Legal Dictionary

defeasible reasoning

Definition of defeasible reasoning

Further reading

Defeasible reasoning is a kind of reasoning that is based on reasons that are defeasible, as opposed to the indefeasible reasons of deductive logic. Defeasible reasoning is a particular kind of non-demonstrative reasoning, where the reasoning does not produce a full, complete, or final demonstration of a claim, i.e., where fallibility and corrigibility of a conclusion are acknowledged. Other kinds of non-demonstrative reasoning are probabilistic reasoning, inductive reasoning, statistical reasoning, abductive reasoning, and paraconsistent reasoning. Defeasible reasoning is also a kind of ampliative reasoning because its conclusions reach beyond the pure meanings of the premises.

The differences between these kinds of reasoning correspond to differences about the conditional that each kind of reasoning uses, and on what premise (or on what authority) the conditional is adopted:

  • deductive: from meaning postulate, axiom, or contingent assertion: if p then q (i.e., q or not-p)
  • defeasible: from authority: if p then (defeasibly) q
  • probabilistic: from combinatorics+indifference: if p then (probably) q
  • statistical: from data+presumption: the frequency of q 's among p 's is high (or inference from a model fit to data); hence, (in the right context) if p then (probably) q
  • inductive (theory-formation): from data+coherence+simplicity+confirmation: (inducibly) "if p then q"; hence, if p then (deducibly-but-revisably) q
  • abductive: from data+theory: p and q are correlated, and q is sufficient for p; hence, if p then (abducibly) q as cause

Some have thought that defeasible reasoning could be connected to qualitative probabilistic reasoning, but such efforts have not borne great insights.

Defeasible reasoning finds its fullest expression in jurisprudence, ethics and moral philosophy, epistemology, pragmatics and conversational conventions in linguistics, constructivist decision theories, and in knowledge representation and planning in artificial intelligence. It is also closely identified with prima facie (presumptive) reasoning (i.e., reasoning on the "face" of evidence), and ceteris paribus (default) reasoning (i.e., reasoning, all things "being equal").

The etymology of defeasible usually refers to Middle English law of contracts, where a condition of defeasance is a clause that can invalidate or annul a contract or deed. Though defeat, dominate, defer, defy, deprecate and derogate are often used in the same contexts as defeasible, the verbs annul and invalidate (and nullify, overturn, rescind, vacate, repeal, debar, void, cancel, countermand, preempt, etc.) are more properly correlated with the concept of defeasibility than those words beginning with the letter d. Many dictionaries do contain the verb, to defease with past participle, defeased.

Many political philosophers have been fond of the word indefeasible when referring to rights, e.g., that were inalienable, divine, or indubitable. For example, in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, "community hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish government..." (also attributed to James Madison); and John Adams, "The people have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge - I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers." Also, Lord Aberdeen: "indefeasible right inherent in the British Crown" and Gouverneur Morris: "the Basis of our own Constitution is the indefeasible Right of the People." Scholarship about Abraham Lincoln often cites these passages in the justification of secession. Philosophers who use the word defeasible have historically had different world views from those who use the word indefeasible (and this distinction has often been mirrored by Oxford and Cambridge zeitgeist); hence it is rare to find authors who use both words.

In judicial opinions, the use of defeasible is commonplace. There is however disagreement among legal logicians whether defeasible reasoning is central, e.g., in the consideration of open texture, precedent, exceptions, and rationales, or whether it applies only to explicit defeasance clauses. H.L.A. Hart in The Concept of Law gives two famous examples of defeasibility: "No vehicles in the park" (except during parades); and "Offer, acceptance, and memorandum produce a contract" (except when the contract is illegal, the parties are minors, inebriated, or incapacitated, etc.).


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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