What is Fallibilism?


Fallibilism is the philosophical doctrine that claims that knowledge cannot be certain in an absolute sense. Historically speaking, some early Greek philosopher could be said to have been fallibilists (e.g. Socrates who places a limit on knowledge without going as far as sceptics). Nevertheless, as a doctrine it only comes to prominence in the 19th century with the development of pragmatism of William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce. In the 20th century, Quine and Popper were some of the notable proponents of Fallibilism.

Fallibilism and Scepticism

At the very minimum, Fallibilism aligns with a kind of Scepticism and asserts that all claims to knowledge could be mistaken. It is nevertheless different from scepticism. Where sceptics believe that true knowledge is by definition uncertain, Fallibilism does not abandon certainty of knowledge entirely. The claim is only that because continuous progress is being made, further evidence may point to contradictory findings to our current claims to knowledge. In other words, where sceptics claim foundational uncertainty, Fallibilism emphasises only that current knowledge will necessarily be revised in the future because our empirical observations of the world around us will unearth new facts about the world.

Just as in case of Scepticism, Fallibilism suffers from a problem of infinite regress. Specifically, the problem is that if we are to find grounds to justify a certain proposition, we end up regressing further and further in search of justification for propositions that justified the current one. In response to infinite regress, a few alternative philosophical doctrines exist:

  • Foundationalism – a doctrine that claims the immutability of certain certain propositions that stand in support of further propositions. The former propositions are thought to be at the foundation or ground and thus do not themselves require any additional justification.
  • Post-foundationalism – the immutability of the propositions that stand at the foundation or ground are only accepted to be thus for a purpose of pragmatic considerations. Whether they are indeed such is left aside.
  • Infinitism – a doctrine where the ‘infinite’ aspects of the infinite regress is not denied and only thought of as potentially leading to a problem. That is to say, to resort to infinite regress would be only necessary if there are relevant reasons to demand further justifications.
  • Coherentism – a doctrine that attempts to ascribe to propositions a set of other propositions which ‘cohere’ in a singular system. In such a way, because different proposition cohere within that system, justifying the proposition does not have to proceed in a linear and infinite manner.
  • Some level of combination of the above four doctrines, such as ‘Foundherentism’ (i.e. a combination of Foundationalism and Coherentism).

Fallibilism and Axiomatic Truths

Some philosophers have proposed that while empirical knowledge is indeed uncertain, axiomatic truths (i.e. mathematical truth or logical knowledge) are not uncertain at all. There remains disagreement amongst philosophers on this point, as other philosopher hold even axiomatic truths to be within the domain of human error. Their claim is usually a variation of Gödel’s ‘incompleteness theorem’ – the theorems show the impossibility of defining a complete and consistent set of axioms for all of mathematics.

Furthermore, as Russell’s Barber paradox suggests, mathematical truths also struggle with paradoxes. Very briefly, the paradox states that a barber “who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” In such a scenario, who would shave the barber? Any attempt to answer this question would result in a logical contradiction: either the barber shaves himself, in which case he stops being the barber who shaves those who do not shave themselves; or, the barber does not shave himself, in which case he should fall under the category of people that should be shaved by the barber.

Types of Fallibilism

There are generally two types of Fallibilism, one that has to do Epistemology and one that is associated with Ethics. Epistemological Fallibilism is a doctrine as described above. It questions the possibility of absolute certainty about knowledge and claims that being absolutely certain is impossible. Moral or Ethical Fallibilism is similar insofar certainty about ethical standards is denied. The claim is that a standard of ethical behaviour that can be said to be objectively true does exist, but that this standard cannot be said to be conclusively discovered by a certain people / culture. In a sense, Ethical Fallibilism is a middle ground between Moral Objectivism (the view that moral values can be determined objectively and these moral values are independent of our cultural / historical bias) and Moral Subjectivism (the view that moral values are in fact subjective and wholly dependent on the social conventions of a given people in a given historical period).

Further Reading

Bacon, M. (2012). Pragmatism: An Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Brown, J. (2018). Fallibilism: Evidence and Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hayes, C. (1955). Fallibilism Democracy and the Market: The Meta-Theoretical Foundations of Popper’s Political Philosophy, Lanham: University Press of America.

Nordin, I. (2017). Using Knowledge: On the Rationality of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefinger.

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