Responses to Agrippa’s Trilemma

In this week’s reading, one of the main topics covered regards justification. Pritchard’s chapter over justification has to do with the enigmatic nature, problems, and responses to the problem. Agrippa’s trilemma is three alternatives regarding the structure of justification, written by an ancient Greek philosopher, Agrippa. The trilemma states that: Our beliefs are unsupported, or an infinite chain of justification supports our beliefs, or a circular chain of justification supports our beliefs. Agrippa presents three rather bleak alternatives to what justifies our beliefs as they “imply that we aren’t really justified in holding our original belief” (Pritchard 33). The three epistemological responses to Agrippa’s trilemma are Infinitism, Coherentism, and Foundationalism.

The first response, Infinitism, is what the name implies, and it states that an infinite chain of justification can support beliefs. The second response is Coherentism, and it states that a circular chain of justification can justify a belief. Coherentists say that justification for one’s belief is related to the other beliefs one holds, or the “general world-view” that one holds (35). This is a much more logical theory than Infinitism as it more reasonable to have beliefs justified by the way that one experiences the world. The interesting part of Coherentism is that a person’s justification can be identical to another person’s justification except that the justification will be used for different beliefs. For example, imagine that there are two neighbors in a neighborhood. One of the neighbors accidently fires a gun in his backyard, and the other neighbor has recently murdered someone. When each neighbor sees a cop park in the middle of both his or her houses, the first neighbor will use his observation to justify his belief that the cop has arrived because he fired a weapon while the other neighbor will use his observation of the cop to justify his belief that the cop is coming to arrest him. Ironically, it turns out the cop is just visiting someone else in the neighborhood. This example is a perfect depiction of Coherentism, yet it also points out that even though we have a tendency to form “beliefs in a certain way, we shouldn’t necessarily form them that way” as they can be erroneous (36).

The final response to the trilemma is Foundationalism, and it is the most widely accepted theory. Foundationalism states that a belief can be justified without being supported by any further beliefs. Classical Foundationalism states that some beliefs are frankly self-justifying. The main problem with Foundationalism is setting the requirements for foundational beliefs too high or too low. If some middle ground could be set that wouldn’t compromise the validity of Foundationalism, it would become an infallible theory. I find it to be the most plausible out of all three as it truly does make sense that there are beliefs that can be self- justifying. This fixes the problem of a circular or infinite chain of justifications as it allows certain justifications to be the only justification needed for a belief, and it makes justification less confusing than Coherentism or Infinitism. It will be much easier to modify Foundationalism than to ever use Coherentism or Infinitism as a way to justify a belief.

1 thought on “Responses to Agrippa’s Trilemma

  1. I like your analysis on coherentism, that we have a tendency to shape our beliefs in a certain way even though these tendencies can often lead to error. I wanted to further the discussion by including that Putchard (pg 35) also states that the circular chain of supporting grounds can be justifiable if it is a large circle as opposed to small. Though, at the same time, he counters that it’s easy to counter that a circle, no matter how large, still comes back to the original point and, therefore, offers no support at all. But I do think there is some truth to the necessity of a larger circle chain of supporting grounds, because it shows the depth of the argument. And within these depths of the argument comes an individual world view. I believe that iindividuality in an argument necessitates a larger circular chain of justifiable grounds.

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