Skip to main content
Log in

Proof beyond a context-relevant doubt. A structural analysis of the standard of proof in criminal adjudication

  • Published:
Artificial Intelligence and Law Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Procedure deals with the machinery

by which legal controversies are settled

James B. Thayer


The present article proceeds from the mainstream view that the conceptual framework underpinning adversarial systems of criminal adjudication, i.e. a mixture of common-sense philosophy and probabilistic analysis, is unsustainable. In order to provide fact-finders with an operable structure of justification, we need to turn to epistemology once again. The article proceeds in three parts. First, I examine the structural features of justification and how various theories have attempted to overcome Agrippa’s trilemma. Second, I put Inferential Contextualism to the test and show that a defeasible structure of justification allocating epistemic rights and duties to all participants of an inquiry manages to dissolve the problem of scepticism. Third, I show that our epistemic practice already embodies a contextualist mechanism. Our problem was not that our Standard of Proof is inoperable but that it was not adequately conceptualized. Contextualism provides the framework to articulate the abovementioned practice and to treat ‘reasonable doubts’ as a mechanism which we can now describe in detail. The seemingly insurmountable problem with our efforts to define the concept “reasonable doubts” was the fact that we have been conflating the surface features of this mechanism and its internal structure, i.e. the rules for its use.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. In re Winship 397 U.S. 358 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring).

  2. See Tehan v. U.S., 383 U.S. 406, at 416 (1966) where the U.S. Supreme Court states unequivocally that the “basic purpose of a trial is the determination of truth”.

  3. See Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 1773 (2007).

  4. Id. at 1775 (majority opinion); Cf. Id. at 1781 (Stevens, J., dissenting).

  5. See e.g. State v. Dauphinee, 121 Pa. Super. 565, at 590 (1936).

  6. Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295 (Mass. 1850).

  7. Bourhill v. Young [1943] AC 92 (per Lord Wright).


  • Allen RA (1994) Factual ambiguity and a theory of evidence. Northwest Univ Law Rev 88:223–268

    Google Scholar 

  • Allen RJ (1997) Rationality, algorithms and juridical proof: a preliminary inquiry. Int J Evid Proof 1:255–275

    Google Scholar 

  • Allen RJ (2008) Explanationism all the way down. Episteme 5:320–328

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Allen RJ, Leiter B (2001) Naturalized epistemology and the law of evidence. Va Law Rev 87:1527–1528

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Amaya A (2015) The tapestry of reason. Hart Publishing, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Annis DA (1978) A contextualist theory of epistemic justification. Am Philos Q 15:213–219

    Google Scholar 

  • Audi R (1998) Epistemology. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Baumann P (2005) Varieties of contextualism. Grazer Philos Stud 69:229–246

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • BonJour L (1988) The structure of empirical knowledge. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Caruso EM et al (2009) Political partisanship influences perception of Biracial candidates’ skin tone. Proc Natl Acad Sci 106:20168–20173

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cherniak C (1984) Computational complexity and the universal acceptance of logic. J Philos 81:739–758

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen S (1987) Knowledge, context, and social standards. Synthese 73:3–26

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dennis I (2017) The law of evidence, 6th edn. Croydon Sweet & Maxwell, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Duff A et al (2007) The trial on trial, vol 3. Oxford Hart Publishing, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Fogelin RJ (1994) Pyrrhonian reflections on knowledge and justification. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hastie R, Pennington N (1986) Evidence evaluation in complex decision-making. J Pers Soc Psychol 51:242–258

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ho HL (2008) A philosophy of evidence law: Justice in the search for truth. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • James Gleick C (1997) Making a new science. Vintage, New York

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  • Kahan DM et al (2009) Whose eyes are you going to believe? Harv Law Rev 122:837–904

    Google Scholar 

  • Kotsoglou K (2015) Forensische Erkenntnistheorie. Duncker Humblot, Berlin

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kuhn TS (1996) The structure of scientific revolutions, 3rd edn. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lucy D (2006) Introduction to statistics for forensic scientists. Wiley, New York

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  • Moyal-Sharrock D (2007) Understanding Wittgenstein´s on certainty. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke

    Google Scholar 

  • Neurath O (1959) Protocol sentences. In: Ayer AJ (ed) Logical positivism. The Free Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Newman JO (1993) Beyond “reasonable doubt”. N Y Univ Law Rev 68:979–1002

    Google Scholar 

  • Redmayne M (1999) Standards of proof in civil litigation. Mod Law Rev 62:167–195

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Redmayne M (2008) Exploring the proof paradoxes. Leg Theory 14:281–309

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Roberts P (2007) Rethinking the law of evidence. In: Roberts P, Redmayne M (eds) Innovations in evidence and proof. Hart, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Roberts R (2011) Groundwork for a jurisprudence of criminal procedure. In: Duff A, Green SP (eds) Philosophical foundations of criminal law. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 379–408

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Roberts P, Zuckerman A (2010) Criminal evidence, vol 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Robertson B, Vignaux GA (1993) Probability: the logic of the law. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 13:457–478

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schlick M (1959) The foundation of knowledge. In: Ayer AJ (ed) Logical positivism. The Free Press, Glencoe

    Google Scholar 

  • Sellars W (1963) Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. In: Sellars W (ed) Science, perception and reality. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Shapiro BJ (1991) Beyond reasonable doubt’ and ‘probable cause. Berkeley University of California Press, California

    Google Scholar 

  • Stanley J (2004) On the linguistic basis for contextualism. Philos Stud 119:119–146

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Striker G (2004) Historical reflections on classical pyrrhonism and neo-pyrrhonism. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Pyrrhonian skepticism. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Stroll A (1994) Moore and Wittgenstein on certainty. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Thayer JB (1898) A preliminary treatise on evidence at the common law. Boston Little, Brown

    Google Scholar 

  • Williams M (1995) Problems of knowledge. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Wittgenstein L (1969) On Certainty (edited by Anscombe/von Wright), transl. by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to audiences in Liverpool, London and Lausanne for instructive discussion.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kyriakos N. Kotsoglou.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Kotsoglou, K.N. Proof beyond a context-relevant doubt. A structural analysis of the standard of proof in criminal adjudication. Artif Intell Law 28, 111–133 (2020).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: