Münchhausen trilemma

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The Münchhausen trilemma is a problem relating to logically justified knowledge. All logical justifications require at least one premise which also requires justification. According to the trilemma, any logical argument resulting in either:

  • an Axiomatic assumption, in which certain truths are assumed to be true.
  • Circular argument, in which the premises are supported by the argument.
  • Infinite regress, where there is an infinite sequence of logical arguments.

None of these solutions are appealing and implies that logical argumentation has limitations. Specifically, certain knowledge is impossible since any argument's premises would also require justification with certainty. The idea goes back to Agrippa the Skeptic who lived in the late 1st century AD. The trilemma is named after Baron Münchhausen who allegedly pulled himself out of a swamp by pulling on his own bootstraps. Of course, this is an impossible feat.

Some apologists claim that "God did it" is a solution to the Münchhausen trilemma: this is known as the transcendental argument.

Fries's trilemma

Jakob Friedrich Fries formulated a similar trilemma in which statements can be accepted either:[1]

The first two possibilities are rejected by Fries as unsatisfactory, requiring us to adopt the third option. Karl Popper argued that a way to avoid the trilemma was to use an intermediate approach incorporating some dogmatism, some infinite regress and some perceptual experience.[2]


  1. J. F. Fries, Neue oder anthropologische Kritik der Vernunft (1828 to 1831).
  2. Karl Popper, "The Logic of Scientific Discovery", p. 87

See also

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