History of Fallibilism about Knowledge

Been thinking again about fallibilism, and especially its history. So a question: can we find sources prior to the 19th century of the view that a proper account of knowledge is fallibilistic? By the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th, examples abound.

To be clear, I’m not wondering about views that insist that we are fallible, or that our beliefs are. That is common fare for skeptics. What I’m looking for are philosophers who hold something like this: we can know a given claim even though our evidence or grounds or basis is fallible. Any examples you know of?


History of Fallibilism about Knowledge — 8 Comments

  1. Hi Jon,
    The roots of fallibilism can be found in the 17th century. (Whether these roots amount to a full-blown epistemology is another issue.) The following might provide useful leads:

    [1] I . Hacking, The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), esp. Chapters 3-5;

    [2] B.J. Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England: A Study of the Relationships between Natural Science, Religion, History, Law and Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), esp. Chapter 2.

  2. I second what Kareem Khalifa says. Another source for that view is Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism. I believe he says that our judicial concept of “reasonable doubt” comes out of the 17th C. fallibilistic response to skepticism. I’m not sure they used the word “fallibilism,” but the idea is there. I think you can sort of see it in Locke’s response to skepticism about the senses in his Essay.

  3. Dylan and Kareem, very helpful. I understand the 17th century roots, and find the Locke reference useful. I haven’t checked to make sure on this, and I too easily forget things, but my first thought was this: Locke has a notion that is fallible, namely, justification. But he doesn’t think this is involved in knowledge. Instead, it is only for things that fall short of knowledge. That would be a fallibilism about justification, but not about knowledge.

  4. Jon,

    Oh yes, I think you’re right about Locke. In fact — I might be misremembering here — doesn’t he explicitly deny that we can KNOW with the senses, and that’s because they don’t provide certainty? So he apparently is a fallibilist about the justification of belief but not about knowledge. I’m just repeating what you said.

    I see now that you were asking a question specifically about the idea of fallibilistic KNOWLEDGE, not simply about fallibilism. In that case, I don’t know any pre-19th C. fallibilistic views of knowledge.

  5. Jon, I would classify Philo of Larissa as an early fallibilist.

    Dylan, Locke is not usually seen as denying that knowledge is possible through the senses: on the standard reading, Locke allows intuitive, demonstrative and “sensitive” knowledge, where the last of these involves sense perception “employ’d about the particular existence of finite Beings without us”. Some scholars, most notably Samuel Rickless, suggest that perhaps sensitive knowledge is not *really* knowledge for Locke, but only given this label honorifically. Rickless draws attention to passages in which Locke’s enthusiasm for perceptual knowledge seems guarded, for example, a passage in which Locke says that our perceptual awareness of particulars “passes under the name of Knowledge”. According to Rickless, strictly speaking Locke would classify it as a form of highly probable judgment rather than knowledge. It’s an interesting interpretation, but not without difficulties (chief among which: why would Locke blur the lines between knowledge and opinion, given that figuring out the difference between them is one of the main stated purposes of the Essay?). Locke does indeed insist that knowledge requires certainty, but he explicitly allows that perception can yield certainty. In fact, he goes so far as to say, “no
 feels” (4.11.3).

    In any event, Locke is clearly an infallibilist about knowledge, whether perceptual, intuitive or demonstrative.

    • Sorry to be commenting on this late in the day. I just came across this discussion today. Jennifer’s contribution here is really very helpful, and I appreciate the fact that she mentions my interpretation of Locke’s theory of sensitive knowledge. I agree with almost everything she says, but I just wanted to add a little comment in answer to her very reasonable question, which is why Locke would “blur the lines” between knowledge and opinion in a part of the Essay that is concerned with pointing out the difference between them. First, after the Essay was published, Locke was attacked (publicly) for being a sceptic (a serious charge in those days, in part because of the association between scepticism and atheism) by Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester. When Locke was writing the Essay, he must have known that his views about our epistemic relation to the external world would be carefully scrutinized for signs of scepticism. So Locke is very strongly motivated to cast his own view as non-sceptical, even if it is, in fact, a sceptical view. Second, Locke describes “sensitive knowledge” as a kind of “assurance”, which he later defines as a kind of belief based on the highest degree of probability, and points out that knowledge and assurance are indistinguishable for all practical purposes. (Whether you know or are assured of the existence of tables and chairs should make no difference to the way in which you act.) So, if we are looking at practical issues in particular, it turns out that the lines between knowledge and assurance are already blurred.

  6. Jennifer, looks very promising! I’m reading Brittain’s book on Philo now, finding it frustrating a bit because I want clearer epistemology, but it looks like he’s attributing just the view I’m looking for to Philo. Thanks!

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