Broadly speaking, fallibilism (from Medieval Latin: fallibilis, "liable to err") is the philosophical claim that no belief can have justification which guarantees the truth of the belief.[2] However, not all fallibilists believe that fallibilism extends to all domains of knowledge.


The term "fallibilism" is used in a variety of senses in contemporary epistemology. The term was coined in the late nineteenth century by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. By "fallibilism", Peirce meant the view that "people cannot attain absolute certainty concerning questions of fact."[3] Other theorists of knowledge have used the term differently. Thus, "fallibilism" has been used to describe the claim that:

  1. No beliefs can be conclusively justified.[4]
  2. Knowledge does not require certainty.[5]
  3. Almost no basic (that is, non-inferred) beliefs are certain or conclusively justified.[6]

Additionally, some theorists embrace global versions of fallibilism (claiming that no human beliefs have truth-guaranteeing justification), while others restrict fallibilism to particular areas of human inquiry, such as empirical science or morality.[7] The claim that all scientific claims are provisional and open to revision in the light of new evidence is widely taken for granted in the natural sciences.[8]

Unlike many forms of skepticism, fallibilism does not imply that we have no knowledge; fallibilists typically deny that knowledge requires absolute certainty. Rather, fallibilism is an admission that, because empirical knowledge can be revised by further observation, any of the things we take as empirical knowledge might turn out to be false.

Some fallibilists make an exception for things that are necessarily true (such as mathematical and logical truths). Others remain fallibilists about these types of truths as well. Susan Haack, following Willard Van Orman Quine, has argued that to refrain from extending fallibilism to logical truths—due to the necessity or a prioricity of such truths—mistakes "fallibilism" as a predicate on propositions, when it is a predicate on people or agents:[9]

One needs, first, to get clear just what is meant by the claim that logic is revisable - and, equally importantly, what is not meant by it. What I mean, at any rate, is not that the truths of logic might have been otherwise than they are, but that the truths of logic might be other than we take them to be, i.e. we could be mistaken about what the truths of logic are, e.g. in supposing that the law of excluded middle is one such.

So a better way to put the question, because it makes its epistemological character clearer, is this: does fallibilism extend to logic? Even this formulation, however, needs further refinement, for the nature of fallibilism is often misunderstood.

The critical rationalist Hans Albert argues that it is impossible to prove any truth with certainty, even in logic and mathematics. This argument is called the Münchhausen trilemma.


Historically, fallibilism is most strongly associated with Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and other pragmatists, who use it in their attacks on foundationalism (the view that any system of rationally justified beliefs must rest on a set of properly basic beliefs—that is, beliefs that are accepted, and rightly accepted, directly, without any evidence or rational support whatsoever). However, fallibilist themes are already present in the views of both ancient Greek skeptics, such as Carneades, and modern skeptics, such as David Hume. Most versions of ancient and modern skepticism, excepting Pyrrhonism, depend on claims (e.g., that knowledge requires certainty, or that people cannot know that skeptical hypotheses are false) that fallibilists deny.[10]

Another proponent of fallibilism is Karl Popper, who builds his theory of knowledge, critical rationalism, on falsifiability. Fallibilism has been employed by Quine to attack, among other things, the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements.[11]

Moral fallibilism

Moral fallibilism is a specific subset of the broader epistemological fallibilism outlined above. In the debate between moral subjectivism and moral objectivism, moral fallibilism holds out a third plausible stance: that objectively true moral standards may exist, but they cannot be reliably or conclusively determined by humans. This avoids the problems associated with the relativism of subjectivism by retaining the idea that morality is not a matter of mere opinion, while offering an account for the conflict between differing objective moralities. Notable proponents of such views are Isaiah Berlin (value pluralism) and Bernard Williams (perspectivism).


Nearly all philosophers today are fallibilists in some sense of the term.[12] Few would claim that knowledge requires absolute certainty, or deny that scientific claims are revisable (though some philosophers recently argue for some version of infallibilist knowledge[13]). But many philosophers would challenge "global" forms of fallibilism, such as the claim that no beliefs are conclusively justified. Historically, many Western philosophers from Plato to Augustine to René Descartes have argued that some human beliefs are infallibly known. Plausible candidates for infallible beliefs include beliefs about logical truths ("Either Jones is a Democrat or Jones is not a Democrat"), beliefs about immediate appearances ("It seems that I see a patch of blue"), and incorrigible beliefs (i.e., beliefs that are true in virtue of being believed, such as Descartes' "I think, therefore I am"). Many others, however, have taken even these types of beliefs to be fallible.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Brent, Joseph (1998), Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life, 2nd edition, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press (catalog page); also NetLibrary.
  2. ^ Stephen Hetherington, "Fallibilism," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallibil/
  3. ^ Charles Sanders Peirce, "The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism," in Justus Buchler, ed., Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover, 1955, p. 59.
  4. ^ Hetherington, "Fallibilism"; Nikolas Kompridis, Critique and Disclosure. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
  5. ^ Richard Feldman. Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003, p. 122; Alvin I. Goldman and Matthew McGrath, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 119.
  6. ^ Louis P. Pojman, What Can We Know? An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001, p. 105.
  7. ^ Hetherington, "Fallibilism", Section 1.
  8. ^ Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996
  9. ^ Haack, Philosophy of Logics, pp. 234
  10. ^ Feldman, Epistemology, pp. 122-28.
  11. ^ W. V. O. Quine, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html.
  12. ^ Hetherington, "Fallibilism," Section 1.
  13. ^ E.g. Moon, Andrew (2012). "Warrant does entail truth". Synthese. 184 (3): 287–297. doi:10.1007/s11229-010-9815-2.; Dutant, Julien (2016). "How to be an infallibilist". Philosophical Issues. 26: 148–171. doi:10.1111/phis.12085.; and Benton, Matthew (2018). "Knowledge, hope, and fallibilism". Synthese: 1–17. doi:10.1007/s11229-018-1794-8..
  14. ^ Haack, "Philosophy of Logics", Chapter 12.

Further reading

  • Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. by Philip P. Wiener (Dover, 1980)
  • Charles S. Peirce and the Philosophy of Science, ed. by Edward C. Moore (Alabama, 1993)
  • Traktat über kritische Vernunft, Hans Albert (Tübingen: Mohr, 1968. 5th ed. 1991)
  • Richard Feldman, Epistemology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003, Chap. 6.
  • Susan Haack, Philosophy of Logics. Cambridge University Press, 1978, Chap. 12.
  • "Fallibilism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Dario Antiseri

Dario Antiseri (born 1940 in Foligno) is a Philosophy professor. He holds a bachelor's degree (summa cum laude) in Philosophy from the University of Perugia and for many years he has been Full Professor of Methodology of the Social Sciences at LUISS, in Rome. He taught in Siena, Padova and Rome, where he was also the Dean of the Faculty of Political Science. He retired from academia in 2010. He is an important scholar of Karl R. Popper and Hans-Georg Gadamer, and in many works he tries to show the links between fallibilism and hermeneutics. In 1996 he published a book about Gianni Vattimo's weak thought. With the Italian philosopher Giovanni Reale he is also author of an important treatise of philosophy in three volumes, which is the most widely used philosophy textbook in Italian schools.

Descriptive knowledge

Descriptive knowledge, also declarative knowledge, propositional knowledge, or constative knowledge, is the type of knowledge that is, by its very nature, expressed in declarative sentences or indicative propositions. This distinguishes descriptive knowledge from what is commonly known as "knowing-how", or procedural knowledge (the knowledge of how, and especially how best, to perform some task), and "knowing of", or knowledge by acquaintance (the non-propositional knowledge of something through direct awareness of it). Descriptive knowledge is also identified as "knowing-that" or knowledge of fact, embodying concepts, principles, ideas, schemas, and theories. The entire descriptive knowledge of an individual constitute his understanding of the world and more specifically how it or a part of it works.The distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that was introduced in epistemology by Gilbert Ryle. For Ryle, the former differs in its emphasis and purpose since it is primarily practical knowledge whereas the latter focuses on indicative or explanatory knowledge.

Epistemological idealism

Epistemological idealism is a subjectivist position in epistemology that holds that what one knows about an object exists only in one's mind. It is opposed to epistemological realism.


Epistemology ( (listen); from Greek, Modern ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning 'knowledge', and λόγος, logos, meaning 'the study of [a certain subject]') is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Much debate in epistemology centers on four areas: (1) the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge and how it relates to such concepts as truth, belief, and justification, (2) various problems of skepticism, (3) the sources and scope of knowledge and justified belief, and (4) the criteria for knowledge and justification. Epistemology addresses such questions as: "What makes justified beliefs justified?", "What does it mean to say that we know something?", and fundamentally "How do we know that we know?"

Hierarchical epistemology

Hierarchical epistemology is a theory of knowledge which posits that beings have different access to reality depending on their ontological rank.


Infallibilism, in epistemology, is the idea that propositional knowledge is incompatible with a chance of being wrong, where this is typically understood as one's evidence or justification providing one's belief with such strong grounds that it must be true and perhaps cannot be rationally doubted. Other beliefs may be rationally justified, but they do not rise to the level of knowledge unless absolutely certain given one's evidence. Infallibilism's opposite, fallibilism, is the position that a justified true belief may be considered knowledge, even if one's evidence does not guarantee its truth, or can, given one's evidence, rationally doubt it.

Fallibilism is not to be confused with skepticism, which is the belief that knowledge is unattainable for rational human beings. René Descartes, an early proponent of infallibilism argued, “my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false” Infallibilism can be expressed in logic as "if I know that p, then I can't be mistaken about p".Fallibilism is endorsed by most contemporary epistemologists, though many in epistemology have recently presented significant arguments against fallibilism, and for infalliblism.In religion, infallibilism is the belief that certain texts or persons are incapable of being in the wrong. The most famous example of this is probably the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, under which the Pope is considered infallible in certain matters of doctrine, when his decisions are promulgated ex cathedra. Since 1870, the Catholic Church has officially declared that its earthly head, the Pope, in certain circumstances, is so grounded in the mission of the church that he teaches "infallibly". Papal infallibility also belongs to the body of bishops as a whole, when, in doctrinal unity with the pope, they solemnly teach a doctrine as true.

Infinite regress

An infinite regress in a series of propositions arises if the truth of proposition P1 requires the support of proposition P2, the truth of proposition P2 requires the support of proposition P3, and so on, ad infinitum.

Distinction is made between infinite regresses that are "vicious" and those that are not.


Infinitism is the view that knowledge may be justified by an infinite chain of reasons. It belongs to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that considers the possibility, nature, and means of knowledge.

List of epistemologists

This is a list of epistemologists, that is, people who theorize about the nature of knowledge, belief formation and the nature of justification.


Neopragmatism, sometimes called post-Deweyan pragmatism, linguistic pragmatism, or analytic pragmatism, is the philosophical tradition that infers that the meaning of words is a function of how they are used, rather than the meaning of what people intend for them to describe.

The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (2004) defines "neo-pragmatism" as "A postmodern version of pragmatism developed by the American philosopher Richard Rorty and drawing inspiration from authors such as John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Wilfrid Sellars, W. V. O. Quine, and Jacques Derrida". It's a contemporary term for a philosophy which reintroduces many concepts from pragmatism. While traditional pragmatism focuses on experience, Rorty centers on language. The self is regarded as a "centerless web of beliefs and desires".

It repudiates the notions of universal truth, epistemological foundationalism, representationalism, and epistemic objectivity. It is a nominalist approach that denies that natural kinds and linguistic entities have substantive ontological implications. Rorty denies that the subject-matter of the human sciences can be studied in the same ways as we study the natural sciences.It has been associated with a variety of other thinkers including Hilary Putnam, W. V. O. Quine, and Donald Davidson, though none of these figures have called themselves "neopragmatists". The following contemporary philosophers are also often considered to be neopragmatists: Nicholas Rescher (a proponent of methodological pragmatism and pragmatic idealism), Jürgen Habermas, Susan Haack, Robert Brandom, and Cornel West.


Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that began in the United States around 1870. Its origins are often attributed to the philosophers William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce later described it in his pragmatic maxim: "Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object."Pragmatism considers words and thought as tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving and action, and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes. The philosophy of pragmatism "emphasizes the practical application of ideas by acting on them to actually test them in human experiences". Pragmatism focuses on a "changing universe rather than an unchanging one as the Idealists, Realists and Thomists had claimed".

Problem of other minds

The problem of other minds is a philosophical problem traditionally stated as the following epistemological challenge raised by the skeptic: Given that I can only observe the behavior of others, how can I know that others have minds? It is a central issue of the philosophical idea known as solipsism: the notion that for any person only one's own mind is known to exist. Solipsism maintains that no matter how sophisticated someone's behavior is, behavior on its own does not guarantee the presence of mentality.

Proof (truth)

A proof is sufficient evidence or a sufficient argument for the truth of a proposition.The concept applies in a variety of disciplines,

with both the nature of the evidence or justification and the criteria for sufficiency being area-dependent. In the area of oral and written communication such as conversation, dialog, rhetoric, etc., a proof is a persuasive perlocutionary speech act, which demonstrates the truth of a proposition. In any area of mathematics defined by its assumptions or axioms, a proof is an argument establishing a theorem of that area via accepted rules of inference starting from those axioms and from other previously established theorems. The subject of logic, in particular proof theory, formalizes and studies the notion of formal proof. In some areas of epistemology and theology, the notion of justification plays approximately the role of proof, while in jurisprudence the corresponding term is evidence,

with "burden of proof" as a concept common to both philosophy and law.


Pyrrhonism was a school of skepticism founded by Pyrrho in the fourth century BC. It is best known through the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus, writing in the late second century or early third century AD.

Richard J. Bernstein

Richard Jacob Bernstein (born May 14, 1932) is an American philosopher who teaches at The New School for Social Research, and has written extensively about a broad array of issues and philosophical traditions including American pragmatism, neopragmatism, critical theory, deconstruction, social philosophy, political philosophy, and Hermeneutics. His work is best known for the way in which it examines the intersections between different philosophical schools and traditions, bringing together thinkers and philosophical insights that would otherwise remain separated by the analytic/continental divide in 20th century philosophy. The pragmatic and dialogical ethos that pervades his works has also been displayed in a number of philosophical exchanges with other contemporary thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, Agnes Heller, and Charles Taylor. Bernstein is an engaged public intellectual concerned not only with the specialized debates of academic philosophy, but also with the larger issues that touch upon social, political, and cultural aspects of contemporary life. Throughout his life Bernstein has actively endorsed a number of social causes and has been involved in movements of participatory democracy, upholding some of the cardinal virtues of the American pragmatist tradition, including a commitment to fallibilism, engaged pluralism, and the nurturing of critical communities.


Skepticism (American English) or scepticism (British English, Australian English, and Canadian English) is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality (moral skepticism), religion (skepticism about the existence of God), or knowledge (skepticism about the possibility of knowledge, or of certainty). Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.

Philosophical skepticism comes in various forms. Radical forms of skepticism deny that knowledge or rational belief is possible and urge us to suspend judgment on many or all controversial matters. More moderate forms of skepticism claim only that nothing can be known with certainty, or that we can know little or nothing about the "big questions" in life, such as whether God exists or whether there is an afterlife. Religious skepticism is "doubt concerning basic religious principles (such as immortality, providence, and revelation)". Scientific skepticism concerns testing beliefs for reliability, by subjecting them to systematic investigation using the scientific method, to discover empirical evidence for them.

Speculative reason

Speculative reason, sometimes called theoretical reason or pure reason, is theoretical (or logical, deductive) thought, as opposed to practical (active, willing) thought. The distinction between the two goes at least as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, who distinguished between theory (theoria, or a wide, bird's eye view of a topic, or clear vision of its structure) and practice (praxis), as well as techne.

Speculative reason is contemplative, detached, and certain, whereas practical reason is engaged, involved, active, and dependent upon the specifics of the situation. Speculative reason provides the universal, necessary principles of logic, such as the principle of non-contradiction, which must apply everywhere, regardless of the specifics of the situation.

On the other hand, practical reason is the power of the mind engaged in deciding what to do. It is also referred to as moral reason, because it involves action, decision, and particulars. Though many other thinkers have erected systems based on the distinction, two important later thinkers who have done so are Aquinas (who follows Aristotle in many respects) and Immanuel Kant.

World disclosure

World disclosure (German: Erschlossenheit, literally "development, comprehension") refers to how things become intelligible and meaningfully relevant to human beings, by virtue of being part of an ontological world – i.e., a pre-interpreted and holistically structured background of meaning. This understanding is said to be first disclosed to human beings through their practical day-to-day encounters with others, with things in the world, and through language.

The phenomenon was described by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his landmark book Being and Time. It has also been discussed by philosophers such as John Dewey, Jürgen Habermas, Nikolas Kompridis and Charles Taylor.Some philosophers, such as Ian Hacking and Nikolas Kompridis, have also described how this ontological understanding can be re-disclosed in various ways (including through innovative forms of philosophical argument).

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