Knowledge, concept of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P031-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2021, from

4. Foundationalism and coherentism

There are two main, traditional approaches to the account of justification: foundationalism and coherentism. Both are normative views about rules in virtue of which propositions ought to be accepted or ought to be rejected or ought to be suspended (see Knowledge and justification, coherence theory of; Foundationalism; Normative epistemology). In order to characterize these approaches, recall how the ancient Pyrrhonian Sceptics divided the possible structures of reasons that provide a basis for accepting a belief (see Epistemology, history of; Pyrrhonism). Suppose you hold a belief and offer another belief as the reason for the first – for example, suppose you believe that Ford cars are generally less expensive than BMWs. Your reason could be your belief that you were told so by a reliable person. An obvious question arises: what is your basis for believing that the person is reliable? You could answer with another reason and that reason could, itself, be supported by a further reason, and so on.

This process of providing reasons for your beliefs can have only three possible structures:

  • Foundationalism: The process of giving reasons could be such that not every reason is supported by another reason because there are basic reasons which have no need of further reasons supporting them.

  • Coherentism: The process of giving reasons could have no reason that is not supported by another reason, but there is not an infinite number of reasons. Thus, beliefs are mutually supporting.

  • Infinitism: The process of giving reasons could have no reason that is not supported by another reason, but there is an infinite number of reasons.

Foundationalism and coherentism have both been developed and defended, and there are well-known objections to each view. In contrast, the prima facie objections to infinitism have seemed so overwhelming that it has not been investigated carefully. Infinitism seems to require that a person should have an infinite number of beliefs (which seems on its face to be false). In addition, it seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that no belief could ever be justified, since the process of justification would never come to an end.

The standard objections to foundationalism are several. First, as the Pyrrhonians would point out, there must be a distinction between what makes a belief properly basic and what makes it simply one for which no other reason is, in fact, given. Otherwise, the offered ‘basic’ reason is arbitrary. But if there is some further reason for thinking that an offered reason is not arbitrary, then there is a reason for accepting it, and the offered reason is, thereby, not basic. Hence, there can be no foundational propositions.

Second, some preferred candidates for properly basic reasons seem not to be properly basic on closer inspection. Consider perceptual judgments – the source of most of our knowledge of the external world according to many philosophers (see Empiricism; A Posteriori). A reason for believing that there is a tree before me is that I see a tree before me. But the latter proposition does not appear to be properly basic because one could be required to explain what it is about what is seen that leads one to believe that it is a tree that one sees (as opposed to an illusion). Thus, some foundationalists have retreated to sensation-beliefs (so-called sense-data propositions) as their candidates for properly basic beliefs: for example, ‘I seem to see a green, brown, tallish object’ (see Ayer, A.J.; Broad, C.D.; Moore, G.E.). But although these propositions might seem to be properly basic, there are notorious problems with the sense-data view (see Perception, epistemic issues in; Sense-data). First, the proffered basic beliefs seem to be too meagre to provide a sufficient basis for the rich scope of things we seem to know. For example, how can my knowledge that objects persist when not being perceived be traced to particular sense-data? Second, it appears that our knowledge of the way in which to characterize our sensations (private sensations accessible only to the individual having them) depends upon our knowledge of public objects (see Criteria; Wittgenstein, L.J.J.). How could we know, for example, that we have a throbbing pain without first recognizing what it is for a public object (say, a muscle) to be throbbing?

Foundationalists have developed answers to these objections in part by liberalizing the requirements either for being properly basic or for being an acceptable pattern of inference from the foundational propositions to the non-foundational ones (see Inference to the best explanation). For example, contextualist accounts of knowledge have been developed that hold that a proposition is properly basic just in case it is accepted by the relevant community of putative knowers. In a discussion with a friend I could offer as my reason for believing another moon of Jupiter had been discovered that ‘I read it in the newspaper’. I would not need further reasons for believing that I read it. In contrast, at a convention of astronomers that reason would not be accepted. Hence, contextualists claim, what counts as a basic reason is context-dependent.

There are two obvious responses to contextualism. The first is that it might be an accurate description of some aspects of our epistemic practices, but the fundamental Pyrrhonian question remains: what distinguishes a properly basic proposition from one that is merely offered and accepted by a community of putative knowers? The issue concerns what beliefs, if any, ought to be offered and accepted without further reasons. The question is not what beliefs are offered and accepted without further reason. The second response is a corollary of the first. Knowledge seems to be a highly prized state of belief (as Plato put it). But, if the contextualists were right, I would gain knowledge by joining a community of rather epistemically gullible and permissive folk. That hardly seems right! (See Contextualism, epistemological.)

In sum, it remains a subject of dispute among epistemologists whether the stock of purported foundational propositions can be made sufficiently rich and abundant without including too many that clearly require evidential support, or whether the patterns of inferences can be liberalized sufficiently without allowing patterns that are not sufficiently truth-conducive.

The historical rival of foundationalism is coherentism. Coherentists deny that there are basic reasons and claim that all propositions derive their warrant, at least in part, from other propositions. The fundamental objection is this: Typically, we recognize that arguing in a circle is not an acceptable pattern of inference, so what makes it acceptable in some cases? Suppose I believe that apples contain vitamin C, at least in part because I believe that fruits contain vitamin C. I would surely be appropriately accused of circular reasoning if I believed, in part, that fruits contain vitamin C because apples do.

Coherentists would be quick to point out that they are not really suggesting that one should argue in a circle. Rather, they would point to the fact that our beliefs come in bunches with a web-like structure (see Quine, W.V.). They are ‘mutually supporting’ just as the poles in a tepee are mutually supporting. A belief is warranted just in case it is a member of a set of coherent beliefs.

But whether these colourful analogies answer the basic objection is not clear. Presumably, circular reasoning is not acceptable because although it might be the case that if you believe b 1 it might be reasonable to believe b 2, and if you believe b 2 it might be reasonable to also believe b 1, their mutual support gives you no reason for believing them both. Thus, the fundamental question is this: What makes one total set of coherent beliefs, say T 1, any more acceptable than an alternative total set of coherent beliefs, say T 2?

The Pyrrhonian Sceptics would point out that coherentists either have an answer for that question or they do not. If they do, then they seem to have abandoned their central view, since there now seems to be a reason for adopting the set of beliefs, T 1, that is not one of the beliefs in T 1. Indeed, if they provide an answer, they have embraced foundationalism. If they do not have an answer, then it seems that adopting T 1 is arbitrary. Coherentists have attempted to answer this objection by giving a ‘meta-justification’ for thinking that certain kinds of coherent belief systems are likely to contain true members. Indeed, some have argued that coherent beliefs are, by their very nature, likely to be true (see Davidson, D.). But whether that strategy will suffice to answer the objections remains an open question in epistemology.

Citing this article:
Klein, Peter D.. Foundationalism and coherentism. Knowledge, concept of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P031-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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