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Res Philosophica

Volume 90, Issue 2, April 2013

Epistemology

Matthias Steup
Pages 215-235
DOI: 10.11612/resphil.2013.90.2.8

Is Epistemic Circularity Bad?

Is it possible to argue that one’s memory is reliable without using one’s memory? I argue that it is not. Since it is not, it is impossible to defend the reliability of one’s memory without employing reasoning that is epistemically circular. Hence, if epistemic circularity is vicious, it is impossible to succeed in producing a cogent argument for the reliability of one’s memory. The same applies to any other one of one’s cognitive faculties. I further argue that, if epistemic circularity is vicious, it is impossible to produce a cogent argument for the reliability of anything. For example, if epistemic circularity were vicious, a cogent argument for the reliability of one’s car would not be possible. The seeming viciousness of epistemic circularity even threatens, I propose, the possibility of justification and knowledge. Much, therefore, hangs one the question of whether epistemic circularity is indeed bad. I argue that epistemic circularity, or bootstrapping, need not be bad. When we use a crystal ball—a source perspicuously guilty of unreliability—to confirm its own reliability, bootstrapping is foolish. When we attribute reliability to a witness solely because the witness says he is reliable, bootstrapping is dogmatic. Foolish and dogmatic bootstrapping are bad. However, when a witness provides a rich body of testimony, using that testimony to gauge the witness’s reliability need not be a vicious form of circularity. When done critically, I argue, such reasoning exemplifies a form of bootstrapping that is benign.