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Fallibilism is the epistemological thesis that no belief (theory, view, thesis, and so on) can ever be rationally supported or justified in a conclusive way. Always, there remains a possible doubt as to the truth of the belief. Fallibilism applies that assessment even to science’s best-entrenched claims and to people’s best-loved commonsense views. Stephen Hetherington, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Fallibilism is commensurate with contemporary (postmodern) approaches to philosophy, which arose after Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason thoroughly discredited the correspondence theory of truth.

People who insist on believing in absolute truths are less likely to appreciate alternative perspectives than those who are more open to metacognitive self-correction.

Is it better for people to do philosophy without insisting that we can possibly understand the absolute truth about things or people? Is coherency the gold standard for human understanding, or is it more appropriate to hold out for indisputable “truths”?

  • contemporary (postmodern) does not at all match the on-the-ground reality in philosophy today. If anything, a large percentage of contemporary professional philosophers do not accept postmodernism (on just about any definition of postmodern). – virmaior Apr 11 at 12:51
  • It is hard to imagine an "ultimate" argument pro- or con- some philosophical point of view... Obviously, "people believing in absolute truths" are not onterested "to appreciate alternative perspectives" with respect to truth, because, if alternative, they are false. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 11 at 13:06
  • @virmaior, are those folks underinformed, or addicted to unjustifiable beliefs, or do you believe that they're correct in focussing on sets of abstract ideas which are unlikely ever to be resolved coherently? – Rortian Apr 11 at 13:20
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA, are these folks doing what's good for them, or is that style less beneficial than openminded consideration of alternative views? I've made my perspective clear: is this a question of morality? Is sticking to one perspective relatively bad for people? – Rortian Apr 11 at 13:23
  • Well I understand that most people are extremely shy about discussing morality as it applies to their current activities. I understand that it's safer to avoid engaging in discussions about what people ought to do and why they should do it than take the chance of being mistaken about what's (generally, in ethical terms) better or worse for us to do. I'll post a question which doesn't require people to asses the morality of our activities. – Rortian Apr 11 at 15:40
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Stephen Hetherington claims the following:

Almost all contemporary epistemologists will say that they are fallibilists. Yet the vast majority of them also wish not to be skeptics. They would rather not be committed to embracing principles about the nature of knowledge and justification which commit them to denying that there can be any knowledge or justified belief.

If one accepts fallibilism and one claims that knowledge is justified true belief is one not saying that knowledge does not exist? Fallibilism would claim that we can replace justified true belief with justified fallible belief. Skeptics would claim that then there is no knowledge. Fallibilists want to avoid that skeptical position.

The question in the title asks, Is fallibilism a better option than absolute certainty?. Given Hetherinton's description of fallibilism, absolute certainty is no longer an option. What fallibilists have to face is how to avoid the option of skepticism.


There may be other ways to look at knowledge rather than as justified true belief. Michael Polanyi viewed knowledge as either tacit or explicit: (page 7)

While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on its being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.

One can look at what fallibilists call knowledge as what Polanyi calls explicit knowledge. That fallibilists find that such an explicit definition of knowledge as justified true belief ultimately forces them to face skepticism suggests that Polanyi may be correct in his description of knowledge.


Here are the questions:

Is it better for people to do philosophy without insisting that we can possibly understand the absolute truth about things or people? Is coherency the gold standard for human understanding, or is it more appropriate to hold out for indisputable “truths”?

If one does philosophy as a problem rather than a mystery, to use Kenneth T. Gallagher's description of Gabriel Marcel's distinction (pages 30-49), then one is faced with a choice between fallibilism or skepticism. There are no indisputable truths coming.

However, it might be better to seek alternate ways of looking at knowledge and doing philosophy to avoid skepticism.


Gallagher, K. T., & Marcel, G. (1963). The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel.

Stephen Hetherington. "Fallibilism" Retrieved from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on April 11, 2019.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The logic of tacit inference. Philosophy, 41(155), 1-18.

  • “is one not saying that knowledge does not exist?” Not I, @FrankHubeny, not I. That’s an absurd claim to me. Is somebody insisting that the only useful definition of ‘knowledge’ is the absolutely true sort? Is that the best, or the true definition of knowledge? Not according to my history if learning. That’s what got us into the trap of believing what we were told in the first place…when we were too young to think for ourselves. – Rortian Apr 12 at 1:22
  • “then there is no knowledge” There’s still belief, composed of thoughts, which are enacted through language, Individual subjective knowledge is a sort of “knowledge,” isn’t it? Then there’s a jumble of so-called objective knowledge, public linguistic discourses, more or less coherent and more or less applicable in various contexts. Is there a good reason to insist that these phenomenon don’t deserve the status of categories of human knowing (/knowledge)? Aren’t these the only forms of knowledge that we actually know about?? – Rortian Apr 12 at 1:23
  • Haven’t philosophers failed to demonstrate any axiomatic foundations for our linguistic inferences and models about unobservable forces and complex abstractions? Obviously, I like Popper’s Three World Theory. It seems very reasonable to me. It’s about what we actually deal with, the things that we interact with as if they’re real to us. – Rortian Apr 12 at 1:24
  • "There are no indisputable truths coming" We agree on this, @Frank – Rortian Apr 12 at 1:30
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    Seems to me you're just noting that the extreme positions are incompatible and ignoring the vast gulf in between. One can embrace fallibilism generally without being pathologically skeptical, or one can assert that some kinds of truths (say, mathematics) are provable but others aren't. One can even be a complete skeptic and say any certainty is impossible, yet still have and use practical knowledge. I can't prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I'll bet my life on it. – Lee Daniel Crocker Apr 12 at 1:53
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There's a video of former President George W. Bush declaring in an interview (while he was President): "It's true because I believe it." I forget what exactly it was that Bush was so certain was true. But that particular rationale has always stuck in my head. At any rate, I don't know of any contemporary philosopher who would likely lay claim to absolute certainty. (Maybe Daniel Dennett, lol.) Some analytics seem inclined in that direction, though typically establishing some very narrow conclusion with, at least a high degree of semantic confidence. (I think the general consensus is that language simply isn't up to the task of establishing absolute certainty....)

  • "I think the general consensus is that language simply isn't up to the task of establishing absolute certainty" Thanks, William, of course I agree not only with the conclusion, but with the reasoning behind it, which produced the transformation of the philosophical landscape as I described today: philosophy.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3947/… – Rortian Apr 20 at 16:35
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Well, nobody here has challenged my belief/assertion/bit of philosophy about justification and truth: I think that truth is irrelevant to justification. It seems clear that historical (Pre-Kantian) methods have failed to produce a current consensus that any justification is adequate in theory or in practice to produce objective certainty about anybody's perspectives on philosophical questions. Neither have post-Kantian methods.

To me (and the experts I got this idea from) the idea 'certainty' reflects more confidence in linguistic representation than is warranted. Of course I'm not telling the absolute truth about this, and I don't believe that we could. If there's any philosophy which produces a different but equally reasonable perspective on this, I haven't heard it...yet.

I understand (uncertainly, of course) why many people are so very reluctant to share their experience on how strongly we ought to be attached to our beliefs.

The discussion of my question about fallibilism seemed to have produced a reasonable consensus of what the relatively brave commenters said:

“Given Hetherinton's description of fallibilism, absolute certainty is no longer an option…There are no indisputable truths coming.”

“I think the general consensus [in philosophy!] is that language simply isn't up to the task of establishing absolute certainty”

“It is hard to imagine an "ultimate" argument pro- or con- some philosophical point of view... Obviously, "people believing in absolute truths" are not interested "to appreciate alternative perspectives" with respect to truth, because, if alternative, they are false.”

One commenter believes that “a large percentage of contemporary professional philosophers do not accept postmodernism (on just about any definition of postmodern).” Yet the notion “postmodern” has no true definition and that comment never defined the concept, which has been widely applied in many ways, and that person didn’t address any philosophy. I refer to post-modern or post-Kantian philosophy "objectively" (that is according to this linguistic definition) as books and articles published by professional philosophers since Kant's work was published.

I’m gratified that these few people have thoughtfully considered the issue which has brought me such disfavour from people who are (perhaps mistakenly) opposed to the notion that no assertion or belief about philosophy is appropriately or correctly to be considered as absolutely true.

I think that all of us have believed in the past that we could and did know the truth about what we learned; some of us have since transformed our views to fit current philosophical and psychological models of linguistic representation, justification, cognition, and comprehension. I don't believe that my beliefs on any of these matters could possibly be completely true; that leaves me room to accommodate better ideas.

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