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.