"If every belief has to be justified by appeal to a different belief, some beliefs could not be justified.
Hence, there must be foundational beliefs whose justification is independent of other beliefs."


The essay title raises an issue relevant within the framework of the traditional Justified-True-Belief theory of knowledge.  This traditional theory posits that -
                     S knows that P iff  (1) P is true;
                                                  (2) S believes that P; and
                                                  (3) S is justified in believing that P.
The essay title is addressing the issue of what it means for S to be justified in believing that P by drawing upon the common intuition that our beliefs are justified by appeal to other beliefs.

Most theories of what justification means are termed "internalist" because their concept of justification is based solely on things that are directly available to the knower.  Internalist theories of justification focus on the way we employ reasons to support conclusions from the evidence.  When you list all the reasons you believe justifies your belief that P, what you are listing is other beliefs along with the associated second-order beliefs that the supporting evidence actually does imply P, or make P more probable. 

However, as the title points out, if your knowledge is justified on the basis of other beliefs, and those are in turn justified based on further beliefs, it is easy to see that an infinite regress quickly develops.  The essay title is referring to a form of sceptical challenge known as Agrippan (or Ancient Greek) Scepticism after the Five Modes of Agrippa identified by Sextus Empiricus.  The argument is that when challenged to provide the reasons that justify any particular belief, you have only one of three options:

1)           Keep providing some new supporting reason -- i.e. embark on an infinite regress of reasons;   or

2)           At some point give up, and fall back on some basic dogmatic (and hence unjustified) assumption;   or

3)           At some point, repeat yourself -- i.e. reason in a circle.

The Agrippan Sceptic argues that none of these three alternatives is acceptable as a proper justification for your beliefs.  Therefore, none of your beliefs are justified.  Hence knowledge (conceived as justified true belief) is impossible to attain.  This is an even stronger argument than is presented in the essay title.  If every belief has to be justified by appeal to a different belief, not just some beliefs could not be justified, but all beliefs could not be justified.

Considering the traditional justified true belief account of knowledge in the light of Agrippan scepticism focuses attention on the need for "foundational" beliefs that must somehow be non-inferentially credible -- justified without deriving their justification from other beliefs.  This is the suggestion of the essay title.

Within the framework of a Justified-True-Belief understanding of knowledge, there are three sorts of responses to the Agrippan sceptic.  The theory of Coherentism simply denies the argument that there must be foundational beliefs whose justification is independent of other beliefs.  Coherentism argues that a network of beliefs can be self-justifying by being "coherent" -- integrated within a mutually supporting network of explanatory inter-dependence.  The Foundationalist theory maintains that there are foundational beliefs that have some special epistemic status.  The Contextualist theory combines elements of both Foundationalism and coherentism with some innovations of its own, and abandons the struggle to maintain pure justification internalism to allow some external notion such as reliablism to intrude sufficiently to anchor our beliefs to reality.  For the purposes of discussing the argument presented in the essay title, we'll ignore the coherence account of knowledge (since it denies the argument) and focus on the other two alternatives.

With the remaining two competing theories in mind, we can then ask the question whether the required "foundational beliefs" are the sort whose justification is necessarily completely independent of other beliefs (as is posited by Foundationalism), or can they be "foundational beliefs" whose justification is prima facie independent of other beliefs within a given context (as is posited by Contextualism). 

Both Foundationalism and Contextualism address the Agrippan problem of infinite regress by positing that there are indeed some beliefs that are non-inferentially justified, and therefore "foundational".  As the argument in the essay title suggests, both maintain that in addition to the three options offered by the Agrippan Sceptic, there is a fourth option -- specifically a set of foundational beliefs that do not require further justification, by their very nature true and self-presenting (i.e. self-justifying) simply in virtue of the fact that we have the belief, intrinsically credible by virtue of the kind of belief they are.  They differ, however, in their understanding of how independent these "foundational" beliefs need be of other beliefs, and from where comes their intrinsic credibility.  Classical Foundationalism maintains that "foundational" beliefs are justified totally in virtue of the intrinsic nature of the belief, and completely independently of any other belief.  Contextualism, on the other hand, maintains that "foundational" beliefs are prima facie justified within a conceptual context -- and hence not specifically justified by appeal to other beliefs, but none the less justified within the context of other beliefs.

The Foundational Theory of Knowledge proposes that if S perceives that P (in some tightly constrained understanding of "perceive"), then S is justified in believing that P.  Other beliefs are justified only if they are "based" (in some tightly constrained understanding of "based") on foundational beliefs.  The claim that there are two forms of justification -- inferential and non-inferential -- is the core of any form of Foundationalism.  The details of the theory arise from just how, precisely, those two "tight constraints" are specified:

(a) the nature of the foundation -- just exactly what beliefs are "foundational" and just why are they to be considered "self-justifying"; just what exactly is that tightly constrained understanding of "perceive"; and

(b) the nature of the structure -- just how are our non-foundational beliefs "based" on the foundational beliefs; just what exactly is that tightly constrained meaning of "based".

Classical Foundationalism gives expression to the central tenet of empiricism, the view that all our knowledge is derived from our experience.  It does this by insisting that a belief which is not about our own sensory states (our immediate experience) must, if it is to be justified, be justified by appeals to beliefs which are about our own sensory states.  Such beliefs are able to stand on their own feet, without support from others. 

How is it that our beliefs about our present sensory states need no support from other beliefs?   Foundationalism claims that our beliefs about our present sensory states are necessarily infallible, or indubitable, or incorrigible -- assumed to be true by their very nature, and hence not requiring any further justification. The main reason for wanting one's foundational beliefs to be infallible is that this would guarantee they are all true -- one would need no other beliefs as reasons to justify them.  These foundational beliefs are not simply unchallenged, but unchallengeable.  (According to some variations, perhaps not absolutely unchallengeable, but at least not automatically challengeable and thus at least prima facie justified.)   For example, if you believe that it is raining outside, then it is unavoidably (indubitably, infallibly, incorrigibly) true that you believe that it is raining outside - regardless of whether it is in fact raining outside.

The foundationalist's dilemma is to define a basis for knowledge modest enough to be secure against the sceptic, but rich enough to be adequate as the foundation for the rest of what we believe.  The problem arises from the nature of our beliefs about any experience.  If our experience is to have any epistemological significance, we must form a belief expressible as a proposition.  This amounts to rejecting any sharp distinction between experiencing and judging -- between seeing the tomato as red, and classifying what we see as "a tomato" and "red".  The kind of belief that is involved in knowledge presupposes the ability to make propositionally useful judgements of what it is we experience.

Propositional content involves conceptual content, and conceptual classification is inseparable from the possibility of mis-classification (mis-conception).  It seems, then, that propositional content is inseparable from the possibility of error.  If this is so, no judgement however modest, is absolutely indubitable.  So if basic experiential ("foundational") beliefs have to be indubitable, there can be no such thing as foundational beliefs.  The difficulty is to see how any perceptual belief, no matter how internal to our own mental states, can be wrenched out of all inferential connections to conceptual classification (other beliefs) and retain any content at all.  Our basic beliefs must have sufficient content to support the superstructure in which we are really interested, and no belief with that amount of content is going to be infallible. 

It is difficult, therefore, to understand Foundationalism's constrained concept of "perceiving", when one perceives the tomato to be red, unless one also adds to the mix clearly non-foundational beliefs about the meaning of "tomato" and "red".  It is therefore not reasonable to accept the foundationalist's position that the need for some sort of "foundational" beliefs necessarily implies a need for complete independence from other beliefs.  Especially in light of the competing theory of Contextualism.

The approach to "foundational" beliefs offered by Contextualism differs from that offered by Foundationalism in two key respects.  The first key difference between Contextualism and Foundationalism is that Contextualism adopts the "default and challenge" model of justification instead of the "prior grounding" model.  The foundationalist theory of justification is rooted in the Prior Grounding requirement.  Not merely does the foundationalist demand the prior grounding requirement for beliefs to qualify as knowledge, he insists on a very restrictive conception of our available "foundational beliefs".  The foundationalist assumes that experiential knowledge is, in some wholly general and intrinsic way, epistemologically prior to any other knowledge of the world.  The basic principle of Contextualism, by contrast, is that if it seems (in a wholly general sense of "seem") to S that P, then S is prima facie justified in believing that P.  It switches the priority of justification from the third-person "prior grounding" sense of justification to the first-person "epistemic responsibility" sense.

In the absence of reasons to believe otherwise, it is surely irrational not to believe what seems to be the case.  But in relying on the first-person "epistemic responsibility" sense of justification, in judging that I have knowledge rather than merely belief I am judging that I am warranted in claiming that my belief is adequately grounded, but not to having already confirmed its grounding.  Its grounding could consist of it being caused by or formed via a reliable process.  (This aspect of Contextualism draws in some of the benefits of Reliablist theories of knowledge, like its compatibility with evolutionary theory.)   Second order epistemic beliefs also show up in the contextual coherence net that justifies the belief that P.  The fact that I believe my perceptions to be a reliable indicator of the truth of things, is a good reason for believing that (prima facie) things are as they perceptually appear.

Elements of Foundationalism show up in Contextualism through the recognition that perceptual inputs have special epistemic status.  One of the ways it can seem to me that the tomato is red, is that I can be perceptually aware (see) that the tomato is red.  Contextualism does not share Foundationalism's difficulty with understanding the meaning of "tomato" and "red", because it understands perceptual awareness in a coherentist way -- perceptual awareness is wrapped by beliefs about the meaning of conceptual categories and word meanings. 

The second key difference between Foundationalism and Contextualism is that Contextualism rejects both Foundationalism's notion that a basic belief can be intrinsically justified on its own, and Foundationalism's premise that any belief possesses an objective epistemological status.  The distinctive commitment of Foundationalism is that every belief has an intrinsic epistemological status -- the status of the belief is independent of the believer.  Beliefs of the foundational kind can be treated as epistemologically prior to beliefs of any other kind because they simply are epistemologically prior, independently of what we may think of the matter.  This can be characterized as a form of "epistemological realism" -- the epistemological status of any belief is a property of that belief that is "real", "objective", and evidence transcendent.

Contextualism embodies a kind of local or modular holism, and is radically anti-realist when it comes to any intrinsic epistemic status.  There is no need for the contextualist to posit special "epistemic kinds" of beliefs.  The epistemic identification of a "foundational belief" whose justification is independent of other beliefs, is contextual in nature.  The epistemic status of beliefs is defined by the context of that belief -- by other beliefs.  Norms, including epistemic standards and classifications, are norms that we set, not intrinsic properties imposed upon us by "the nature of beliefs" or "the nature of epistemic justification".  Contextualism therefore rejects any thoughts that particular beliefs have an intrinsic epistemic status. Contextualism lacks, therefore, any interest in sorting our beliefs into foundational and non-foundational, a priori and a posteriori, necessary and contingent, analytic and synthetic outside of the context of discourse.  Any such divisions are established by the contextual environment at the time.

For a contextualist, there cannot be a sharp distinction between knowing-that and knowing-how.  Being able to make judgements of identification or classification -- the pre-condition for any knowing-that (such as that the tomato is red) -- involves know-how essentially.  For Contextualism, the distinction between the "observable" and the "inferential" or "theoretical" is methodological and not substantive or intrinsic.  We can observe anything whose presence we can be trained to report reliably on.  Perceptual knowing can be causally and reliably mediated by our having sensations, while remaining epistemically direct and about objects in our environment.

A contextualist view of knowledge and justification does not commit one to holding that a reference to context is part of the content of a knowledge-claim.  A knowledge claim commits one to holding that all significant defeaters -- possibilities which, if realised, would make one's beliefs false or inadequately justified -- can be (not have been) eliminated: the contextual element comes in to fix what defeaters should be counted as significant.  Contextualism takes falibilism seriously.  Justification is always provisional, never water-tight.  And it often involves less-than-algorithmic procedures, such as inference to the best explanation.

The contextualist therefore agrees with the essay title's argument (and the Foundatinalist) that there must indeed be some "foundational beliefs".  But argues that these beliefs are "foundational" only within a given context, and whose justification is independent of other beliefs only in the sense that they are prima facie justified in the absence of any contextually relevant reasons for doubt.

[Up] [Home] [Next]