How Far Does Reflective Equilibrium Take Us?

Investigating the power of a philosophical method

A tall scaffolding stair case
Copyright: Georg Brun

RE is a method of justification to which many philosophers appeal. In this project, we want to explore the method with formal tools. Our main question is what the method can achieve.

The basic idea of RE is the mutual adjustment of commitments and theory to each other: An agent starts with what she is committed to accept about a certain topic. Theories are supposed to systematize her commitments. The agent goes back and forth between the commitments and theory, and tries to adjust them to each other until an equilibration state is reached.

Since RE was so far underspecified, we have recently developed a more precise account and a formal model of RE. It uses some minimal logic and can be solved using computer simulations.

In this project, we use our model to assess expectations invested in, and objections raised against, RE.

Sub-project 1: Theoretical virtues (Bern)

This sub-project evaluates the plausibility of RE as a method of justification. Are the theoretical virtues implicit in RE plausible? And how can we strike a reasonable balance between them?

Sub-project 2: Process and progress (Karlsruhe)

How well can RE be used in practice and under realistic conditions? We consider agents who are non-ideal in that their rational capacities are bounded, e.g. because they do not immediately recognize the consequences of a theory. Can they nevertheless make real progress by using RE?

Sub-project 3: Disagreement and consensus (Karlsruhe)

This sub-project focuses on consensus formation. For example, we will look at pairs of agents who start from slightly different initial commitments and apply the method. Will they become closer in their views, or is there a possibility that disagreement „freezes“?

The planned research combines traditional philosophical methods (e.g. the analysis of objections against RE) with an examination of our model. To this purpose, computer simulations of the model will be run and evaluated. We aim at highly collaborative research that involves continuous exchange between the Ph.D.s and the nodes at Bern and Karlsruhe.


The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG).