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A Coherentist Justification of Epistemic Principles and Its Merits


The problem of epistemic circularity involved in justifying fundamental epistemic principles is one of the fundamental problems of epistemology. One important way out of this problem is a Sellarsian social practice theory of justification, according to which we are justified in accepting an epistemic principle if we can answer all objections raised against it in our social practice of demanding justification and responding to such demands. The main goal of this paper is to show that this social practice theory can accomplish better than its rival theories, such as Alston’s doxastic practice approach, Sosa’s reliabilist virtue epistemology, and Wright’s entitlement theory, by making comparisons with these influential theories.

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  1. 1.

    Alston (2005) concedes that his earlier position is defective, and instead defends what he calls a pluralistic epistemic desiderata approach, which is a form of Wittgensteinian contextualism. On this approach, unlike the usual justificationist approaches, there is no such thing as justification, but there are instead multiple epistemic desiderata that properly enter into epistemic evaluations. Moreover, every inquiry takes place in a context that is itself taken for granted. Contrary to what Alston claims, however, I think it is still premature to give up our efforts to find an adequate theory of epistemic justification. Besides, in my view, my Sellarsian coherence theory is indeed such a theory of epistemic justification.

  2. 2.

    Will Fleisher (2019) argues that reliabilist views incorporating what he calls a method coherence condition can solve the problem of epistemic circularity. On his view, a belief held by a subject is justified if and only if it meets not only the reliability condition, but also the method coherence condition. The former condition is that the belief is formed by a reliable belief-forming method, and the latter condition is that this method is sufficiently coherent with the other methods used by that subject. Fleisher’s externalist view incorporating the method coherence condition is similar to Sosa’s view, but one important difference is that method coherence is a coherence of belief-forming methods, rather than beliefs. It is beyond the scope of this paper to refute this proposal. Thus, let me briefly mention one reason (among many others) why I do not accept it. Both the reliability condition and the method coherence condition are externalist requirements to the effect that the subject using a crystal ball need not be aware of its reliability or its method coherence. Another thing to note is that the fact that two different belief-forming methods are coherent with each other is compatible with the fact that they are equally unreliable. Accordingly, the fact that a belief is supported by two different belief-forming methods does not show that the belief is likely to be true. And the same problem arises for our ordinary perceptual beliefs. For these reasons, insofar as crystal-ball gazing is, from the crystal-ball gazer’s point of view, somehow coherent with the other methods used by him, ordinary perceivers have no rational grounds to demand that the gazer stop forming beliefs by gazing into a crystal ball. In this sense, Fleisher’s proposal is dialectically ineffective in a similar way that Sosa’s proposal is dialectically ineffective.

  3. 3.

    Wright regards acceptance as an attitude more general than belief, because it includes trusting something without adequate evidence.

  4. 4.

    Along this line of thought, Patrice Philie (2009, p. 465) interprets Wright’s entitlement theory as providing a skeptical solution.

  5. 5.

    The problem of epistemic circularity my paper addresses is one that arises for the justification of fundamental epistemic principles such as EP1, whereas the problem of circularity Wright’s papers address is a circularity involved in a Moorean anti-skeptical argument. These are not exactly the same problem, but they are nonetheless related.

  6. 6.

    William J. Talbott (2020) argues that epistemic circularity per se is no fallacy on the grounds that defeasible reasoning can only be understood in an equilibrium framework, not an inferential framework, and epistemic circularity is a feature of an equilibrium framework. But my Sellarsian coherence theory can easily accommodate defeasible reasoning, especially because it adopts a dynamic model of justification instead of a static model. In addition, as argued so far, we don’t have to accept that epistemic circularity is inevitable in defending epistemic principles. Recall that my Sellarsian coherence theory can appeal not only to the default-and-challenge structure of justification, but also to the distinction between the genetic question and the justification question. For further discussion of these points, see Lee 2014, 2017, 2020. See also Brandom, 2000, pp. 87–89.

  7. 7.

    In my previous paper (Lee 2014), I have defended epistemic principles such as EP1 by appealing to a practical argument about means-end relations. But as I argue in this paper, now I think it is much better to defend epistemic principles on the basis of a coherence theory of epistemic justification, rather than by appealing to a practical argument.

  8. 8.

    According to the pragmatic encroachment view, whether a subject is in an epistemic state like knowledge (justified belief, etc.) depends in part on pragmatic factors such as the practical stakes. Fantl and McGrath (2002, 2009), Hawthorne (2003), Stanley (2005), and Schroeder (2012), among others, have defended this view. The detailed discussion of this view is beyond the scope of this paper. Thus, let me here confine myself to briefly explaining why I do not accept this view. First, on my view, our social practice of justification is our starting point to meet any demand for justification, and it is a minimum presumption for our epistemic discourse that the epistemic goal is reasonable. Second, epistemic rationality and practical rationality are fundamentally different kinds of rationality. Note that it is one thing to determine what to believe regarding how the world actually is, but it is quite another thing to determine what to do for realizing what is desired or desirable. Therefore, the question of whether a factual proposition is true is determined by whether the world is the way the proposition asserts it to be, not by whether the stakes are high or low for the subject. Notice that there might be pragmatic considerations that count in favor of (or against) believing that p, but they are the wrong kind of reasons that do not bear on whether “p” is true. Hence, the truth of a proposition is justified by epistemic evidence or reason, not by whether the stakes are high or low for the subject. Third, our epistemic norms are intersubjective norms which are concerned with determining which beliefs are actually true of the world, and these intersubjective norms are not overridden by the fact that a certain belief is practically at stake for the subject. For these reasons and others, our intersubjective epistemic evaluation of a belief is not overridden by the fact that the belief is practically at stake for the subject.

  9. 9.

    One might wonder whether my Sellarsian social practice theory of justification can also be dialectically effective with regard to social disagreement. Suppose that we encounter a society of crystal ball gazers, where this practice is well entrenched in the society. The question is how we can deal with this case according to the Sellarsian social practice theory.

    To begin with, we have no other way but to meet any demand for justification on the basis of our social practice of justification. Accordingly, in order to determine whether crystal-ball gazing is reliable, we and those crystal-ball gazers have no other way but to engage in rational debate on the basis of our social practice of justification. And to say that we and those crystal-ball gazers can engage in rational debate implies that they are rational beings who can participate in our social practice of justification. In addition, EP1 has a default positive justificatory status in our social practice of justification. Thus, it is reasonable for us to continue accepting EP1 unless those crystal-ball gazers give us positive reasons to doubt it. Note that those crystal-ball gazers are human beings, and so they would share perceptual capabilities with us. Now, since we can engage in rational debate with those crystal-ball gazers, we can demand that they justify the reliability of crystal-ball gazing. Assuming that crystal-ball gazing is, in fact, an unreliable way of forming beliefs, there is bound to be some discrepancy between our judgments based on perception and their judgments based on crystal-ball gazing. Accordingly, we should be able to find some evidence for the unreliability of crystal-ball gazing by comparing our judgments and their judgments. And we can put forth the evidence to those crystal-ball gazers. Then, they owe us an explanation as to why their beliefs based on crystal-ball gazing conflict with the perceptual evidence. If they cannot explain away the discrepancy, they cannot meet the demand for justifying the reliability of crystal-ball gazing. In such a case, they ought to stop relying on crystal-ball gazing, even if their practice of using crystal-balling gazing is well entrenched. And if they refuse to do so, we should regard them as irrational. In this regard, two things are worth emphasizing. We have no other way but to address any justification question on the basis of our conceptual framework. In addition, as Donald Davidson (1984) argues, the notion of a genuinely alternative conceptual scheme does not make sense. And I have defended the latter point in detail elsewhere (see Lee 2017).

  10. 10.

    For other problems with transcendental arguments, see Stern, 2000.

  11. 11.

    For other objections against Wright’s entitlement theory, see, e.g., Pritchard, 2005, Jenkins, 2007, Tucker, 2009, and Williams, 2013. Here it should be noted that it is not a goal of this paper to refute Wright’s entitlement theory.


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Lee, B.D. A Coherentist Justification of Epistemic Principles and Its Merits. Acta Anal (2021).

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  • The justification of epistemic principles
  • Epistemic circularity
  • A Sellarsian coherence theory
  • Alston
  • Sosa
  • Wright