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Reflective equilibrium and understanding


Elgin has presented an extensive defence of reflective equilibrium embedded in an epistemology which focuses on objectual understanding rather than ordinary propositional knowledge. This paper has two goals: to suggest an account of reflective equilibrium which is sympathetic to Elgin’s but includes a range of further developments, and to analyse its role in an account of understanding. We first address the structure of reflective equilibrium as a target state and argue that reflective equilibrium requires more than an equilibrium in the sense of a coherent position (i.e. an agreement of commitments, theory and background theories). On the one hand, the position also needs to be stable between a ‘conservative’ pull of input commitments and a ‘progressive’ pull of epistemic goals; on the other hand, reflective equilibrium requires that enough of the resulting commitments have some credibility independent of the coherence of the position. We then turn to the dynamics of reflective equilibrium, the process of mutual adjustment of commitments and theories. Here, the most pressing internal challenges for defenders of reflective equilibrium arise: to characterize this process more exactly and to explain its status in relation to reflective equilibrium as a target state. Finally, we investigate the role of reflective equilibrium in Elgin’s account of understanding and argue that objectual understanding cannot be explained in terms of reflective equilibrium alone. An epistemic agent who understands a subject matter by means of a theory also needs to be able to use this theory and the theory needs to meet some external rightness condition.

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  1. 1.

    There is, for example, no substantial reference to Elgin’s work in any recent survey on reflective equilibrium (see Cath 2016; Daniels 2018; DePaul 2011; 2013; McPherson 2015; Tersman 2018).

  2. 2.

    Similar statements can be found in many instances since Elgin (1993), e.g. 1996, pp. 13, 99, 107; 2014, p. 254.

  3. 3.

    In this paper, we use “account” both in the usual, non-terminological, sense (especially when speaking of “an account of reflective equilibrium”) and in the technical sense introduced by Elgin. We trust that the context makes clear which sense is intended. We do not suggest that Elgin’s account of reflective equilibrium is an account in her technical sense.

  4. 4.

    This idea of a tie needs further analysis; we will undertake it in Sect. 2.4.

  5. 5.

    Another reason is Elgin’s shift from knowledge to understanding (2017, pp. 12–4). Non-propositional representations, categories, methods and standards provide important means of understanding but need to be justified as well since they can differ in cognitive merit no less than judgements can.

  6. 6.

    Sections 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4 further develop our previous work on reflective equilibrium, esp. Baumberger and Brun (2017), Brun (2014; 2017).

  7. 7.

    Elgin’s reference to initially tenable commitments marks an important contrast to the accounts of reflective equilibrium in the tradition of Rawls and Daniels, which restrict the ‘input’ to the process of equilibration to considered judgements. Despite her occasional use of “considered judgement” (in Elgin 1983, pp. 187, 188; 1996, pp. 12–5, 158), Elgin admits all commitments at the initial stage. The flimsy and problematic ones are weeded out by the reflective-equilibrium process, not by a ‘filter’ that operates beforehand. This eliminates questions about the standards for counting as considered (see also Walden 2013).

    Furthermore, we use the term “commitment” for both explicitly acknowledged and merely inferred commitments

  8. 8.

    Note that this contrast between commitments and elements of a theoretical system gives the distinction between judgements and principles another sense than the usual explanation in terms of particular versus general. We have discussed elsewhere (e.g. Baumberger and Brun 2017, p. 172; Brun 2017) why we consider the standard explanation to be inadequate.

  9. 9.

    See, e.g. Lycan (2014), Millgram (2008). Coherentist interpretations of reflective equilibrium might be inspired by Rawls’s remark that “justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into one coherent view” (1999b, pp. 19, 507; but cf. 1999a).

  10. 10.

    “Inference”, as we use it here, is not limited to deductive consequence but includes forms of defeasible reasoning such as reasoning with pro tanto principles. It also very often includes a transition from expressions couched in a more or less formal language to expressions in ordinary language, e.g. from a logical proof to a commitment which deems an argument in, say, Punjabi as valid.

  11. 11.

    Note that such explanations may not be available if we focus on individual commitments and individual elements of the theory. Respecting is intended to be understood as a relation between a theory and a set of commitments.

  12. 12.

    Elsewhere, Brun (2017), we have argued that the criterion of respecting input commitments has its historical and systematic root in Carnap’s method of explication, specifically in the similarity condition for adequate explications (see Carnap 1962, §§ 2–3; Carnap 1963, pp. 933–40).

  13. 13.

    Of course, sticking to a given subject matter is not an absolute epistemic precept. An epistemic agent who fails to reach a reflective equilibrium may reasonably come to the conclusion that she should better change the subject.

  14. 14.

    A related objection is that coherentists would have to accept coherent fictions as justified; see the exchange between Elgin (2014) and van Cleve (2014).

  15. 15.

    Consequently, Elgin (2014, pp. 254, 267–8) holds that reflective equilibrium can be classified as a form of weak foundationalism in BonJour’s (1985, pp. 26–9) terms. However, reflective equilibrium is not a form of moderate foundationalism since a commitment always needs to have more than just independent credibility in order to be justified by reflective equilibrium; first of all, the commitment must be part of a position in equilibrium.

  16. 16.

    For formal analyses see van Cleve (2011) and Roche (2012).

  17. 17.

    Goodman (1972, p. 63) and Scheffler (1954, p. 181) used “initial credibility” for what we call “independent credibility”. When later on reflective-equilibrium theorists (e.g. Elgin 1983; DePaul 1993) started to use “initial” to refer to the first stage of the process of developing a reflective equilibrium, the distinction got lost (see also Johnsen 2017, p. 123).

  18. 18.

    Note that we do not ask whether we could dispense with the process-dimension entirely. This is not possible as long as the state of reflective equilibrium is described in a way that involves a difference between initial and resulting commitments.

  19. 19.

    Because the process is not meant as a recipe, speaking of a method of reflective equilibrium may seem misleading. Nonetheless, it may often prove helpful to use such a process as a means for reaching a state of reflective equilibrium. We cannot pursue the methodological perspective further here, but see Rechnitzer (2018) for case studies on explicit applications of reflective equilibrium.

  20. 20.

    Goodman seems to concur: “in the agreement achieved lies the only justification needed for either [commitments and the system]” (1983, p. 64; our italics).

  21. 21.

    The idea that understanding requires certain abilities is often dealt with under the heading of “grasping” (e.g. Grimm 2010; Newman 2017; Baumberger 2019) or “intelligibility” (e.g. De Regt 2017; Wilkenfeld 2017); for an overview see Baumberger et al. (2017).

  22. 22.

    Elgin’s notion of acceptance, which she traces back to Cohen (1992), combines commitment and abilities: “An epistemic agent who accepts a consideration is not just willing to deploy it when her ends are cognitive; she is also able to do so” (Elgin 2017, p. 19). Accepting a theory in this sense involves thus both commitment to the theory and the ability to use it.

    Note, that in (1), Elgin identifies understanding with accepting a position in reflective equilibrium. If acceptance is understood as just explained, then (1) combines a reflective-equilibrium condition with a commitment condition and an ability condition. According to such a reading, the only possible point of divergence between (1) and (2) is the rightness condition.

  23. 23.

    The term “imperfect procedural epistemology” is from Considered Judgment (Elgin 1996, p. 20), but Elgin still seems to adhere to the idea in True Enough (see e.g. Elgin 2017, p .65). If our argument above is correct, then the term characterizes her current position much better than the earlier one.

  24. 24.

    Note that, in this line of thought, independent credibility does not constitute the grounding necessary for understanding. It is rather part of an argument for claiming that the position in question is true enough and thus sufficiently grounded in fact for providing understanding.


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This paper draws on research which is part of the Project Reflective EquilibriumReconception and Application (Swiss National Science Foundation Project 150251). We thank Finnur Dellsén, Tanja Rechnitzer and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments, and especially Catherine Elgin for all the critical discussions and support over the years.

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Correspondence to Christoph Baumberger.

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Baumberger, C., Brun, G. Reflective equilibrium and understanding. Synthese (2020).

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  • Reflective equilibrium
  • Justification
  • Understanding
  • Truth
  • Coherence
  • Theoretical virtues