Monday, November 30, 2009

Wolterstorff and Foundationalism

Analytic philosophers have a very bad habit of making historical pronouncements that do not stand close examination. I recently came across what seems a good example of this in Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason within the Bounds of Religion. In it Wolterstorff claims (pp. 28-30) that foundationalism is the "classic theory of theorizing in the Western world" and "has proved endlessly attractive to Western man," that it "has been the reigning theory of theories int he West since the high Middle Ages". It apparently traces back to Aristotle, and as other examples Wolterstorff gives "Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, the logical positivists".

Were I a naive historian of philosophy, I would find this exciting, a sort of Key to All Epistemologies. A generalization of this extent and definiteness would be truly significant. But not being quite so naive, I sigh and look skeptically for the precise definition of this "endlessly attractive" foundationalism. Wolterstorff helpfully sums it up in three principles:

(1) A person is warranted in accepting a theory at a certain time if and only if he is then warranted in believing that that theory belongs to genuine science (scientia).
(2) A theory belongs to genuine science if and only if it is justified by some foundational proposition and some human being could know with certitude that it is thus justified.
(3) A proposition is foundational if and only if it is true and some human being could know noninferentially and with certitude that it is true.

And it is so thoroughly implausible that this has been the standard view in the history of Western philosophy that I actually wonder if anyone held it prior to the twentieth century. I have noted before that Descartes is not what analytic philosophers call a "Cartesian foundationalist"; for exactly the same reasons it follows that he is not a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's slightly broader (because slightly vaguer) sense. And despite the fact that Wolterstorf treats Aquinas as a "classic version", it is clear that Aquinas does not accept any of these three points. Wolterstorff himself touches on the fact that on Aquinas's view there is an entire field of 'theories' in Wolterstorff's sense which should be accepted, which are not foundational in the sense of (3) nor justified by something foundational in the sense of (2), namely, those accepted on faith. He explicitly recognizes (p. 149n11) that sacred doctrine, despite being considered a scientia in Aquinas's sense fails to be one in Wolterstorff's sense; but he seems oblivious to the fact that this would mean that Aquinas is not a foundationalist about the very things he would have considered most important. The relativity to human beings in Wolterstorff's description is particularly troublesome. And Wolterstorff does not consider that Aquinas seems clearly to allow for reasonable opinion, which seems yet another exception. (Nor can he be using 'warranted' in a technical sense, because then he would need to give us a definition of warrant, which he pointedly refuses to do, claiming that we all know what it means.)

Aquinas does hold that there are conclusions we can hold on the basis of self-evident principles, and that when we do we have scientia, knowledge; but that some of the things we are warranted in accepting are had in this way is not enough to make him a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's sense. To make Aquinas a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's sense you have to take such a tiny slice of Aquinas, ignoring the rest, that very little of his actual view remains, just as making Descartes a 'Cartesian foundationalist' in the common sense requires not proceeding past Meditation Five. In light of things like this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that 'foundationalism', historically considered, is a figment of contemporary epistemologists' imaginations. But, of course, there's always the possibility that they haven't quite hit on the right way to formulate it.

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