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The most basic definition of fallibilism is that some parts of accepted knowledge claims could be wrong or at least flawed. This is not to be confused with skepticism. The difference is that a skeptic would believe that we never achieve certain knowledge, and so would disregard any complex idea based on a more fundamental but doubtful claim. Also, in the case of global skepticism, if there are not certain claims providing support to all our other claims, then our entire knowledge base is put into doubt and we don't actually "know" anything. In contrast, a fallibilist is not so quick to discount the possibility of having knowledge. For the fallibilist, the lack of absolute certainty does not undermine our ability to know the truth of some particular claims. Skeptics are doubtful that we can ever know the truth of a claim; fallibists are willing to accept a justified claim as true until it is shown to be false.

This idea is not as radical as some found in philosophy, since often human knowledge is founded on observed interactions that could be interpreted incorrectly. Many times our understanding of the world is found to be fallible, not perfect, and we discover mistakes after new empirical observations are made. The response of the scientific community in that case is to revise the knowledge claim, not to deny the possibility of knowing anything for sure.

Two thinkers have contributed significantly to the philosophical understanding of fallibilism. Charles Sanders Peirce was the first to say that our knowledge about science is naturally fallible. This is not to say that we should deny its validity, but at least be aware of its shortcomings. Willard Van Orman Quine took what Peirce said a little further. He not only applied fallibilism to science, but to any analytic statement as well. Since our statements are founded on a fallible science, then the natural laws which the statements express are also fallible.

--Adam Feuer


"Fallibilism" in A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names.
URL = http://www.swif.uniba.it/lei/foldop/foldoc.cgi?query=fallibilism

W. V. O. Quine, Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. Harvard, 1989.