In This Article Reliabilism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Anthologies

Philosophy Reliabilism
Erik J. Olsson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0309


On one characterization of “reliabilism,” the term refers to any epistemological theory that emphasizes the reliability of some relevant epistemological feature. Thus Alvin Goldman explains reliabilism as a general approach to epistemology that emphasizes the truth-conduciveness of a belief-forming process, method, or other epistemologically relevant factor. On this broad characterization, reliabilist theories include those originally suggested under different labels, such as tracking theories. A tracking theorist holds that knowledge requires that the belief in question tracks truth. What this means is generally spelled out in counterfactual terms, such as “if the proposition p weren’t true, then the subject S wouldn’t believe that p.” On a narrower understanding, reliabilism denotes an epistemological theory that places special emphasis on the reliability or truth-conduciveness of cognitive processes; that is, processes leading up to the formation of a belief. According to Laurence Bonjour, “the central idea of reliabilism is that what makes a belief epistemically justified is the cognitive reliability of the causal process via which it was produced” (“Internalism and Externalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002], p. 244). This is the view—commonly referred to as “process reliabilism”—that knowledge or justification is to be defined in terms of a reliable process of belief formation. Unless otherwise indicated, “reliabilism” will henceforward refer to process reliabilism. The basic idea of reliabilism, as a theory of knowledge, is that a subject S knows that p if and only if S’s true belief that p was obtained through a reliable process. Reliabilism, as a theory of justification, states that S’s belief that p is justified if and only if it was obtained through a reliable process. Reliabilists uniformly deny that the subject needs to have insight into, or awareness of, the existence of the reliable process leading up to the belief that p in order to know, or be justified in believing, that p. Facts of reliability may very well be external to the subject. For this reason, reliabilism is classified as an externalist, as opposed to an internalist, theory. Among the noted rationales for reliabilism we find the prospects of (1) ascribing knowledge to higher animals, small children, certain artificial devices and so on; (2) providing a naturalized epistemology; (3) solving some long-standing problems of epistemology, such as skepticism, the regress problem, and the Gettier problem; and (4) providing answers to some otherwise puzzling problems, such as how one can know something without knowing that one does.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Goldman’s entry on reliabilist epistemology in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Goldman and Beddor 2015) is an authoritative and up-to-date overview over the history and problems of reliabilism. There are a number of book-length treatises that serve well as overviews. Lemos 2007 is a textbook that positions reliabilism in the context of modern epistemology. Goldman and McGrath 2014 is a state-of-the-art textbook on epistemology with a strong reliabilist focus.

  • Goldman, Alvin I., and Bob Beddor. “Reliabilist Epistemology.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is an extensive and in-depth overview of reliabilism. Having introduced the reliabilist theory of knowledge, Goldman proceeds to discuss reliabilism as a theory of justification. He gives a detailed account of the standard problems and analyzes various modifications and refinements that have been proposed in response to the objections.

  • Goldman, Alvin I., and Matthew McGrath. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Goldman and McGrath survey many of the core issues in contemporary epistemology, such as the structure of justification, defining knowledge, and skepticism about knowledge. The book also takes up some new themes, including social and probabilistic epistemology. The focus of the book is on naturalized epistemology in general, and reliabilism in particular.

  • Lemos, Noah. An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511801525E-mail Citation »

    Lemos’s textbook is a useful introduction to the theory of knowledge generally, and to reliabilism specifically. It contains several chapters devoted to reliabilist issues: on reliabilism and virtue epistemology; on internalism, externalism, and epistemic circularity; and on naturalized epistemology.

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