In defense of reflective equilibrium
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Recent years have seen a rekindling of interest in the method of reflective equilibrium. Most of this attention has been suspicious, however. Critics have alleged that the method is nothing more than a high-minded brand of navel-gazing, that it suffers from all the classic problems of inward-looking coherence theories, and that it overestimates the usefulness of self-scrutiny. In this paper I argue that these criticisms miss their mark because they labor under crucial misconceptions about the method of reflective equilibrium. In defending reflective equilibrium I put forward a handful of theses about the nature of inquiry (or, more generally, norm-governed enterprises) that form the backdrop to the method. The critics’ objections fall short, I argue, because they do not recognize reflective equilibrium’s embrace of these theses. Confronting these objections and understanding why they fail brings us to a better understanding what, exactly, the method of reflective equilibrium is. The answer I come to in the final section of the paper is that the method of reflective equilibrium is not, exactly, anything. It is a mistake to try to give a positive characterization of the view, to identify it with a concern with a particular species of data, particular procedures and methods, or even a particular conception of normative success. Instead, it should be understood as the denial of essentialism about just these matters—as a form of anti-essentialism about our epistemic inputs, methods, and goals.