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evidence and inquirya pragmatist reconstruction of epistemology
By susan haack
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 Susan Haack
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFOUNDATIONALISM VERSUS COHERENTISM
A Dichotomy Disclaimed
One seems forced to choose between the picture of an elephant which rests on a tortoise (What supports the tortoise?) and the picture of a great Hegelian serpent of knowledge with its tail in its mouth (Where does it begin?). Neither will do. Sellars 'Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind'
Once upon a time—not so long ago, in fact—the legitimacy of epistemology was undisputed, the importance to epistemology of such concepts as evidence, reasons, warrant, justification was taken for granted, and the question of the relative merits of foundationalist and coherentist theories of justification was acknowledged as an important issue. Now, however, it seems that disenchantment reigns. The most disenchanted insist that the problems of epistemology are misconceived and should be abandoned altogether, or else that they should be replaced by natural-scientific questions about human cognition. The somewhat disenchanted, though still willing to engage in epistemology, want to shift the focus away from the concepts of evidence or justification and onto some fresher concept: epistemic virtue, perhaps, or information. Even those who still acknowledge that the concepts of evidence and justification are too central to be ignored are mostly disenchanted enough to want to shift the focus away from the issues of foundationalism versus coherentism and onto some fresher dimension: deontologism versus consequentialism, perhaps, or explanationism versus reliabilism. A great clamour of disenchantment fills the air, to the effect that the old epistemological pastures are exhausted and that we must move on to fresher fields.
A full explanation of the now-fashionable disenchantment would no doubt be quite complex, and would require appeal to factors external to the philosophical arguments, as well as to those arguments themselves. I don't think it is unduly cynical to speculate that part of the explanation of the urge to move away from familiar epistemological issues towards questions more amenable to resolution by cognitive psychology or neurophysiology or AI, for example, lies in the prestige those disciplines now enjoy. But part of the explanation, and the part which concerns me here, lies in a widely-held conviction that the familiar epistemological issues have proved to be hopelessly recalcitrant, and, most particularly, that neither foundationalism nor coherentism will do.
I agree that neither foundationalism nor coherentism will do. Obviously, however, no radical conclusion follows about the bona fides of the concept of justification, let alone about the legitimacy of epistemology, unless foundationalism and coherentism exhaust the options. But, as I shall argue, they do not; and, as I shall also argue, there is an intermediate theory which can overcome the difficulties faced by the familiar rivals.
So my first moves 'towards reconstruction in epistemology' will take the old, familiar debates between foundationalism and coherentism as their starting point.
Lest I raise false expectations, I had better say right away that I can offer neither a fell swoop nor a full sweep. The former would require perfectly precise characterizations of foundationalism and coherentism and knock-down, drag-out arguments against both rivals, neither of which I am in a position to supply. The latter would require a comprehensive examination of all the variants of foundationalism and coherentism, which, again, is beyond my powers (and your tolerance). What I offer is a compromise, a hodgepodge of the two desirable but impossible strategies. In the present chapter, I shall characterize foundationalism and coherentism as sharply as I can, and state the sturdiest arguments in the field as strongly as I can, hoping to show at least that there seem to be powerful arguments against each of the traditional rivals, which, however, the intermediate theory looks to be able to withstand; that, in other words, there is a pull towards the middle ground of foundherentism. In subsequent chapters I look in detail at specific foundationalist and coherentist theories, hoping to show not only that they fail, but that they fail in ways that point, again, towards the desirability of an intermediate theory.
One last preliminary: something should be said about how one should judge the correctness or incorrectness of a theory of justification. This task is surprisingly, but instructively, far from straightforward. In offering an explication of our criteria of justification the epistemologist is aiming to spell out with some precision and theoretical depth what is implicit in judgements that this person has excellent reasons for this belief, that that person has unjustifiably jumped to a conclusion, that another person has been the victim of wishful thinking ... and so forth and so on. I call this project 'explication', rather than 'analysis', to indicate that the epistemologist will have to do more than faithfully describe the contours of usage of phrases like 'justified in believing' and its close relatives; since such usage is vague, shifting, and fuzzy at the edges, the task will involve a lot of filling in, extrapolation, and plain tidying up. But one way in which a theory of justification may be inadequate is by failing to conform, even in clear cases, to our pre-analytic judgements of justification.
But this is only part of the story. The concept of justification is an evaluative concept, one of a whole mesh of concepts for the appraisal of a person's epistemic state. To say that a person is justified in some belief of his, is, in so far forth, to make a favourable appraisal of his epistemic state. So the task of explication here calls for a descriptive account of an evaluative concept.
The evaluative character of the concept imposes a different kind of constraint on theories of justification. To believe that p is to accept p as true; and strong, or flimsy, evidence for a belief is strong, or flimsy, evidence for its truth. Our criteria of justification, in other words, are the standards by which we judge the likelihood that a belief is true; they are what we take to be indications of truth. Another way in which a theory of justification may be inadequate, then, is that the criteria it offers are such that no connection can be made between a belief 's being justified, by those criteria, and the likelihood that things are as it says.
Satisfaction of both constraints would be the ideal. Not, of course, that there is any guarantee in advance that what we take to be indications of the truth of a belief really are such. But, if there is one, an account which satisfies both the descriptive and the evaluative constraints is what we are after.
The tricky part is to get the two kinds of constraint in the right perspective, neither excessively pollyannish nor excessively cynical. For now, let me just say that the epistemologist can be neither an uncritical participant in, nor a completely detached observer of, our pre-analytic standards of epistemic justification, but a reflective, and potentially a revisionary, participant. The epistemologist can't be a completely detached observer, because to do epistemology at all (or to undertake any kind of inquiry) one must employ some standards of evidence, of what counts as a reason for or against a belief—standards which one takes to be an indication of truth. But the epistemologist can't be a completely uncritical participant, because one has to allow for the possibility that what pre-analytic intuition judges strong, or flimsy, evidence, and what really is an indication of truth, may fail to correspond. In fact, however, I don't think this possibility is realized; I think pre-analytic intuition conforms, at least approximately, to criteria which are, at least in a weak sense, ratifiable as genuinely truth-indicative. Foundherentism, I shall argue, satisfies both constraints.
Before offering a characterization of the distinctive features of foundationalism and coherentism, I should explain my strategy for dealing with two initial difficulties which this enterprise faces. The main problem is that there is much variety and considerable vagueness in the way the terms 'foundationalism' and 'coherentism' are used in the literature. To protect myself; so far as this is possible, from the accusation that my characterization supports my thesis that foundationalism and coherentism do not exhaust the options simply as a matter of verbal stipulation, I can only do my best to ensure that my characterizations are in line with other attempts to go beyond the rather casual definitions sometimes assumed, and that they categorize as foundationalist those theories which are ordinarily and uncontroversially classified as foundationalist, and as coherentist those theories which are ordinarily and uncontroversially classified as coherentist.
A minor complication is that both 'foundationalism' and 'coherentism' have other uses besides their use in the context of theories of justification. Sometimes they are used to refer to theories of knowledge rather than of justification specifically, but this is not a significant problem for the present enterprise. Nor is the fact that 'coherentism' has a distinct use as a term for a certain style of theory of truth. Potentially the most confusing ambiguity is that, besides referring to a certain style of theory of justification, and a corresponding style of theory of knowledge, 'foundationalism' also has two meta-epistemological uses: to refer to the idea that epistemic standards are objectively grounded or founded; and to refer to the idea that epistemology is an a priori discipline the goal of which is to legitimate or found our presumed empirical knowledge. Later (chapter 9) it will be necessary to introduce typographical variants ('FOUNDATIONALISM', 'foundationalism') to mark these other uses.
But here and throughout the book, 'foundationalism' will refer to theories of justification which require a distinction, among justified beliefs, between those which are basic and those which are derived, and a conception of justification as one-directional, i.e., as requiring basic to support derived beliefs, never vice versa. This, rough as it is, is sufficient to capture something of the metaphorical force of the term 'foundationalism'; the basic beliefs constitute the foundation on which the whole superstructure of justified belief rests. I shall say that a theory qualifies as foundationalist which subscribes to the theses:
(FD1) Some justified beliefs are basic; a basic belief is justified independently of the support of any other belief;
(FD2) All other justified beliefs are derived; a derived belief is justified via the support, direct or indirect, of a basic belief or beliefs.
(FD1) is intended to represent the minimal claim about the requirements for a belief to qualify as basic. It is a claim about how basic beliefs are (and how they are not) justified. Many foundationalists have also held that basic beliefs are privileged in other ways: that they are certain, incorrigible, infallible ... i.e., that it is impossible that they be falsely held. 'Infallibilist foundationalism' will refer to theories which make this additional claim. (But theories which postulate certain or infallible beliefs, but do not take such beliefs to be required for the justification of all other beliefs, or do not require such beliefs to be justified independently of the support of any other beliefs, will not qualify as foundationalist.)
(FD1) admits of many and various variations. One dimension of variation concerns the material character of the beliefs claimed to be basic. Fundamental is the distinction between those foundationalist theories which take the basic beliefs to be empirical, and those which take them to be non-empirical. I distinguish:
(FD1NE)Some beliefs are basic; a basic belief is justified independently of the support of any other belief; basic beliefs are non-empirical in character.
Proponents of (FD1NE) usually have in mind simple logical or mathematical truths, often thought of as 'self-evident', as basic.
(FD1E) Some beliefs are basic; a basic belief is justified independently of the support of any other beliefs; basic beliefs are empirical in character.
'Empirical', here, should be understood as roughly equivalent to 'factual', not as necessarily restricted to beliefs about the external world. In fact, one style of empirical foundationalism takes beliefs about the subject's own, current, conscious states as basic, another takes simple beliefs about the external world as basic, and a third allows both.
I shall restrict my discussion, in what follows, to empirical foundationalism, leaving non-empirical foundationalism (and the possible variant which allows both empirical and non-empirical basic beliefs) out of account.
A different dimension of variation runs obliquely to this. It concerns the explanation given to the claim that a basic belief is 'justified, but not by the support of any other belief '. There seem to be three significantly different kinds of account: according to the experientialist version of empirical foundationalism, basic beliefs are justified, not by the support of other beliefs, but by the support of the subject's (sensory and/or introspective) experience; according to the extrinsic version of empirical foundationalism, basic beliefs are justified because of the existence of a causal or law-like connection between the subject's having the belief and the state of affairs that makes it true; and according to the intrinsic or self-justificatory version of empirical foundationalism, basic beliefs are justified because of their intrinsic character, their content is the guarantee of their justification. Thus:
(FD1EEXP) Some justified beliefs are basic; a basic belief is justified, not by the support of any other belief, but by the subject's experience
represents the first of these, while:
(FD1EEXT) Some justified beliefs are basic; a basic belief is justified, not by the support of any other belief, but because of a causal or law-like connection between the subject's belief and the state of affairs which makes it true
represents the second, and:
(FD1ESJ) Some justified beliefs are basic; a basic belief is justified, not by the support of any other belief, but in virtue of its content, its instrinsically self-justifying character
represents the third.
The intrinsic or self-justifying style of explanation of the justification of basic beliefs is, naturally, also attractive to those non-empirical foundationalists who would explain the justification of basic logical beliefs as resulting from their intrinsic character or content (or, more likely, their lack of content). But this need not be pursued here.
Experientialist empirical foundationalism may be restricted to relying on the subject's introspective experience, or may be restricted to relying on his sensory experience, or may allow both kinds; depending on which it does, it is likely to class as basic beliefs about the subject's own, current, conscious states, or simple perceptual beliefs, or both. Extrinsic foundationalism and self-justificatory foundationalism, likewise, cut across the sub-categories of empirical foundationalism with respect to the kinds of belief they take as basic.
The main reason I use the expression 'empirical foundationalism' rather than 'a posteriori foundationalism' should now be apparent. One reason, of course, is that 'a posteriori' versus 'a priori' does not lend itself to convenient abbreviation. The more substantial reason, however, is that, unlike the experientialist version, neither extrinsic nor self-justificatory foundationalism gives a justificatory role to the subject's experience. This leads to another significant point: that while experientialist foundationalism connects justification to the subject's experience, and extrinsic foundationalism connects justification to states of affairs in the world, self-justificatory foundationalism makes justification a matter solely of beliefs: their intrinsic character where the basis is concerned, and their support relations where the superstructure is concerned.
(FD1E) also admits of variation with respect to the strength of the claim it makes about the justification of basic beliefs. The stronger version claims that basic beliefs are, simply, justified, independently of the support of any other beliefs; weaker versions, that they are justified prima facie but defeasibly, or to some degree but less than fully, independently of any other beliefs. As should be apparent, the weaker versions may, though they need not, require acknowledgement of degrees of justification. I distinguish:
(FD1s) Some justified beliefs are basic; a basic belief is (decisively, conclusively, completely) justified independently of the support of any other belief
(FD1w) Some justified beliefs are basic; a basic belief is justified prima facie but defeasibly/to some degree but not completely, independently of the support of any other belief.
'Strong foundationalism' will refer to the first style, 'weak foundationalism' to the second.
(FD2) also admits of variations. According to the pure version, derived beliefs are always justified wholly by means of the support of basic beliefs; according to the impure version, derived beliefs are always justified at least in part by means of the support of basic beliefs, but the possibility is allowed that they may get part of their justification by means of mutual support among themselves. I distinguish:
(FD2P) All other justified beliefs are derived; a derived belief is justified wholly via the support, direct or indirect, of a basic belief or beliefs
(FD2I) All other justified beliefs are derived; a derived belief is justified at least in part via the support, direct or indirect, of a basic belief or beliefs.
'Pure foundationalism' will refer to the first of these, 'impure foundationalism' to the second.
Excerpted from evidence and inquiry by susan haack Copyright © 2009 by Susan Haack. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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