Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism

There’s a deep and fascinating question about whether we need “foundations” in our philosophical system, and if so, why and what kind.

First question: is the foundationalism primarily epistemological (foundations of knowledge) or ontological (foundations of being)?*

Second question: insofar as foundationalism implies a hierarchy, is the grounding or fundamental principle at the top of the hierarchy or at the bottom?

These two questions give us four positions:

top-down epistemological foundationalism: rationalism
bottom-up epistemological foundationalism: empiricism
top-down ontological foundationalism: theism/idealism
bottom-up ontological foundationalism: materialism

The ontological foundationalism can be reductive or non-reductive. Hence:
reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: idealism
non-reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: emanationism
reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: physicalism
non-reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: emergentism

Likewise, anti-foundationalism can also be epistemological or ontological:

epistemological anti-foundationalism: pragmatism (or: the good parts of Hegel/Peirce/Sellars)*
ontological anti-foundationalism: process ontology (or: the good parts of Spinoza/Whitehead/Deleuze)*

The main reason why I have resisted efforts to interpret me as an empiricist or materialist is that both empiricism and materialism are forms of foundationalism. Since I am an anti-foundationalist (both in epistemology and in ontology) I am as opposed to empiricism as I am to rationalism, and as opposed to materialism as I am to theism. My views might look like those of an empiricist/physicalist, but only if one insists on interpreting those views through the lens of the foundationalism that I reject.

As time permits I’ll explore the arguments for epistemological anti-foundationalism and ontological anti-foundationalism. For now I just wanted to get the conversation started.

*I’m leaving aside ethical and political versions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, though I think that’s where the philosophical action is really at.

** I’m only citing philosophers in the Western canon here, but Nagarjuna in the Madhyamika tradition of Tibetan Buddhism developed a consistently anti-foundationalist epistemology and ontology one and a half millennia  before it was even conceived of in the West. Within the West, probably Nietzsche and Dewey would be the first consistently anti-foundationalist philosophers.

28 Replies to “Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism”

  1. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    It looks to me that in the scheme you’ve presented theism ends up as a version of idealism?

    Where would you place Aristotle? Theism/Idealism?

  2. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    First, a big caveat: these are very rough distinctions that won’t work as fine-grained representations of what some specific philosopher actually thought. And it’s a view of philosophy quite heavily biased in favor of my own strong anti-foundationalism.

    That said, I would think of Aristotle as both a bottom-up epistemological foundationalist and a top-down ontological foundationalist. Here’s why.

    In Metaphysics Aristotle says that “the first is said in more than one way: what is first in relation to us and what is first in itself”. As Metaphysics lays out, what is first in relation to us is the common and proper sensibles of perceptible things (colors, shapes, smells, etc). But we want to understand the proper and common sensibles, and so that leads us to inquirye into the nature of perceptible things then leads us to what it is for something to be a thing (ousia, “substance”).

    Eventually our study of what it is for something to be a thing leads to our understanding of the complex relations between structure (morphe, form) and stuff (hyle, matter) in the cyclical movement from potency to actuality (and back). And that in turn leads us to discover that there must be that which is pure structure, pure actuality, with no potency to it, and that is the Unmoved Mover, thought thinking itself, which “the first in itself” and the final cause of all things.

  3. Neil Rickert
    Ignored
    says:

    bottom-up epistemological foundationalism: empiricism

    In the previous thread, you suggested that I was the purest empiricist. But I’m not. That line I quoted is the problem that I have with empiricism. I’m not any kind of foundationalist.

    It is hard to see how philosophy (as practiced by academic philosophers) can avoid some sort of foundationalism. It relies too heavily on logic. And logic cannot get started without starting premises.

    If you want to label me, I suppose I am some kind of conventionalist. We tentatively adopt conventions, and use those to get things started. But the conventions are not themselves the starting premises. Rather, the conventions are behavioral practices accepted on a pragmatic basis. This can include private conventions (perhaps that’s a contradiction in terms, but it is near enough) as well as social conventions.

    Conventions, as I use that term, can include measuring conventions and categorization conventions. Those yield data that we can then use. Without adopting useful conventions, we would exist in a world totally devoid of data, so we would have no world.

    As for ontology — I don’t see any point to it. What exists, independent of us, we cannot know. We are stuck with going by what we find it useful to take as existing. But what we take as existing is revisable, much as our behavioral conventions are revisable.

  4. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    I have some idea of what foundationalism means within epistemology, but ontological foundationalism is new to me. Can you say more on that?

  5. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung: I have some idea of what foundationalism means within epistemology, but ontological foundationalism is new to me. Can you say more on that?

    By “ontological foundatonalism” (which is not a standard term and I might have invented it by accident) I mean the idea that reality (“the order of being”) has a most fundamental level or stratum. For the Epicurean, it is atoms and void. For the Berkleyian idealist, it is minds and ideas. For the Cartesian dualist, mind and matter are equally fundamental (though both are created by God). For the Neoplatonist, it is the One or Godhead from which all other levels of reality emanate.

    What I am arguing against is the very idea of ontological foundationalism, to parallel my arguments against all epistemological foundationalism.

  6. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Well, i couldn’t accuse you of making it up because I did find a paper online in which the phrase was used. 😉

  7. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: By “ontological foundatonalism” (which is not a standard term and I might have invented it by accident)

    Perhaps you could say a bit about how process ontology solves problems that “ontological foundationalism” does not address or does not solve .

  8. Rumraket Rumraket
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: What I am arguing against is the very idea of ontological foundationalism, to parallel my arguments against all epistemological foundationalism.

    So you’re saying there is no fundamental level of existence? That there’s an infinite regression?

  9. Neil Rickert
    Ignored
    says:

    Rumraket: So you’re saying there is no fundamental level of existence? That there’s an infinite regression?

    Why do you think that infinite regression follows?

  10. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Rumraket: So you’re saying there is no fundamental level of existence? That there’s an infinite regression?

    No; I’m saying that there are no levels at all, and hence no infinite regression.

    I do not think that there are any “basic entities” that serve as the ground-floor from which everything emerges (or to which everything else can be reduced). I do not think there are “entities” or “substances” at all, really; phenomena are better characterized as relatively stable processes. As Evan Thompson nicely puts it, “since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.”

    The idealist thinks that mind has absolute ontological primacy. The materialist thinks that matter has absolute ontological primacy. The dualist thinks that both do (but then cannot explain their interaction).

    The point of a process ontology is that it allows us to reject the very concept of absolute ontological primacy. It’s just not a thing.

  11. Erik
    Ignored
    says:

    Nice entry. One problem though. You are giving a very lucid and clear idea about what anti-foundationalism is not, but you are not giving the slightest hint as to what anti-foundationalism is.

    When all other epistemological and ontological positions are denied, what is left? Based on what do you deny all the other positions? Logically, if you have a basis to deny the other points of view, then you apparently have a(n epistemological/ontological) foundation and you still end up a sort of foundationalist…

  12. Erik
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist:
    No; I’m saying that there are no levels at all, and hence no infinite regression.

    I do not think that there are any “basic entities” that serve as the ground-floor from which everything emerges (or to which everything else can be reduced). I do not think there are “entities” or “substances” at all, really; phenomena are better characterized as relatively stable processes.

    So, basically you think that the last phrase (namely, “phenomena are better characterized as relatively stable processes”) is a complete statement in and of itself?

    To me, phenomena and processes do not exist in and of themselves. They are phenomena and processes of something. That something would be a more fundamental reality than the phenomena and processes that stem from it.

  13. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Erik: When all other epistemological and ontological positions are denied, what is left? Based on what do you deny all the other positions? Logically, if you have a basis to deny the other points of view, then you apparently have a(n epistemological/ontological) foundation and you still end up a sort of foundationalist…

    Whether that inference follows depends on whether the account of the structure of justification offered by the anti-foundationalist matches the kinds of infallible, self-evident truths or principles insisted upon by the foundationalist.

    On the view I’m defending, all meaning and justification in substantive (non-formal) domains essentially involve social and historical process that involves a four-way coordination between (1) what one is as a self-conscious cognitive and practical agent; (2) how one conceives oneself as a self-conscious cognitive and practical agent; (3) what the objects of actual and possible knowledge are; (4) how one conceives of the objects of actual and possible knowledge. All four elements are dynamically intertwined in all substantive (non-formal) domains, including philosophy, science, ethics, politics, mathematics, and aesthetics.

    (It is a separate but interesting question whether the same procedures are at work in the meaning and justification in purely formal domains, such as the deductively closed systems of formal logic, whether classical or non-classical.)

    But critically testing (2) in relation to (1), and (4) in relation to (3), and also the fact the relation between (1) and (3) is mediated by the relation between (2) and (4), necessarily involves a process of both mutual criticism in which one’s claims are tested by others and self-criticism, in which the dialogical encounters are collected into reasons for revising (2) to produce a more adequate representation of (1) and also for revising (4) to produce a more adequate representation of (3), so that the relation between (2) and (4) becomes a more adequate representation of the relation between (1) and (3).

    The back-and-forth between mutual criticism and self-criticism is necessary for generating the revisions of conceptions of the cognitive and practical agent and of the objects of actual and possible knowledge. Hence both meaning and justification are essentially contested and contestable.

    Moreover, the conceptions of both self and object are part of the dynamics of the conceptual systems that have complex histories of their own, which we internalize in the process of becoming encultured language-users, and which we revise over the course of our lifetimes and pass onto the generations that follow us.

    (Thanks to evolutionary theory and paleoanthropology, we can extend this Hegelian story back into our evolutionary past.)

    All of this is what I have in mind when I talk of “playing the game of giving and asking for reasons”.

    What one does not have, in this account of justification, is anything like a regress-stopping, infallible, self-evident, Given basis from which all justification follows, either deductively (as for classical rationalists like Descartes or Kant) or inductively (as for classical empiricists like Locke or Mill).

    That is why this account of justification is not foundationalist.

  14. hotshoe_
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: As Evan Thompson nicely puts it, “since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.”

    I like that.

  15. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Erik: So, basically you think that the last phrase (namely, “phenomena are better characterized as relatively stable processes”) is a complete statement in and of itself?

    Yes, I do.

    To me, phenomena and processes do not exist in and of themselves. They are phenomena and processes of something. That something would be a more fundamental reality than the phenomena and processes that stem from it.

    I don’t think there are self-subsisting entities with intrinsic natures which then enter into relations. All properties are relational. (In linguistic terms, there are no monadic predicates.) All beings exist in relation with other beings, and Being is not the ground of these relations but rather all of them taken together. (As in Spinoza, there are infinite modes of the one substance, Deus sive Natura, what we today can understand as the finite-but-unbounded cosmos.)

  16. Rumraket Rumraket
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist: No; I’m saying that there are no levels at all, and hence no infinite regression.

    I do not think that there are any “basic entities” that serve as the ground-floor from which everything emerges (or to which everything else can be reduced). I do not think there are “entities” or “substances” at all, really; phenomena are better characterized as relatively stable processes. As Evan Thompson nicely puts it, “since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.”

    That makes literally no sense to me.

  17. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Rumraket: That makes literally no sense to me.

    Ha! Why ever not?

    Here’s why it makes complete sense to me (and why I also think it is true).

    We can model many different kinds of processes. Some examples: the rotation of galaxies, subduction zones between tectonic plates, currency fluctuations in global markets, diffusion of molecules across cell membranes, and proton-antiproton collisions.

    The reductive physicalist wants to say that some processes — say, those of quantum fields — have absolute ontological primacy over all other processes. (I’m going to leave aside non-reductive physicalism, though I also have grave doubts about that as well.)

    Conversely, the reductive idealist wants to say that minds and ideas have absolutely ontological primacy, and everything else — bodies and motions — can be understood in terms of ideas.

    What I am denying is precisely the idea that we can identity any level or stratum of absolute ontological primacy. Galactic rotation is no more or less real than proton-antiproton collisions, and molecular diffusion is no more or less real currency fluctuations. The causes of political revolution are no more or less real than the causes of tendonitis.

    Everything real is either observed or posited. For observables, the criteria for the application of “is real” involve recognizable particulars in the perceptuo-practical field of activity centered on one’s own body that can be identified and re-identified over time. For posits, the criteria for the application of “is real” involve highly-confirmed models using empirical magnitudes that are tested through manipulation and intervention of phenomenal processes to disclose and characterize phenomenologically hidden causal structures.

    What we’re not going to get, from this proffered version of scientific metaphysics and naturalized phenomenology, is any justification for saying that the observable is more real than the posited (as the instrumentalist wants to say) or that any level of reality has greater ontological primacy than any other.

  18. Erik
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist:
    As Evan Thompson nicely puts it, “since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.”

    And would it make no difference what differences there are between the different levels of complexity?

    Say, a river flows. This is one complexity. At a turn, a whirl of water is being formed. This is another, a different level of complexity. Sure, these two are different things and can be analysed autonomously, but taken side by side is there really no priority between them? Isn’t the latter secondary and the first primary? What kind of scientific method or rational analysis permits one to conclude that both “are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy”?

    Kantian Naturalist:
    All properties are relational. (In linguistic terms, there are no monadic predicates.)

    I’m sure you have no problem saying that relations are relations of something (namely of “properties” in your system). Now, what prevents you from saying that properties are properties of something? What are they properties of? And whatever the answer to this question, what prevents you from posing the same question to that?

  19. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist
    For posits, the criteria for the application of “is real” involve highly-confirmed models using empirical magnitudes that are tested through manipulation and intervention of phenomenal processes to disclose and characterize phenomenologically hidden causal structures.

    I read this as saying that we can look to science for help in understanding primacy in ontology.

    In that case, I think examples of scientific models support a limited form of ontological primacy.

    One type of example model is mechanisms. With these models, scientists explain the behavior of wholes by showing how it arises from causal relations of their parts as they are organized and interact in the mechanism. I take this to mean the parts have ontological primacy in the scientific model. Examples include the neural model of memory, biochemical models of genes or proteins, quantum models of chemical bonding.

    As another example, consider applications of the mathematics of dynamic systems theory. This involves studying the behavior of systems of differential equations. The equations use state variables often defined by aggregate measures of entities from more basic sciences. For example, models of human movement use parameters from Newtonian mechanics (mass, lever distances, force), neural models use states of individual neurons or their aggregates, thermodynamics uses probabilistic statistical parameters of molecule distributions, like mean kinetic energy.

    For both mechanisms and DST models, I am not aware of any examples of the reverse, at least not in the natural sciences. Indeed, any such examples would seem to require ontological downward causation, which I believe almost no scientists would accept.

    Now I am not claiming that this shows there is only one level of reality or that there is an absolute reducibility of all natural sciences to physics. But I do think that the asymmetry of the models in real science, arising from how the higher level sciences use the lower level sciences in model building, does show a limited from of ontological primacy.

  20. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS,

    I like those examples, but I’m not sure they show what you think they show.

    Mechanistic models and DST equations show us how we can understand wholes in terms of parts. Granted. And that is often very helpful. Other times we get cognitive purchase on a phenomenon by considering the whole first as what constrains the degrees of freedom of the parts. (Talbott on organisms, for example.)

    Whether we get greater cognitive purchase on a phenomenon in terms of how parts constitute the whole or in terms of how the whole constrains the parts depends on the inquiry — it depends on what we want to know and the assumptions built into the techniques we’re using. If that’s right, then there’s no absolute ontological primacy.

    One further point about these examples:

    neural model of memory, biochemical models of genes or proteins, quantum models of chemical bonding, models of human movement use parameters from Newtonian mechanics (mass, lever distances, force), neural models use states of individual neurons or their aggregates, thermodynamics uses probabilistic statistical parameters of molecule distributions, like mean kinetic energy.

    I don’t dispute the importance of these examples. I am disputing whether the metaphor of “levels” is the best way of understanding these examples. For one could also think that in these cases we are taking principles known to hold across a wide range of spatio-temporal phenomena and applying them to some narrow range of phenomena. QM is a theory of fundamental physics, thermodynamics might be, and Newtonian mechanics is a good-enough approximation of a theory of fundamental physics for most purposes. (If biomechanics involves relativistic effects, something has gone badly wrong.) But this explanatory strategy, moving from the more general to the more particular, does not seem like something that is best understood in terms of “levels”.

  21. Neil Rickert
    Ignored
    says:

    Erik: Say, a river flows. This is one complexity. At a turn, a whirl of water is being formed. This is another, a different level of complexity. Sure, these two are different things and can be analysed autonomously, but taken side by side is there really no priority between them?

    No, there really isn’t a priority between them.

    We prioritize. Our way of describing the world makes water flow primary, and eddies a resulting effect. But who is to say that some other culture might not prioritize it another way, with eddies as primary and generating flows? (The river itself might then be seen as coming from some giant eddy somewhere in the cosmos).

  22. Alan Fox Alan Fox
    Ignored
    says:

    Neil Rickert: We prioritize. Our way of describing the world makes water flow primary, and eddies a resulting effect. But who is to say that some other culture might not prioritize it another way, with eddies as primary and generating flows? (The river itself might then be seen as coming from some giant eddy somewhere in the cosmos).

    More simply, perhaps, it seems to be a matter of scale. We can choose to focus in or zoom out. Didn’t Hawking have something to say about overlapping theories in The Grand Design?

  23. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Neil Rickert: But who is to say that some other culture might not prioritize it another way, with eddies as primary and generating flows?

    Some cultures may think light is the cause of the sun and that birds are lighter than air.

  24. BruceS
    Ignored
    says:

    Kantian Naturalist:

    I like those examples, but I’m not sure they show what you think they show.

    I am arguing that
    1. The entities of one science are used to explain the behavior of the entities of another.
    This shows that scientists do not work only within their own domain, but that they also actively look for explanations which cross domains.

    2. The explanations which cross domains are asymmetric.
    For example, scientists explain memory in terms of neurons, not the reverse. Another example: the dynamic equations that explain neuron spiking rely on total charges of ions of certain biochemicals (and other factors); but the reverse does not hold, that is the explanation of the biochemistry does not rely on neurons.

    Because of these asymmetric explanations relating the entities of two sciences, I say that the nature of the explained entity relies in some limited sense on the nature of the explaining entity. That is the start of what I mean by a limited form of ontological primacy.

    (This argument applies to ontology because it assumes that our explanations are successful because they have captured existing causal relations of posited entities.)

    I am only arguing for limited ontological primacy. Here is what I mean by “limited”:

    Suppose E1 is the entity being explained in the domain of one science S1, and E2 is an entity in the domain of the second science S2 which is used in that explanation.

    The first aspect of the limitation is that the existence of E1 is posited from S1, not S2. Second, and more importantly, that S1-based understanding of E1 is needed to understand the relevant organization of E2 (for mechanisms) or the relevant partition of E2 to be aggregated (for state variables for DST).

    So the ontological primacy is limited because it does not eliminate the need for S1 to understand the nature of E1 and to set a context for explaining aspects of E1 by using E2.

    Whether we get greater cognitive purchase on a phenomenon in terms of how parts constitute the whole or in terms of how the whole constrains the parts depends on the inquiry — it depends on what we want to know and the assumptions built into the techniques we’re using. If that’s right, then there’s no absolute ontological primacy.

    That sounds similar to what I am saying when I define what I mean by limited ontological primacy (as opposed to absolute).

    I don’t dispute the importance of these examples. I am disputing whether the metaphor of “levels” is the best way of understanding these examples

    I did not use the word “level” in my first post, except to deny that it applies to what I am claiming.

  25. Kantian Naturalist Kantian Naturalist
    Ignored
    says:

    BruceS,

    I do like your argument for asymmetrical ontological dependence. It’s only when we get to claims about absolute ontological primacy that I have a problem. So for now I’m willing to accept your claims as a friendly amendment to mine.

  26. Critical Rationalist Critical Rationalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung: “It looks to me that in the scheme you’ve presented theism ends up as a version of idealism?”

    I’d suggest that is a false dilemma.

    One aspect of Foundationalism is the idea that there are sources of knowledge that we can turn to as a last resort which are self evident, obviously true, etc. and cannot lead us astray from the truth.

    For example, one criticism of Darwinism is that if it were true, there is no reason to think that human beings can know anything because our senses and faculties were not designed explicitly to obtain truth. Yet, there is knowledge. So, Darwinism must be false. Go… err, a designer must have designed our faculties for that purpose. Otherwise, there is no foundation for which they can operate as they do. But this assumes something can only serve a purpose if it was designed for that purpose.

    Furthermore, it seems we haven’t actually made any progress. All the critic has done is push the problem up a level without actually improving it. Specifically, it is unclear how the designer knew how to make human beings with senses and faculties that actually work. What foundation is the designer based on, etc.? The designer must be God, who “just was” complete with the knowledge of how to make human beings with sense and faculties. Only God is self evident and the source of knowledge that we can turn to which cannot lead us astray. While God might not tell us everything we want to know, he cannot lie to us. Nor can be be mistaken. The Logos always was and always will be.

    IOW, God is a supernatural authoritative source of knowledge.

    So Foundationalism asks the question, “what ultimate source can we turn to that will not lead us astray?

    An alternative of Foundationaislm, Fallibilism, asks a completely different and opposite question: “How can we identify errors and discard them”? This is because, unlike Foundationaislm, a Fallibilist thinks all sources are subject to error and can lead us astray. Knowledge grows though conjecture and criticism. We guess, then criticize our guesses, throwing away errors we find. From an epistemological view, human beings can criticize ideas because evolution gives us a instinctual staring point, which transitions into human knowledge and ideas about criticism.

    Karl Popper’s universal theory of knowledge spans genes, brains and books. It is explained by a variation controlled by criticism. Knowledge does not require a knowing subject, so in that sense, it is universal.

    Empiricism was an improvement because it promoted observation. However, it got the role observations plays backwards. Theories are tested by observations, not derived from them. Science happens when criticism includes empirical observations, along with other forms of criticism.

  27. Critical Rationalist Critical Rationalist
    Ignored
    says:

    Erik: “Say, a river flows. This is one complexity. At a turn, a whirl of water is being formed. This is another, a different level of complexity. Sure, these two are different things and can be analysed autonomously, but taken side by side is there really no priority between them? Isn’t the latter secondary and the first primary? What kind of scientific method or rational analysis permits one to conclude that both “are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy”?”

    Some explanations are more fundamental in that they play a key role in a vast number of other theories But this does necessarily mean they are Foundationalist in the epistemological sense. Quantum mechanics is the most fundamental theory we currently have in physics. However, there are up and coming theories that are more fundamental, such as Constructor Theory. Which allows us to bring information and life into fundamental physics.

  28. Erik
    Ignored
    says:

    Critical Rationalist: Some explanations are more fundamental in that they play a key role in a vast number of other theories But this does necessarily mean they are Foundationalist in the epistemological sense. Quantum mechanics is the most fundamental theory we currently have in physics. However, there are up and coming theories that are more fundamental, such as Constructor Theory. Which allows us to bring information and life into fundamental physics.

    So, to summarise, since some theories are more fundamental than others, and even more fundamental theories crop up from time to time, therefore there are no fundamental theories. Right?

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