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Epistemic Humility, Defeat, and a Defense of Moderate Skepticism

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Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI,volume 404)


This chapter will argue for a moderate form of skepticism. Moderate skepticism is the view that human beings know far less than is normally credited to them. Although I believe Peter Klein has refuted a radical form of skepticism that serves as familiar fodder for philosophical debate, the moderate form of skepticism I defend here is immune to Klein’s objections. This form of skepticism is not only plausible and interesting, but I believe it is supported by an argument with premises Klein ought to accept. My argument for moderate skepticism will rely on a defeasibility analysis of knowledge, an evidentialist theory of epistemic justification, the fact that we all suffer from epistemic limitations, and the claim that epistemic humility is a virtue. The argument maintains that when it comes to the important and interesting questions human beings ponder, we all suffer from epistemic limitations including insufficient evidence, imperfectly reliable memories, cognitive biases, epistemic peers who disagree with us, and underdeveloped cognitive skills. For the vast majority of human beings, these limitations serve as defeaters that undermine our capacity to know many of the things we wonder about and investigate. The virtue of epistemic humility requires us to be honest about our epistemic shortcomings and to embrace moderate skepticism and all that it suggests about learning, teaching, communicating, civil discourse, and the pursuit of wisdom.


  • Pyrrhonism
  • Epistemic humility
  • Moderate skepticism
  • Epistemic limitations
  • Knowledge defeaters
  • Intellectual humility
  • Epistemic virtue
  • Klein
  • Epistemology

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-04522-7_9
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  1. 1.

    Ned Markosian makes a similar point (Markosian 2014).

  2. 2.

    t is a time.

  3. 3.

    I have defended the claim that we have a moral obligation to believe in accord with our evidence in Ryan (2015).

  4. 4.

    I defended the view that the ticket holder is not justified in believing her ticket is a loser in Ryan (1996). Since publishing that paper, I’ve changed my view.

  5. 5.

    Klein disagrees. A major point of Klein’s (1981) book is to show that knowledge does require certainty, and we possess certainty when we look at our hands and form the belief that we have hands.

  6. 6.

    I’d like to thank Cherie Braden for her challenging, insightful, thorough, and extremely helpful comments on this chapter. No doubt this chapter still contains many mistakes for which I take full responsibility.


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Correspondence to Sharon Ryan .

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Ryan, S. (2019). Epistemic Humility, Defeat, and a Defense of Moderate Skepticism. In: Fitelson, B., Borges, R., Braden, C. (eds) Themes from Klein. Synthese Library, vol 404. Springer, Cham.

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