Particularism is the view that there are no general rules or overarching standards which determine whether a belief is justified or not. It contrasts with the view that there are such general rules, which is sometimes called methodism. Particularists argue that we can be justified in believing things for all sorts of different reasons depending upon the context, and although there may be certain similarities between what makes a belief justified in different instances, there is no overarching framework or theory that can be applied to classify a given belief as justified or not. As such, particularists typically believe that the question ‘what do we know?’ is far more fundamental and important than the question ‘how do we know?’

One way to understand particularism is by considering subject matters such as art or science. Most people think they know what constitutes art or what constitutes science, and could give many examples of each. Indeed, given an arbitrary item or creative work, many people would be able to make a sensible judgment as to whether it constituted art (as distinct from, say, mere decoration, or advertising). Similarly, many people would be able to make a judgement as to whether a given activity counted as a science (physics and biology are, astrology and stamp collecting are not). There may, of course, be disputed or borderline cases, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that in very many cases such judgments can be unambiguously made. However, even though people do make such judgements and seem to know the meaning of terms like ‘art’ or ‘science’, when asked to outline the particular criteria they use to make such judgements, they are often unable to do so. Even philosophers cannot agree as to what criteria makes something ‘art’ or makes a discipline a ‘science’, even while they agree about a large number of actual cases of art and science. Such examples seem to show that we can have a lot of knowledge about something even without knowing what criteria we use to obtain that knowledge. Particularists think that all or most justification is something like this – we can often know when things are justified, even if we can’t actually give the criteria on which such judgments are made.

Further Reading

Particularism versus methodism: a brief introductory discussion

Moral particularism: detailed analysis of particularism applied to the moral realm from the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy