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Foundationalism concerns philosophical theories of knowledge resting upon justified belief, or some secure foundation of certainty such as a conclusion inferred from a basis of sound premises. [1] The main rival of the foundationalist theory of justification is the coherence theory of justification, whereby a body of knowledge, not requiring a secure foundation, can be established by the interlocking strength of its components, like a puzzle solved without prior certainty that each small region was solved correctly. [1]

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.


Identifying the alternatives as either circular reasoning or infinite regress, and thus exhibiting the regress problem, Aristotle made foundationalism his own clear choice, positing basic beliefs underpinning others. [2] Descartes, the most famed foundationalist, discovered a foundation in the fact of his own existence and in the "clear and distinct" ideas of reason, [1] [2] whereas Locke found a foundation in experience. Differing foundations may reflect differing epistemological emphases—empiricists emphasizing experience, rationalists emphasizing reason—but may blend both. [1]

Circular reasoning is a logical fallacy in which the reasoner begins with what they are trying to end with. The components of a circular argument are often logically valid because if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Circular reasoning is not a formal logical fallacy but a pragmatic defect in an argument whereby the premises are just as much in need of proof or evidence as the conclusion, and as a consequence the argument fails to persuade. Other ways to express this are that there is no reason to accept the premises unless one already believes the conclusion, or that the premises provide no independent ground or evidence for the conclusion. Begging the question is closely related to circular reasoning, and in modern usage the two generally refer to the same thing.

Infinite regress philosophical problem

An infinite regress in a series of propositions arises if the truth of proposition P1 requires the support of proposition P2, the truth of proposition P2 requires the support of proposition P3, and so on, ad infinitum.

Aristotle Classical Greek philosopher

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical period in Ancient Greece. He was the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

In the 1930s, debate over foundationalism revived. [2] Whereas Moritz Schlick viewed scientific knowledge like a pyramid where a special class of statements does not require verification through other beliefs and serves as a foundation, Otto Neurath argued that scientific knowledge lacks an ultimate foundation and acts like a raft. [2] In the 1950s, foundationalism fell into decline – largely due to the influence of Willard Van Orman Quine, [2] whose ontological relativity found any belief networked to one's beliefs on all of reality, while auxiliary beliefs somewhere in the vast network are readily modified to protect desired beliefs.

Moritz Schlick German philosopher

Friedrich Albert Moritz Schlick was a German philosopher, physicist, and the founding father of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle.

Verificationism, also known as the verification principle or the verifiability criterion of meaning, is the philosophical doctrine that only statements that are empirically verifiable are cognitively meaningful, or else they are truths of logic (tautologies).

Otto Neurath austrian economist, philosopher and sociologist

Otto Karl Wilhelm Neurath was an Austrian-born philosopher, philosopher of science, sociologist, and political economist. Before he fled his native country in 1934, Neurath was one of the leading figures of the Vienna Circle.

Classically, foundationalism had posited infallibility of basic beliefs and deductive reasoning between beliefs—a strong foundationalism. [2] Around 1975, weak foundationalism emerged. [2] Thus recent foundationalists have variously allowed fallible basic beliefs, and inductive reasoning between them, either by enumerative induction or by inference to the best explanation. [2] And whereas internalists require cognitive access to justificatory means, externalists find justification without such access.

Infallibility is the inability to be wrong. Its importance and meaning is debated in epistemology and major religions.

Deductive reasoning, also deductive logic, is the process of reasoning from one or more statements (premises) to reach a logically certain conclusion.

Broadly speaking, fallibilism is the philosophical claim that no belief can have justification which guarantees the truth of the belief. However, not all fallibilists believe that fallibilism extends to all domains of knowledge.


Foundationalism was initiated by French early modern philosopher René Descartes. [3] In his Meditations , Descartes challenged the contemporary principles of philosophy by arguing that everything he knew he learnt from or through his senses. He used various arguments to challenge the reliability of the senses, citing previous errors and the possibilities that he was dreaming or being deceived by an Evil Demon. [4] Descartes attempted to establish the secure foundations for knowledge to avoid scepticism. He contrasted the information provided by senses, which is unclear and uncertain, with the truths of geometry, which are clear and distinct. Geometrical truths are also certain and indubitable; Descartes thus attempted to find truths which were clear and distinct because they would be indubitably true and a suitable foundation for knowledge. [5] His method was to question all of his beliefs until he reached something clear and distinct that was indubitably true. The result was his cogito ergo sum – 'I think therefore I am', or the belief that he was thinking – as his indubitable belief suitable as a foundation for knowledge. [3] This resolved Descartes' problem of the Evil Demon – the possibility that he was being deceived by an Evil Demon, rendering all of his beliefs about the external world false. Even if his beliefs about the external world were false, his beliefs about what he was experiencing were still indubitably true, even if those perceptions do not relate to anything in the world. [6]

Early modern philosophy

Early modern philosophy is a period in the history of philosophy at the beginning or overlapping with the period known as modern philosophy.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age, Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

<i>Meditations on First Philosophy</i> philosophy book by Descartes

Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated is a philosophical treatise by René Descartes first published in Latin in 1641. The French translation was published in 1647 as Méditations Métaphysiques. The title may contain a misreading by the printer, mistaking animae immortalitas for animae immaterialitas, as suspected by A. Baillet.

Several other philosophers of the early modern period, including John Locke, G. W. Leibniz, George Berkeley, David Hume, and Thomas Reid, all accepted foundationalism as well. [7] Baruch Spinoza was interpreted as metaphysical foundationalist by G. W. F. Hegel, a proponent of coherentism. [8] Immanuel Kant's foundationalism rests on his theory of categories. [9]

John Locke English philosopher and physician

John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism". Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Sir Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

George Berkeley Anglo-Irish philosopher

George Berkeley – known as Bishop Berkeley – was an Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism". This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

David Hume Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian

David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, scepticism, and naturalism. Hume's empiricist approach to philosophy places him with John Locke, George Berkeley, Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes as a British Empiricist. Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Against philosophical rationalists, Hume held that passion rather than reason governs human behaviour. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is founded solely in experience.

In late modern philosophy, foundationalism was defended by J. G. Fichte in his book Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (1794/1795), [10] Wilhelm Windelband in his book Über die Gewißheit der Erkenntniss. (1873), [11] and Gottlob Frege in his book Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik (1884). [12]

In contemporary philosophy, foundationalism has been defended by Edmund Husserl, [13] Bertrand Russell [14] and John McDowell. [15] [16]


Foundationalism is an attempt to respond to the regress problem of justification in epistemology. According to this argument, every proposition requires justification to support it, but any justification also needs to be justified itself. If this goes on ad infinitum , it is not clear how anything in the chain could be justified. Foundationalism holds that there are 'basic beliefs' which serve as foundations to anchor the rest of our beliefs. [17] Strong versions of the theory assert that an indirectly justified belief is completely justified by basic beliefs; more moderate theories hold that indirectly justified beliefs require basic beliefs to be justified, but can be further justified by other factors. [18]

During thousands of years, Western philosophy pursued a solid foundation as the ultimate and eternal reference system of knowledge called foundationalism. It has existed since ancient Greece, the focus of this theory is that all knowledge or cognitive awareness of the subject (human being) are based on a solid foundation. This foundation serves not only as the starting point merely as a basis for knowledge of the truth of existence. Thinking is the process of proving the validity of knowledge, not proving the rationality of the foundation from which knowledge is shaped. This means, with ultimate cause, the foundation is true, absolute, entire and impossible to prove. Neopragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, a proponent of anti-foundationalism, said that the fundamentalism confirmed the existence of the privileged representation [19] which constitutes the foundation, from which dominates epistemology. Plato's theory of Forms is the earliest foundationalism. So from the point of view of Plato, the Forms shows the general concept which plays as a model for the release of existence, which is only the faint copy of the Forms of eternity, that means, understanding the expression of objects leads to acquiring all knowledge, then acquiring knowledge accompanies achieving the truth. Achieving the truth means understanding the foundation. This idea still has some appeal in for example international relations studies. [20]

Classical foundationalism

Foundationalism holds basic beliefs exist, which are justified without reference to other beliefs, and that nonbasic beliefs must ultimately be justified by basic beliefs. Classical foundationalism maintains that basic beliefs must be infallible if they are to justify nonbasic beliefs, and that only deductive reasoning can be used to transfer justification from one belief to another. [21] Laurence BonJour has argued that the classical formulation of foundationalism requires basic beliefs to be infallible, incorrigible, indubitable, and certain if they are to be adequately justified. [22] Mental states and immediate experience are often taken as good candidates for basic beliefs because it is argued that beliefs about these do not need further support to be justified. [23]

Modest foundationalism

As an alternative to the classic view, modest foundationalism does not require that basic perceptual beliefs are infallible, but holds that it is reasonable to assume that perceptual beliefs are justified unless evidence to the contrary exists. [24] This is still foundationalism because it maintains that all non-basic beliefs must be ultimately justified by basic beliefs, but it does not require that basic beliefs are infallible and allows inductive reasoning as an acceptable form of inference. [25] For example, a belief that 'I see red' could be defeated with psychological evidence showing my mind to be confused or inattentive. Modest foundationalism can also be used to avoid the problem of inference. Even if perceptual beliefs are infallible, it is not clear that they can infallibly ground empirical knowledge (even if my belief that the table looks red to me is infallible, the inference to the belief that the table actually is red might not be infallible). Modest foundationalism does not require this link between perception and reality to be so strong; our perception of a table being yellow is adequate justification to believe that this is the case, even if it is not infallible. [24]

Reformed epistemology is a form of modest foundationalism which takes religious beliefs as basic because they are non-inferentially justified: their justification arises from religious experience, rather than prior beliefs. This takes a modest approach to foundationalism – religious beliefs are not taken to be infallible, but are assumed to be prima facie justified unless evidence arises to the contrary. [26]

Internalism and externalism

Foundationalism can take internalist and externalist forms. Internalism requires that a believer's justification for a belief must be accessible to them for it to be justified. [27] Foundationalist internalists have held that basic beliefs are justified by mental events or states, such as experiences, that do not constitute beliefs. Alternatively, basic beliefs may be justified by some special property of the belief itself, such as its being self-evident or infallible. Externalism maintains that it is unnecessary for the means of justification of a belief to be accessible to the believer. [28]

Reliabilism is an externalist foundationalist theory, initially proposed by Alvin Goldman, which argues that a belief is justified if it is reliably produced, meaning that it will be probably true. Goldman distinguished between two kinds of justification for beliefs: belief-dependent and belief-independent. A belief-dependent process uses prior beliefs to produce new beliefs; a belief-independent process does not, using other stimuli instead. Beliefs produced this way are justified because the processes that cause them are reliable; this might be because we have evolved to reach good conclusions when presented with sense-data, meaning the conclusions we draw from our senses are usually true. [7]


Critics of foundationalism often argue that for a belief to be justified it must be supported by other beliefs; [7] in Donald Davidson's phrase, "only a belief can be a reason for another belief". For instance, Wilfrid Sellars argued that non-doxastic mental states cannot be reasons, and so noninferential warrant cannot be derived from them. Similarly, critics of externalist foundationalism argue that only mental states or properties the believer is aware of could make a belief justified.

According to skepticism, there are no beliefs that are so obviously certain that they require support from no other beliefs. Even if one does not accept this very strong claim, foundationalists have a problem with giving an uncontroversial or principled account of which beliefs are self-evident or indubitable.

Postmodernists and post-structuralists such as Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida have attacked foundationalism on the grounds that the truth of a statement or discourse is only verifiable in accordance with other statements and discourses. Rorty in particular elaborates further on this, claiming that the individual, the community, the human body as a whole have a 'means by which they know the world' (this entails language, culture, semiotic systems, mathematics, science etc.). In order to verify particular means, or particular statements belonging to certain means (e.g., the propositions of the natural sciences), a person would have to 'step outside' the means and critique them neutrally, in order to provide a foundation for adopting them. However, this is impossible. The only way in which one can know the world is through the means by which they know the world; a method cannot justify itself. This argument can be seen as directly related to Wittgenstein's theory of language, drawing a parallel between postmodernism and late logical positivism that is united in critique of foundationalism.

See also

Related Research Articles

Internalism and externalism are two opposing ways of explaining various subjects in several areas of philosophy. These include human motivation, knowledge, justification, meaning, and truth. The distinction arises in many areas of debate with similar but distinct meanings.

The theory of justification is a part of epistemology that attempts to understand the justification of propositions and beliefs. Epistemologists are concerned with various epistemic features of belief, which include the ideas of justification, warrant, rationality, and probability. Loosely speaking, justification is the reason that someone (properly) holds a belief.

The regress argument is a problem in epistemology and, in general, a problem in any situation where a statement has to be justified.

Coherentism is the name given to a few philosophical theories in modern epistemology. There are two distinct types of coherentism. One is the coherence theory of truth; the other, the coherence theory of justification.

Evidentialism is a thesis in epistemology which states that one is justified to believe something if and only if that person has evidence which supports his or her belief. Evidentialism is therefore a thesis about which beliefs are justified and which are not.

Virtue epistemology is a contemporary philosophical approach to epistemology that stresses the importance of intellectual, and specifically epistemic virtues. A distinguishing factor of virtue theories is that they use for the evaluation of knowledge the properties of the persons who hold beliefs in addition to or instead of the properties of propositions and beliefs. Some advocates of virtue epistemology claim to more closely follow theories of virtue ethics, while others see only a looser analogy between virtue in ethics and virtue in epistemology.

Reformed epistemology

In the philosophy of religion, Reformed epistemology is a school of philosophical thought concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) as it applies to religious beliefs. The central proposition of Reformed epistemology is that beliefs can be justified by more than evidence alone, contrary to the positions of evidentialism, which argues that while belief other than through evidence may be beneficial, it violates some epistemic duty. Central to Reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God may be "properly basic" and not need to be inferred from other truths to be rationally warranted. William Lane Craig describes Reformed epistemology as "One of the most significant developments in contemporary Religious Epistemology ... which directly assaults the evidentialist construal of rationality."

Laurence BonJour is an American philosopher and Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Washington.

Basic beliefs are, under the epistemological view called foundationalism, the axioms of a belief system.

The argument from a proper basis is an ontological argument for the existence of God related to fideism. Alvin Plantinga argued that belief in God is a properly basic belief, and so no basis for belief in God is necessary.

In epistemology, phenomenal conservatism (PC) holds that it is reasonable to assume that things are as they appear, except when there are positive grounds for doubting this.

Infallibilism, in epistemology, is the idea that propositional knowledge is incompatible with a chance of being wrong, where this is typically understood as one's evidence or justification providing one's belief with such strong grounds that it must be true and perhaps cannot be rationally doubted. Other beliefs may be rationally justified, but they do not rise to the level of knowledge unless absolutely certain given one's evidence. Infallibilism's opposite, fallibilism, is the position that a justified true belief may be considered knowledge, even if one's evidence does not guarantee its truth, or can, given one's evidence, rationally doubt it.

Kent Bach is an American philosopher and Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University. His primary areas of research include the philosophy of language, linguistics and epistemology. He is the author of three books: Exit-existentialism: A philosophy of self-awareness, Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts, and Thought and Reference published by Wadsworth, the MIT Press, and Oxford University Press, respectively.

Robert N. Audi is an American philosopher whose major work has focused on epistemology, ethics, and the theory of action. He is O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and previously held a Chair in the Business School there. His 2005 book, The Good in the Right, updates and strengthens Rossian intuitionism and develops the epistemology of ethics. He has also written important works of political philosophy, particularly on the relationship between church and state. He is a past president of the American Philosophical Association and the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Outline of epistemology Overview of and topical guide to epistemology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to epistemology:

In epistemology, foundherentism is a theory of justification that combines elements from the two rival theories addressing infinite regress, foundationalism prone to arbitrariness, and coherentism prone to circularity.

Epistemology or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", "What do people know?", "How do we know what we know?", and "Why do we know what we know?". Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims.

Cartesian doubt form of methodological skepticism associated with the writings and methodology of René Descartes

Cartesian Doubt is a form of methodological skepticism associated with the writings and methodology of René Descartes. Cartesian doubt is also known as Cartesian skepticism, methodic doubt, methodological skepticism, universal doubt, systematic doubt or hyperbolic doubt.


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