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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.

Medieval Latin form of Latin used in the Middle Ages

Medieval Latin was the form of Latin used in Roman Catholic Western Europe during the Middle Ages. In this region it served as the primary written language, though local languages were also written to varying degrees. Latin functioned as the main medium of scholarly exchange, as the liturgical language of the Church, and as the working language of science, literature, law, and administration.

Philosophy intellectual and/or logical study of general and fundamental problems

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Truth philosophical concept

Truth is most often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or standard. Truth is also sometimes defined in modern contexts as an idea of "truth to self", or authenticity.


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:

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Charles Sanders Peirce American philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist

Charles Sanders Peirce was an American philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist who is sometimes known as "the father of pragmatism". He was educated as a chemist and employed as a scientist for thirty years. Today he is appreciated largely for his contributions to logic, mathematics, philosophy, scientific methodology, and semiotics, and for his founding of pragmatism.

  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]

Empirical evidence knowledge acquired by means of the senses

Empirical evidence is the information received by means of the senses, particularly by observation and documentation of patterns and behavior through experimentation. The term comes from the Greek word for experience, ἐμπειρία (empeiría).

Science systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Morality differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are proper and those that are improper

Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper. Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion or culture, or it can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with "goodness" or "rightness".

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.

Skepticism or scepticism 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, religion, or knowledge. 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.

Falsifiability the possibility of a statement to be proven wrong

A statement, hypothesis, or theory has falsifiability if it is contradicted by a basic statement, which, in an eventual successful or failed falsification, must respectively correspond to a true or hypothetical observation. For example, the claim "all swans are white and have always been white" is falsifiable since it is contradicted by this basic statement: "In 1697, during the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh expedition, there were black swans on the shore of the Swan River in Australia", which in this case is a true observation. The concept is also known by the terms refutable and refutability.

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]

Mathematics Field of study concerning quantity, patterns and change

Mathematics includes the study of such topics as quantity, structure, space, and change.

Logic the systematic study of the form of arguments

Logic is the systematic study of the form of valid inference, and the most general laws of truth. A valid inference is one where there is a specific relation of logical support between the assumptions of the inference and its conclusion. In ordinary discourse, inferences may be signified by words such as therefore, hence, ergo, and so on.

Susan Haack English professor of philosophy and law

Susan Haack is a British philosopher. She is Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law at the University of Miami. She has written on logic, the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. Her pragmatism follows that of Charles Sanders Peirce.

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.

Critical rationalism is an epistemological philosophy advanced by Karl Popper. Popper wrote about critical rationalism in his works: The Logic of Scientific Discovery, The Open Society and its Enemies, Conjectures and Refutations, The Myth of the Framework, and Unended Quest. Ernest Gellner is another notable proponent of this approach.

Hans Albert German philosopher

Hans Albert is a German philosopher. Born in Cologne, he lives in Heidelberg.

Münchhausen trilemma A thought experiment used to demonstrate the impossibility of proving any truth

In epistemology, the Münchhausen trilemma is a thought experiment used to demonstrate the impossibility of proving any truth, even in the fields of logic and mathematics. If it is asked how any knowledge is known to be true, proof may be provided. Yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The Münchhausen trilemma is that there are only three options when providing proof in this situation:


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]

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Foundationalism concerns philosophical theories of knowledge resting upon justified belief, or some secure foundation of certainty such as a conclusion inferred from a basis of sound premises. The main rival of the foundationalist theory of justification is the coherence theory of justification, whereby a body of knowledge, not requiring a secure foundation, can be established by the interlocking strength of its components, like a puzzle solved without prior certainty that each small region was solved correctly.

Willard Van Orman Quine American philosopher and logician

Willard Van Orman Quine was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century." From 1930 until his death 70 years later, Quine was continually affiliated with Harvard University in one way or another, first as a student, then as a professor of philosophy and a teacher of logic and set theory, and finally as a professor emeritus who published or revised several books in retirement. He filled the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard from 1956 to 1978. A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries. He won the first Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy in 1993 for "his systematical and penetrating discussions of how learning of language and communication are based on socially available evidence and of the consequences of this for theories on knowledge and linguistic meaning." In 1996 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for his "outstanding contributions to the progress of philosophy in the 20th century by proposing numerous theories based on keen insights in logic, epistemology, philosophy of science and philosophy of language."

Pragmatism Philosophical movement

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."

Analytic philosophy style of philosophy

Analytic philosophy is a style of philosophy that became dominant in the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century. The term can refer to one of several things:

The Gettier problem, in the field of epistemology, is a landmark philosophical problem concerning our understanding of descriptive knowledge. Attributed to American philosopher Edmund Gettier, Gettier-type counterexamples challenge the long-held justified true belief (JTB) account of knowledge. The JTB account holds that knowledge is equivalent to justified true belief; if all three conditions are met of a given claim, then we have knowledge of that claim. In his 1963 three-page paper titled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?", Gettier attempts to illustrate by means of two counterexamples that there are cases where individuals can have a justified, true belief regarding a claim but still fail to know it because the reasons for the belief, while justified, turn out to be false. Thus, Gettier claims to have shown that the JTB account is inadequate; that it does not account for all of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge.

Contextualism describes a collection of views in philosophy which emphasize the context in which an action, utterance, or expression occurs, and argues that, in some important respect, the action, utterance, or expression can only be understood relative to that context. Contextualist views hold that philosophically controversial concepts, such as "meaning P", "knowing that P", "having a reason to A", and possibly even "being true" or "being right" only have meaning relative to a specified context. Some philosophers hold that context-dependence may lead to relativism; nevertheless, contextualist views are increasingly popular within philosophy.

Naturalized epistemology, coined by W. V. O. Quine, is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. This shared emphasis on scientific methods of studying knowledge shifts focus to the empirical processes of knowledge acquisition and away from many traditional philosophical questions. There are noteworthy distinctions within naturalized epistemology. Replacement naturalism maintains that traditional epistemology should be abandoned and replaced with the methodologies of the natural sciences. The general thesis of cooperative naturalism is that traditional epistemology can benefit in its inquiry by using the knowledge we have gained from the cognitive sciences. Substantive naturalism focuses on an asserted equality of facts of knowledge and natural facts.

Jaakko Hintikka Finnish philosopher and logician

Kaarlo Jaakko Juhani Hintikka was a Finnish philosopher and logician.

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.

In logic, defeasible reasoning is a kind of reasoning that is rationally compelling, though not deductively valid.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to philosophy:

Verificationism, also known as the verification idea or the verifiability criterion of meaning, is the philosophical doctrine that only statements that are empirically verifiable are cognitively meaningful, or else they are truths of logic (tautologies).

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.

Outline of epistemology Overview of and topical guide to epistemology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to epistemology:

Epistemology or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", "What do people know?", "How do we know what we know?", and "Why do we know what we know?". Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims.

American philosophy

American philosophy is the activity, corpus, and tradition of philosophers affiliated with the United States. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that while it lacks a "core of defining features, American Philosophy can nevertheless be seen as both reflecting and shaping collective American identity over the history of the nation."

Formative epistemology is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. According to formative epistemology, knowledge is gained through the imputation of thoughts from one human being to another in the societal setting. Humans are born without intrinsic knowledge and through their evolutionary and developmental processes gain knowledge from other human beings. Thus, according to formative epistemology, all knowledge is completely subjective and truth does not exist.


  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.

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