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Fallibilism is the philosophical doctrine that all claims of knowledge could, in principle, be mistaken. Some fallibilists go further, arguing that absolute certainty about knowledge is impossible. As a formal doctrine, it is most strongly associated with Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and other pragmatists, who use it in their attacks on foundationalism. However, it is arguably already present in the views of some ancient philosophers, including Xenophanes, Socrates, and Plato. Another proponent of fallibilism is Karl Popper, who builds his theory of knowledge, critical rationalism, on fallibilistic presuppositions. Fallibilism has been employed by Willard Van Orman Quine to attack, among other things, the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. Fallibilism has also been employed by George Soros to refute the assumptions of rational choice theory which is widely used by economists for the understanding and modeling of economic behavior.

Unlike scepticism, fallibilism does not imply the need to abandon our knowledge - we needn't 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.

Fallibilism will often discard absolute doctrines such as papal infallibility, claiming that they are merely authority-based arguments.

Contents

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).

Criticism

Some suggest that epistemological fallibilism is self-contradictory in that it is in itself an absolute knowledge claim. For the statement to be true, then, it must be possible for the statement to be false. If the statement is true, however, it cannot be false. Karl Popper has suggested the compromise that the statement simply be taken as true until a piece of knowledge is generated that is in fact conclusively, absolutely true.

See also

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 0415290635, Vol 2 ISBN 0415290635
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