On the Analytic-Continental Divide: Foundationalism as a Red Herring

A common indictment against twentieth-century analytic philosophy is that it is “too foundationalist.” But what does this mean? In general terms, at least, foundationalism names a fundamental, guiding metaphor for an epistemological system: namely, the metaphor of stacking one thing upon another. The story goes something like this…

Philosophy begins from first principles—something we can mostly agree on/seems right intuitively, etc. These beliefs, which themselves are not justified via others (so as to avoid an infinite regress or ciricularity), serve as foundations for the other beliefs. Therefore, the way in which non-foundational beliefs are related to foundational beliefs is analogous to way in which one brick is laid upon another—while the bottom can stand without the top, the top cannot stand without the bottom.

Now there is at least one real value in critiquing such a story: namely, that the metaphors employed in epistemology (among other sub-disciplines in philosophy) are brought to consciousness rather than accepted as the “bottom line” or “just the way it is.” This kind of exposing seems very much like the task of the philosopher—at least in part.

However, if the motivation behind the critique is that foundationalism as an epistemological methodology does not provide adequate explanatory power for certain aspects of what counts as justified belief, then I believe that the critique at issue becomes less and less interesting. Of course our guiding metaphors for the knowledge process are going to miss something here or there—that is part of what a metaphor does by its very nature. This doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of time to draw out the implications of other guiding metaphors (like, say, coherence)—indeed, this is important. But to parrot the various clichés about foundationalism (it’s enlightenment/modernity/it hates the ‘other’, etc.) is usually to assume that our guiding metaphors have to be perfect in order to function well. I mean, is my epistemology really implicated in the worst of enlightenment universality if I believe that there’s really a book on the table because I believe that my eyes don’t deceive me (and not vice versa)? As far as it goes, it seems like this kind of common sense reasoning needs to be taken seriously—not as exhaustive, but seriously nonetheless. This is part of the brilliance of the [actual] Cartesian project.

To me, there is a much more interesting development within analytic philosophy that could prove to be a real aporia: namely, the painfully obvious implications of a reductive materialism and the fleeting persuasiveness of common sense as a source of foundational (or “properly basic”) beliefs. Roughly speaking, analytic philosophy has drawn on two deep wells for its livelihood: namely, the blinding speed of scientific progress, and the common sense elegance of symbolic logic as developed by Frege, Russell and others. If this is true, then, the potential aporia is as follows:

If the human mind is implicated in the so-called “universal acid” of reductive materialism, it is not at all obvious how we can be sure that any of our beliefs actually have anything to do with what is actually the case “in reality.” We are surviving beings, after all—not truth-seeking beings. But if this is indeed the case, then it seems like the other side of analytic philosophy—say, the logical atomism of Bertrand Russell—seems more and more like a remarkable exercise in human convention than a system that actually tracks reality in any sort of interesting way. After all, the great power of modern symbolic logic is its profound appeal to common sense. I mean, try denying modus ponens as a mere byproduct of survival instincts!

It seems like we need a way to understand something like modus ponens as really the way things are, while yet taking the genetic claims of evolution, etc. seriously. These kinds of questions, I believe, are the ones continental philosophy is more prepared to handle—due precisely to its natural suspicion of the empirical sciences and common sense as basically “go-to”, “bottom-line” categories. I don’t claim to have all the answers here, but I do think that these kinds of inquiry are far more interesting than the typical critiques of enlightenment rationality we’re all familiar with.

In conclusion, foundationalism is not always bad, and it’s precisely because it’s not always bad that we should critique analytic philosophy in different ways.


4 thoughts on “On the Analytic-Continental Divide: Foundationalism as a Red Herring

  1. Interesting post. I am of the view that analytic philosophy goes wrong when it tries to distance itself from and deny this foundationalist epistemological background you refer to. The whole notion of language-games and tautological truth, and conventionalism is analytic philosophy gone wrong in my opinion. Better to admit the need for foundations, rather than deny them, only for them to slip in the back door. This is where foundationalism turns into reductionism.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. Yeah, I agree that a wholesale reductionism is a bad position and that at least a soft foundationalism can serve well as a sort of bastion against it. As I say above, the only caveat I’d offer is that we should beware of foundationalism if its acceptance demands a sort of monolithic force that calls everything else “relativism” or something like that. That kind of stuff gets old (at least for me) really fast.

  2. Josh, thanks for the post. I’d like to wrestle through a couple things with you regarding your first few points if you’re game. I feel that you may be understating the force with which foundationalism is originally posited. That is, Descartes didn’t think finding a foundation would serve as a “helpful metaphor” for a viable epistemology; he thought it was the only way to proceed with epistemology. The “foundational” starting point was ontologically real and absolutely universal for him. So when you say “Of course our guiding metaphors are going to be imperfect…” I’m not sure that accurately reflects the way foundationalism actually instantiates itself as an epistemological discourse.

    The critique of foundationalism is not simply that it’s an ineffective metaphor; it’s that it doesn’t meet it’s own criteria. That is, it’s not clear a priori that foundationalism itself is necessary for an adequate epistemology. Furthermore, in claiming to have forgotten everything he had previously learned, Descartes conveniently retained the idea of a philosophical method by which to proceed as well as the need for a foundation on which to build an epistemology. Hume had a very similar foundational problem from the empirical side of things: In his despair at not being able to locate an adequate foundation for epistemology in his empirical experience, he never stopped to question what empirical experience of his justified a need for a foundation in the first place. (That’s actually part of MacIntyre’s critique of foundationalism.) Foundationalism has been quite lucidly refuted in the 19th and 20th centuries by Nietzsche, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and more on the continental side and Wittgenstein, Rorty, MacIntyre, etc. on the analytic side and those refutations (with the exception of Rorty) don’t rely on faulty metaphor arguments.

    I’d like to see if you agree with this: I don’t see late 20th century philosophy as saying “we can’t say anything is true at all.” Derrida, for example, when talking about metaphysics, says that he isn’t interested in the “destruction” of metaphysics because to say “There is no metaphysics” absolutely is already itself a metaphysical claim. The same can be said about the foundational critique IF one intends that critique to be a transcendentally absolute position. I don’t think that’s the critique though. Continental thought is a philosophy of “problematizing.” It’s not trying to block us from saying anything at all. It wants to ensure we’re properly unmaking our idols so that we can continue to speak. The difficulty, of course, is making sure that critique itself doesn’t become some sort of meta-philosophy to which everything else must bow. For me, that’s where politics becomes really important, but that’s another post…

    • Hi Joel, thanks for the comment. I’ll try to respond paragraph by paragraph:

      1. I agree that Descartes’ project lacks the imagination to understand foundationalism in the way I describe (i.e. as a guiding metaphor for making sense of knowledge claims). In that sense he is implicated in the mistake I think we both want to avoid: namely, the idea that foundationalism is synonymous with philosphical inquiry as a whole and it is “just the way it is.” I would just respond by saying there are very few analytic philosophers today that would take up such a strong position (not that this contradicts anything you’re saying).

      2. I guess I’d respond to this by disagreeing with your very last point: namely, that these skeptical critiques “don’t rely on faulty metphor arguments.” I think they do, in the end. Here’s why: If your critique is that Descartes/Hume didn’t doubt enough (and were thus arbitrary in their choice of properly basic beliefs), then you’re saying that a system of knowledge is not analogous to the process of one brick being laid upon another. The thought here is that there is no good reason to believe that there is such a thing as a “bottom brick,” so to speak–one that provides adequate justification for others on its own terms. In this way, then, I think the critique is precisely that foundationalism is a faulty metaphor insofar as it begs the question re: the bottom brick. Now, that being said, I think there is a certain amount of traction in these critiques and I even agree that they are persuasive.

      3. I’m not sure what the “this” refers to when you say, “I’d like to see if you agree with this.” If it is the part about the caricature of continental philosophy as saying that we cannot say anything, then I definitely agree. I tend to read Heidegger/Derrida in light of the perennial ontological issues raised by the ancients. That’s when they’re at their best, I think. So yeah, totally, H/D as metaphysicians! I’d also be interested in what you mean by a “philosophy of problematizing,” too. It sounds about right, but I’m not sure without clarification how it represents something distinctive of continental as opposed to analytic philosophy.


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