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Title: Fallibilism  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Epistemology, Foundationalism, Skepticism, Pragmatism, Philosophy of science
Collection: Epistemological Theories, Philosophy of Science
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Fallibilism (from Medieval Latin: fallibilis, "liable to err") is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect beliefs.


  • Usage 1
  • Proponents 2
  • Moral fallibilism 3
  • Criticism 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7


In the most commonly used sense of the term, fallibilism consists of being open to new evidence that would contradict some previously held position or belief, and in the recognition that "any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences."[1] This position is taken for granted in the natural sciences.[2]

In another sense, it refers to the consciousness of "the degree to which our interpretations, valuations, our practices, and traditions are temporally indexed" and subject to (possibly arbitrary) historical flux and change. Such "time-responsive" fallibilism consists of an openness to the confirmation of a possibility that one anticipates or expects in the future.[3]

Some fallibilists argue that absolute certainty about knowledge is impossible.

Unlike skepticism, fallibilism does not imply the need to abandon our knowledge; we need not have logically conclusive justifications for what we know. Rather, it is an admission that, because empirical knowledge can be revised by further observation, any of the things we take as knowledge might possibly turn out to be false. Some fallibilists make an exception for things that are axiomatically true (such as mathematical and logical knowledge). Others remain fallibilists about these as well, on the basis that, even if these axiomatic systems are in a sense infallible, we are still capable of error when working with these systems. 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.


As a formal doctrine, fallibilism is most strongly associated with Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and other pragmatists, who use it in their attacks on foundationalism. However, it is already present in the views of ancient philosophers that were adherents of philosophical skepticism, including the philosopher Pyrrho. Fallibilism is related to Pyrrhonistic Skepticism, in that Pyrrhonists of history are sometimes referred to as fallibilists, and modern fallibilists as Pyrrhonists.[4][5]

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

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 that they cannot be reliably or conclusively determined by humans. This avoids the problems associated with the flexibility of subjectivism by retaining the idea that morality is not a matter of mere opinion, whilst accounting for the conflict between differing objective moralities. Notable proponents of such views are Isaiah Berlin (value pluralism) and Bernard Williams (perspectivism). The view that human beings could be wrong about their moral beliefs, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect beliefs, underpins quasi-realistic theories of ethics, such as Iain King's Quasi-utilitarianism; and was expounded by philosopher J. L. Mackie.


Some critics of epistemological fallibilism claim that it rests on an axiom that there is no absolute knowledge (sometimes expressed as the contradiction "This much is certain: nothing is certain"). But this was shown early on by Popper and others to be a misconception: fallibilism requires no such assumption, and makes no claims — indeed its method has no interest in — demonstrating such a statement.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Two kinds of fallibilism", Critique and Disclosure (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 180.
  2. ^ Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996
  3. ^ Nikolas Kompridis, "Two kinds of fallibilism", Critique and Disclosure (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 181.
  4. ^ Powell, T. C. (2001), Fallibilism and Organizational Research: The Third Epistemology, Journal of Management Research, 4, 201-219.
  5. ^ Thorsrud, Harold (2004), Ancient Greek Skepticism, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  6. ^  

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)
  • The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper (1945) Vol 1 ISBN 0-415-29063-5, Vol 2 ISBN 0-415-29063-5
  • Fallibilism entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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