Theory of justification

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The theory of justification is a part of epistemology that attempts to understand the justification of propositions and beliefs. Epistemologists are concerned with various epistemic features of belief, which include the ideas of justification, warrant, rationality, and probability. Loosely speaking, justification is the reason that someone (properly) holds a belief.

When a claim is in doubt, justification can be used to support the claim and reduce or remove the doubt. Justification can use empiricism (the evidence of the senses), authoritative testimony (the appeal to criteria and authority), or reason.


Justification focuses on beliefs. This is in part because of the influence of the definition of knowledge as "justified true belief" often associated with a theory discussed near the end of the Plato's dialogues Meno and Theaetetus. More generally, theories of justification focus on the justification of statements or propositions.

The subject of justification has played a major role in the value of knowledge as "justified true belief". Some contemporary epistemologists, such as Jonathan Kvanvig assert that justification isn't necessary in getting to the truth and avoiding errors. Kvanvig attempts to show that knowledge is no more valuable than true belief, and in the process dismissed the necessity of justification due to justification not being connected to the truth.


Main pages: Philosophy:Explanation and Philosophy:Argument

Justification is the reason why someone properly holds a belief, the explanation as to why the belief is a true one, or an account of how one knows what one knows. In much the same way arguments and explanations may be confused with each other, so may explanations and justifications. Statements that are justifications of some action take the form of arguments. For example, attempts to justify a theft usually explain the motives (e.g., to feed a starving family).

It is important to be aware when an explanation is not a justification. A criminal profiler may offer an explanation of a suspect's behavior (e.g.; the person lost his or her job, the person got evicted, etc.), and such statements may help us understand why the person committed the crime. An uncritical listener may believe the speaker is trying to gain sympathy for the person and his or her actions, but it does not follow that a person proposing an explanation has any sympathy for the views or actions being explained. This is an important distinction because we need to be able to understand and explain terrible events and behavior in attempting to discourage it.[1]


There are several different views as to what entails justification, mostly focusing on the question "How sure do we need to be that our beliefs correspond to the actual world?" Different theories of justification require different amounts and types of evidence before a belief can be considered justified. Theories of justification generally include other aspects of epistemology, such as knowledge.

Popular theories of justification include:

  • Epistemic coherentism – Beliefs are justified if they cohere with other beliefs a person holds, each belief is justified if it coheres with the overall system of beliefs.
  • Externalism – Outside sources of knowledge can be used to justify a belief.
  • Foundationalism – Basic beliefs justify other, non-basic beliefs.
  • Foundherentism – A combination of foundationalism and epistemic coherentism, proposed by Susan Haack
  • Infinitism – Beliefs are justified by infinite chains of reasons.
  • Internalism – The believer must be able to justify a belief through internal knowledge.
  • Reformed epistemology – Beliefs are warranted by proper cognitive function, proposed by Alvin Plantinga.
  • Skepticism – A variety of viewpoints questioning the possibility of knowledge
    • truth skepticism – Questions the possibility of true knowledge, but not of justified knowledge
    • epistemological skepticism – Questions the possibility of justified knowledge, but not true knowledge
  • Evidentialism – Beliefs depend solely on the evidence for them.


If a belief is justified, there is something that justifies it, which can be called its "justifier". Common examples include:


The major opposition against the theory of justification (also called justificationism in this context) is non-justificational criticism (a synthesis of skepticism and absolutism), which is most notably held by some of the proponents of critical rationalism: W. W. Bartley, David Miller and Karl Popper.[2] (But not all proponents of critical rationalism oppose justificationism; it is supported most prominently by John W. N. Watkins.)

In justificationism, criticism consists of trying to show that a claim cannot be reduced to the authority or criteria that it appeals to. That is, it regards the justification of a claim as primary, while the claim itself is secondary. By contrast, non-justificational criticism works towards attacking claims themselves.

Bartley also refers to a third position, which he calls critical rationalism in a more specific sense, claimed to have been Popper's view in his Open Society. It has given up justification, but not yet adopted non-justificational criticism. Instead of appealing to criteria and authorities, it attempts to describe and explicate them.

Fogelin claims to detect a suspicious resemblance between the Theories of Justification and Agrippa's five modes leading to the suspension of belief. He concludes that the modern proponents have made no significant progress in responding to the ancient modes of pyrrhonic skepticism.[3]

See also


  1. Critical Thinking, Parker and Moore
  2. David Miller, "Critical Rationalism: A Restatement and Defense, Open Court Publishing, 1994, ISBN:0-8126-9198-9
  3. Robert J. Fogelin, Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, Oxford University Press, 1994, ISBN:978-0-19-508987-5


External links