Theory of justification
Theory of justification is a part of epistemology that attempts to understand the justification of proposition
In logic and philosophy, the term proposition refers to either the "content" or "meaning" of a meaningful declarative sentence or the pattern of symbols, marks, or sounds that make up a meaningful declarative sentence...

s and belief
Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.-Belief, knowledge and epistemology:The terms belief and knowledge are used differently in philosophy....

s. Epistemologists are concerned with various epistemic features of belief, which include the ideas of justification, warrant, rationality
In philosophy, rationality is the exercise of reason. It is the manner in which people derive conclusions when considering things deliberately. It also refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons for belief, or with one's actions with one's reasons for action...

, and probability
Probability is ordinarily used to describe an attitude of mind towards some proposition of whose truth we arenot certain. The proposition of interest is usually of the form "Will a specific event occur?" The attitude of mind is of the form "How certain are we that the event will occur?" The...

. Of these four terms, the term that has been most widely used and discussed in the past twenty years is "warrant". Loosely speaking, justification is the reason why someone (properly) holds the belief, the explanation as to why the belief is a true one, or an account of how one knows what one knows.

If A makes a claim, and B then casts doubt on it, As next move would normally be to provide justification. Empiricism
Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence,...

 (the evidence of the senses), authoritative testimony
In law and in religion, testimony is a solemn attestation as to the truth of a matter. All testimonies should be well thought out and truthful. It was the custom in Ancient Rome for the men to place their right hand on a Bible when taking an oath...

 (the appeal to criteria and authority), and logical deduction
Deductive reasoning
Deductive reasoning, also called deductive logic, is reasoning which constructs or evaluates deductive arguments. Deductive arguments are attempts to show that a conclusion necessarily follows from a set of premises or hypothesis...

 are often involved in justification.

Justification based theories of knowledge can be divided into:
  • irrationalism, which appeals to irrational criteria and authorities (feelings) and
  • panrationalism
    Panrationalism holds two premises true:# A rationalist accepts any position that can be justified or established by appeal to the rational criteria or authorities.# He accepts only those positions that can be so justified....

    , which appeals to rational criteria and authorities (observation, reasoning).

Subjects of justification

Many things can be justified: beliefs, actions, emotions, claims, laws, theories and so on. Epistemology focuses on beliefs. This is in part because of the influence of the definition of knowledge as "justified true belief
Justified true belief
Justified true belief is one definition of knowledge that states in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have justification for doing so. In more formal terms, a subject S knows that a proposition P is true if,...

" often associated with a theory discussed near the end of the Socratic dialogue Theaetetus
Theaetetus (dialogue)
The Theaetetus is one of Plato's dialogues concerning the nature of knowledge. The framing of the dialogue begins when Euclides tells his friend Terpsion that he had written a book many years ago based on what Socrates had told him of a conversation he'd had with Theaetetus when Theaetetus was...

. More generally, theories of justification focus on the justification of statements or proposition
In logic and philosophy, the term proposition refers to either the "content" or "meaning" of a meaningful declarative sentence or the pattern of symbols, marks, or sounds that make up a meaningful declarative sentence...


Justifications and explanations

Justification is the reason why someone properly holds a belief
Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.-Belief, knowledge and epistemology:The terms belief and knowledge are used differently in philosophy....

, 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 too may explanations and justifications. Statements which 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.

Justification is a normative activity

One way of explaining the theory of justification is to say that a justified belief is one that we are "within our rights" in holding. The rights in question are neither political nor moral, however, but intellectual.

In some way, each of us is responsible for what we believe. Beliefs are not typically formed completely at random, and thus we have an intellectual responsibility
Intellectual responsibility
Intellectual responsibility, sometimes referred to as epistemic responsibility, is a philosophical concept related to that of epistemic justification. According to Frederick F...

, or obligation
Deontic logic
Deontic logic is the field of logic that is concerned with obligation, permission, and related concepts. Alternatively, a deontic logic is a formal system that attempts to capture the essential logical features of these concepts...

, to try to believe what is true and to avoid believing what is false. An intellectually responsible act is within one's intellectual rights in believing something; performing it, one is justified in one's belief.

Thus, justification is a normative
Norm (philosophy)
Norms are concepts of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express. Normative sentences imply “ought-to” types of statements and assertions, in distinction to sentences that provide “is” types of statements and assertions...

 notion. The standard definition is that a concept is normative if it is a concept regarding or depending on the norms, or obligations and permissions (very broadly construed), involved in human conduct. It is generally accepted that the concept of justification is normative, because it is defined as a concept regarding the norms of belief.

Theories of justification

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. Interestingly, theories of justification generally include other aspects of epistemology, such as knowledge.

The main theories of justification include:
  • Coherentism
    There are two distinct types of coherentism. One refers to the coherence theory of truth. The other refers to the coherence theory of justification. The coherentist theory of justification characterizes epistemic justification as a property of a belief only if that belief is a member of a coherent...

     - 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
    Externalism is a group of positions in the philosophy of mind which hold that the mind is not only the result of what is going on inside the nervous system but also of what either occur or exist outside the subject. It is often contrasted with internalism which holds that the mind emerges out of...

     - Outside sources of knowledge can be used to justify a belief.
  • Foundationalism
    Foundationalism is any theory in epistemology that holds that beliefs are justified based on what are called basic beliefs . This position is intended to resolve the infinite regress problem in epistemology...

     - Self-evident basic beliefs justify other non-basic beliefs.
  • Foundherentism
    In epistemology, foundherentism is a theory of justification that combines elements from the two rival theories addressing infinite regress, foundationalism prone to arbitrariness, and coherentism prone to circularity...

     - A combination of foundationalism and coherentism, proposed by Susan Haack
    Susan Haack
    Susan Haack is an English professor of philosophy and law at the University of Miami in the United States. She has written on logic, the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. Her pragmatism follows that of Charles Sanders Peirce.-Career:Haack is a graduate of the University of...

  • Infinitism
    Infinitism is the view that knowledge may be justified by an infinite chain of reasons. It belongs to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that considers the possibility, nature, and means of knowledge.-Epistemological infinitism:...

     - Beliefs are justified by infinite chains of reasons.
  • Internalism - The believer must be able to justify a belief through internal knowledge.

Minority viewpoints include:
  • Reformed epistemology
    Reformed epistemology
    In the philosophy of religion, reformed epistemology is a school of thought regarding the epistemology of belief in God put forward by a group of Protestant Christian philosophers, most notably, Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Michael C. Rea...

     - Beliefs are warranted by proper cognitive function, proposed by Alvin Plantinga
    Alvin Plantinga
    Alvin Carl Plantinga is an American analytic philosopher and the emeritus John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is known for his work in philosophy of religion, epistemology, metaphysics, and Christian apologetics...

  • 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
    Evidentialism is a theory of justification according to which the justification of a belief depends solely on the evidence for it. Technically, though belief is typically the primary object of concern, evidentialism can be applied to doxastic attitudes generally...


If a belief is justified, there is something that justifies it. The thing that justifies a belief can be called its "justifier". If a belief is justified, then it has at least one justifier. An example of a justifier would be an item of evidence
Evidence in its broadest sense includes everything that is used to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion. Giving or procuring evidence is the process of using those things that are either presumed to be true, or were themselves proven via evidence, to demonstrate an assertion's truth...

. For example, if a woman is aware of the fact that her husband returned from a business trip smelling like perfume, and that his shirt has smudged lipstick on its collar, the perfume and the lipstick can be evidence for her belief that her husband is having an affair. In that case, the justifiers are the woman's awareness of the perfume and the lipstick, and the belief that is justified is her belief that her husband is having an affair.

Not all justifiers have to be what can properly be called "evidence"; there may be some substantially different kinds of justifiers available to us. Regardless, to be justified, a belief has to have a justifier.

But this raises an important question: what sort of thing can be a justifier?

Three things that have been suggested are:
  1. Beliefs only.
  2. Beliefs together with other conscious mental states.
  3. Beliefs, conscious mental states, and other facts about us and our environment (which we may or may not have access to).

At least sometimes, the justifier of a belief is another belief. When, to return to the earlier example, the woman believes that her husband is having an affair, she bases that belief on other beliefs—namely, beliefs about the lipstick and perfume. Strictly speaking, her belief isn't based on the evidence itself—after all, what if she did not believe it? What if she thought that all of that evidence were just a hoax? What if her husband commonly wears perfume and lipstick on business trips? For that matter, what if the evidence existed, but she did not know about it? Then, of course, her belief that her husband is having an affair wouldn't be based on that evidence, because she did not know it was there at all; or, if she thought that the evidence were a hoax, then surely her belief couldn't be based on that evidence.

Consider a belief P
In logic and philosophy, the term proposition refers to either the "content" or "meaning" of a meaningful declarative sentence or the pattern of symbols, marks, or sounds that make up a meaningful declarative sentence...

. Either P is justified or P is not justified. If P is justified, then another belief Q may be justified by P. If P is not justified, then P cannot be a justifier for any other belief: neither for Q, nor for Qs negation
In logic and mathematics, negation, also called logical complement, is an operation on propositions, truth values, or semantic values more generally. Intuitively, the negation of a proposition is true when that proposition is false, and vice versa. In classical logic negation is normally identified...


For example, suppose someone might believe that there is intelligent life on Mars, and base this belief on a further belief, that there is a feature on the surface of Mars that looks like a face, and that this face could only have been made by intelligent life. So the justifying belief is: that face-like feature on Mars could only have been made by intelligent life. And the justified belief is: there is intelligent life on Mars.

But suppose further that the justifying belief is itself unjustified. It would in no way be one's intellectual right to suppose that this face-like feature on Mars could have only been made by intelligent life; that view would be irresponsible, intellectually-speaking. Such a belief would be unjustified. It has a justifier, but the justifier is itself not justified. In fact, more recent observations have shown that the "helmeted face" does not look the same up close, nor when viewed from the side.

Commonly used justifiers

  • Abductive reasoning
    Abductive reasoning
    Abduction is a kind of logical inference described by Charles Sanders Peirce as "guessing". The term refers to the process of arriving at an explanatory hypothesis. Peirce said that to abduce a hypothetical explanation a from an observed surprising circumstance b is to surmise that a may be true...

  • Deduction
    Deduction may refer to:in logic:* Deductive reasoning, inference in which the conclusion is of no greater generality than the premises...

  • Empiricism
    Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence,...

  • Induction
  • Occam's Razor
    Occam's razor
    Occam's razor, also known as Ockham's razor, and sometimes expressed in Latin as lex parsimoniae , is a principle that generally recommends from among competing hypotheses selecting the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.-Overview:The principle is often summarized as "simpler explanations...

  • Pragmatism
    Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

  • Probability theory
    Probability theory
    Probability theory is the branch of mathematics concerned with analysis of random phenomena. The central objects of probability theory are random variables, stochastic processes, and events: mathematical abstractions of non-deterministic events or measured quantities that may either be single...

  • Scientific method
    Scientific method
    Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...


The major opposition against the theory of justification (also called ‘justificationism’ in this context) is nonjustificational criticism (a synthesis of skepticism
Philosophical skepticism
Philosophical skepticism is both a philosophical school of thought and a method that crosses disciplines and cultures. Many skeptics critically examine the meaning systems of their times, and this examination often results in a position of ambiguity or doubt...

 and absolutism) which is most notably held by some of the proponents of critical rationalism
Critical rationalism
Critical rationalism is an epistemological philosophy advanced by Karl Popper. Popper wrote about critical rationalism in his works, The Open Society and its Enemies Volume 2, and Conjectures and Refutations.- Criticism, not support :...

: W. W. Bartley, David Miller
David Miller (philosopher)
David W. Miller is a philosopher and prominent exponent of critical rationalism. He taught in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK....

 and Karl Popper
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

. (But not all proponents of critical rationalism oppose justificationism; it is supported most prominently by John W. N. Watkins
John W. N. Watkins
John William Nevill Watkins was an English philosopher, a professor at the London School of Economics from 1966 until his retirement in 1989 and a prominent proponent of Critical rationalism....


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 is primary, while the claim itself is secondary. By contrast, nonjustificational 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 nonjustificational criticism. Instead of appealing to criteria and authorities, it attempts to describe and explicate them.

Robert Fogelin
Robert John Fogelin is an American philosopher. He is a professor of Philosophy and Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College where he has taught since 1980. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005.Fogelin received his B.A. from the...

 claims to detect a suspicious resemblance between the Theories of Justification and Agrippa
Agrippa the Sceptic
Agrippa was a Skeptic philosopher who probably lived towards the end of the 1st century AD. He is regarded as the author of "five grounds of doubt" or tropes , which are purported to establish the impossibility of certain knowledge.-The Five Tropes:...

'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.

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