Supplement to Lectures on BonJour's Structure of Empirical Knowledge 

     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli

Chapter 2. Foundationalism: The Main Conception:

16 It is obvious that epistemic justification can be transferred from one belief or set of beliefs to another via inferential connections, but where does such justification originally come from?

17 Foundationalism:

(a) "some empirical beliefs possess a measure of epistemic justification which is somehow immediate or intrinsic to them, at least in the sense of not being dependent inferentially or otherwise, on the epistemic justification of other empirical beliefs; and

This gives us what many theorists speak of as the "thesis of epistemic priority"--the view that some claims have a privileged epistemological status which allows them to play a unique role in epistemological justifications.  Foundationalists' clearly subscribe to this thesis! 

(b) it is these "basic beliefs" which are the ultimate source of justification for all of empirical knowledge.

2.1 The Epistemic Regress Problem:

18 A concise statement of the rationale for foundationalism (from Anthony Quinton).  Long citation which sets the issue up well.  BonJour goes on to point out that:
-the most obvious way to show that an empirical belief is justified is to produce a justificatory argument, but

-the premises of such an argument would themselves need to be justified, and, thus

-19 it appears that an infinite regress may be avoided only if one adopts some version of foundationalism.

19-20 BonJour indicates that he construes the notion of inferential justification broadly.  He is not concerned with the origin of the belief, he only asks that the inference be "available to the individual," and he allows that the individual may not be able to explicitly formulate the inferences.

21 He summarizes what he takes to be the four "options" available in regard to the regress problem: "prima facie, there are four main logical possibilities as to the eventual outcome of the potential regress of epistemic justification, assuming one's epistemic interlocutor--who may of course be oneself--continues to demand justification for each new premise-belief being offered:

(1) the regress might terminate with [arbitrary] beliefs which are offered as justifying premises for earlier beliefs but for which no justification of any kind, however implicit, is available when they are challenged in turn.

(2) The regress might continue indefinitely "backwards," with ever more new empirical premise-beliefs being introduced, so that no belief is repeated in the sequence and yet no end is ever reached.

(3) The regress might circle back upon itself, so that if the demand for justification is pushed far enough, beliefs which have already appeared as premises (and have themselves been provisionally justified) earlier in the sequence of justificatory arguments are again appealed to as justifying premises.

(4) The regress might terminate because "basic" empirical beliefs are reached, beliefs which have a degree of epistemic justification which is not inferentially dependent on other empirical beliefs and thus raises no further issue of empirical justification." Note: he leaves skepticism off the list as one of the possible alternatives.

22 The foundationalist rejects the first three alternatives claiming that they lead to skepticism (of course, this means skepticism should be considered as the "fifth option above):

-The first view, (1), relies upon an appeal to beliefs which are, from an epistemic standpoint, entirely arbitrary.  While some have held that the issue of justification makes no sense when one is dealing with such beliefs,1  BonJour maintains that this is not an adequate response:
--23 "...does the fact that a belief has the characteristic # [where # is whatever "criterion" one appeals to] constitute a cogent reason for thinking that it is likely to be true?  If the answer to this question is no, then the choice of the class of special beliefs seems still to be epistemically arbitrary and to do violence to the basic concept of epistemic justification, as outlined above."
-23-24 The second view, (2), is typically rejected because, it is alleged, the infinite regress is vicious.  BonJour points out that one needs to argue that this is the case.  He then presents such an argument:
--actual human knowers would have to possess, literally, an infinite number of empirical beliefs on such a view, and this is impossible.
-24 The third view, (3), requires the adoption of a "holistic and nonlinear" conception of justification which emphasizes internal coherence. This orientation is subject to three major objections:
--25 (i) " matter how high the standard of coherence is set, it seems clear that there will be very many, probably infinitely many, systems of belief which will satisfy it and between which such a coherence theory will be unable to choose in an epistemically nonarbitrary way."

--(ii) "...such a view seems to deprive empirical knowledge of any input from or contact with the nonconceptual world."

--(iii) "...such a coherence theory will seemingly be unable to establish an appropriate connection between justification and truth unless it reinterprets truth as long-run coherence...."

---Philosophical Aside: these three objections are the major classic objections against coherence theories, and BonJour will have to respond to them as he develops his own coherence theory in Part Two.  This passage, then, should be revisited after reading the later part of the book!
"Like any argument by elimination, however, this one cannot be conclusive until the surviving alternative has itself been carefully examined.  Foundationalist theories may turn out to have their problems as well, perhaps even severe enough to warrant another look at coherence theories."2

2.2 The Varieties of Foundationalism:

26 Three different versions of foundationalism will be distinguished by noting the differences in the degree of noninferential justification claimed for the "basic beliefs."

Moderate foundationalism--"...the noninferential warrant possessed by basic beliefs is sufficient by itself to satisfy the adequate-justification condition for knowledge."

26-27 Strong foundationalism--the basic beliefs are held to be logically infallible and so, clearly, if they are believed, they provide the best possible epistemic justification for accepting them.  Some thinkers in the foundationalist tradition speak of certainty, indubitability, and incorrigibility, but it is logical infallibility that they are after.3

-"...there are a number of persuasive arguments which seem to show that, whether or not foundationalism in general is acceptable, strong foundationalism is untenable:"

--For example, Armstrong's argument: "consider the state of affairs of a person A having a certain allegedly infallible basic empirical belief B, call this state of affairs S1.  B will have as its content the proposition that some empirical state of affairs S2 exists.  Now it seems to follow from the logic of the concept of belief that S1 and S2 must be distinct states of affairs.  Beliefs may of course be about other beliefs, but beliefs cannot somehow be directly about themselves....And thus it would seem to be logically quite possible for S1 to occur in the absence of S2, in which case, of course belief B would be false.  A proponent of logical infallibility must claim that this is, in the cases he is interested in, not logically possible, but it is hard to see what the basis for such a claim might be, so long as S1 and S2 are conceded to be separate states of affairs."
28 Foundationalism does not need to be strong.  The basic beliefs need, merely, to be adequately justified--that is, moderate foundationalism is foundationalism enough.  There is, however, a third type of foundationalism: weak foundationalism.  Here "...basic beliefs possess only a very low degree of epistemic justification on their own, a degree of justification insufficient by itself either to satisfy the adequate-justification condition for knowledge or to qualify them as acceptable justifying premises for further beliefs.  Such beliefs are only "initially credible," rather than fully justified."
-28-29 This view must respond to the regress problem differently from the moderate and strong versions of foundationalism: "...the weak foundationalist's basic beliefs are not adequately justified on their own to serve as justifying premises for everything else.  The weak foundationalist solution to this problem is to attempt to augment the justification of both basic and nonbasic beliefs by appealing to the concept of coherence.  Very roughly, if a suitably large, suitably coherent system can be built, containing a reasonably high proportion of one's initially credible basic beliefs together with nonbasic beliefs, then it is claimed, the justification of all the beliefs in the system...may be increased to the point of being adequate for knowledge...."
--29 this view is subject to the central objection to all versions of foundationalism, however: "...namely that there is no way for an empirical belief to have any degree of warrant which does not depend on the justification of other empirical beliefs...."

 --this version does not make the underlying logic of "augmentation" or "magnification" of justification clear.

 --this version may be subject to some of the problems which plague coherentism.

2.3 A Basic Problem for Foundationalism:

30 On what basis is such a [basic] belief supposed to be justified, once any appeal to further empirical premises is ruled out?

30-31 ...if basic beliefs are to provide a secure foundation for empirical knowledge, if inference from them is to be the sole basis upon which other empirical beliefs are justified, then that feature, whatever it may be, by virtue of which a particular belief qualifies as basic must also constitute a good reason for thinking that the belief is true.

-31 Thus, " an acceptable foundationalist account a particular empirical belief B could qualify as basic only if the premises of the following [meta-?] justificatory argument were adequately justified:  
(1)  B has feature #.
(2)  Beliefs having feature # are highly likely to be true.
      Therefore, B is highly likely to be true."
---Both these premises can't be justified on an a priori basis and this spells trouble for foundationalism.  "But if all this is correct, we can get the disturbing result that B is not basic after all, since its [meta-?] justification depends on that of at least one other empirical belief."
32 His core anti-foundationalist argument is spelled out explicitly in a long argument on p. 32 and the possible foundationalist responses are spelled out on pp. 32-33.
Notes:  (click on the note number to return to the text the note refers to)

1 This is one of the contentions involved in some of the sorts of views attributed above (on pp. 13-14) to Rorty and Williams.

2 BonJour, of course, intends to return to the coherence theories after he  has shown that the foundationalists suffer from insuperable difficulties.  Note that if there are other alternatives (other "disjuncts"), however, the argument he offers is incomplete (at best).  Note, first, that skepticism clearly constitutes one available position in the dialectic regarding the regress of justifications.  In addition, there are a number of theorists who attempt to offer orientations which constitute "alternatives"  to the  foundationalist/coherentist dichotomy.  Amongst the most promising of these efforts is Susan Haack's orientation--cf.,  "A Foundherentist Theory of Empirical Justification," in The Theory of Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary Readings, ed. Louis Pojman, op. cit., pp. 283-293; and Evidence and Inquiry (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

3 On the differences between these distinct concepts, cf. William Alston's "Varieties of Privileged  Access,"  in The American Philosophical Quarterly v. 8 (1971), pp. 223-241.

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