Jonna Vance: Vicious Perceptual Expertise

Jonna Vance (she/her)

Northern Arizona University

[Note: All citations are to Stokes (2021) Thinking and Perceiving (Routledge), unless otherwise noted.]

In the final few chapters of Thinking and Perceiving, Stokes turns to perceptual expertise: an enhanced capacity for perceptual recognition or discrimination. In Chapter 6, Stokes offers a pluralistic account of the mental architecture of perceptual expertise, allowing for different mechanisms in different cases. In Chapter 7, he turns to the epistemology of perceptual expertise, offering an account in terms of epistemic virtue. While Stokes discusses cases of perceptual malleability that illustrate epistemic vice, to my knowledge, he never describes a case both as illustrating expertise and vice.

In this commentary, I argue that perceptual expertise can manifest epistemic vice or virtue, depending on the case. My aim is to add to Stokes’ excellent discussion, and raise some important questions for an epistemology of perceptual expertise.

Perceptual expertise is an enhanced capacity for perceptual recognition or discrimination with respect to some feature or category (p. 146). As such, perceptual expertise is narrowly domain-specific. One can be a perceptually expert recognizer or discriminator of bird species, cars, or tumors depicted in X-rays. Perceptual expertise in one domain doesn’t co-vary with expertise in others: bird experts needn’t be car experts.

Stokes’ thesis in Chapter 7 is not initially clear. At first, he writes, “The main claim to be defended is that some perceptual experts exhibit remarkable instances of intellectual virtue” (p. 179). This claim doesn’t capture Stokes’ aims, though. The claim is true if a perceptual expert in some domain manifests intellectual virtue, even if the expertise and virtue aren’t connected. Stokes aims to support a tighter connection between virtue and perceptual expertise.

Later Stokes writes, “Perceptual expertise is an epistemic virtue” (p. 182). This claim strikes me as a mistake. Perceptual expertise is narrowly domain-specific; virtues are not–whether they’re characterized as traits or faculties (Turri 2017). On a trait-based approach there’s no virtue of being honest about birds. The relevant traits are more domain general. Likewise, on faculty-based approaches, virtues are more general: intuition, memory, perception (or perhaps perceptual modalities: vision, audition, etc.). The enhanced capacity to recognize birds is too narrow to be a virtue.

I think Stokes puts Chapter 7’s thesis best when revisiting it in Chapter 8:

“The conclusion of the previous chapter was that some cases of perceptual expertise are instances of genuinely theory-laden perception. And further, cases of perceptual expertise are cases of intellectual virtue, where the virtue resides in the expert’s cognitively sensitive perceptual skill” (p.217).

Given Stokes’ pluralism about the architecture of expertise, one expects a pluralism about the epistemology, too. As such, I take his thesis to entail that some but not necessarily all cases of perceptual expertise are manifestations of intellectual virtue. However, while Stokes discusses epistemic vice, to my knowledge, he never describes a case as illustrating both expertise and vice. For example, he describes astrologers engaged in epistemically vicious perception as “so-called experts” (p. 217). Similarly, he describes the epistemic vice in cases of the ‘cross race effect’–in which agents have enhanced facial recognition for others within their “same race” compared with “cross-race” faces–as the vice of “non-experts” and suggests that, “with the right methods, we can make perceptual experts out of non-experts” (p. 220). Here he characterizes subjects of the effect as non-experts with respect to cross race facial recognition along various dimensions, and suggests that amelioration proceed by making them experts with respect to recognition along those dimensions.

I think that in some cases, perceptual expertise is an exercise of virtue; in others, it manifests vice. Here’s an example of vicious perceptual expertise. Suppose Karen has an enhanced capacity to perceptually recognize angry, black men. In a crowd, she notices black men who show even the slightest bit of anger, and identifies them at a much higher rate than the average perceiver. Given the agent’s enhanced recognitional capacities, the case meets the definition of perceptual expertise. And it’s not difficult to see how it could manifest an epistemic vice: Karen could have this perceptual expertise because of a stereotype she holds about black men and it could facilitate an epistemically vicious form of confirmation bias.

As Stokes argues, there is some connection between perceptual expertise and epistemic virtue. Since expertise involves heightened perceptual recognition and discrimination capacities, expertise likely sometimes enhances the accuracy of one’s perceptual representations and beliefs, and other epistemic goods. But I think the connection between perceptual expertise and epistemic virtue is more tenuous and complicated than Stokes describes–though I take my points to be largely compatible with his discussion.

First, epistemic virtue requires allocating attention in ways that satisfy epistemic norms or foster epistemic ends. Having perceptual expertise in a narrow domain does not ensure that attention is allocated epistemically well. This could be because the agent’s expertise enhances recognition of an epistemically pernicious category or it could be because she excessively and narrowly nurtures some perceptual expertise to the detriment of epistemic flourishing more generally.

Second, given the narrowness of perceptual expertise, there is no guarantee that perceptual expertise will have a net positive contribution to the proportion of true beliefs or knowledge one acquires and maintains–or other epistemic goods. Consider what we might call expert “outgroup” noticers: perceivers with an enhanced ability to recognize members of another social group. Bryce Huebner (2016) cites evidence from Bridget Byrne (2006) that, in many cases, being an expert “outgroup” noticer can, in combination with other psychological factors, lead one to overestimate the proportion of outgroup members in shared spaces.

As Stokes notes, perceptual expertise often requires effort and training to acquire and maintain. As a result, acquiring and maintaining perceptual expertise will sometimes have opportunity costs: one could have used the effort and time spent acquiring and maintaining that expertise doing something else. If the other things one could have done would have contributed more substantially to one’s acquiring epistemic virtue, then one’s expertise makes a net negative contribution to one’s epistemic virtue relative to available alternatives.

Once we make clear that perceptual expertise can, and often does, come apart from epistemic virtue, can manifest epistemic vice, and can have opportunity costs with respect to acquiring or maintaining virtues, we face interesting, but difficult, questions. Are there (or should there be) epistemic norms concerning the kinds of perceptual expertise one should acquire or maintain? If there are (or should be) such norms, are they sensitive to one’s social position? For example, are privileged epistemic agents subject to different epistemic obligations than marginalized or oppressed epistemic agents are, with respect to the forms of perceptual expertise they should acquire and maintain? And, if there are (or should be) such norms, what, if anything, does that tell us about perception’s function(s)? These strike me as important questions for an epistemology of perceptual expertise to answer, and ones that Stokes’ rich discussion can help us articulate more clearly and answer more convincingly.


Byrne, B. (2006). White lives: The interplay of ‘race’, class and gender in everyday life. Routledge.

Huebner, B. (2016). Socialized attention and situated agency. MindsOnline: an open-access, online conference on topics in the philosophy and science of mind. 2/

Turri, J. (1999/2017). Virtue Epistemology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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