The "F-word" Redefined
Foundationalism, or the “f-word” as we have come to call it in our class discussions, was defined in class as being an idea or theory that was “grounded, concrete, and observable.” I wasn’t really satisfied with this definition, but I wasn’t ready to throw away the term in favor of another. So I have decided that foundationalism deserves a closer look.
The first stop on my journey through the ideas of foundationalism was the Oxford English Dictionary. I thought that if I could get a really basic definition and the epistemology I could find a good place to start. However, foundationalism is not a word that exists in that particular dictionary, although foundation, foundational, and foundationary were all present. Next I decided to search more specifically and discovered that there were dictionaries for philosophical terms and theories. I used one of them and discovered that foundationalism was much more complex than something “grounded.” It is very basically defined in this text as follows:
The view that knowledge and epistemic (knowledge-relevant) justification have a two-tier
structure: some instances of knowledge and justification are non-inferential, or foundational;
and all other instances thereof are inferential, or non-foundational, in that they derive ultimately
from foundational knowledge or justification (Audi, 276).
This definition explains the idea that it is not just some idea or knowledge that is “grounded” but something that can provide a platform for further thought. The dictionary goes on to explain that there is not just one kind of foundationalism but it has variations that have evolved over time from the original idea which came from Aristotle’s Posterior Analysis (Audi, 276). The one that Professor Grobstein seems to have drawn from is that of radical foundationalism which “requires that foundational beliefs be certain and able to guarantee the certainty of the non-foundational beliefs they support” (Audi, 277). Since foundationalism in the lecture of our class has been associated with the “grounded and concrete” ideas of religion and other stories that came before Darwin’s, it makes sense that this would be the sort of definition that we have come to use as the universal rule.
Since this theory is based upon the idea that there are some clear and basic concepts that exist in order for us to make sense of the rest of the world, I believe that there can be some universal standard that we can all associate with this term. I personally subscribe to the idea of modest foundationalism which is “the view that non-inferentially justified, foundational beliefs need not posses or provide certainty and need not deductively support justified, non-foundational beliefs” (Audi, 277). I think it fully describes the idea of inherent beliefs that are not as easily justified or explained, such as religion. Religion may not be proven by any fact and it doesn’t prove anything else conclusively, but it exists as a very real thing to many people around the world.
Admittedly this theory does challenge some that we have discussed in class, such as the theory of empiricism, which I attempted to define in my last paper. Laurence BonJour explains that in a world were foundationalism is the story there can be no empirical belief if there are ideas and theories that can exist without being proved in any deductive or conclusive way in the mind of the cynic (BonJour & Sosa, 9). I am more inclined to believe that foundationalism is something that operates on a much smaller scale. There are some things in the world that no one person can properly define because we do not have the knowledge or access to a place where it can be obtained, but I don’t think that it means the knowledge isn’t out there somewhere. I think that in this context that empiricism could still exist.
It is because of these sorts of unanswered questions that many people seem to have problems with foundationalism, much like the one that we found in our class. According to Antifoundationalism and Practical Reasoning, the problem is that foundationalism “seeks…criteria defining conditions in which some beliefs are finally justified” (Simpson, 2). This is a task that is nearly impossible because in the right situation nearly all beliefs can be justified, which is why antifoundationalism exists at all. Foundationalism isn’t usually defined in a way that allows for other theories to co-exist with it, which I do not think is the case with the definition of modest foundationalism. I think that it is loose enough and vague enough that it can be applied a little more easily.
In conclusion, I have found that foundationalism can be described as a set of beliefs that are held that cannot necessarily help to define other ideas but might. It applies to those inherent beliefs present in all of us that we have no way to define or describe. Professor Grobstien’s use of the word as being something that is either one type of person or another is inaccurate. Forming foundational thoughts is something that every human being does, not just people like Dennett. It is just a more obvious trait in those of us who try to create an argument upon these beliefs and use ideas, theories, and metaphors that might not actually help to deduce a solid reasoning behind it.
Audi, Robert. Ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press: New
Bonjour, Laurence and Sosa, Ernest. Epistemic Justification: Internalism vs. Externalism,
Foundations vs. Virtues. Blackwell Publishing Ltd: Oxford, 2003.
Simpson, Evan. Ed. Antifoundationalism and Practical Reasoning. Academic Printing &
Publishing: Edmonton, 1987.