Philosophy Epistemology of Disagreement
by
Jennifer Lackey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0137

Introduction

The epistemology of disagreement is a fairly young though extremely fertile area of inquiry in philosophy. In recent years, a substantial amount of new work has been done on this topic, and the literature has developed in important ways. At the center of the debate is the question of what rationality requires one to do when faced with an epistemic peer with whom one disagrees. Two people are epistemic peers with respect to a particular question when they are roughly evidential and cognitive equals, that is, when they are (roughly) equally familiar with the evidence and arguments that bear on the question and are (roughly) equally competent, intelligent, and fair-minded in their assessment of it. Most discussions frame the issues in terms of those whom one takes to be an epistemic peer, rather than those who are in fact one’s epistemic peer (for ease of presentation, this distinction shall not be made explicit in what follows). This entry focuses on various answers that have been given to this question as well as related issues that emerge.

Anthologies

Widespread interest in the epistemology of disagreement is somewhat recent, so there are only two collections of essays on this topic. Christensen 2009 includes all new papers in this area that were originally presented at a conference on the epistemology of disagreement. Feldman and Warfield 2010 contains new contributions by some of the leading figures working in this area. Several of the papers in this collection have already been highly influential in the debate. Christensen and Lackey 2013 includes some of the most cutting-edge work in the epistemology of disagreement, both by key figures in the debate and by those who are contributing for the first time.

Conformist/Conciliatory/Equal Weight Views

A widely accepted position in the epistemology of disagreement is what has come to be known as the conformist, conciliatory, or equal weight view (these terms are used interchangeably in this entry). According to this position, peer disagreement itself possesses enormous epistemic significance; thus, unless one has a reason that is independent of the disagreement itself to prefer one’s own belief, one cannot continue to rationally believe that p when one is faced with an epistemic peer who explicitly believes that not-p. In particular, conformists maintain that equal weight should be given to one’s own beliefs and to those held by one’s epistemic peers, and thus significant doxastic revision is required in the face of peer disagreement. Accordingly, it is argued that there cannot be reasonable disagreement among epistemic peers. Jehle and Fitelson 2009 raises important questions about how best to characterize the equal weight view specifically within a Bayesian point of view. Answers to the question of what kind of doxastic revision is necessary when one is faced with peer disagreement vary. Feldman 2006, for instance, casts the debate in terms of an all-or-nothing model of belief, and so Feldman argues that disagreement with an epistemic peer regarding the question whether p requires that both parties to the dispute withhold belief relative to p. Christensen 2007 and Elga 2007 instead frame the issues in terms of degree of belief, and so they argue that disagreement with an epistemic peer regarding the question whether p requires splitting the difference in the degrees of their respective beliefs. Weatherson 2013 challenges a highly conciliatory view of disagreement on the grounds that it is self-undermining, and Elga 2010 defends the equal weight view from this charge by restricting its scope so that doxastic revision is required in the face of peer disagreement unless the topic in question is disagreement itself. Cohen 2013 defends a conformist view of disagreement from the challenge that it prevents an agent from taking the correct account of the original evidence and arguments that bear on the disputed issue. But regardless of the details, conformists all agree that when epistemic peers disagree, substantial adjustment is required in their respective beliefs.

  • Christensen, David. “Epistemology of Disagreement: The Good News.” Philosophical Review 116.2 (2007): 187–217.

    DOI: 10.1215/00318108-2006-035Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A highly influential defense of conformism in which worries about begging the question ground the conclusion that substantial doxastic revision is necessary when peers disagree.

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    • Cohen, Stewart. “A Defense of the (Almost) Equal Weight View.” In The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays. Edited by David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey, 98–117. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

      DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199698370.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Defends a conciliatory view of disagreement from the charge that it prevents an agent from taking the correct account of the original evidence and arguments bearing on the disputed issue.

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      • Elga, Adam. “Reflection and Disagreement.” Noûs 41.3 (2007): 478–502.

        DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2007.00656.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        A seminal development of the equal weight view that shows that unless one gives equal weight to one’s own view and to that of one’s epistemic peer, it is legitimate to “bootstrap” to the conclusion that one is a better evaluator than one’s peer.

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        • Elga, Adam. “How to Disagree about How to Disagree.” In Disagreement. Edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield 175–186. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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          Provides an argument for a restricted version of the equal weight view, according to which doxastic revision is required in cases of peer disagreement, except when disagreement itself is in dispute.

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          • Feldman, Richard. “Epistemological Puzzles about Disagreement.” In Epistemology Futures. Edited by Stephen Hetherington, 216–236. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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            A key argument on behalf of conformism that concludes withholding belief is necessary in cases of peer disagreement and embraces the skeptical conclusions that follow.

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            • Jehle, David, and Branden Fitelson. “What Is the ‘Equal Weight View’?” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6 (2009): 280–293.

              DOI: 10.3366/E1742360009000719Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

              A very clear examination of various possible Bayesian precisifications of the equal weight view. It is shown that the most natural characterizations of this view are untenable within a Bayesian framework, while the most defensible interpretations are not necessarily the most desirable ones.

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              • Weatherson, Brian. “Disagreements, Philosophical, and Otherwise.” In The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays. Edited by David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey, 54–73. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

                DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199698370.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                Attacks a highly conciliatory view of disagreement on the grounds that it is self-undermining: it cannot coherently be believed, given the disagreement of others.

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                Nonconformist/Steadfast/Extra Weight Views

                The central position opposing conformism in the epistemology of disagreement is what has come to be known as the nonconformist, steadfast, or extra weight view (these terms are used interchangeably in this entry). According to this position, peer disagreement itself can be wholly without epistemic significance; thus, one can continue to rationally believe that p despite the fact that one’s epistemic peer explicitly believes that not-p, even when one does not have a reason independent of the disagreement in question to prefer one’s own belief. Accordingly, it is argued that there can be reasonable disagreement among epistemic peers. There are several explanations of the nonconformist response to peer disagreement. According to Wedgwood 2007, one is justified in preferring one’s own belief in the face of peer disagreement because the belief in question is one’s own. According to Kelly 2005, one is justified in giving one’s belief extra weight in the face of peer disagreement when the belief in question is in fact the product of correct reasoning. Goldman 2010 grounds the author’s version of nonconformism in a particular version of epistemic relativism, Moffett 2007 appeals to epistemic conservatism and the underdetermination of theory by evidence, Elgin 2010 relies on the absence of voluntary control over beliefs and the value of disagreement, and Sosa 2010 argues that an asymmetry in the information that one has about oneself and one’s opponent justifies downgrading the status of one’s peer. Bergmann 2009 and Rosen 2001 offer general arguments on behalf of the view that epistemic peers can continue to rationally retain their respective beliefs even when engaged in disagreement with one another.

                • Bergmann, Michael. “Rational Disagreement after Full Disclosure.” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6.3 (2009): 336–353.

                  DOI: 10.3366/E1742360009000756Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                  Distinguishes an internal and an external kind of rationality and argues that, according to either view, two epistemic peers who realize that they are intellectually virtuous to roughly the same degree can both be rational in continuing to hold their respective beliefs, even after they fully disclose all of the relevant evidence.

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                  • Elgin, Catherine, Z. “Persistent Disagreement.” In Disagreement. Edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield, 53–68. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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                    Defends a nonconformist view of peer disagreement by arguing that since “ought implies can,” belief and its withholding are typically not under the requisite kind of voluntary control. After framing the debate in terms of acceptance, the author argues further that epistemic peers can be reasonable in accepting conflicting propositions because doing so has sufficient value.

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                    • Goldman, Alvin I. “Epistemic Relativism and Reasonable Disagreement.” In Disagreement. Edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield, 187–215. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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                      Provides a conception of epistemic relativism according to which relativism is compatible with absolutism and argues that it follows on this view that people in different communities can justifiably accept different principles about reasoning. Consequently, epistemic peers with the same first-order evidence for a proposition can have opposing yet nonetheless reasonable attitudes toward it.

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                      • Kelly, Thomas. “The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement.” In Oxford Studies in Epistemology. Vol. 1. Edited by John Hawthorne and Tamar Szabó Gendler, 167–196. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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                        This influential paper defends one of the key nonconformist positions, according to which one is justified in continuing to hold one’s belief in the face of peer disagreement when one’s belief is in fact the result of correct reasoning.

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                        • Moffett, Marc A. “Reasonable Disagreement and Rational Group Inquiry.” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 4.3 (2007): 352–367.

                          DOI: 10.1353/epi.0.0014Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          Offers a defense of nonconformism that combines a principle of epistemic conservatism with an appeal to the underdetermination of theory by evidence.

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                          • Rosen, Gideon. “Nominalism, Naturalism, Epistemic Relativism.” Philosophical Perspectives 15 (2001): 69–91.

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                            One of the earliest characterizations of nonconformism in the recent literature for the epistemology of disagreement. The author argues that the mere fact of disagreement, even among epistemic peers, does not mean that one of the parties is being unreasonable.

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                            • Sosa, Ernest. “The Epistemology of Disagreement.” In Social Epistemology. Edited by Alan Haddock, Adrian Millar, and Duncan Pritchard, 278–297. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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                              Defends the possibility of reasonable disagreement between epistemic peers on the grounds that it is rare for there to be full disclosure of the relevant reasons and evidence possessed by each party. Given this, one may be reasonably confident in one’s own competence regarding a particular question, while not being as confident in one’s opponent’s, and thus may downgrade the status of one’s peer based on the substance of the disagreement. First published in Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6.3 (2009): 269–279.

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                              • Wedgwood, Ralph. The Nature of Normativity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

                                DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199251315.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                Argues that in cases of peer disagreement, it is rational for one to place greater trust in one’s own intuitions than in those of one’s peers, simply because these intuitions are one’s own. In particular, the author claims that it is rational for each of us to have an egocentric epistemic bias in favor of our own intuitions.

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                                Alternative Views

                                There are several views in the epistemology of disagreement that are properly regarded as neither conformist nor nonconformist. In Kelly 2010, the author rejects his earlier correct reasoning version of nonconformism and instead proposes a total evidence view, where the total evidence possessed by the parties to the debate determines whether doxastic revision is required. Lackey (Lackey 2010a, Lackey 2010b) develops and defends a justificationist view, according to which the appropriate epistemic response in cases of peer disagreement is determined by the justificatory status of the relevant beliefs. White 2009 argues against the view that one can rationally prefer one’s own beliefs in cases of peer disagreement only if one has an antecedent reason to do so. Hawthorne and Srinivasan 2013 discusses the issue of disagreement from the perspective of “knowledge-first” epistemology and develops problems for views according to which a subject who knows a proposition should cease to believe it when confronted with disagreement. Lackey 2013 argues against the widespread assumption that when an agent is disagreeing with a number of epistemic peers, their disagreement counts for more than the disagreement of a single peer only if their beliefs are independent from one another.

                                • Hawthorne, John, and Amia Srinivasan. “Disagreement without Transparency: Some Bleak Thoughts.” In The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays. Edited by David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey, 9–30. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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                                  Approaches the disagreement issue from the perspective of “knowledge-first” epistemology and develops difficulties for views according to which a subject who knows a proposition should stop believing it when confronted with disagreement (even by apparent superiors). Concludes that no completely satisfying solution to the disagreement problem is likely to be forthcoming.

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                                  • Kelly, Thomas. “Peer Disagreement and Higher Order Evidence.” In Disagreement. Edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield, 111–174. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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                                    Raises objections to equal weight views of peer disagreement and proposes the total evidence view, according to which the appropriate epistemic response to peer disagreement is determined by the total evidence possessed by the relevant parties.

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                                    • Lackey, Jennifer. “A Justificationist View of Disagreement’s Epistemic Significance.” In Social Epistemology. Edited by Alan Haddock, Adrian Millar, and Duncan Pritchard, 298–325. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010a.

                                      DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199577477.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                      Argues against both conformist and nonconformist views of peer disagreement and develops and defends the justificationist view, where the justificatory status of the beliefs in question determines whether, and to what extent, doxastic revision is required from either party.

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                                      • Lackey, Jennifer. “What Should We Do When We Disagree?” In Oxford Studies in Epistemology. Vol. 3. Edited by John Hawthorne and Tamar Szabó Gendler, 274–293. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010b.

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                                        Considers and responds to various objections that may be raised to the justificationist view of peer disagreement developed in Lackey 2010a.

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                                        • Lackey, Jennifer. “Disagreement and Belief Dependence: Why Numbers Matter.” In The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays. Edited by David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey, 243–268. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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                                          Challenges the widely accepted view that when an agent is disagreeing with a number of epistemic peers, their disagreement counts for more than the disagreement of a single peer only if their beliefs are independent from one another.

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                                          • White, Roger. “On Treating Oneself and Others as Thermometers.” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6.3 (2009): 233–250.

                                            DOI: 10.3366/E1742360009000689Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                            Examines the consequences of treating oneself as a thermometer, where this is understood in terms of treating one’s belief states as more or less reliable indicators of the facts. Appeals to probabilistic considerations to argue against the view that it is rationally possible to prefer one’s own beliefs to those of peers with whom one disagrees only if one has an antecedent reason to do so.

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                                            Disagreement and Higher-Order Evidence

                                            Peer disagreement, it is argued, provides one with higher-order evidence about one’s lower-order evidence—that is, peer disagreement is evidence about the existence or status of one’s first-order evidence. Kelly first introduced this way of framing the issues in Kelly 2010 (cited under Alternative Views), the first paper to frame peer disagreement in terms of higher-order evidence. Feldman 2009 defends the view that questions about peer disagreement are best seen as questions generally about the epistemic significance of higher-order evidence. Christensen 2010 maintains that the possession of higher-order evidence, which one acquires via peer disagreement, is likely to render one deficient relative to some rational ideal, and Roush 2009 develops a general framework for explaining higher-order evidence.

                                            • Christensen, David. “Higher-Order Evidence.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 81.1 (2010): 185–215.

                                              DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2010.00366.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                              Argues that higher-order evidence is prone to being rationally toxic in the sense that once one possesses it, one is doomed to fall short of some rational ideal.

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                                              • Feldman, Richard. “Evidentialism, Higher-Order Evidence, and Disagreement.” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6.3 (2009): 294–312.

                                                DOI: 10.3366/E1742360009000720Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                Examines the relationship between evidentialism and principles found in the epistemology of disagreement and argues that there is no incompatibility between the two. The author then claims that questions about peer disagreement are best seen as questions about the epistemic import of higher-order evidence.

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                                                • Roush, Sherrilyn. “Second Guessing: A Self-Help Manual.” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6 (2009): 251–268.

                                                  DOI: 10.3366/E1742360009000690Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                  Develops a general framework that involves an appeal to the Principal Principle for accounting for higher-order or second-order evidence about one’s own judgmental reliability.

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                                                  The Uniqueness Thesis

                                                  According to the Uniqueness Thesis, for a given body of evidence and a given proposition, there is at most one attitude or one level of confidence that it is uniquely justified or rational to have. Many authors hold that there is a very close relationship between one’s attitude regarding the Uniqueness Thesis and one’s view in the epistemology of disagreement. For instance, Feldman 2007 relies on the Uniqueness Thesis in part to support the author’s particular version of the equal weight view. White 2005 argues at length on behalf of the Uniqueness Thesis, while Conee 2010 formulates various versions of this thesis and provides reason to reject each one.

                                                  • Conee, Earl. “Rational Disagreement Defended.” In Disagreement. Edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield, 69–90. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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                                                    Evaluates various versions of the Uniqueness Thesis and rejects each one on the grounds that epistemic peers in cases of peer disagreement may rationally regard themselves as possessing different bases or evidence for their conflicting beliefs. The rationality of these judgments, in turn, justifies their differing attitudes toward the proposition in question.

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                                                    • Feldman, Richard. “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.” In Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life. Edited by Louise M. Antony, 194–214. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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                                                      Provides an argument for and an endorsement of the Uniqueness Thesis. This is also the paper in which this label is introduced into the epistemology of disagreement literature.

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                                                      • White, Roger. “Epistemic Permissiveness.” Philosophical Perspectives 19 (2005): 445–459.

                                                        DOI: 10.1111/j.1520-8583.2005.00069.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                        Offers influential and detailed arguments on behalf of the Uniqueness Thesis.

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                                                        Disagreement and Expertise

                                                        Disagreements between experts raise important theoretical and practical challenges, particularly when a novice is attempting to choose the testimony of one over the other. Goldman 2001 provides the seminal contribution to this debate, arguing that there are sources of evidence that a novice may use to rationally prefer the testimony of one expert over another when they disagree. In contrast, Conee 2009 argues that neither position in such cases has an overall balance of undefeated evidence, and so there is no epistemically justified reason to trust one expert over the other. Goldman’s view, particularly his endorsement of a nonindependence principle among the beliefs of competing experts, is critically examined in Coady 2006.

                                                        • Coady, David. “When Experts Disagree.” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 3.1 (2006): 68–79.

                                                          DOI: 10.1353/epi.0.0002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                          Provides a critique of Goldman’s view on expert disagreement by challenging his non-independence principle, according to which doxastic revision is required in the face of disagreement only if the beliefs in question are not “non-independent” of one another.

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                                                          • Conee, Earl. “Peerage.” Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6.3 (2009): 313–323.

                                                            DOI: 10.3366/E1742360009000732Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                            Argues that no position has an overall balance of undefeated reasons in standing disagreements between experts, and thus neither side is epistemically justified.

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                                                            • Goldman, Alvin I. “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63.1 (2001): 85–110.

                                                              DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2001.tb00093.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                              A seminal paper on the epistemology of expert disagreement in which various sources of evidence are examined to which a novice might appeal in deciding between the testimony of putative experts when they disagree. (Goldman calls this the novice/2-expert problem.)

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                                                              Disagreement within Philosophy

                                                              Most discussions on the epistemology of disagreement focus on disagreements between epistemic peers as such, but a growing number focus specifically on these sorts of disagreements within philosophy. Frances 2010, Fumerton 2010, and Van Inwagen 1996 all argue that philosophical beliefs held in the face of peer disagreement can, under certain circumstances, be epistemically justified, though competing explanations are offered for this view. Goldberg 2009 and Kornblith 2010 maintain that philosophical beliefs held in the face of peer disagreement are typically epistemically unjustified because of the relationship between disagreement and reliability. Sosa 2013 defends the philosophical practice of forming beliefs on the basis of intuitions from recent challenges from experimental philosophers grounded in apparently intractable disagreements between philosophers’ armchair judgments. Though these discussions arrive at different conclusions, they share the view that philosophical disagreements between epistemic peers, and perhaps such disagreements regarding controversial subject matter more generally, often pose a unique set of problems.

                                                              • Frances, Bryan. “The Reflective Epistemic Renegade.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 81.2 (September 2010): 419–463.

                                                                DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2010.00372.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                Focuses uniquely on philosophers who are reflective epistemic renegades, where these are philosophers who know that their beliefs are denied by recognized epistemic superiors, and claims that while the reflective epistemic renegade is sometimes blameworthy in her philosophical beliefs, this is not true in cases of “undefended assumptions,” “forgiving percentages,” and “fragile blamelessness.”

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                                                                • Fumerton, Richard A. “You Can’t Trust a Philosopher.” In Disagreement. Edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield, 91–110. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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                                                                  Argues that although learning of an instance of peer disagreement provides one with a reason against one’s philosophical belief, this reason can sometimes be discounted on the grounds that one’s peer is unreliable when it comes to the philosophical truth in question.

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                                                                  • Goldberg, Sanford C. “Reliabilism in Philosophy.” Philosophical Studies 124 (2009): 105–117.

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                                                                    Offers a clear and concise argument that the following three propositions are individually defensible yet jointly inconsistent: (1) reliability is a necessary condition for epistemic justification; (2) on contested matters in philosophy, one’s beliefs are not reliably formed; and (3) some of these beliefs are epistemically justified.

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                                                                    • Kornblith, Hilary. “Belief in the Face of Controversy.” In Disagreement. Edited by Richard Feldman and Ted A. Warfield, 29–52. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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                                                                      Provides a comprehensive examination of the unique problems posed by disagreements in different domains, arguing that disagreements can be easily resolved in some domains, while consensus often emerges over time in others. Since disagreements in philosophy fall into neither of these groups, it is concluded that philosophical beliefs held in the face of peer disagreement are typically not justified.

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                                                                      • Sosa, Ernest. “Can There Be a Discipline of Philosophy? And Can It Be Founded on Intuitions?” In The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays. Edited by David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey, 190–202. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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                                                                        Defends philosophical practice—in particular, the practice of forming beliefs on the basis of armchair judgments—against recent criticism by experimental philosophers who cite apparently intractable disagreements between philosophers’ armchair judgments.

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                                                                        • van Inwagen, Peter. “It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence.” In Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today. Edited by Jeff Jordan and Daniel Howard-Snyder, 137–153. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

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                                                                          This is the classic defense of the view that one can be epistemically justified in continuing to hold one’s belief in the face of philosophical disagreement with an epistemic peer. This conclusion is defended through two central claims: first, that one enjoys some philosophical insight with respect to the disputed question that is denied to one’s epistemic peer, and second, that philosophical skepticism, in which one is not justified in holding any philosophical theses of consequence, is unattractive.

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