Intellectual Perseverance

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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This essay offers a working analysis of the trait of intellectual perseverance. It argues that intellectual perseverance is a disposition to overcome obstacles, so as to continue to perform intellectual actions, in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals. The trait of intellectual perseverance is not always an intellectual virtue. This essay provides a pluralist analysis of what makes it an intellectual virtue, when it is one. Along the way, it argues that the virtue of intellectual perseverance can be contrasted with both a vice of deficiency (capitulation) and a vice of excess (recalcitrance). It also suggests that the virtues of intellectual courage and intellectual self-control are types of intellectual perseverance. The essay ends with several open questions about the virtue of intellectual perseverance. My hope is that this essay will stimulate further interest in, and analysis of, this important intellectual trait.

Abstract

This essay offers a working analysis of the trait of intellectual perseverance. It argues that intellectual perseverance is a disposition to overcome obstacles, so as to continue to perform intellectual actions, in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals. The trait of intellectual perseverance is not always an intellectual virtue. This essay provides a pluralist analysis of what makes it an intellectual virtue, when it is one. Along the way, it argues that the virtue of intellectual perseverance can be contrasted with both a vice of deficiency (capitulation) and a vice of excess (recalcitrance). It also suggests that the virtues of intellectual courage and intellectual self-control are types of intellectual perseverance. The essay ends with several open questions about the virtue of intellectual perseverance. My hope is that this essay will stimulate further interest in, and analysis of, this important intellectual trait.

Compare two sets of inquirers. Members of the first set tend to abandon their intellectual projects when the going gets tough. They drop a class after failing the first homework assignment, or quit a research project upon receiving criticism from a referee, or forsake an important but boring line of inquiry for the pleasures of online surfing. At the first sign of a challenge, these folks capitulate. In contrast, members of the second set manage to withstand challenges and stick with their intellectual projects. Unlike their counterparts, they stay in class and work harder to understand the material. They incorporate the referee’s objections into a revised version of the project. They drag themselves away from Twitter and Facebook to continue the boring but important line of inquiry. These folks persevere. Educational psychologists have recently argued that the trait exhibited by the second set – roughly, the trait of intellectual perseverance – is correlated with higher levels of education, higher gpa’s in college students, increased intrinsic motivation, and increased studying.1 Over the last decade, psychologists have been hard at work trying to measure and facilitate this trait in students, while philosophers have been slow to catch on. Save Nathan King’s excellent analysis of perseverance as an intellectual virtue (2014), virtue theorists have had relatively little to say about this seemingly beneficial trait.2 The goal of this essay is to make progress in filling this lacuna. My hope is that shining a spotlight on the trait of intellectual perseverance will encourage other virtue theorists to explore it.

In this vein, I offer a working analysis of the trait of intellectual perseverance. I argue that it is a disposition to overcome obstacles, so as to continue to perform intellectual actions, in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals. Accordingly, I contend that the trait of intellectual perseverance is not always an intellectual virtue. I provide a pluralist analysis of what makes it an intellectual virtue, when it is one. Along the way, I argue that the virtue of intellectual perseverance can be contrasted with both a vice of deficiency (capitulation) and a vice of excess (recalcitrance). I also suggest that the virtues of intellectual courage and intellectual self-control are types of intellectual perseverance. The essay ends with several open questions about the virtue of intellectual perseverance. My hope is that this essay will stimulate further interest in, and analysis of, this important intellectual trait.

1 The Trait of Intellectual Perseverance

Intellectual perseverance (ip) is a disposition to overcome obstacles, so as to continue to perform intellectual actions, in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals. Let’s examine each piece of this analysis, beginning with the concept of an intellectual goal. Which goals are intellectual? And, does ip require one’s intellectual goals to be admirable? For starters, agents have been known to adopt a wide variety of intellectual goals and aims, only some of which are admirable. To illustrate, agents have aimed at: figuring out the answer to a question or the solution to a problem; understanding a theory or another person’s perspective; learning a language; mastering a particular field of knowledge; acquiring just enough knowledge of a subject to pass a class or get promoted; avoiding knowledge of a particular subject matter at all costs; avoiding controversial or uncomfortable ideas; believing whatever is easiest about a particular subject matter; believing the truth about a particular subject matter however hard that may be; and protecting a cherished belief come what may. All of these goals are paradigmatically intellectual. They are so because they aim at objects that are paradigmatically intellectual. They aim at pursuing or avoiding: beliefs, knowledge, ideas, understanding, learning, and inquiry. Though I won’t pretend to give a complete account of what makes a goal intellectual, my hope is that readers will be able to grasp this concept by generalizing from the paradigms above.3 It might help to note that intellectual goals can be theoretical (e.g., understanding string theory) or practical (e.g., understanding the boss’s perspective), and trivial (e.g., knowing the era’s of every pitcher in major league baseball) or important (e.g., knowing the history of the women’s rights movement). They can be easy to achieve (e.g. solving 26 x 57) or perennially challenging (e.g. proving Goldbach’s conjecture). Intellectual goals need not be explicit or occurrent; they can be implicit and dispositional. Nor, need one be a formal ‘academic’ – a student or scholar – to have them.

Does the trait of intellectual perseverance place any restrictions on intellectual goals? If it does, admirability isn’t one of them. Agents can persevere in their pursuit of sub-standard intellectual goals. To illustrate, agents can, and have, persevered in amassing trivia about the daily whereabouts of celebrities. Agents can, and have, persevered in avoiding knowledge of a wide range of important subject matters, from knowledge of global warming to knowledge that one’s child is gay. Agents can, and have, persevered in protecting their cherished beliefs come what may; Holocaust deniers are an extreme case, but it is worth noting that many of us have gone to great lengths to protect our previously published theories. In short, the trait of ip does not require our intellectual goals to be admirable. If it did, then we might be tempted to assume that the trait of ip is always an intellectual virtue. But, this assumption is false: the trait of intellectual perseverance will not always be an intellectual virtue (more on this below).

Granted, the trait of ip places minimal restrictions on intellectual goals. After all, if an agent’s intellectual goals are too easy to achieve (in the actual world and across possible worlds) – so easy that they don’t (and wouldn’t) require him to overcome any obstacles, then he is not a candidate for the trait of ip. Consider, for instance, intellectual goals on a par with solving 1 + 1, which may be so easy to achieve that they don’t even afford time for boredom or distraction. In contrast, ip requires goals whose achievement involves some difficulty. Relatedly, ip requires goals whose achievement involves intellectual action on the part of the agent. If an agent’s intellectual goals don’t (and wouldn’t) require him to do anything – if they don’t (and wouldn’t) require him to perform any intellectual actions – then he is not a candidate for ip. Imagine an agent with reliable vision, whose only intellectual goal is to gain visual knowledge of objects in his immediate environment. Arguably, this agent doesn’t need to act in order to achieve his goal; he will gain such knowledge whenever his eyes are open, his vision is functioning properly, and the lights are on.4 If something similar held for this agent across possible worlds – if his goals were always indexed to his involuntary abilities – then he wouldn’t need to perform intellectual actions to achieve them, and would be disqualified from having ip.

This brings us to the concept of an intellectual action. What is an intellectual action? And, does ip require one’s intellectual actions to be admirable? Intellectual actions are a sub-set of an agent’s voluntary actions. Roughly, they are the voluntary actions that are causally salient in an agent’s pursuit (or avoidance) of inquiry, pursuit (or avoidance) of learning, and acquisition (or avoidance) of beliefs, knowledge, and understanding.5 Intellectual actions include (but are not exhausted by): formulating hypotheses, doing practice problems, considering or ignoring alternative perspectives, searching for confirming or disconfirming evidence, searching only for confirming evidence, ignoring evidence, consulting or ignoring experts, jumping to conclusions, giving up on a research project, and confronting criticism of one’s beliefs. Analyzing causal salience is tricky, and thus this account of intellectual action is clearly incomplete. Here, too, my hope is that readers will be able to grasp the concept by generalizing from the paradigms above. It might help to note that however causal salience is defined, it should exclude voluntary actions like taking a bite of a sandwich while at a working lunch,6 or walking across campus while in conversation with a colleague. It is also worth pointing out that some intellectual actions will be admirable; that is, they will be the actions that an intellectually virtuous person would perform, were she in the same situation.7 Others won’t be. Many intellectual actions will be invisible to outside observers; intellectual actions need not involve bodily movement.

Let’s now home in on the intellectual actions associated with the trait of ip. Recall that agents with ip are disposed to overcome obstacles, so as to continue to perform intellectual actions, in pursuit of their intellectual goals. Since ip places few restrictions on goals, the intellectual actions that these agents perform in pursuit of their goals will also be diverse. To illustrate, agents with the trait of ip can: practice problems (with the goal of learning a language); or consult experts (when trying to answer a question); or ignore experts (when avoiding knowledge of a subject matter); or consider objections (in trying to arrive at a theory that is true); or ignore objections (when protecting a cherished belief); etc. Indeed, agents with ip can perform any of the types of intellectual actions mentioned above, though giving up research projects will be uncharacteristic. With this in mind, is there a general type of intellectual action that is characteristic of ip? Overcoming obstacles to one’s intellectual goals is characteristic of ip, and is itself a type of intellectual action. Since agents and their goals will vary, obstacles will also vary, as will the specific types of intellectual actions that overcome those obstacles. That said, standard examples of overcoming obstacles include: trying an alternative solution to a problem after an initial failure; resisting the temptation to forsake a tedious line of inquiry for something more pleasurable; continuing a research project despite discouragement from a referee; confronting criticism of one’s beliefs; and facing the fear that one views might be mistaken. Here, we should distinguish between overcoming obstacles and completing one’s intellectual projects. One can complete intellectual projects without perseverance. Consider the student who ‘phones in’ completed but sloppy assignments, or the office slacker who procrastinates in completing easy tasks. Likewise, one can have intellectual perseverance without completing one’s projects; after all, projects can be long-term and difficult to complete, like testing for the Higgs-Boson, or curing Alzheimer’s. It is overcoming obstacles, rather than completing projects, that is characteristic of ip.

Two points of clarification. First, the trait of ip does not require success in overcoming extremely difficult obstacles.8 In cases where obstacles are extremely challenging, one can manifest ip by trying, albeit failing, to overcome them – by performing intellectual actions in an effort to overcome them. But, let’s set these cases aside, and focus instead on obstacles which are not that difficult to overcome, e.g. the temptation to watch television instead of doing one’s homework. Presumably, millions of students succeed in overcoming this temptation on a regular basis. Arguably, ip does require success in overcoming obstacles like these.9 Consistently failing to overcome such obstacles would count against the agent’s having ip. In short, success in overcoming difficult but manageable obstacles may well be required for the trait of ip, even if success in overcoming extremely difficult obstacles isn’t. To put the same point differently, agents with the trait of ip typically and characteristically succeed in overcoming obstacles.

Second, the trait of ip does not require one’s intellectual actions to be admirable. Agents with the trait of ip can perform actions that an intellectually virtuous person wouldn’t perform. For starters, consider the agent with ip who has the goal of protecting a cherished belief. He regularly confronts obstacles to that goal, in the form of disconfirming evidence, and regularly overcomes those obstacles by ignoring that evidence. In short, he does something that an intellectually virtuous person wouldn’t do – he consistently ignores disconfirming evidence. Now, one might suspect that this is due entirely to a difference in goals: an intellectually virtuous person wouldn’t have adopted the goal of protecting her beliefs to begin with, and so wouldn’t share this agent’s situation. If goals were shared, the suspicion continues, then agents with ip would perform admirable actions. But, arguably, agents with ip can perform sub-standard actions even when they share the goals of an intellectually virtuous person. After all, there is often more than one way to overcome a given obstacle. And, agents with ip might overcome obstacles in ways that an intellectually virtuous person wouldn’t. For instance, a student with ip might overcome an obstacle to solving a particular problem (e.g. on his logic homework) by plagiarizing, guessing, or jumping to conclusions, while an intellectually virtuous student, who has the same goals and confronts the same obstacles, would do none of this.

Let’s explore obstacles to achieving one’s intellectual goals. Unsurprisingly, for something to count as an obstacle, it must be challenging or difficult; obstacles aren’t easy. More specifically, an obstacle must make it difficult for the agent in question to achieve her intellectual goals. Now, what is difficult for one agent may be easy for another. As when it is difficult for students, but easy for logic professors, to generate proofs in sentential logic. For this reason, Nathan King (2014: 3795) rightly argues that obstacles must be indexed to agents, and so must perseverance itself. Some of us will encounter obstacles, and need perseverance, where others don’t. Solving basic derivations often requires perseverance on behalf of students, who encounter obstacles in generating the proofs, but not on behalf of logic professors, who encounter none. This also means that agents whose constitutions (across possible worlds) preclude obstacles to their intellectual goals aren’t candidates for the trait of ip. Omniscient agents (should any exist) come to mind. Along similar lines, agents who are constitutionally and environmentally lucky enough to land in a world in which they do not encounter obstacles,10 will not be able to exercise the trait of ip in that world, though they might still have the trait dispositionally (see below).11

Of course, we are not so lucky. Most of us routinely encounter both internal and external obstacles to achieving our intellectual goals. Internal obstacles, generated by one’s own psyche, include: boredom, frustration, fear of looking dumb, and the desires to do something easier, or more pleasurable, or less tedious. External obstacles may be generated by the environment and/or by the goals themselves. Some environments are rife with criticism, discouragement, and disagreement (which, in turn, produce internal obstacles). And, some goals are just difficult to achieve. It is challenging to solve Russell’s paradox, to measure the expansion of the universe, and to test for the Higgs-boson!

Finally, the trait of intellectual perseverance is a disposition to overcome obstacles to one’s intellectual goals. As a disposition, it tells us what an agent would consistently do in a given type of situation: she would consistently overcome obstacles that arise in the pursuit of her intellectual goals. The rare agent whose constitution precludes the very possibility of obstacles to her intellectual goals won’t be a candidate for ip. But, the rest of us will! Even those of us who enjoy obstacle-free environments can have the trait of ip, given that we would overcome obstacles were we to encounter them. Granted, most of us regularly encounter obstacles to our intellectual goals. Accordingly, to have the trait of ip, most of us will need to consistently overcome such obstacles, when they arise. As noted above, consistent success in overcoming extremely difficult obstacles is not required for the trait of ip,12 though consistent success in overcoming difficult, but manageable, obstacles is arguably required. Recall, too, that while the trait of ip does not require the agent to consistently achieve her goals, it does require her to consistently stay the course – to resist distractions and overcome setbacks so as to carry on acting in pursuit of her goals.13

There are two further points to note about dispositions. First, an agent might lack the disposition of overcoming obstacles – she might fall short of consistently overcoming obstacles – but still overcome obstacles on occasion. In other words, an agent doesn’t need the trait of ip in order to perform the same action that a person with ip would perform. Indeed, practicing such actions might even help this agent acquire the trait (disposition) of ip. Second, the trait of ip is a disposition to overcome obstacles, but it isn’t a maximally global disposition. This, arguably, is the lesson of situationism. Situationist studies have shown that features of our situations can independently influence our actions; our actions are not always (and not simply) the products of our traits.14 I won’t engage in the imbroglio over situationism here. But, arguably, it has two important upshots. For starters, this literature shows that our situations are often rife with intellectual obstacles, and so we may need ip even more than we might have thought.15 The second upshot is that agents with ip will arguably need to overcome obstacles in a wide range of situations, but won’t need to overcome obstacles in every situation.16 In short, the trait of ip won’t be ‘Doris-local,’ but nor will it be maximally global.17 Of course, to defend this response, one would need a principled way of determining exactly which situations fall within this ‘wide range,’ which don’t, and why. Virtue theorists are hard at work on this problem.18

2 Is the Trait of Intellectual Perseverance an Intellectual Virtue?

According to our working definition, the trait of intellectual perseverance is a disposition to overcome obstacles, so as to continue performing intellectual actions, in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals. Who has the trait of ip? Given the analysis above, people like Marie Curie and Bertrand Russell have the trait of intellectual perseverance. But, so do people like Albert Michelson and Edward Morley.19 And, so do many Holocaust deniers. Curie ran hundreds of experiments in order to isolate a decigram of radium from several tons of pitchblende.20 Russell stared at a blank sheet of paper every day during the summers of 1903 and 1904 trying to solve (what is now known as) Russell’s Paradox.21 Michelson and Morley conducted one failed experiment after another in an effort to measure the alleged phenomenon of ether drift. Rather than give up the assumption that ether exists and abandon their line of inquiry, they continued their experiments, searching again and again for evidence of ether drift.22 And, surely, many Holocaust deniers follow suit – they ignore or misconstrue countervailing evidence over and over again in order to protect the belief that the Holocaust never happened. All of these people stuck with their projects, and overcame daunting obstacles to do so.

As I have described ip thus far, it is a personality trait. Christian Miller helpfully points out that personality traits are dispositions of action, belief, and/or desire (2014: 6). ip clearly satisfies these conditions – it involves actions and goals. Let’s assume that character traits are a sub-set of personality traits.23 Is ip also a character trait? Arguably, that will depend on what grounds it in the agent. Roughly, if the agent’s personality trait of ip is grounded in her stable evaluative commitments-and-motives – if she is disposed to overcome obstacles to her intellectual goals because of her stable evaluative commitments-and-motives – then ip will be a character trait in that agent. But, if it isn’t grounded in her stable evaluative commitments-and-motives, then ip won’t be a character trait in that agent. This idea is Aristotelian in spirit. Its key assumption is that a character trait must express who the agent is as a person, and to do that it must express what the agent consistently values and cares about. As a rough guideline, to say that ip is a character trait in an agent A is to say that it is grounded in A’s conception of value24 and A’s motivations, where the latter (A’s motivations) are informed by the former (A’s conception of value) and both are relatively stable.25 Analogously, intellectual character traits will express who the agent is as a thinker, and what she cares about and values epistemically. So, roughly, to say that ip is an intellectual character trait in an agent A is to say that it is grounded in A’s conception of epistemic value26 and A’s motivations, where the latter are informed by the former and both are relatively stable. So, if A’s disposition to overcome obstacles to her intellectual goals is grounded in her stable motivation to (say) pursue truth and her corresponding belief that truth is valuable, then ip is an intellectual character trait in A.27 But, if A’s disposition isn’t grounded in motivations that are informed by her conception of epistemic value, or if A lacks a conception of epistemic value, then ip won’t be an intellectual character trait in A.

The main point is this: the personality trait of ip can fail to be an intellectual character trait. It will fail to be an intellectual character trait in (say) young students who have not yet developed a stable conception of epistemic value, but who have already developed a disposition to persevere. Likewise, it will fail to be an intellectual character trait in adults who consistently stick with their intellectual projects, but whose motives for doing so are not informed by their conceptions of epistemic value.28 (Perhaps, their perseverance is instead motivated by an appetitive compulsion, or obsession, with completing projects.) Granting this point, we can still assume that ip is often an intellectual character trait in adults.

Is the personality trait of ip a virtue? More specifically, is it an intellectual virtue? Intellectual virtues are qualities that make us excellent thinkers. Arguably, there is more than one way to be an excellent thinker, and more than one kind of intellectual virtue. We can be excellent thinkers by consistently producing epistemic goods, like true beliefs, knowledge, and understanding. In this vein, Ernest Sosa has argued that intellectual virtues are stable qualities that enable us to produce such epistemic goods.29 A wide range of reliable dispositions will fit this bill. Vision and memory, skills in logical problem-solving, and personality or character traits like intellectual perseverance will all be intellectual virtues, provided that they are reliable. Note that on this analysis, a quality need not be a character trait to be an intellectual virtue. Let’s suppose that Sosa has identified one way for a quality to be an intellectual virtue: a quality can be an intellectual virtue by reliably producing epistemic goods.

There is a second way to be an excellent thinker, and a second way for a quality to be an intellectual virtue. One can be an excellent thinker by having good intellectual character, where this involves valuing and caring about epistemic goods. In this vein, Jason Baehr argues that an intellectual virtue is “a character trait that contributes to its possessor’s personal intellectual worth on account of its involving a positive psychological orientation toward epistemic goods” (2011: 102). Here, intellectual virtues are character traits that involve an evaluative commitment to, and corresponding love of, epistemic goods; the intellectually virtuous person values truth, knowledge, and understanding, and is motivated to pursue them. Accordingly, for the personality trait of ip to be an intellectual virtue, it must first be an intellectual character trait (see above), and it must be a good intellectual character trait. So, for ip to be an intellectual virtue in agent A, it must (at least) be grounded in A’s commitment to, and love of, epistemic goods.30 Let’s suppose that Baehr has identified another way for a quality to be an intellectual virtue: a quality can be an intellectual virtue by being a good intellectual character trait.

This is a pluralist approach to intellectual virtue, one that embraces both ‘reliabilist’ and ‘responsibilist’ virtues, as they have been described by contemporary virtue epistemologists.31 It allows for more than one kind of intellectual virtue, and more than one way for a quality to be an intellectual virtue. If we endorse this brand of pluralism, there will be two different ways in which ip could be an intellectual virtue. First, the personality trait of ip could be an intellectual virtue by reliably producing epistemic goods. If sticking with our intellectual projects consistently gets us epistemic goods, then the personality trait of ip will be instrumentally valuable (whether or not it is grounded in good intellectual character). On this analysis, ip will be a virtue if it is reliable, whether or not it is a character trait. Second, ip could be an intellectual virtue by being grounded in and motivated by one’s commitment to, and love of, epistemic goods. Here, ip will be intrinsically valuable, provided that the motivation for truth (etc.) is itself intrinsically valuable (and ip will be intrinsically valuable, whether or not it is reliable).32 On this analysis, ip must be a character trait to be a virtue.

We can now clearly see that the personality trait of ip, as it is described above, need not be an intellectual virtue in either sense. If the personality trait of ip turns out to be unreliable, then it won’t satisfy Sosa’s conditions for ‘reliabilist’ virtue. And, if it isn’t an intellectual character trait, it won’t satisfy Baehr’s conditions for ‘responsibilist’ virtue. More importantly, even if ip is an intellectual character trait, it might still fail Baehr’s conditions. After all, it might not be a good intellectual character trait! One’s disposition to overcome obstacles might be grounded not in the love of epistemic goods, but in sub-standard motivations and a skewed conception of epistemic value. Arguably, too few people consistently value and care about epistemic goods. Instead, we value and care about, e.g., winning arguments, looking smart or enhancing our reputations, competing with our colleagues, or protecting our views and beliefs. (These are the epistemic values the media uses to judge political debates.) Any of these motivations and conceptions of value could drive intellectual perseverance.33 We probably all know someone who consistently perseveres in pursuing his intellectual goals, not because he values and cares about epistemic goods, but because he values and cares about winning arguments. We may also know individuals (e.g., Holocaust deniers) whose perseverance is grounded in the epistemic vice of dogmatism.

To sum up thus far, intellectual perseverance is a disposition to overcome obstacles, so as to continue performing intellectual actions, in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals. Paradigms of ip include Curie and Russell, but also Michelson and Morley and Holocaust deniers. ip is a personality trait. We can assume that in adults, ip will often (but not always) be an intellectual character trait. We can also assume that ip will sometimes be an intellectual character virtue. It won’t be an intellectual character virtue when the agent perseveres in pursuing sub-standard intellectual goals, or when the agent performs actions that an intellectually virtuous person wouldn’t perform. Nor will it be an intellectual character virtue when the agent’s epistemic values and motivations are askew.34

It is important to note that this brand of pluralism allows the trait of ip in a particular agent to simultaneously count as a ‘responsibilist’ virtue, but fail to count as a ‘reliabilist’ virtue.35 In the demon-victim who loves epistemic goods, the same trait of ip may even count as both a ‘responsibilist’ virtue and a ‘reliabilist’ vice. Conversely, this brand of pluralism also allows the trait of ip in a particular agent to simultaneously count as a ‘reliabilist’ virtue, but fail to count as a ‘responsibilist’ virtue, or even count as a ‘responsibilist’ vice. Accordingly, this pluralism may be too profligate for some. In reply, I think it legitimately captures two different ways in which a trait, like ip, can be a virtue. I have argued elsewhere Battaly 2015b that dispositions that consistently produce good effects are virtues; as are dispositions that require valuable motivations. We hope that one and the same disposition will often do both – that the trait of ip in a particular agent will often be reliable and motivated by a love of truth. But, in cases where reliability and love of truth are pulled apart, this brand of pluralism bites the bullet – it acknowledges that one and the same trait can simultaneously be a ‘responsibilist’ virtue but not a ‘reliabilist’ virtue (or vice versa). Readers who balk at this profligacy need not reject the working definition of ip above, nor need they reject the analysis of the character virtue of ip below. Nor need they reject pluralism about virtue! They may simply endorse a more guarded version of pluralism.36

3 Intellectual Perseverance as a Character Virtue

Section 2 argued for a pluralist analysis of intellectual virtue that embraces both ‘reliabilist’ and ‘responsibilist’ virtues. This section focuses in on one part of that pluralist analysis: ‘responsibilist’ virtues. It asks: under what conditions is the trait of intellectual perseverance an intellectual character virtue?

Neo-Aristotelian virtue theorists, whether in ethics or epistemology, have argued that character virtues involve a combination of dispositions.37 We widely agree that possessing a particular moral or intellectual virtue will require a disposition to act in particular ways. We also agree that dispositions to act aren’t enough; in addition, virtue-possession requires dispositions of motivation.38 As Rosalind Hursthouse puts the point: “there is more to the possession of a virtue than being disposed to act in certain ways; at the very least, one has to act in those ways for certain sorts of reasons” (1999: 11). We also think that virtues can involve dispositions of appropriate emotion and dispositions of appropriate perception, though these have not garnered as much attention in the literature. Here, I hope to shed some light on the dispositions of action, motivation, emotion, and perception that are involved in the character virtue of intellectual perseverance. I won’t attempt to decide whether each of these dispositions is necessary for possessing the virtue of ip, but I do think they will be jointly sufficient.

Let’s begin with dispositions of action. Agents with the trait of ip are disposed to overcome obstacles to their intellectual goals. Michelson and Morley have the trait of ip, as does English Professor Grady Tripp – the protagonist of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys – who won’t give up on his book manuscript, even though the twenty-six-hundred pages he has already written have gotten him “nowhere near the end” (1995: 12). Chabon himself devoted five years and fifteen hundred pages to a manuscript before abandoning it (Gorney 2010). But, these agents don’t have the virtue of intellectual perseverance because they don’t quit when they should. Character virtues are not canned responses. Agents with the character virtue of ip don’t always behave in the same way. They typically and characteristically overcome obstacles to their intellectual goals. But they also give up, in the face of obstacles, when it is appropriate to do so. In short, they respond to obstacles, as appropriate, in the given context. To put the point differently, there is a sense in which agents with the character virtue of ip hit the mean in their actions.

The character virtue of ip lies in something like a mean between a vice of excess – call it recalcitrance – and a vice of deficiency – capitulation. We began this paper with agents who capitulate at the first sign of an obstacle. They are too quick to drop a class or quit a research project. These agents act inappropriately by erring on the side of deficiency. Arguably, they do what a person with the vice of capitulation would do. But, it is also important to notice that agents can act inappropriately by erring on the side of excess. We see this in the actions of Michelson and Morley, and Grady Tripp, who don’t fold when they should.39 As King puts the point, they stick with projects long after they should have been abandoned (2014: 3786). Arguably, Michelson and Morley, and Tripp, do what a person with the vice of recalcitrance would do. Granted, this way of describing the relationship between the virtue of ip and its corresponding vices may be an over-simplification. It may be an Aristotelian indulgence to think of each virtue as lying in a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. The key point above is that the virtue of ip is context-sensitive and that there is more than one way to act inappropriately – giving up too quickly isn’t the only infraction. Perhaps, there will be multiple ways to act inappropriately, not all of which neatly fall under the headings of capitulation (as a vice of deficiency) or recalcitrance (as a vice of excess). There may even be several different vices that are associated with the virtue of ip.40 Clearly, the relationship between intellectual virtue and vice, and the identification and individuation of intellectual vices, are projects that warrant serious attention. While vice epistemology (Cassam 2016a) gets to work on these projects, we can think of the over-simplification above as a convenient starting point.

Whether the virtue of ip ends up corresponding to two vices or more, we can expect consistency in performing appropriate actions – in hitting the mean in one’s actions – to be difficult. If we follow Aristotle, it will involve phronesis, which (among other things) involves good judgment in selecting one’s intellectual goals. The problem with Michelson and Morley, and Tripp, is that, unbeknownst to them, their goals are doomed to fail. There is no ether, and so no way to measure ‘ether drift.’ Michelson and Morley don’t recognize this, even though their unremitting failures offer them multiple opportunities to reconsider their assumptions. Likewise, we can assume that Tripp’s approach to his novel simply won’t work, and that after thousands of pages of trying, he still fails to see this. (It took Chabon himself fifteen hundred pages to see this.) Indeed, it is no surprise that these agents fail to hit the mean in their actions. In these cases, their failures of action are rooted in their failures to exercise good judgment about goals.41 Accordingly, the character virtue of intellectual perseverance also arguably requires a disposition to make good judgments about goals, specifically, about which intellectual goals are appropriate for one to pursue, and when.

There are three points to note about good judgment. First, it is an open question as to whether we should be (epistemic) externalists or internalists about good judgment. On the externalist side, appropriate intellectual goals are ones that in fact yield a net gain of epistemic goods. And, so, good judgment will require goals that in fact yield a net gain of truths, knowledge, etc. Accordingly, good judgment will rule out goals that are mired in false assumptions, like measuring ether drift, locating the fountain of youth, and protecting the belief that the Holocaust never happened.42 But, it will also rule out any of our current goals that – unbeknownst to us and contrary to our best evidence – turn out to be misguided. On the internalist side, appropriate intellectual goals are ones that we have good reason to believe will yield epistemic goods.43 Here, too, good judgment will rule out the goals of Holocaust deniers and fountain of youth seekers – all of whom lack good reasons for their corresponding beliefs. Arguably, it will also rule out Michelson and Morley’s continued pursuit of measuring ether drift. Even if Michelson and Morley initially had good reason to endorse the existence of ether, those reasons would have been undermined by their consistent and repeated failures to make any progress. Though their goal may have started off as appropriate, they continued to endorse it even when it became inappropriate. They held on too long. Unlike the externalist interpretation of good judgment, the internalist interpretation won’t rule out our current, well-supported goals, however misguided they might turn out to be. But, it will rule out any unsupported goals that, contrary to our best evidence, do turn out to produce knowledge. Interestingly, it might be beneficial to the epistemic community to have some members who are recalcitrant in pursuing unsupported goals. Their recalcitrance might yield knowledge at the boundaries of discovery.

Second, good judgment will involve balancing the importance of a goal against the difficulty of achieving it. Some intellectual goals, like observing gravitational waves or finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, rank very high on the scale of difficulty. But, they also rank high enough on the scale of importance to be appropriate, whereas other goals that rank high on the scale of difficulty are not important enough to be appropriate – accurately assessing academic programs may fall in this category (especially when we factor in opportunity costs). Still others, like counting the number of grains of sand in the Sahara, are arguably too unimportant to be appropriate, and would be so even if they weren’t difficult to achieve.

Third, whether it is appropriate for a particular agent to pursue a given intellectual goal will also depend on that agent’s skill-set, and on opportunity costs. For instance, given their skill-sets, we can assume that it is appropriate for Bertrand Russell, but not an elementary math student, to pursue the goal of solving Russell’s paradox. But, we can also assume that it wouldn’t be appropriate for Russell to pursue the paradox, if doing so meant foregoing more important projects. Presumably, it didn’t. Though Russell himself worried that he was spending time on a “trivial” problem that “seemed unworthy of serious attention” (2009: 142), clearly, the opportunity costs of Russell’s foregoing the Paradox to (e.g.) pursue the goals of math students would have been too great.44

Let’s turn to dispositions of motivation. We have seen that the trait of ip can be grounded in a wide variety of motivations and conceptions of epistemic value. In agents like Curie and Russell, the trait of ip is (presumably) grounded in a love of, and commitment to, epistemic goods. Curie and Russell overcame obstacles to their intellectual goals because they valued and cared about truth, knowledge, and understanding. But, in other agents, the trait of ip is grounded in the motivation to, e.g., win arguments, compete with colleagues, or protect one’s views and beliefs. This is true of Holocaust deniers, and of several of the candidates for the 2016 us Presidential election! Arguably, to be an intellectual character virtue, the trait of ip must be grounded in motivations that are intrinsically valuable, like the love of epistemic goods. Character virtues are good character traits; and qua character traits are good because of their motivational components.45 In other words, it is good motivations and values that make one’s character good. And, so, intellectual character traits that are grounded in sub-standard motivations (e.g. protecting one’s views, etc.) won’t be intellectual character virtues.

Most of us err on the side of deficiency when it comes to our motivations – we care too little about epistemic goods. We don’t care enough to repeatedly overcome obstacles to our intellectual goals; and, so, when the going gets tough, we capitulate.46 But, it is also possible, though less common, to err on the side of excess – to care too much about epistemic goods. In this vein, James Montmarquet argues that some of us are “epistemic fanatics” (1993: 22). Excessive motivation for truth, or other epistemic goods, may cause us to stick with projects for too long. It may result in recalcitrance. In short, the motivation for epistemic goods may also lie in a mean of sorts, though here, too, this may be an over-simplification. The key point is that there is more than one way for an agent’s motivations to be inappropriate – caring too little about truth isn’t the only infraction. Accordingly, agents with the character virtue of ip will hit this mean as well – they will be motivated to pursue epistemic goods, as appropriate, in the given context.

Which dispositions of emotion might be characteristic of the virtue of ip? For starters, let’s consider an agent who has the trait of ip, but who is utterly undaunted by obstacles. Consider a scientist who, in his pursuit of new knowledge, is so undaunted by obstacles that he blithely conducts experiments on himself. David Pritchard (University of Nottingham) and John Paul Stapp (1910-1999) seem to fit this bill. Pritchard repeatedly infected himself with hookworms in order to test the influence of parasites on allergic responses.47 Stapp (1910-1999) repeatedly subjected himself to abrupt deceleration from high speed (and its resulting injuries) in order to determine how much force humans could withstand.48 Neither seemed especially perturbed about experimenting on himself (Pritchard even seemed a bit excited). But, arguably, a person with the character virtue of ip would be perturbed and daunted by the prospect of conducting such experiments on herself. She might even be so perturbed and daunted that she wouldn’t do it. To put the point differently, there are some obstacles that one should find daunting, and the obstacles above appear to be among them. Pritchard and Stapp arguably err on the side of excess with respect to their affective responses – they are too confident about overcoming obstacles. And, so, though they have the trait of ip, they arguably lack the virtue of ip.

Granted, it is more common to err on the side of deficiency. Most of us aren’t confident enough about overcoming obstacles. We all know students and colleagues who panic, or become overwhelmed or despondent, because of a failed homework assignment or a single referee’s criticism. These obstacles don’t seem to merit panic. And, so, these people also arguably lack the virtue of ip, though they err on the side of capitulation rather than recalcitrance. In short, arguably, agents with the character virtue of ip characteristically respond to obstacles with confidence and equanimity. But, they are also daunted when faced with particularly difficult obstacles. In other words, the character virtue of ip may involve a disposition to respond to obstacles with the appropriate degree of confidence and calmness, in the given context. In this manner, agents with the character virtue of ip may also hit a mean of sorts in their affective responses.49

Here, several points warrant further exploration. First, is the disposition to respond to obstacles with the appropriate degree of calmness and confidence conceptually necessary for the virtue of ip? What should we say about a person who is disposed to overcome obstacles to her intellectual goals, and who sees obstacles for what they are, but who isn’t daunted when she should be because she is so excited about pursuing truth? 50 Does she have the virtue of ip, or does her less-than-perfect disposition of emotion disqualify her? If we think of virtue as a threshold concept (see section 4), does she meet the threshold for possessing the virtue, but fall short of fully possessing it? Second, is the disposition to respond to obstacles with the appropriate degree of calmness causally necessary for the virtue of ip? Is it causally necessary for appropriate perception, appropriate motivation, or appropriate action? Third, are there other dispositions of emotion that are characteristic of the virtue of ip (and are any of these conceptually necessary)? For instance, are agents with this virtue (also) disposed to be appropriately disappointed or embarrassed about giving up on a line of inquiry? Agents who would instead be utterly devastated or humiliated about giving up would likely stay with projects too long (erring on the side of excess).51

Finally, which dispositions of perception might be characteristic of the virtue of ip? Some of us see obstacles everywhere; we see obstacles even where there aren’t any. Consider a perfectionist who has just begun a doctoral program.52 His perfectionist radar may incessantly register obstacles to his various projects, even in cases where the obstacles are relatively few. He may see so many things as obstacles that he ends up sabotaging himself and dropping out. His skewed perception may result in capitulation.53 At the opposite end of the spectrum, consider the person who is utterly oblivious to obstacles. Obstacles don’t register on his radar, even when they are ubiquitous. As a result, this person may rush headlong into projects, or recalcitrantly refuse to give them up. Arguably, the person with the virtue of ip is reliable in her perception of obstacles. Her radar is disposed to register obstacles, where and only where there are obstacles. She may also be disposed to recognize opportunities to overcome obstacles.

Putting all of this together, we have a working analysis of the character virtue of ip. My proposal is that it involves dispositions: (1) to make good judgments about one’s intellectual goals; (2) to reliably perceive obstacles to one’s intellectual goals; (3) to respond to obstacles with the appropriate degree of confidence and calmness; (4) to overcome obstacles, or otherwise act as the context demands; and (5) to do so because one cares appropriately about epistemic goods.

How is the virtue of ip connected to other intellectual virtues? This is an open question that warrants exploration (see section 4). But, for starters, it is likely that the virtues of intellectual courage and intellectual self-control will be sub-sets of ip. They will be different ways to manifest intellectual perseverance. I won’t attempt to give complete analyses of intellectual courage or intellectual self-control here. My hope is that we can use rough sketches of these virtues to make a prima facie case for the claim that they are types of intellectual perseverance. Several ‘responsibilists’ have addressed the virtue of intellectual courage. Montmarquet (1993) and Zagzebski (1996) agree on many (but not all) of its features. Roughly, they think intellectual courage involves: (1) a disposition to care about truth and other epistemic goods, which spawns; (2) a disposition to care about defending one’s beliefs in the face of opposition, when one has good reason to think one’s beliefs are true; and (3) a disposition to defend one’s beliefs unless and until “one is convinced one is mistaken.”54 Relatedly, Baehr argues that the virtue of intellectual courage is a disposition to “persist” in pursuing epistemic goods in the face of threats, where this persistence is motivated by love of epistemic goods (2011: 177). Likewise, Roberts and Wood (2007) contend that: “courage and caution enable us to find our way among the threats…that we encounter in the course of our practices…. When the practice is intellectual…courage and caution are intellectual virtues” (2007: 216). Roberts and Wood agree that to be fully virtuous, courageous actions must be motivated by one’s love of knowledge (2007: 217). Though the details of these four views about intellectual courage differ, they are all ways of manifesting the broader virtue of intellectual perseverance, as it is described above. According to each of these views, the agent with the virtue of intellectual courage will overcome, or otherwise respond appropriately to, obstacles or threats to the pursuit of epistemic goods – e.g., she will defend her beliefs in the face of opposition. And, in each case, she will do so because she cares appropriately about epistemic goods. These four views are alive to the possibility that threats may be external (e.g., opposition to one’s beliefs) or internal (fear of opposition to one’s beliefs).55 In sum, given that these four views are on the right track, we have a prima facie case for thinking of the virtue of intellectual courage as a sub-set of the more general virtue of intellectual perseverance.56

As far as I know, ‘responsibilists’ have yet to analyze the virtue of intellectual self-control.57 But, we can at least say the following. The virtue of intellectual self-control is likely to involve the regulation of one’s desires and emotions in one’s pursuit of epistemic goods. Accordingly, it is likely to involve overcoming, or otherwise responding appropriately to, internal obstacles to pursuing epistemic goods. A person who has the virtue of intellectual self-control characteristically overcomes the desire to forsake an important project for a less important one that is more pleasurable. She overcomes the distractions of online surfing. She overcomes boredom, tedium, and frustration. She overcomes the urge to flit from one ‘enticing’ project to the next, without seeing any of them through. And, arguably, she overcomes these desires and emotions because she values and cares about epistemic goods. If this is a reasonable first pass at the virtue of intellectual self-control, then we have a prima facie case for thinking of it as a type of intellectual perseverance. It is a type of perseverance that is directed at overcoming internal obstacles to the pursuit of one’s intellectual goals.

4 Alternatives and Open Questions

It is early days in the analysis of intellectual perseverance. In his superb “Erratum to: Perseverance as an Intellectual Virtue,” 58 King argues that the virtue of intellectual perseverance is “a disposition to continue with serious effort in one’s intellectual projects in the pursuit of intellectual goods, for an appropriate amount of time, despite having to overcome obstacles to the completion of these projects” (2014: 3796). Though my analysis of the virtue of ip is more explicitly pluralistic than King’s, we agree on the basic contours of the character virtue of ip. We both think that it involves a disposition to overcome obstacles to one’s intellectual goals or projects, that it lies in something like a mean between two vices, and that it is motivated by a love of epistemic goods. Though the differences between our analyses amount to a ‘family squabble,’ two points are worth noting.

First, King might object that my analysis of the character virtue of ip counts too many people as recalcitrant and too few as hitting the mean, and in this way makes the virtue of ip too hard to get. King contends that agents like John Paul Stapp and Roger Bannister,59 who conduct experiments on themselves, have the character virtue of ip. Indeed, he thinks such agents are paradigm cases of the virtue of ip: “many paradigm cases of intellectually virtuous perseverance are not far from intransigence [recalcitrance]” (2014: 3787). By way of reply, I worry that in focusing on the actions and motivations that are necessary for the virtue of ip, King overlooks the dispositions of emotion and perception that it might involve. In so doing, his analysis might make the virtue of ip easier to possess than it actually is. Of course, King is right to argue that the character virtue of ip involves a disposition to continue in one’s projects despite obstacles, and to do so because of one’s love of epistemic goods. But, if what I have proposed above is correct, the character virtue of ip may well involve more than this. Like the Aristotelian virtue of moral courage, which requires a disposition to fear (and be confident about) the right things, the character virtue of intellectual perseverance may require a disposition to respond to obstacles with the appropriate degree of confidence or trepidation. Stapp, Pritchard, and Bannister (and people like them) arguably lack this affective disposition. They aren’t sufficiently daunted by the prospect of experimenting on themselves. Relatedly, the character virtue of ip may require that one’s perception be calibrated to reliably detect obstacles. But, Stapp and people like him may be relatively oblivious to obstacles – they may fail to register the obstacles involved in experimenting on themselves. Accordingly, contra King, Stapp and people like him may fail to hit the mean by erring on the side of excess. At the very least, we should reconsider their status as paradigms of the virtue.

Second, and relatedly, King might object that my analysis is too strong insofar as it includes dispositions of appropriate affect. In contrast, King argues that “intellectually virtuous perseverance is compatible with certain irrational affective states” (2014: 3794). On his view, Timid Tim – a first-term graduate student – can have the virtue of ip despite his irrational fear of writing term papers. Tim has the virtue because he manages to overcome this irrational fear. Here, too, I worry that King’s analysis might make the character virtue of ip too easy to get. Granted, it is appropriate for a grad student to be somewhat daunted by the obstacles involved in completing his first round of term papers. For many first-term graduate students, utter confidence in the face of such obstacles would be a mark of recalcitrance (and, perhaps, arrogance). So, to the extent that Timid Tim is appropriately (and rationally) daunted, he isn’t disqualified from having the virtue of ip. But, if Timid Tim is instead Terrified Tim, now a third-year grad student still seized by utter panic and terror (which are clearly irrational), then King’s analysis and mine may part ways. Arguably, in acquiring the virtue of ip, one acquires (among other things) an affective disposition – one learns, over time, not to be overly panicked by predictable and routine obstacles. By comparison with Terrified Tim, we might well count Confident Tim, who has learned to respond to term papers with an appropriate degree of confidence and concern, as having made considerably more progress toward the virtue of ip. King might even agree with this suggestion – he implies that Timid Tim might “meet the minimum requirements” for ip “without having the virtue to its fullest extent” (2014: 3795).

Further, one might worry that there is a tension in my analysis between the character virtue of ip and the virtue of self-control. If the virtue of ip were to require dispositions of appropriate emotion, then wouldn’t it preclude, rather than include, self-control? (This is a more targeted version of the neo-Aristotelian worry that self-control, or enkrateia, falls short of virtue.) Though I won’t try to fully settle this matter, I will sketch two different replies. First, one might think of self-control in the standard way – as involving inappropriate affective responses that need to be overcome. This is Aristotle’s view: the self-controlled person has “bad appetites” (NE.1152a1) which she must overcome in order to act well, whereas the virtuous person has an integrated psychology that makes it easy for her to act. My analysis can make space for this notion of self-control by following King (and other neo-Aristotelians) in thinking of virtue-possession as lying on a continuum. As Christine Swanton puts the point: virtue is a “threshold concept.”60 Contra Aristotle, Swanton argues that virtues need not be perfect; they need only meet a threshold of being good enough. On her view, virtues are character traits that respond to the world in ways that are either excellent or good enough (2003: 19). Accordingly, our affective responses need not be perfect for us to meet the threshold. As long as our affective responses are usually appropriate – or meet whatever standard is set by the threshold – the mere fact that we sometimes respond inappropriately won’t prevent us from having virtue. The extreme upper end of this continuum allows for Aristotle’s concept of perfect virtue. Perfect virtue will be inconsistent with the possession of inappropriate emotions; a perfectly virtuous person won’t have any such emotions or any need for self-control. But, as Swanton rightly argues, neither we nor our circumstances are perfect!61 If we are virtuous, it is because we have managed to meet (or exceed) the threshold. And, we can meet the threshold for the virtue of ip while sometimes having inappropriate emotions – while being bored or frustrated with our projects – provided that we consistently overcome these internal obstacles and stay on course. In short, the mere fact that we have inappropriate emotions doesn’t prevent us from meeting the threshold for ip, but our consistent failure to overcome these internal obstacles would. As imperfect people, we need self-control to meet the threshold for ip.62

The second (and very different) reply asks us to think of self-control as involving appropriate affective responses that need to be overcome. It invites us to conceive of self-control as an analog of courage. On Aristotle’s view, the morally courageous person fears, and yet faces, what she should. She should be afraid of standing up to a bully, but she should overcome this fear and do it anyway. Analogously, there may be projects for which boredom is the appropriate affective response. Though boring and tedious, these projects may be of great importance.63 They may be so important that one should overcome these emotions and stick with these projects. Likewise, it may be appropriate to be frustrated and discouraged by setbacks, and also appropriate to overcome these emotions. If we think of self-control as an analog of courage, then the objection above dissolves. Self-control no longer involves regulating inappropriate emotions, and so there is no tension between it and the claim that ip involves appropriate emotions.

Finally, a word about Angela Duckworth’s analysis of grit, and Carol Dweck’s analysis of academic tenacity. Here, I can do little more than begin, what I hope will become, an ongoing conversation. Duckworth et al. define grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (2007: 1087). Gritty individuals maintain “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress,” i.e., they withstand challenges and stay the course (2007: 1088). One can manifest grit with respect to intellectual goals. Indeed, Duckworth et al. argue that gritty students tend to have higher gpas (2007: 1093) and that gritty spelling-bee finalists tend to study more than their less gritty peers (2007: 1097).64 While there is considerable overlap between my analysis of intellectual perseverance and Duckworth’s analysis of grit, there are two points on which we clearly part ways. First, Duckworth et al. contend that grit applies only to long-term goals. Second, they think that self-control, rather than grit, applies to short-term goals (2007: 1089, 1096). I have no objection to using ‘grit’ as a technical term in this way. But, I don’t see why anything similar would hold for intellectual perseverance. One can persevere with respect to short-term intellectual goals (e.g., completing the homework assignment that is due tomorrow), and with respect to long-term intellectual goals (e.g., testing for the Higgs-boson, or detecting gravitational waves). Moreover, we can, and do, encounter internal obstacles to both long- and short-term intellectual goals, e.g., we get bored with homework and with looking for gravitational waves. Accordingly, perseverance might take the form of self-control, whether one’s goals are long- or short-term.

Dweck et al. conceive of academic tenacity in terms of the “mindsets and skills that allow students to: look beyond short-term concerns to longer-term or higher-order goals; and withstand challenges and setbacks to persevere toward these goals” (2014: 4). Accordingly, academically tenacious students: “are not derailed by difficulty,” and “can forego immediate pleasures for the sake of schoolwork” (2014: 4). Here, too, there is considerable overlap with my analysis of intellectual perseverance. Indeed, Dweck et al. define academic tenacity so that it encompasses both grit and self-control (2014: 12-13), thus avoiding one of the concerns I raised above. The concern that intellectual goals can be long- or short-term remains. More importantly, Dweck’s analysis of academic tenacity seems to conceptually require a ‘growth mind-set.’ Roughly, one has a growth mind-set when one believes that one’s abilities, knowledge, and understanding can improve with effort. There are two potential problems with such a requirement. First, the connection between academic tenacity and a growth mind-set may be contingent, rather than conceptual.65 Second, it isn’t clear that the trait of intellectual perseverance conceptually requires a growth mind-set. Arguably, one can be disposed to overcome obstacles, in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals, whether or not one has a growth mind-set. Indeed, failing to have a growth mind-set may itself be an obstacle that requires perseverance to overcome. In short, there is much for philosophers and psychologists to discuss. The above is just the tip of the iceberg.66

Unsurprisingly, there are many open questions about the virtue of intellectual perseverance. First, even if the dispositions of action, motivation, emotion, and perception that I address above are jointly sufficient for the character virtue of intellectual perseverance, are they all necessary? Deciding whether dispositions of emotion and perception are required for the virtue of ip may help us resolve some of the family squabbles above. Second, how can we develop intellectual perseverance? Can we develop it via practice and habituation? Third, what are the connections between intellectual perseverance and other intellectual virtues and vices? How is perseverance different from diligence or conscientiousness? Is capitulation connected to vices like apathy, laziness, and procrastination? Fourth, what sorts of beliefs does the character virtue of ip require? Does it require a conception of epistemic value and good judgment about goals, as I have suggested? Relatedly, does it require a rational belief that one will succeed in achieving one’s goals, or a belief in self-efficacy?67 Fifth, can intellectual perseverance be a collective or group virtue – a virtue possessed by a community of inquirers? Finally, if recalcitrance sometimes produces knowledge, what does this tell us about the connections between intellectual virtue, vice, and knowledge? My hope is that this essay will help to stimulate further exploration of these questions, and of the analysis of the virtue of intellectual perseverance.68

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Heather Battaly is Professor of Philosophy at California State University Fullerton. Her research focuses on virtue epistemology, virtue ethics, and vice. She is author of Virtue (2015), and editor of Virtue and Vice, Moral and Epistemic (2010). She has written several articles on intellectual virtue and vice, including “Virtue Epistemology” (Philosophy Compass 2008) and “Varieties of Epistemic Vice” (in Matheson and Vitz, eds. The Ethics of Belief 2014). She is currently writing a book on epistemic vice and vice epistemology.

1

See Dweck et al. (2014), Farrington et al. (2012), and Duckworth et al. (2007). Rimfeld et al. (2016) argue that conscientiousness does the lion’s share of the work in predicting academic achievement; perseverance has little to contribute beyond what is already contributed by conscientiousness.

2

I learned a lot from King (2014), and highly recommend it.

3

Nor will I attempt to distinguish intellectual goals from moral goals, intellectual actions from moral actions, or intellectual virtues from moral virtues. Whether (and if so, how) these are distinct is an open question. See Baehr (2011), appendix; Driver (2003), 114; Zagzebski (1996), 166; Battaly (2014a).

5

Why not define intellectual actions as the voluntary actions one performs in pursuit of one’s intellectual goals? Because it may be possible to perform an intellectual action without adopting an intellectual goal. It seems that children can perform intellectual actions at the behest of teachers or parents, even though they haven’t yet grasped or adopted the intellectual goals in question. Such children are still acquiring beliefs and knowledge, even if they are not themselves aiming at belief or knowledge acquisition.

6

I am grateful to an anonymous referee for suggesting this worry and this example, and to David Ripley and Dorit Bar-On for raising worries about causal salience.

7

Of course, this account of admirable (intellectual) action is incomplete. To provide a complete account, we would need to address situations that a virtuous person would never have gotten into in the first place. There is terrific work on this issue in virtue ethics. See, for instance, Hursthouse (1999: 47), Johnson (2003), and van Zyl (2011).

8

Thanks to Christian Miller and Nathan King for raising this point.

9

It requires eventual success; one might still have to try more than once in order to succeed (e.g. ‘I told myself that I would stop watching tv and go back to work at 7:30 pm, but at 8:00 pm, I really am going back to work!’). Note that in these cases trying and failing looks less like persevering, and more like slacking off.

10

Perhaps, they landed in an ‘angel-world’: a possible world, designed and controlled by omnipotent and omniscient angels, who removed all obstacles to their intellectual goals.

11

I am grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this point.

12

Consistently trying to overcome extremely difficult obstacles is required.

13

Agents with ip need not consistently complete their projects; some projects span decades and involve hundreds of people. Presumably, some of the scientists who persevered in designing tests for the Higgs-boson died before the designs were completed.

15

I am indebted to an anonymous referee for this point.

16

See Battaly (2014b: 188–189). Miller (2014) disagrees. Not much hangs on this: one could still endorse my general analysis of ip, while denying my specific claims about situationism.

17

On Doris-local traits, see Doris (2002: 65–66).

18

See Adams (2006: 157), Driver (2001:10-11) and Sosa (2007: 84), all of whom argue that virtues (and, presumably, traits) should be indexed to ‘normal’ conditions.

19

Though it is notoriously difficult to identify dispositions in real people, we can assume for the sake of argument that the individuals above would also overcome obstacles to their other intellectual goals across a wide range of situations.

20

She also overcame other obstacles, notably sexism and lack of funding.

21

Russell (2009: 142). He reports solving it in 1906. Principia Mathematica, which includes Russell’s solution, was published in 1910.

22

I am indebted to Catherine Elgin for some of these examples.

23

Miller and I agree that character traits are a sub-set of personality traits, but my conditions for character traits are stronger than Miller’s (2014: 9–18).

24

Conceptions of value are beliefs about what is valuable.

25

For Aristotle, these motivations are rational desires. When an agent rationally desires an action, she wants to perform the action because she believes that it is morally good. See NE.III.4.

26

One need not be an epistemologist to have a conception of epistemic value; one need only believe that when it comes to thinking, it is important (e.g.,) to think for oneself, or to believe what authorities say, or to get the truth, or to look smart, or to compete with others and win arguments, etc.

27

If A’s disposition were grounded in her stable motivation to compete intellectually and win, and her belief that it is important to compete intellectually and win, then ip would still be an intellectual character trait in A.

28

Relatedly, in a March 2016 presentation on “Vicious Thinking,” Cassam distinguishes between thinking styles and intellectual character traits. He argues that there is a difference between, e.g., closed-minded thinking and a closed-minded agent, whereby the former need not entail the latter.

29

Sosa 1991: 271; Sosa 2009: 187.

30

Must agent A love what are in fact epistemic goods, or only what A has good reason to believe are epistemic goods? I’m inclined to think that A must love what are in fact epistemic goods. Baehr allows for the possibility that A loves what she has good reason to believe are epistemic goods (2011: 99fn18). But, such disagreements shouldn’t prevent one from endorsing my general analysis of ip.

31

See Battaly 2015a.

32

For Baehr, one can have intellectual virtues even if one has the bad luck of being in a demon world where all of one’s beliefs are false. In contrast, Zagzebski requires good character and reliability for intellectual virtue.

33

Roberts and Wood make a similar point about intellectual courage (2007: 220).

34

An agent’s intellectual goals and evaluative motivations will often be perfectly aligned (A might have the goal of protecting some specific belief B, and the stable evaluative motivation to protect her views and beliefs). But, they need not be. Suppose A has the goal of proving the existence of some specific chemical element. She might be pursuing that goal because she values and cares about truth, or because she wants to look smart, or be famous, or win a Nobel Prize. See Zagzebski’s distinction between motivations and goals (1996: 130). On her view, motivations explain why the agent is pursuing a particular goal.

35

I am grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this worry.

36

For excellent critiques of this profligate brand of pluralism, see van Zyl (2015), Alfano (2015: 3), and Ahlstrom-Vij (2015).

37

In this section, ‘virtue’ refers to ‘character virtue’ unless otherwise noted.

38

Two agents can be disposed to act the same way, but have different motives and reasons. Dispositions of action, by themselves, tell us little about the agent’s character. See Battaly 2015b: 61.

40

These excellent objections were made by an anonymous referee.

41

As we have seen, failures of action need not be rooted in bad goal-choice. People who capitulate at the first sign of a challenge can have perfectly good goals. Below, I suggest that recalcitrance need not require bad goal-choice either – it might be one’s perceptions or emotions that are askew, rather than one’s goals.

42

It will rule out the goal of measuring ether drift provided that this goal doesn’t lead to truths and discoveries about some other topic.

43

Relatedly, see Baehr (2011: 159–161); Zagzebski disagrees (1996: 185).

44

The opportunity costs of Russell’s foregoing the paradox increase when we take the perspective of the epistemic community. Since Russell is (presumably) one of few people in the epistemic community who has the skills needed to solve the paradox, it would be a large cost to the community if he didn’t pursue it.

46

This is consistent with empirical work on the topic. Several studies have argued that perseverance in intellectual tasks decreases as intrinsic motivation decreases. For a summary of some of this work, see Dweck et al. (2014: 8, 28), Farrington et al. (2012: 29), and Peterson and Seligman (2004: 236, 242–43).

47

Svoboda 2008.

48

I borrow this example from King (2014: 3797).

50

I am grateful to Nathan King and an anonymous referee for raising this point.

53

Perhaps, something similar can be said of skeptics, who register, e.g., ‘eliminating the possibility that one is dreaming that p’ as an obstacle to knowing that p.

54

Montmarquet (1993: 23). See Zagzebski (1996: 177–78). Zagzebski adds a reliability condition to all of the intellectual virtues; Montmarquet argues that reliability is not necessary.

55

Aristotle’s analysis of courage requires a disposition to fear (and likewise be confident with respect to) appropriate things. The virtue of intellectual perseverance may also require a disposition to be appropriately daunted by (and confident with respect to) obstacles, as the context demands. But, even if the virtue of ip does not require this disposition, the virtue of intellectual courage, as a sub-set of the virtue of ip, may require it.

56

Of course, the devil is in the detail. I would not expect Zagzebski, Montmarquet, Baehr, or Roberts and Wood to agree with every detail of the analysis of intellectual perseverance above.

57

But, see Roberts (1984). Responsibilists do address intellectual akrasia (Battaly 2014c: 67–68); and they do address enkrateia (Zagzebski 1996: 119). Some object that self-control is not a virtue. See Section 4.

58

This is the definitive version of King’s “Perseverance as an Intellectual Virtue.”

59

King (2014: 3784). Bannister used himself as a subject in his own experiments on exercise physiology.

60

Swanton (2003: 24). Also see Miller (2013: 13–16).

61

See the remarks about situationism above.

62

Granted, it will be tricky to determine this threshold, and the threshold required by my analysis may be more demanding than that required by King’s.

63

Perhaps, projects designed to replicate previous studies are like this. Counting the number of trees on the planet may also fit the bill (it is important for its implications about global warming).

64

But, see Rimfeld et al. (2016), who argue that it is conscientiousness, rather than grit, which predicts academic achievement. They think grit has little to contribute to academic achievement beyond what is already contributed by conscientiousness.

65

Farrington et al. (2012: 20) argue that although a growth mind-set is empirically correlated with academic perseverance, the latter does not conceptually require the former.

66

My analysis of ip may ultimately have more in common with Farrington’s (2012) analysis of academic perseverance, than it does with either Duckworth’s ‘grit’ or Dweck’s ‘academic tenacity.’

67

See King (2014: 3794). On belief in self-efficacy, see Peterson and Seligman (2004: 231–32), and Dweck et al. (2014: 5).

68

I am grateful to all of the following for their written comments: Jewelle Bickel, Paul Bloomfield, Lewis Gordon, Dan Howard-Snyder, Nathan King, William Lycan, Christian Miller, Nathan Sheff, Ryan Wasserman, Dennis Whitcomb, and two anonymous referees. I learned much about ip from discussions at Western Washington University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Oklahoma, and the 2016 meeting of the New Zealand Association of Philosophers. Warm thanks to you all! Special thanks to Nathan King for his innovative work, to Christian Miller for his saintly patience, and to Catherine Elgin for her enthusiastic insights and examples.

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