Theory of justification

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The theory of justification is a part of epistemology that attempts to understand the justification of propositions and beliefs. Epistemologists are concerned with various epistemic features of belief, which include the ideas of justification, warrant, rationality, and probability. Loosely speaking, justification is the reason that someone (properly) holds a belief.

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.

A proposition is a tentative and conjectural relationship between constructs that is stated in a declarative form. An example of a proposition is: “An increase in student intelligence causes an increase in their academic achievement.” This declarative statement does not have to be true, but must be empirically testable using data, so that we can judge whether it is true or false. Propositions are generally derived based on logic (deduction) or empirical observations (induction). Because propositions are associations between abstract constructs, they cannot be tested directly. Instead, they are tested indirectly by examining the relationship between corresponding measures (variables) of those constructs. The empirical formulation of propositions, stated as relationships between variables, is called hypotheses. The term proposition has a broad use in contemporary analytic philosophy. It is used to refer to some or all of the following: the primary bearers of truth-value, the objects of belief and other "propositional attitudes", the referents of that-clauses, and the meanings of declarative sentences. Propositions are the sharable objects of attitudes and the primary bearers of truth and falsity. This stipulation rules out certain candidates for propositions, including thought- and utterance-tokens which are not sharable, and concrete events or facts, which cannot be false.

Belief Psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true

Belief is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case regardless of empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty. Another way of defining belief sees it as a mental representation of an attitude positively oriented towards the likelihood of something being true. In the context of Ancient Greek thought, two related concepts were identified with regards to the concept of belief: pistis and doxa. Simplified, we may say that pistis refers to "trust" and "confidence", while doxa refers to "opinion" and "acceptance". The English word "orthodoxy" derives from doxa. Jonathan Leicester suggests that belief has the purpose of guiding action rather than indicating truth.


When a claim is in doubt, justification can be used to support the claim and reduce or remove the doubt. Justification can use empiricism (the evidence of the senses), authoritative testimony (the appeal to criteria and authority), or reason.

Empiricism theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience

In philosophy, empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. It is one of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism and skepticism. Empiricism emphasises the role of empirical evidence in the formation of ideas, rather than innate ideas or traditions. However, empiricists may argue that traditions arise due to relations of previous sense experiences.

In law and in religion, testimony is a solemn attestation as to the truth of a matter.


Justification focuses on beliefs. This is in part because of the influence of the definition of knowledge as "justified true belief" often associated with a theory discussed near the end of the Plato's dialogues Meno and Theaetetus . More generally, theories of justification focus on the justification of statements or propositions.

Meno is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato. It appears to attempt to determine the definition of virtue, or arete, meaning virtue in general, rather than particular virtues, such as justice or temperance. The first part of the work is written in the Socratic dialectical style and Meno is reduced to confusion or aporia. In response to Meno's paradox, however, Socrates introduces positive ideas: the immortality of the soul, the theory of knowledge as recollection (anamnesis), which Socrates demonstrates by posing a mathematical puzzle to one of Meno's slaves, the method of hypothesis, and, in the final lines, the distinction between knowledge and true belief.

The Theaetetus is one of Plato's dialogues concerning the nature of knowledge, written circa 369 BCE.

The subject of justification has played a major role in the value of knowledge as "justified true belief". Some contemporary epistemologists, such as Jonathan Kvanvig assert that justification isn't necessary in getting to the truth and avoiding errors. Kvanvig attempts to show that knowledge is no more valuable than true belief, and in the process dismissed the necessity of justification due to justification not being connected to the truth.

Jonathan Lee Kvanvig is Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis.


Justification is the reason why someone properly holds a belief, the explanation as to why the belief is a true one, or an account of how one knows what one knows. In much the same way arguments and explanations may be confused with each other, so may explanations and justifications. Statements that are justifications of some action take the form of arguments. For example, attempts to justify a theft usually explain the motives (e.g., to feed a starving family).

It is important to be aware when an explanation is not a justification. A criminal profiler may offer an explanation of a suspect's behavior (e.g.; the person lost his or her job, the person got evicted, etc.), and such statements may help us understand why the person committed the crime. An uncritical listener may believe the speaker is trying to gain sympathy for the person and his or her actions, but it does not follow that a person proposing an explanation has any sympathy for the views or actions being explained. This is an important distinction because we need to be able to understand and explain terrible events and behavior in attempting to discourage it. [1]


There are several different views as to what entails justification, mostly focusing on the question "How sure do we need to be that our beliefs correspond to the actual world?" Different theories of justification require different amounts and types of evidence before a belief can be considered justified. Theories of justification generally include other aspects of epistemology, such as knowledge.

Popular theories of justification include:


If a belief is justified, there is something that justifies it, which can be called its "justifier". If a belief is justified, then it has at least one justifier. An example of a justifier would be an item of evidence. For example, if a woman is aware that her husband returned from a business trip smelling like perfume, and that his shirt has smudged lipstick on its collar, the perfume and the lipstick can be evidence for her belief that her husband is having an affair. In that case, the justifiers are the woman's awareness of the perfume and the lipstick, and the belief that is justified is her belief that her husband is having an affair.

Not all justifiers have to be what can properly be called "evidence"; there may be some substantially different kinds of justifiers available. Regardless, to be justified, a belief has to have a justifier.

Three things that have been suggested as justifiers are:

  1. Beliefs only.
  2. Beliefs together with other conscious mental states.
  3. Beliefs, conscious mental states, and other facts about us and our environment (which one may or may not have access to).

At least sometimes, the justifier of a belief is another belief. When, to return to the earlier example, the woman believes that her husband is having an affair, she bases that belief on other beliefs—namely, beliefs about the lipstick and perfume. Strictly speaking, her belief isn't based on the evidence itself—after all, what if she did not believe it? What if she thought that all of that evidence were just a hoax? What if her husband commonly wears perfume and lipstick on business trips? For that matter, what if the evidence existed, but she did not know about it? Then, of course, her belief that her husband is having an affair wouldn't be based on that evidence, because she did not know it was there at all; or, if she thought that the evidence were a hoax, then surely her belief couldn't be based on that evidence.

Consider a belief P . Either P is justified or P is not justified. If P is justified, then another belief Q may be justified by P. If P is not justified, then P cannot be a justifier for any other belief: neither for Q, nor for Q's negation.

For example, suppose someone might believe that there is intelligent life on Mars, and base this belief on a further belief, that there is a feature on the surface of Mars that looks like a face, and that this face could only have been made by intelligent life. So the justifying belief is: that face-like feature on Mars could only have been made by intelligent life. And the justified belief is: there is intelligent life on Mars.

But suppose further that the justifying belief is itself unjustified. It would in no way be one's intellectual right to suppose that this face-like feature on Mars could have only been made by intelligent life; that view would be irresponsible, intellectually speaking. Thus, such a belief is unjustified because the justifier on which it depends is itself not justified.

Commonly used justifiers


The major opposition against the theory of justification (also called justificationism in this context) is non-justificational criticism (a synthesis of skepticism and absolutism), which is most notably held by some of the proponents of critical rationalism: W. W. Bartley, David Miller and Karl Popper. [2] (But not all proponents of critical rationalism oppose justificationism; it is supported most prominently by John W. N. Watkins.)

In justificationism, criticism consists of trying to show that a claim cannot be reduced to the authority or criteria that it appeals to. That is, it regards the justification of a claim as primary, while the claim itself is secondary. By contrast, non-justificational criticism works towards attacking claims themselves.

Bartley also refers to a third position, which he calls critical rationalism in a more specific sense, claimed to have been Popper's view in his Open Society. It has given up justification, but not yet adopted non-justificational criticism. Instead of appealing to criteria and authorities, it attempts to describe and explicate them.

Fogelin claims to detect a suspicious resemblance between the Theories of Justification and Agrippa's five modes leading to the suspension of belief. He concludes that the modern proponents have made no significant progress in responding to the ancient modes of pyrrhonic skepticism. [3]

See also


  1. Critical Thinking, Parker and Moore
  2. David Miller, "Critical Rationalism: A Restatement and Defense, Open Court Publishing, 1994, ISBN   0-8126-9198-9
  3. Robert J. Fogelin, Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, Oxford University Press, 1994, ISBN   978-0-19-508987-5

Related Research Articles

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.

Reliabilism, a category of theories in the philosophical discipline of epistemology, has been advanced as a theory both of justification and of knowledge. Process reliabilism has been used as an argument against philosophical skepticism, such as the brain in a vat thought experiment. Process reliabilism is a form of epistemic externalism.

The regress argument is a problem in epistemology and, in general, a problem in any situation where a statement has to be justified.

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.

Coherentism is the name given to a few philosophical theories in modern epistemology.

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.

In philosophy, a distinction is often made between two different kinds of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Knowledge by acquaintance is obtained through a direct causal (experience-based) interaction between a person and the object that that person is perceiving.

Evidentialism is a thesis in epistemology which states that one is justified to believe something if and only if that person has evidence which supports his or her belief. Evidentialism is therefore a thesis about which beliefs are justified and which are not.

Virtue epistemology is a contemporary philosophical approach to epistemology that stresses the importance of intellectual, and specifically epistemic virtues. A distinguishing factor of virtue theories is that they use for the evaluation of knowledge the properties of the persons who hold beliefs in addition to or instead of the properties of propositions and beliefs. Some advocates of virtue epistemology claim to more closely follow theories of virtue ethics, while others see only a looser analogy between virtue in ethics and virtue in epistemology.

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.

Laurence BonJour is an American philosopher and Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Washington.

Alvin Ira Goldman is an American philosopher who is Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a leading figure in epistemology.

Keith Lehrer is Regent's Professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Arizona and a Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami in Florida, where he spends half of each academic year.

Broadly speaking, fallibilism is the philosophical claim that no belief can have justification which guarantees the truth of the belief. However, not all fallibilists believe that fallibilism extends to all domains of knowledge.

Formal epistemology uses formal methods from decision theory, logic, probability theory and computability theory to model and reason about issues of epistemological interest. Work in this area spans several academic fields, including philosophy, computer science, economics, and statistics. The focus of formal epistemology has tended to differ somewhat from that of traditional epistemology, with topics like uncertainty, induction, and belief revision garnering more attention than the analysis of knowledge, skepticism, and issues with justification.

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.

Outline of 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.

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.