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The "F-word" Redefined

enewbern's picture


         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. 

Works Cited:
Audi, Robert. Ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press: New
       York, 1995.

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.


Anne Dalke's picture

a foundational methodology?

You use the same methodology in this paper as you did in your last: you go etymology-hunting to see if you can find the “foundational” meaning for a word whose use has puzzled and troubled us in class. The results, this time round, seem much less clear to me than in your first foray into the dictionary.

What I see you doing is using various philosophical sources to challenge Paul’s binary assertion there are two “types” of story, foundational and non-foundational, with the first being fixed, eternal, unalterable, while the latter is revisable. Drawing on the definitions of Audi and others, you insist on the existence (or @ least the definition!) of a “modest” version of foundationalism (to which you subscribe), which is both “non-inferential” and “not certain.” What this gets you—if I’m following aright—is a set of beliefs (such as religious ones) that can’t be explained, but exist nonetheless. They don’t challenge the existence of empiricism, although -- since empiricism fails to get “to” ‘em — I guess it can’t do much work in such a worldview?

So I guess I have two questions for you: Given the fact that the concept of a “modest foundationalism” is available, why did Paul eschew it, for the purposes of his argument? What is the use-value of refusing the middle ground, and setting up a binary? Secondly (and more importantly): what do you get by going into the middle, and founding your understanding of modest foundationalism there? Most importantly, is the sort of etymology-search in which you like to engage, definitionally, a foundationalist (or foundation-seeking) activity? To what end and use? And how steady the foundation you have found?