A Strength and Weakness of Foundationalism

IMG_1354What is our knowledge of everyday propositions based on? The foundationalist believes that the answer to this question is that there is a foundation of a few beliefs which we know with certainty, upon which all other beliefs reside. What makes a proposition knowledge then is that it has a bases in this fundament. There are great challenges associated with this view however. I argue that to overcome the problems associated with it must become weaker and impure which will eventually lead to questioning the very distinction between foundational and inferential beliefs. This post will only consider internalist, modest foundationalism and in particular where foundational beliefs are justified by non-belief, non-propositional experiences. It shall start by defining that form of foundationalism as well as briefly putting it in the context of other forms, shall examine its ability to solve Agrippa’s trilemma simply as main strength and the way it needs to warp to escape coherentist attack as weakness. I will close by offering foundherentism as possible solution.

Foundationalism is an internalist theory of the structure of knowledge and justification (Grayling, 2007). It is based on a distinction between non-inferential or basic beliefs and inferential beliefs. Basic belief are those that are justifiable without consulting other beliefs. In all foundationalist thought it is common that justification is purely one-directional where basic beliefs justify inferential beliefs; and inferential beliefs can justify other inferential beliefs if and only if they are justified by basic beliefs. Since this is only a structural theory there is much room for interpretation: While radical foundationalism insists that basic beliefs must be infallible and the connection between basic beliefs and inferential beliefs be one of logical entailment, modest foundationalism allows for fallibility among basic beliefs and a probabilistic connection between basic beliefs and inferential beliefs, where it is open whether other beliefs may be a causal basis for basic beliefs. (Audi, 2009)

Although there is much disagreement among philosophers about that exactly that last point means, there are three very prominent answers to the question from whence basic beliefs arise in modest foundationalism: 1) self justification, i.e. they are justified in virtue of themselves; 2) justification by non-belief origin of a belief, i.e. basis in believe forming process for instance vision; and 3) justification by non-belief, non-propositional experience, i.e. sensory or perceptual experiences that make inferential beliefs probable by inference to the best explanation (Audi, 2009) This essay will consider the latter only.

Consider the following example: I meet my friend Joseph. Through my vision which is not a belief but an experience I can attain the basic beliefs that “I seem to see brown” and “I seem to see curly”. (For simplicity this essay will not consider the variations between “seeming to” and “being appeared to”.) In this oversimplified example, my basic beliefs formed by perception could lead me to believe many things, but the inference to the best explanation is that Joseph is here who I recognised by his brown and curly hair. Because my basic beliefs are non-propositional and not a belief they are basic and if the best explanation for my experience is a certain inferential belief then I am now justified to come to that inferential belief.

One of the main strengths of foundationalism is that this is a simple and initially satisfactory solution for various paradoxes. The initial western motivation for foundationalism for instance comes from Aristotle’s regress argument, which is an analysis of possible structures of justification. Assuming the principle of inferential justification, one is only justified in believing B on basis of B1, if one is also justified in believing that B1 leads to B. However one is only justified in believing B1 if and only if it is based on B2 and B2 leads to B1, and so on until the basis of one’s belief is some Bn (Fumerton, 2010).This would mean that an infinite number of claims is necessary to form any belief. Aristotle rejects this. Also the possibility of beliefs being merely justified by each other or that they are validly believed even if unjustified seems absurd. Since all other accounts for justification fail, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that foundationalism must be true.

When looking for a way to attack foundationalism, the two most vulnerable points are the account for the nature of basic beliefs and the process of deriving inferential beliefs from them. Thus the main weakness this essay will discuss is how arguments from defeasability question the sensibility of the concept of basic beliefs and hence their relation with inferential beliefs: Modest foundationalists mostly concur that basic justification can be overruled by expanding one’s evidence. If I come to believe a certain basic belief through sensory perception but find that my senses tricked me or were misled, then this basic belief would suddenly no longer be justified, it would be defeated and the new evidence would be its defeater. This would entail that justification for basic beliefs can vary over time (Audi, 2009).

Reconsider our previous example: Suppose I did not actually meet Joseph. Only the bad lighting misled my perception to produce false basic beliefs about brownness and curlyness. Now the lights are properly turned on and I “seem to see black”, which through inference to the best explanation leads to my inferential belief that there is Holt there. Alas, “I seem to see brown” and “I seem to see curly” can only infer their best explanation that there is Joseph, if and only if there is no defeater present. A defeater would be the bad lighting that, if observed, serves as further evidence that in conjunction with perception can lead to a revised and better justified basic belief.

This poses a major threat to foundationalism. How can some basic beliefs be more justified than others? If basic beliefs are defeasable evidence for inferential beliefs then an inferential belief is justified if and only if 1) it rests upon a basic belief and 2) that basic belief is not defeated (Grayling, 2007), therefore any inferential belief must by necessity rest on more than basic beliefs but also on a global condition that no defeater is present. A foundationalist may argue against this by saying that it does not follow from defesability that justification of basic beliefs positively depends on denying the existence of defeaters, but only on the absence of genuine defeaters, or there being ideal circumstances as in our example good lighting.

This is not a satisfactory answer. One could easily say that if new evidence is found a basic belief is not just defeated, but adapted or replaced by a new, revised belief that is simply more coherent with all the evidence or defeaters that we believe are present. One ought to be careful when using the words basic belief and coherent in the same statement for they represent the two opposite ends of foundationalism and coherentism, but from a coherentist point of view it is indeed no longer obvious that there should be any basic beliefs if for them to be justified means to be coherent with global conditions, for such conditions imply that beliefs in order to be justified need to fit together which inevitably leads to coherentism.

One other way of arriving at that conclusion is through propositional attitudes. Sellars argues that experienced mental states require propositional attitudes to be useful. Mere consciousness of something for example the curlyness of Joseph’s hair is not sufficient to form a pronounced basic belief to base inferential beliefs upon. However, as soon as propositional attitudes are involved the direct link between basic beliefs and reality is broken. What follows is that there is margin for error and misjudgement and thus sensory experience cannot be a foundation for knowledge (Sellars, 2008). The reason that this essay mentions this is that it adds another layer to the problem of basic beliefs since if propositional attitudes are involved, how can we base our basic belief on non-propositional experiences, or,  how can experience justify basic beliefs?

In essence, the modest foundationalist requires this privileged group of basic beliefs that are justified by non-propositional experience and at the same time capable of supporting all other inferential beliefs, yet ignores the interdependence of beliefs and/or global conditions and furthermore the propositional nature of experience. One ought to ask, what sense does it make to have basic beliefs without other beliefs to support them, and if the answer to that question is no, does this lead to coherentism? Haack offers a solution to this dilemma with her theory of foundherentism which attempt to bring together the best parts of both foundationalism and coherentism (Haack, 2008). Whether or not this attempt succeeds shall be the topic of another essay. In conclusion, one can say that this form of foundationalism faces many challenges. Unlike radical foundationalism, which is widely unpopular because of its rigidity, modest foundationalism is flexible and willing to adapt. However, this essay must conclude that its adaptations to defend against attack are unsuccessful and bend foundationalism to a point where a distinction between basic and inferential beliefs seems almost unjustified.


Audi, Robert: The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, entries on Foundationalism, Coherentism, Epistemology & Justification, Cambridge University Press, New York, 11th edition, 2009

Blackburn, Simon: Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, entries on foundtionalism and justification, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2008

Fumerton, Richard: Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-foundational], 2010

Grayling, Anthony: Philosophy 1, Oxford University Press, New York, 2007

Haack, Susan: A Foundherentist Theory of Empirical Justification, in Sosa, Ernest: Epistemology, An Anthology, Blackwell, Oxford, 2nd edition, 2008

Pritchard, Duncan: Knowledge, Palgrave, New York, 2009

Sellars, Wilfried: Epistemic Principles, in Sosa, Ernest: Epistemology, An Anthology, Blackwell, Oxford, 2nd edition, 2008

Sellars, Wilfried: The Raft and the Pyramid, in Sosa, Ernest: Epistemology, An Anthology, Blackwell, Oxford, 2nd edition, 2008

Epistemology (pdf)