Supplement to BonJour’s The Structure of Empirical Knowledge


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Chapter 4. The Doctrine of the Empirically Given:[1]


4.1 The Idea of The Given:


59 “...the central thesis of the doctrine of the given is that basic empirical beliefs are justified, not by appeal to further beliefs or merely external facts but rather by appeal to states of “immediate experience” or “direct apprehension” or “intuition”—states which allegedly can confer justification without themselves requiring justification (thus making it possible to reject premise (4) of the antifoundationalist argument [on p. 32]).” 


-59-60 “Immediate experience thus brings the regress of justification to an end by making possible a direct comparison between the basic belief and its object.” 


--60 “The underlying idea is that of [direct] confrontation [with reality]: in immediate experience mind or consciousness is directly confronted by its object without intervention of any kind of intermediary.  It is in this sense that the object is simply given to or thrust upon the mind.  The root metaphor underlying the whole conception is vision....” 


The core version of givenness which BonJour will discuss does not presume that the apprehension of the given is infallible, nor does it assume that only private mental and sensory states may be given. 


-Note: As Alan Goldman points out in his “The Given,” there are three sorts of sorts of error we need to discuss as we consider the notion of the given: (a) the possibility that things may be different than they appear, (b) the error which may arise from conceptual confusion [that is, from questions of meaning], and (c) error which arises from misclassification.[2]  If the “givenists” are to provide an adequate foundation for knowledge, all three sorts of error must be ruled out: the “direct confrontation” between the basic belief and its object must be such as to rule out the possibility that things may be different than they appear, the sorts of error which arise from conceptual confusion, and the possibility of misclassification! 


4.2 Schlick on the Foundation of Knowledge:


61 BonJour discusses several logical positivists’[3] theories regarding the given.  These theories offer different treatments of what they called protocol statements:[4] 


-For Otto Neurath’s coherence version of logical positivism, the “...protocol statements are not to be having any special relation to the world or to experience (these being unintelligible “metaphysical” concepts).[5]  Instead, protocol statements are to be viewed merely as empirical hypotheses having a logical status in principle no different from the other statements in the system....” 


-“[Moritz] Schlick [a positivist who offers a correspondence theory against Neurath’s coherence theory] regards such a view, reasonably enough, as unacceptable, his main explicit argument being a version of the alternative coherent systems objection....”[6]  


--62 Schlick calls the basic statements konstatierungen (“basic statements,” “observation statements,” “reports”).  Examples include: “here two black points coincide”; “here yellow borders blue”; and “here now pain.” 


--“By virtue of this demonstrative character, they are fundamentally fleeting in character and cannot, strictly speaking, be written down or otherwise preserved....they serve to initiate the cognitive process and to bring it to momentary termination in acts of verification, but their transitory character prevents their serving as a full-fledged, enduring foundation....” 


--63 “...konstatierungen are supposed to be certain, “absolutely valid,” at the moment when they occur.” 


--“Just as an analytic statement,[7] Schlick claims, cannot be understood without also seeing it to be valid, because its validity depends only on the rules of usage which determine its meaning, so also the demonstrative element in a Konstatierung can only be understood by simultaneously “pointing” to the distinct reality which verifies it: [Schlick:] “In other words: I can understand the meaning of a [konstatierung] only by, and when, comparing it with the facts, thus carrying out that process which is necessary for the verification of all synthetic statements....I grasp their meaning at the same time as I grasp their truth.  In the case of a [konstatierung] it makes as little sense to ask whether I might be deceived regarding its truth as in the case of a tautology.”” 


64 But, BonJour asks, are we actually comparing such basic statements with the world?  “...while we can of course compare one object with another, it is obvious from an epistemological standpoint that we do this only by somehow perceiving or apprehending or experiencing those objects.  And now everything hinges on how that perception or apprehension or experience is to be understood.” 


-64-65 “Givenness can provide a genuine solution to the regress problem only if it is possible to construe the immediate experience or direct apprehension through which the given content is appropriated in such a way as not to involve a further act of judgment or propositional acceptance (which would at once raise anew the demand for justification), while retaining the capacity of such an experience to justify a basic belief.  My thesis is that this cannot be done, that these two demands conflict so as to make it impossible in principle to satisfy them.” 


4.3 Quinton’s Conception of Empirical Intuition:


65 Anthony Quinton speaks of “intuitive beliefs:” beliefs which do not owe their “...credibility to some other belief or beliefs from which it cannot be inferred....if any belief is to be justified, there must be a class of basic, non-inferential beliefs to bring the regress of justification to a halt.  These terminal, intuitive beliefs need not be strictly self-evident in the sense that the belief is its own justification.  All that is required is that what justifies them should not be another belief.”[8] 


-66 Quinton distinguishes beliefs which arise from “vernacular intuitions” (telepathy and clairvoyance) from “logically intuitive” beliefs—they “differ from those which are merely psychologically intuitive in that they are, though accepted independently of any justificatory appeal to further beliefs, nonetheless justified in some way....” 


67 According to BonJour, we seem to have three “elements” here: (a) the belief, (b) the observable situation, and (c) the intuition of the external state of affairs.  The objection to be raised concerns the nature and epistemic status of the last of these three items, the direct awareness or intuition.  Clearly it is supposed to be the primary source of justification, but how exactly is this supposed to work?  In particular, just what sort of state is an intuition supposed to be?” 


-If the direct awareness or intuition is a cognitive state (and has the assertive content which will make it possible for it to justify beliefs), then it seems to require justification itself. 


-68 If the direct awareness or intuition is not a cognitive state (and lacks assertive content so that it does not appear to call for justification), then it does not have any assertive content and does seem able to justify beliefs. 


-69 “...if his intuitions or direct awarenesses or immediate apprehensions are construed as cognitive, at least quasi-judgmental...then they will be both capable of providing justification for other cognitive states and in need of it themselves; but if they are construed as noncognitive, nonjudgmental, then while they will not themselves need justification, they will also be incapable of giving it.  In either case, such states will be incapable of serving as an adequate foundation for knowledge.”  This is, at bottom, why empirical givenness is a myth. 


--Note: Alan Goldman offers another alternative in his “The Given,”[9] when he suggests using the notion of “inference to the best explanation” to ground the given. 


-69-72 Quinton appeals to ostensive definition offering an analogy between the “foundation of language” and “the foundations” in epistemology.  For definitions to provide meanings to words, some words, it would seem, need to be defined without appeal to other words!  Ostensive definitions are to provide such meaningful definitions.  One points at a tree and says “Tree” when one offers such a “definition.” 


--71 According to BonJour, however, the appeal to ostensive definitions falls prey to the same problems: “how can a direct awareness whose content is not capable of being expressed in a statement suffice to give the meaning of a statement?  To grasp the meaning of a statement or sentence is surely to entertain a proposition, and thus the direct awareness which is supposed to provide an explanation of this meaning must seemingly have a propositional content as well. 

  ....even if the concept of ostensive definition were in itself entirely without problems, even if we had no difficulty in making clear sense of the species of direct awareness required by such a view, there is still no need from the standpoint of the theory of meaning, for the content of such an awareness to be justified and thus no rationale from this perspective for thinking that it is.  If all that is issue is the explanation of meaning, then justification is simply irrelevant.” 


4.4 Lewis On The Given:


72 BonJour adduces the same objection against C.I. Lewis’ “doctrine of the “given:” “...the given (or rather the apprehension thereof) will be able to confer epistemic support on the rest of our knowledge only if it is so construed as to be in need of such support itself.”[10] 


-73-74 “Phenomenalism” and “qualia”[11] are explained: “appears as though”, “looks like”, “seems like”, etc.  Phenomentalists maintain that the object of our immediate experience are private sense data.  In his “Editor’s Introduction,” Jonathan Dancy maintains that:


this looser view would have it that for a physical thing to exist is for it to be able to be present to some mind, not for it actually to be doing so.  Both conceptions of physical existence require a relation to a mind; so both involve a rejection of realism, which conceives the existence of a physical thing in terms of its taking its place in the mind-independent spatio-temporal matrix which constitutes the natural world. 

  The looser view is called phenomenalism, the tighter one idealism.[12] 


74-75 Whereas for Quinton there was to be a correlation between one’s awareness and an external state of affairs, for Lewis there is to be a correlation between one’s experience and an element in one’s experience. 


76 Nonetheless, the same problem arises: either the apprehension of the given is cognitive or it isn’t.  Either way there are problems for the foundationalist however. 


-77-78 “What they are after, it would seem, is a cognitive state of an extremely rudimentary, primitive sort, so much so as to be only doubtfully cognitive at all.  Such a state would be prior not only to language but even to conceptualization and prediction.  It would thus not be in any sense propositional in character and would involve nothing like a judgment or thesis that something is the case.  And yet such a “pre-predicative awareness” (to use the Husserlian term) is not supposed to be entirely without cognitive import.  Despite its extremely rudimentary character, it is still supposed to involve something like a representation or depiction of an object or situation and, in virtue or this representational dimension, to constitute potentially a reason for accepting cognitive states of a more explicit, articulate matter how pre-conceptual or prepredicative such a state may be, so long as it involves anything like a representation, the question of justification can still legitimately be raised: is there any reason to think that the representation in question is accurate or correct?  And without a positive answer to this question, the capacity of such a state to confer epistemic justification is decisively undermined.” 


-78 “ is clear on reflection that it is one and the same feature of a cognitive state, namely, its assertive or at least representational content, which both enables it to confer justification on other states and also creates the need for it to be itself justified—thus making it impossible in principle to separate these two aspects.  It does no good to introduce quasi-cognitive or semijudgmental states in an attempt to justify basic empirical beliefs since to whatever extent such a state is capable of conferring justification, it will to that very same extent be itself in need of justification.  Thus even if such states do exist, they are of no help to the proponent of the given in attempting to answer the objection which I have raised here.” 


4.5 The Appeal to the A Priori:


80 Some foundationalists may attempt to maintain that it is an a priori truth that beliefs of a certain specified sort are justified (thus ending the regress). 


-80-84 The argument for this claim requires justification of the claim that the connection between beliefs and experiences is guaranteed a priori—and this reintroduces the justificatory problem for the foundationalist.  Moreover, whatever it is one appeals to as the a priori justification, one must tie this “factor” to experience, and, again, judgment is reintroduced and justificatory questions loom. 


(end of Part I)


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] In his “The Given” (in A Companion to Epistemology, eds. Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa, op. cit., pp. 159-162, p. 159), Alan Goldman notes that “apprehension of the given is seen as immediate both in a causal sense, since it lacks the usual causal chain involved in perceiving real qualities of physical objects, and in an epistemic sense, since judgment expressing it are justified independently of all other beliefs, and evidence.” 

[2] Cf., ibid., p. 161. 

[3] The logical positivists maintained that too much philosophical thought was meaningless discourse.  They held that all statements were either empirically verifiable (subject to experiential check) or meaningless, and they recommended that we limit our attention to the meaningful statements.  This school of philosophy (which arose at the end of the 19th Century) suffered a rather quick demise when it became clear that the core statement of the positivists (the second sentence of this note) was not empirically verifiable! 

[4] These statements were to be statements encapsulating “the direct record of a scientist’s experience” (cf., Rudolf Carnap, The Unity of Science (London: Kegan Paul, 1934). 

[5] Cf., Otto Neurath, “Protocol Sentences,” trans. George Schick, in Logical Positivism, ed. A.J. Ayer (N.Y.: Free Press, 1959.  The essay originally appeared in Erkenntnis v. 3 (1933). 

[6] Cf., Moritz Schlick, “The Foundation of Knowledge,” trans. David Rynin, in Logical Positivism, op. cit., pp. 209-227.  The essay originally appeared in Erkenntnis v. 4 (1934). 

[7] A statement which is supposed to be true in virtue of the meanings of its terms—for example, “All bachelors are unmarried males of the age of consent.” 

[8] Cf., Anthony Quinton, “The Foundations of Knowledge,” in British Analytical Philosophy, eds. Bernard Williams and Alan Montefiore (London: Routledge, 1966), which is reprinted in Empirical Knowledge, eds. Roderick Chisholm and Robert Schwartz (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1973), and Quinton’s The Nature of Things (London: Routledge, 1973). 

[9] Alan H. Goldman, “The Given,” op. cit., p. 161. 

[10] Cf., C.I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order (N.Y.: Dover, 1929). 

[11] Qualia, or “sense data” are the successors to earlier empiricists’ talk of “ideas”—they are the immediate objects of perceptual awareness. 

[12] Jonathan Dancy, “Editor’s Introduction,” in his edition of Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge [1710] (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1998), pp. 5-69, p. 42. 

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