In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Phenomenal Conservatism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Applications of Phenomenal Conservatism
  • Nature of Seemings

Philosophy Phenomenal Conservatism
Luca Moretti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0260


Phenomenal conservatism (PC) is the epistemological view according to which, roughly, the way things seem or appear to be is a source of justification for believing that things are actually so. Accordingly, for instance, if it seems visually to you that the cat is on the mat, you thereby have some prima facie (or defeasible) justification for believing that the cat is on the mat; if it seems intuitively true to you that torturing children is morally wrong, you thereby have some prima facie justification for believing that torturing children is morally wrong. Consider any subject S and any proposition P. Concisely, PC says that whenever it seems to S that P is true, in the absence of defeaters S thereby has some degree of justification for believing that P. PC, in this general form, has been introduced by Michael Huemer. Other authors have proposed similar but less general views restricted to justification of only particular types––such as perceptual (e.g., Jim Pryor) and a priori (e.g., George Bealer). Most phenomenal conservatives conceive of seemings or appearances as sui generis mental states provided with propositional content but different from beliefs or inclinations to believe. On this conception, seeming-based justification is noninferential (i.e., not based on the subject’s beliefs). Furthermore, seeming-based justification is internalist because it rests on the subject’s mental states. PC appears plausible because it can explain many everyday epistemic practices and looks intuitive and natural. A reason why PC is philosophically appealing is that it affords a unified account of the noninferential justification of beliefs of different types. PC or cognate views have been invoked to account for the noninferential justification of perceptual, moral, mnemonic, rational, and religious beliefs. Another reason why PC is philosophically attractive is that it affords epistemologists the means to respond to celebrated skeptical and anti-foundationalist arguments––those that assume that the justification for any belief must always rest on the justification for some other belief. Huemer has defended PC by using sophisticated philosophical arguments, some of which are quite controversial. Critics of PC mainly argue that this view is exceedingly permissive, that seemings are not always sources of justification because they can be (partly) caused by irrational or unjustified mental states, that PC is inconsistent with Bayesian reasoning, and that seemings cannot justify beliefs if there is no prior guarantee they are actually trustworthy.

General Overviews

The natural starting point for material on phenomenal conservatism (PC) is Huemer’s own published work. Huemer 2001 comprises the original articulation of PC as a key ingredient of a response to perceptual skepticism. Huemer 2007 focuses only on PC, which is refined and defended from early objections. Huemer 2014 provides an accessible, comprehensive, and updated overview of PC and the critical debate on it. Tucker 2013 gives an equally comprehensive and updated overview of it, though more technical.

  • Huemer, Michael. Skepticism and the Veil of Perception. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

    The original source of the term “phenomenal conservatism.” Chapter 5, section 3, pp. 98–103, articulates PC for the first time. This text is accessible to advanced undergraduates.

  • Huemer, Michael. “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74.1 (2007): 30–55.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2007.00002.x

    In-depth discussion and early defense of PC.

  • Huemer, Michael. “Phenomenal Conservatism.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, 2014.

    Very accessible and comprehensive introduction to PC and the critical discussion on it. The entry includes an annotated bibliography.

  • Tucker, Chris. “Seemings and Justification: An Introduction.” In Seemings and Justification: New Essays on Dogmatism and Phenomenal Conservatism. Edited by Chris Tucker, 1–29. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Comprehensive overview of PC and the related debate. It roughly covers the same material reviewed by Huemer 2014 with an additional critical presentation of the most-discussed Bayesian objections to PC (see Objections to Phenomenal Conservatism: Bayesian Objections.) This introduction to PC may be suitable for undergraduates, provided they are encouraged to skip the section on Bayesianism.

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