on the firmest possible epistemic grounds.


Ernest Sosa’s philosophical innovations provide a comprehensive framework that not only advances academic discourse but also enhances practical approaches to knowledge and decision-making in various domains. His work underscores the importance of intellectual integrity and offers tools for cultivating a more informed and thoughtful society.

Reading List

If you’re keen to delve deeper into the rich tapestry of Ernest Sosa’s philosophical work, here is a curated reading list that captures his most significant contributions:

  1. “Epistemic Agency and Reflective Knowledge” – This book offers a comprehensive overview of Sosa’s views on epistemic agency and the nature of reflective knowledge. It’s an essential read for understanding how Sosa integrates issues of agency with traditional epistemology.
  2. “A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume I” – In this seminal work, Sosa lays the foundation for his virtue epistemology, discussing concepts such as aptness, animal knowledge, and reflective knowledge. This volume is crucial for anyone interested in the intersection of epistemic virtues and knowledge acquisition.
  3. “Knowing Full Well (Soochow University Lectures in Philosophy)” – This book further explores the theme of reflective knowledge and provides a deeper analysis of epistemic agency within the framework of virtue epistemology. Sosa elaborates on the differences between knowing and knowing full well, enriching the reader’s understanding of epistemic depth.
  4. “Judgment and Agency” – This text delves into the role of judgment in epistemic evaluations, linking notions of agency directly with intellectual performance. It’s a key resource for exploring how judgments are formed and their implications for epistemic responsibility.
  5. “Reflective Knowledge: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume II” – As a continuation of his exploration into virtue epistemology, this volume addresses more complex issues related to the structure and aims of epistemic evaluation. It’s vital for those looking to grasp the nuances of Sosa’s philosophical approach to knowledge.

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Online Resources

To further your exploration of Ernest Sosa’s work, here are some essential online resources:

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