Lost Foundations and the Art of Coping

By Jesse Boyer

As of now, I’ve had two friends confess that they don’t know if they exist. Interesting, to be sure. But we know that philosophers, quite unlike most others, have no trouble taking issue with fundamental assumptions that are taken for granted. Many chide that challenging the existence of a self, or of an external world, goes quite too far. Properly understood, these challenges are bound up in another discussion altogether—namely, whether certainty is a property of beliefs, and whether a belief must have certainty for it to be knowledge. For some, the contemporary trends departing from certainty as a basis for knowledge has been reason to lament; but this need not be the case. Certainty is an unrealistic and unnecessary qualification for knowledge. Even if there is no ultimate foundation for beliefs whereupon certainty may be conferred, it is still possible for some beliefs to be justified. Rejecting certainty is our only viable option for coping with our place in the world in a healthy fashion, to be justified in our inevitable unknowing, and to finally come to terms with how things really exist.

The concept of certainty is bedfellows with foundationalism, or the idea that all complex beliefs are supported by certainty-conferring bedrock. To elucidate the core tenets of the many kinds of foundationalism, let’s say that a proposition, p, is foundational when its support terminates in a reason that is self-evident, leads to contradictions if denied, or is otherwise non-inferential. Philosophers utilize these different categories of foundations—henceforth f—in different ways to support networks of beliefs and their inner relations. Empiricists claim that certainty is conferred to complex beliefs or p through non-inferential f, e.g. “I see a white laptop.” This statement corresponds to an experience that is not inferred from simpler experiences (at least supposedly). Contrariwise, rationalists claim that for any p, p possesses certainty and is an f if it is not possible for p to not be true. Across the board, foundationalists affirm that for all possible instances wherein certainty is a property of any p that is believed, s, it is impossible to conceive of s without f corresponding to the relevant p in s.

The modern notion that beliefs derive certainty from simpler indubitable propositions began with Descartes. As a rationalist, he believed that the conditions for “knowing” aren’t satisfied unless there is no possibility for p to be false. If perceptions may be false—if I’m really only experiencing the fabricated world of some demon, or I’m just a brain in a vat—what makes us commit to them as truth-determinative? His famous solution was to ground certainty in “I think,” generalize perfection from the process of change, and appeal to a Most Perfect Being to salvage the content of his perceptions from possible deception. Only a Most Perfect Being, who cannot possibly deceive, could create sense organs that are absolutely trustworthy, or so the argument goes.

This newfound approach to evaluating beliefs was, to an unsettling extent, applied to every constituent of truth claims by numerous thinkers: neither sense data, language, metaphysics, nor logic emerged from this trend unscathed. Certainty became required for one to say they truly “knew” anything at all. What’s key is that thinkers following Descartes adopted the issues he presented to philosophy, but rejected his appeal to a creator as an adequate solution. The golden question thereon became how certainty is rightly said to be a property of beliefs.

Successive trendsetters within the Enlightenment would push the limits of their predecessors’ methods. David Hume followed in the footsteps of John Locke, who taught that the conditions for knowledge are satisfied in raw empirical content. But for Hume, the principle of causality seemed to be inexplicable within the scope of experience. Causality, he believed, does not properly belong to the content of experience itself—it could only be explained as a contribution to experience via our psychological constitution.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who arrived on the scene of late modernity, carried Hume’s psychologizing method to its terminus: he denied that there is any underlying intelligibility to anything at all. Knowledge as correspondence between thought and reality was, to him, impossible in practice. In Human, All too Human (1886), Nietzsche proposes that speaking of real unities between our manifold perceptions is “fabricating beings, unities which do not exist.” If no single word designates the same exact collection of properties or experiences, then belief in the existence of nature itself amounts to a leap of faith. Thus, “[w]hen Kant says ‘the understanding does not draw its laws from nature, it prescribes them to nature,’ this is wholly true with regard to the concept of nature which we are obliged to attach to nature” (ibid.).

The principle to glean from this brief genealogy is that the assumptions latent in Enlightenment foundationalism—what the late economist Robert Heilbroner would say is its inner logic (1985)—are what led to its self-destruction in Nietzsche. Flash-forward to the present day, and philosophers are still trying to make up their minds as to what their discipline even does. Should philosophy establish strict parameters for what is true, or attempt to construct a coherent account of the manifold modes and domains of truth we casually encounter in the world? This instability, besides academic philosophy’s sustained departure from Cartesianism, prompted Alvin Plantinga to announce that Enlightenment foundationalism has “fallen into ruins” during his career (1993). Our Teutonic fellow’s affirmation that “facts… do not exist, only interpretations” is a bit of a stretch; but at this point, it goes without saying that all truth requires contextual interpretation at the very least.

Historically speaking, Nietzscheanism is evidence that the Enlightenment’s method was unable to support itself on its own terms. It proposed conditions for knowledge that it could not satisfy on its own merit. But isn’t this to be expected from philosophers like Nietzsche? Hasn’t the entirety of European philosophy been infected by his gross anti-rationalism? In brief, continental philosophers are often caricatured as rejecting logic in the acquisition of knowledge. However, when exegeted charitably, such as in the interpretation of Nietzsche I provided above, their theories start with down-to-earth (though admittedly ambitious) assumptions pertaining to the nature and relations between epistemology, language, metaphysics, and psychology.

In recent times, moreover, analytic philosophers have been formulating serious critiques of Enlightenment foundationalism. The aforementioned Alvin Plantinga, Notre Dame’s star philosopher, is but one example. His attempt to rescue knowledge from certainty takes the form of a twofold attack. First is the view’s praxis; second is its coherence. One the one hand, in Enlightenment foundationalism, the conditions for “knowing” that other people exist, that our perceptions are trustworthy, or that the earth’s longevity exceeds our own cannot be satisfied. But at ground level, we believe and behave as if these beliefs are truly justified. If this weren’t enough, according to the tenets of Enlightenment foundationalism, humans are morally obligated to reject these beliefs (1993), which are, quite obviously, crucial for basic functioning and healthiness. If we admit that the content of moral statements generally refers to these kinds of facts—Hilary Putnam seems to advocate such a view (2004)—what we’re left with is a painfully embarrassing contradiction.

On the other hand, the core tenets of Enlightenment foundationalism cannot qualify as foundations themselves. The statement, “all f are p that are self-evident, lead to contradictions if denied, or are otherwise non-inferential” does not fall within the scope of what Enlightenment foundationalism justifies. It is neither indubitable nor corresponds to sense perceptions. Hence, if this statement is true, then it ought to be rejected. Likewise, if this statement is false, then it ought to be rejected as well. So the only viable alternative is to admit that Enlightenment foundationalism is wrong from the very start.

Hopefully, you’re nodding in agreement. Being justified in everyday beliefs isn’t just wishful thinking—it’s truly necessary! So why did Enlightenment foundationalism retain its place in the culture of philosophy for so long? I’d like to propose that this is because it’s a method that compliments our psychology: specifically, our desire for infallibility. This is not to say that all claims to knowledge are attempts to exert power. But it’s demonstrable that humans tend to be fixated in their beliefs. All of us set standards for what qualify as true statements throughout our entire lives. We tend to trap ourselves, however, in the task of reducing the plurality of truth-values into a single dominating category (I am, of course, guilty of having done this as well). The fact that our contemporary Western culture was reared on the reductionistic tendencies of the Enlightenment clearly doesn’t help, either.

Jerry Fodor’s commentary on the current trends amongst philosophers of science is worthy of mention. In order to pioneer a new scientific methodology, “[t]he problem… is to get the structure of an entire belief system to bear on individual occasions of belief fixation” (1983). Humans are hopelessly procrustean when it comes to appropriating new facts into their already existing webs of beliefs. I concede that this is a pessimistic verdict, but there’s plenty of scientific research for this assertion. (By the way, fixation only gets worse when a group shares the same beliefs.) Most are not only unaware of this disposition, but, sometimes, it’s the only way to be comfortable with existing. Fixation is not inherently evil, though; it’s simply one of the byproducts of being a pragmatic and hyper-social species.

Enlightenment foundationalism is in shambles, and we’re left to pick up the pieces. To be torn from one’s foundations is severely distressing—even tormenting. Philosophers are familiar with the apocryphal tale of Hume wherein he resorted to backgammon to distract himself from the problem of causality. Is there really “no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)? In an age of political unrest, cultural toxicity, existential crises, and fake news, how do we effectively cope with lost foundations? Briefly put, there have been attempts to salvage certainty by delimiting its scope of reference. G. E. Moore’s A Defense of Common Sense (1925) is a shining example of such. But all this secures is the word’s role within epistemic discourse, not the semantic value that was assigned to it by the Enlightenment intellectuals. It’s altogether wiser to start fresh with a revised vocabulary that has fewer connotations infected by the Enlightenment. Ultimately, if certainty, as the desired end of a methodological enterprise, is demonstrably unrealistic, then we must extend the range of what qualifies as knowledge.

Plantinga’s modest foundationalism is definitely promising in this regard. In his view, a belief becomes knowledge when it possesses a satisfying amount of warrant. To break this down, for any proposition p, p has the property of being warranted when it 1) is properly basic, i.e. corresponds to immediate sense perceptions and intuitions, 2) is inferable from properly basic p, and 3) faces no immediate defeaters, or p, which, when known, would compel one to reject p. This qualifies as a kind of foundationalism since it holds that a belief becomes knowledge when it is non-inferential, but Plantinga’s taxonomy of defeaters secures knowledge so long as our beliefs fit within the appropriate context of evidence. Even if contrary information may be out there somewhere, believing p is still warranted, and we are within our “epistemic rights” for assenting belief.

For example, I was, at a time, under the persuasion that my grandfather on my mother’s side was a member of the mafia. Let’s designate this belief as (1). I formed (1) after having been told by my sister that there was some relation of monetary involvement, r, between the mafia and my grandfather. Given r and the information I possessed, my grandfather being a member of the mafia was consistent within the context of the rest of my beliefs, and had evidence given the information transmitted to me by my sister. Later, I was told by my mother that r did not entail his being a member of the mafia, but, rather, that he was subjected to their harassment: furthermore, that this harassment necessitated going into hiding with his wife. Let’s designate these collective facts as (2). My prior belief that my grandfather was a member of the mafia faced a defeater, (2), which possessed more warrant than (1) insofar as (2) was more consistent with the historical facts and was transmitted through a more reliable witness of the relevant historical data, i.e. my mother.

The praxis of this method resembles humans in their “average everydayness.” That alone gives modest foundationalism an edge against competing views. Furthermore, warrant is a property of beliefs that is contextually indexed and possessed in varying degrees. All of this is according to the way in which a belief qualifies as true, as well as, and just as importantly, our mind’s proper functioning towards the generation of true beliefs. According to Plantinga, “there are various original sources of warrant. There is perception, to be sure, but also memory, a priori intuition (so I think, anyway), something like induction, whereby we learn from experience, perhaps Reid’s sympathy, whereby we learn about other persons, and the like” (2007). In the case of beliefs like the example I provided above, “an adult for whom the truth of such belief just seems clearly and obviously true, can hardly be faulted for holding it—indeed, it may not be so much as within his power to reject it” (ibid.). The same holds true with regards to belief in p such as “material objects exist,” “other people exist,” the “longevity of the solar system exceeds my own,” “I have a body,” “nature exists and is intelligible,” etc. We are always operating within the context of limited information, but we’re justified in what we possess—“at least as long as the believer isn’t aware of defeaters” (ibid.).

A warrant-based approach to epistemology can revolutionize the way in which we place confidence in our beliefs. We can be justified without having all the facts. But have we actually conceded defeat to the anti-foundationalists at this point? I’m sure that for some, the take-away seems to be that we can be justified in speaking about things we don’t actually know. What’s the point in saying we know something when our beliefs don’t need to penetrate beyond our epistemic, psychological, and cultural contexts? What about how things fundamentally are?

Replacing certainty with warrant marks the recovery from lost foundations, but to substantiate such, we must also adopt a new approach to knowledge acquisition. The late Hubert Dreyfus’ 2005 APA presidential address is an authoritative landmark on these fronts. (I am indebted to such for directing me to Fodor.) According to Dreyfus, we speak meaningfully about the essences of things within the context of practice. We can rattle on all day about conceptually apprehending the essence of a single fly, as metaphysicians have done throughout history. But it is through dealing with and handling the fly that we encounter its essential properties. In Dreyfus’ view, we acquire knowledge of the fly to the extent that we cope with it. So far as our words correspond to shared experiences or to shared encounters of objects and properties, we are speaking meaningfully and truly to one another. Indeed, depending upon how skillful we become in our coping, words and concepts may not even be necessary!

This seems painfully obvious, but we forget all too often that language is a tool that we use together in order to accomplish tasks and perpetuate culture. When speakers work as a group to designate the same things, language is optimized. So to say that we lack the adequate vocabulary for rigid conceptual differentiation is not to say that we don’t know how things really are. À la Heidegger, we accurately differentiate between chairs, desks, trees, cats, and dogs at a pre-reflective level—in his words, at a pre-ontological level. We naturally do this without making their properties conceptually explicit through language. Dreyfus concurs:

It seems that our everyday coping can’t be understood in terms of symbolic representations… We need to consider the possibility that embodied beings like us take as input energy from the physical universe and process it in such a way as to open them to a world organized in terms of their needs, interests, and bodily capacities without their minds needing to impose a meaning on a meaningless Given[.]

The Given, critiqued by Wilfrid Sellars in his Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, is identical to f in Enlightenment foundationalism, especially empirical f. The issue at heart, then, is when we take grasping something conceptually to be equivalent to understanding it existentially or practically. Coping in response to lost foundations encapsulates a holistic approach to knowledge contrary to the impoverished methodology of the Enlightenment.

In my view, the positions given by Plantinga and Dreyfus are capable of harmonization. Dreyfus would probably accuse Plantinga of relying too much upon a conceptual framework. But for Plantinga, warrant is a property that’s correlative with natural psychological processes. Warrant “is produced by properly functioning belief-producing processes or faculties in an appropriate environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true belief” (2007). If we are, per Dreyfus,  “always already in a world in terms of our bodies and interests and thus permeated by relevance” (2005), then it seems natural to posit warrant as vital when the time comes for actually evaluating beliefs, and that the many degrees and kinds of warrant correlate with the many contexts of embodied relevance. The amount of warrant that any belief possesses is always weighed according to what the relevant epistemic and psychological contexts demand of the belief that’s being evaluated.

Enlightenment foundationalism was lauded upon the vaults of certainty. Such is what led to its collapse. Instead of falling into a rut of skepticism, it’s high time we concede that certainty is not required for knowledge. “[A]lmost everyone now agrees that knowledge doesn’t require an unshakeable foundation,” according to Dreyfus. This is not to say that we are within our epistemic rights to believe anything willy-nilly. We justify beliefs by weighing them against their relevant truth-giving criteria, as well as our possession of data relevant (or perhaps contrary) to such. Our ability to cope with reality needn’t be an issue; indeed, we become more skillful in our coping when we grant a plurality of foundations for truth. Warrant, rather than certainty, is essential for forming and maintaining beliefs: and healthy coping, as I’ve attempted to show, is exemplified when we commit ourselves to practice.


Jesse James Boyer is a theology graduate from Calvary Chapel Bible College (2015) and is currently a philosophy student at Moorpark College (2016 – present). He is a freelance writer and blogger presently living in California.

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