Philosophical Studies

, Volume 166, Issue 2, pp 243–256 | Cite as

In defense of reflective equilibrium

  • Kenneth Walden


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.


Reflective equilibrium Justification Coherence Normativity 


  1. Davidson, D. (2001). Subjective, intersubjective, objective. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Elgin, C. Z. (1996). Considered judgment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Goodman, N. (1955). Fact, fiction, and forecast. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Kelly, T., & McGrath, S. (2011). Is reflective equilibrium enough? Philosophical Perspectives, 24, 325–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Kornblith, H. (2004). Knowledge and its place in nature. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Kornblith, H. (2010). What reflective endorsement cannot do. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 80(1), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Korsgaard, C. M. (1996). The sources of normativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Lewis, D. K. (1983). Philosophical papers (Vol. 1). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Street, S. (2009). In defense of future Tuesday indifference: Ideally coherent eccentrics and the contingency of what matters. Philosophical Issues, 19, 273–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. van Inwagen, P. (1997). Materialism and the psychological-continuity account of personal identity, in J. Tomberlin (ed.). Philosophical Perspectives, 11, 305–319.Google Scholar
  12. Williamson, T. (2007). The philosophy of philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA

Personalised recommendations