What are the characteristic features of the foundationalist theory of knowledge, and what motivation is there for this theory
As I am sitting here typing this essay I feel justified in claiming I am in my room at Warwick University at 4.00pm. I feel assured that what I say is true but how do I have such knowledge? At first it seems a simple fact, yet the more I think of it and the more I seek certainty, the harder it becomes to structurally justify my claims. Soon it is apparent that all my beliefs in the statement rest on other beliefs, such as I know it is 4pm because I look at the clock, I know that the clock tells the time because I understand the principal of a clock etc. The more I continue reasoning, the further my argument regresses justifying one belief by another. Such that to know r based on the belief of q I must have reason to justify q, namely p, furthermore justification of p, namely o etc. There must be a point at which this continuum ends or else none of the grounds would be compelling. As C.I.Lewis commented in the Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology,
“Unless something is certain, nothing else is even probable.”
This principal motive is known as the epistemological motive, behind foundationalism, the pursuit for certain, unshakeable knowledge. The second is the logical motive. It is hard to intelligibly conceive an infinite chain of justification regressing into space. If this were the case then as finite, mortal beings, we would not be able to fulfil the sequence of reasoning. Therefore removing the possibility of justifiably
explaining what it is to “know.” It seems more coherent to perceive a starting point from which we then develop all other knowledge, in the same way that we innately have the principles of language and then develop our vocabulary and grammar. Finally foundationalists have a psychological motive. They believe that evidentially we have psychological states, for example to think, which require no justification. They just seem to be true on the sole fact that they exist. Such a self-justifying state should be considered as a possible foundation of knowledge. Pollock succinctly describes the collaboration of all these motives,
“The simple motivation for foundations theories is the psychological observation that we have various ways of sensing the world, and all knowledge comes to us via those senses. The foundationalist takes this to mean that our senses provide us with what are then identified as epistemologically basic beliefs. We arrive at other beliefs by reasoning, construed broadly. Reasoning, it seems, can only justify us in holding a belief if we are already justified in holding the beliefs from which we reason, so reasoning cannot provide an ultimate source of justification. Only perception can do that.” (Contemporary Theories of Knowledge, p. 29)
With all these motives combined I am able to describe the characteristic features of the foundationalists theory. Firstly beliefs are divided into two groups:
1. Beliefs that are indirectly justified by a process of reasoning from other beliefs. As mentioning in the first paragraph of this essay, I know it is 4pm because I look at the clock, I know that the clock tells the time because I understand the principal of a clock etc.
2. Self-evident knowledge that is purely true due to its intrinsic nature. The foundation of knowledge
Description 1 beliefs can be justified iff (if and only if) they are connected by a process of reasoning to description 2 beliefs. Aristotle discovered this in his search to explain scientific knowledge. He said that in order to have our demonstrative knowledge, inferentially acquired from other premises, we must also have non-demonstrative beliefs. For if we are to yield a conclusion one must have a sound premise of reasoning and basic knowledge.
To clarify this I make the analogy from the belief system to a tree whereby the knowledge requiring no mental warrant is the trunk branching into further justified beliefs. Without the trunk the branches would have no support. But what holds such a privileged status that it can justify itself? How is it possible that p is true purely on the fact that it is p? Some foundationalist’s claim that we should not pose such a question for it completely violates the rules of language. Such that in the same way a bachelor by the meaning of the word is an unmarried man, p is self-evident.
However this is a rather radical claim. Contemporary foundationalists claim that foundational beliefs do require justification, but it is not through a sequence of derivation, rather the justification is immediately satisfied. A more classical view is that our “basic beliefs,” are those concerned with our own immediate sensory experience. But how do we know we are not being deceived into a misguided experience? If I was to state “I am sitting by my computer typing this essay,” how can I be sure that this is in fact real and that I am not dreaming, or that an evil demon is deceiving me? Descartes who discussed this issue in Meditations answers to such a problem with,
” But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it follow that that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something (or thought anything at all) then I certainly exist.”
As he continues the only things he appears to know exist in the mind, for example believing, dreaming, adding, seeing, hallucinating seeing, tasting, loving, deciding, remembering, imagining. Therefore any belief by the nature “it seems to me that I am experiencing…,” such as “it seems to me I am sitting here typing my essay,” must be true as the thought in the mind owner cannot be doubted. Therefore we can justify mind thoughts concerning the external world. This maybe a rather uninformative statement although it cannot be easily faulted as “although we can always go wrong in judgements of how things objectively are, we cannot go wrong about how they seem or look to us to be or how we think they are.” 1
In conclusion, the foundationalist theory of knowledge offers an intuitive proposal. However as with all philosophical notions it has been subject to much scepticism. I believe there is no question as to the existence of knowledge, as it seems implicit in my mind. But as of now it has not been truly elicited or brought to clear reflection. 2
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