Defining the method of reflective equilibrium

Synthese 203 (5):1-22 (2024)
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Abstract

The method of reflective equilibrium (MRE) is a method of justification popularized by John Rawls and further developed by Norman Daniels, Michael DePaul, Folke Tersman, and Catherine Z. Elgin, among others. The basic idea is that epistemic agents have justified beliefs if they have succeeded in forming their beliefs into a harmonious system of beliefs which they reflectively judge to be the most plausible. Despite the common reference to MRE as a method, its mechanisms or rules are typically expressed in a metaphorical or simplified manner and are therefore criticized as too vague. Recent efforts to counter this criticism have been directed towards the attempt to provide formal explications of MRE. This paper aims to supplement these efforts by providing an informal working definition of MRE. This approach challenges the view that MRE can adequately be characterized only in the negative as a set of anti-essentialisms. I argue that epistemic agents follow MRE iff they follow four interconnected rules, which are concerned with a minimalistic form of foundationalism, a minimalistic form of fallibilism, a moderate form of holism, and a minimalistic form of rationality. In the critical spirit of MRE, the corresponding working definition is, of course, provisional and revisable. In general, the aim is to contribute to a reflective equilibrium (RE) concerning MRE. If it is successful, this working definition provides a better grasp of the most basic elements of the method and thereby enhances our understanding of it.

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Michael W. Schmidt
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

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