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How far does reflective equilibrium take us? Investigating the power of a philosophical method

English title How far does reflective equilibrium take us? Investigating the power of a philosophical method
Applicant Beisbart Claus
Number 182854
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Institut für Philosophie Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.01.2020 - 31.12.2022
Approved amount 390'938.00
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Keywords (6)

constructivism; realism; philosophical methods; consensus; reflective equilibrium; justification

Lay Summary (German)

Das Überlegungsgleichgewicht ist eine wichtige philosophische Methode. Im Forschungsprojekt untersuchen wir mit Hilfe eines formalen Modells, was diese Methode leisten kann.
Lay summary

Ziele des Forschungsprojekts:

Philosophische Thesen wie z.B. moralische Prinzipien müssen gerechtfertigt werden. Für diese Rechtfertigung wurde das Überlegungsgleichgewicht vorgeschlagen. Um die Methode anzuwenden, geht eine Person von Auffassungen aus, die sie zu einem Thema hat, und erklärt diese mit einer systematischen Theorie. Dabei können auch die Auffassungen verändert werden. So passt die Person ihre Auffassungen und eine Theorie wechselseitig aneinander an, bis sich ein Gleichgewicht einstellt.

Doch wie leistungsfähig ist diese Methode? Wird überhaupt ein Gleichgewicht erreicht? Lässt sich die Methode bei beschränkten Ressourcen (z.B. begrenzter Zeit) anwenden? Und kann sie einen Konsens befördern, wenn Uneinigkeit besteht?

Bisher konnten diese Fragen nicht beantwortet werden, weil die Methode zu ungenau beschrieben war. In einem früheren Projekt konnten wir jedoch ein formales Modell des Überlegungsgleichgewichts entwickeln. Damit wollen wir die genannten Fragen beantworten. Wir verwenden z.B. Computer-Simulationen, um herauszufinden, ob uns die Anwendung der Methode einem Konsens näherbringt. Wir untersuchen auch, wie plausibel die Methode ist. Dazu analysieren wir die Anforderungen, die im Überlegungsgleichgewicht implizit angenommen werden. Insgesamt identifizieren wir so Stärken und Schwächen der Methode.

Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext des Forschungsprojekts:

Das Projekt klärt die philosophische Diskussion zur Frage, wie angemessen das Überlegungsgleichgewicht ist. Es versucht ausserdem, eine Methode zu verbessern, die auch bei gesellschaftlich relevanten Fragen, etwa zur Ethik des Klimawandels, eingesetzt werden kann.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 01.11.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



How powerful is philosophical reflection? Can it promote consensus, when different parties disagree on a philosophical problem? How far does it take non-ideal agents with bounded rationality in justifying their views? In this project, we aim to address such questions by analyzing the power of a popular philosophical method, viz. reflective equilibrium (RE, for short). RE is often appealed to in ethics and other parts of philosophy and has become the center of an intensive debate. Proponents of RE have invested high expectations in it and appealed to it e.g. to underpin a realist understanding of certain domains of discourse. Critics, by contrast, have argued that RE is (i) too implausible to grant justification, (ii) too difficult to apply in practice and (iii) not powerful enough to lead to consensus formation. So far, the debate between proponents and critics of RE suffers from a central shortcoming though: It lacks a common ground as to what exactly RE amounts to. Most characterizations of RE have remained too unspecific and vague to allow much progress. The aim of the proposed research is a new and much more thorough-going investigation of the power of RE. We wish to determine what it can accomplish and what its limitations are by drawing on a clarification of RE that we have obtained in recent research. In particular, we have available an operationalization of RE and a formal model that can be evaluated using computer simulations. To apply RE, an agent starts out with her commitments about a specific topic and then puts pressure on them by confronting them with a systematic theory. The fundamental unit of investigation thus is a (dual) epistemic state that consists of a set of commitments and a theory. Our operationalization of RE usefully distinguishes two kinds of aspects within the approach. The static aspects comprise the desiderata on epistemic states, viz. systematicity of the theory, its ability to account for the commitments and the faithfulness of the commitments to the initial view. Our model specifies measures that quantify to which extent these desiderata are fulfilled; it further fixes a trade-off between the desiderata. The dynamical aspects of the method, by contrast, encompass rules that characterize a dynamic process of equilibration. In previous research, we have developed software in which the rules can be applied in a stepwise manner.To assess the power of RE, we propose to answer the following research questions: 1. How plausible is RE as a method of justification in philosophy?2. How practicable is RE, in particular for non-ideal agents? 3. To what extent does RE reduce disagreement between different agents?4. What are the meta-ethical implications of RE, if it is applied to judgments about reasons? The first and the second questions address the charges of implausibility (item i above) and impractability (ii), respectively, while the others deal with the worry that RE does not foster consensus formation (iii). The fourth question also refers to a central hope that prominent meta-ethical realists and objectivists have connected with RE. 4 Ph.D. students, directed by the applicants and by a research coordinator, will answer these questions by combining conceptual work with an analysis of our model. Thereby, our previous clarification of RE will not be taken as fixed, but rather be amended if this proves appropriate. We draw on insights from, and expect repercussions for, several recent philosophical debates, in particular about theoretical virtues (1), bounded rationality (2), peer disagreement (3) and realism vs. constructivism regarding practical reasons (4).