Foundationalism has had a really rough time in the last few centuries. Starting with Thomas Reid‘s attacks on ‘the way of ideas’, finding perhaps their most sophisticated articulations in Sellars and his attack on the ‘myth of the given’ (both Reid and Sellars are concerned with the foundations of empirical knowledge here) and continuing with Rorty and his attack on the ‘mirror of nature’, powerful arguments have been leveled at what has been, according to the received wisdom, the reigning theory of knowledge for most of history. Alvin Plantinga has rather famously given classical foundationalism a final kick. Now, a perusal of these links will show that foundationalism is indeed a many splendored thing: there are epistemic and metaphysical articulations to be found, ranging from Descartes to the British empiricists to Russell, but the overall moral is this: the idea that knowledge requires foundations (of any of the kinds listed above) in order to be rational is at the very least open to serious doubt. Now, the fact that foundationalism is in doubt doesn’t negate the idea that knowledge may have foundations more generally. Plantinga is a good case study here, since while he objects to classical foundationalism he is still a sort-of, or a modest, foundationalist. It may be more helpful to put it this way: while the requirement for foundations for knowledge to be rational may be called into question, the question of grounds for knowledge is still alive and well.
This was something of a unifying theme for the German Idealists: the idea that there can be grounds for knowledge without foundations for knowledge. Perhaps no more heroic effort to develop a foundation-less but still grounded system was made than that of Fichte, and later by Hegel. One of Fichte’s key points made against the idea of a Cartesian foundation, with demonstrable first principles, is that these first principles are in fact non-demonstrable:
…although we can show the genealogical relation between a theory and the first principle from which it derives, this principle is rigorously indemonstrable on the basis of this same theory. From this angle of vision, as Fichte points out, philosophy consists in the search for a first and absolute principle of human knowledge. According to Fichte, such a principle is unlimited and indemonstrable when it is a question of a true first princple. (Tom Rockmore, Before and After Hegel, p. 36)
Fichte is keen to avoid foundations; he is just as keen to avoid justification-less systems. While steering clear of Cartesian foundations, Fichte wants to preserve what he takes to be a fundamental rationalist insight: that there is a first principle that justifies anything that is derived from it (systems, propositions). What sets Fichte apart here is that instead of making intellectual intuition of some object or some fact this first principle, it is the ‘I’ which serves as first principle. Now, the language of ‘justification’ here ought to be noted: it is this language which marks out the normative dimension of Fichte’s project. There is an essentially Kantian slant to the resulting doctrine, as Terry Pinkard notes: ‘That is, we simply had to grasp through an act of “intellectual intuition” that our thought could be subject only to those norms of which it could regard itself the author.’ (German Philosophy: The Legacy of Idealism, p. 112). Fichte’s (in)famous reworking of the law of identity into a kind of inferentialism is the next step here, and according to Pinkard it is this inferentialism that actually grounds the law of identity (traditionally taken to be self-evident):
Identity statements, whose necessity seems to be at first self-evident when grasped in an act of intellectual intuition, in fact derive their necessity from a prior inference license (“if A, then A”); if so, then even more basic than the identity statement itself must be the notion, so Fichte argued, of issuing the license. (p. 113)
Through a series of dense and at times hard to follow arguments, Fichte moves from this inferentialism to the idea that the ‘I’ is the fundamental principle of knowledge (and there are some interesting connections here with Fichte’s inferentialism to Robert Brandom’s inferentialist project): however, this ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ or the ‘self’ of classical metaphysics, a self-contained, stable, enduring through time sort of substance. For Fichte, the ‘I’ is self-positing, and indeed, before the self-positing, there is in fact no ‘I’ or self. In another kantian move, Fichte notes that the condition for the possibility of any kind of logical judgement or any kind of inferential license issuing is the ‘I’ positing its own being, or to put a normative spin on it, the ‘I’s’ self-authorizing. This act of self-authorizing which constitutes the ‘I’ is essentially a recognition of the law of identity: ‘for a subject, an “I,” to be said to be issuing inference licenses in the first place, it must be able to entertain both “A” and “not-A.” Otherwise, it will never be able to commit itself to any particular inference license at all’ (p. 115). This act of recognition is itself normative, since in this context the law of identity becomes ‘I=I’, and indeed this act of recognition can be given the name of ‘self-consciousness’, which is ‘normatively positioning oneself and authorizing oneself to attribute such positions to oneself’ (p. 116). The constitution of the ‘I’ is, then, for Fichte, the fundamental principle of human knowledge.
But weren’t we concerned to show that Fichte wasn’t trying to ground human knowledge in a fundamental principle? Yes, and here lies a crucial point for the contemporary debate on foundationalism which was noted in the first paragraph of this post: while the idea of demonstrable foundations of knowledge can be called into question, the idea of grounds for knowledge is perfectly legitimate. Fichte’s crucial difference with the Cartesian tradition is that his fundamental principle is indemonstrable, but it is still a fundamental principle. The act of self-consciousness in which the ‘I’ constitutes itself as ‘I’, which is the fundamental principle, is not itself given in consciousness. This may seem odd, but recall that Fichte’s principle is transcendental: that is, it is a condition for the possibility of logical judgement. This transcendental self-consciousness isn’t something we can see or are given in experience: ‘…there is no comparable sense in which Fichte’s structures are implicitly present in consciousness: we cannot be thought to, as it were, see the I’s positings in empirical consciousness, in the way that we can be thought to discern Kant’s syntheses in the conceptually shaped sensible given’ (Sebastian Gardner, The unconscious, in The Impact of Idealism, p. 139). Pinkard notes that
By focusing so straightforwardly on self-consciousness, Fichte was trying to get his readers to grasp the common Kantian–Fichtean point that the “transcendental self ” was not an “item” within experience but a normative status that made conscious and self-conscious experience possible in the first place and could therefore not be found in any act of introspection. (The Legacy of Idealism, p. 118)
While Fichte’s own conclusions and doctrines may or may not be explicitly relevant to the contemporary debate surely his underlying concerns are. Fichte had shown (or at the very least had taken himself to be showing) that there could be a fundamental principle of human knowledge that wasn’t itself a Cartesian foundation. This insight is itself essentially Kantian, but through a quirk of reception, Kant and Kantianism has largely been taken to be foundationalist in the crudest sense: Kantianism as a response to radical skepticism is, more or less, the canonical story. This story has been extraordinarily influential and like all influential stories has a good deal of truth in its broad forms. Kant was, in fact, responding to skepticism, but it is the manner of his response, or perhaps more precisely, the manner in which his response was received and re-oriented, that I want to examine here.
There are two relevant ways to interpret Kant’s response to skepticism: (1) transcendentally and (2) foundationally. (1) can be summed up by saying that ‘since the skeptic had to presuppose as a condition of experience some feature of experience he was explicitly denying, the skeptic was therefore always being (perhaps unknowingly) inconsistent with the force of his own commitments’ (p. 101). (2) can be summed up by saying that ‘the normative force of the Kantian categories – their character in determining how we ought to judge things or “must” judge them if we are to make any sense at all – had to be derived from some basic, itself non-derivable fact’ (p. 101). We can call (1) the letter of the Kantian view, and (2) the spirit of the Kantian view. (1) is far less malleable than (2), which may be reoriented, redirected, corrected, or even rejected. The dominant interpretation of Kant’s response has largely been (2), and this is largely the result of Reinhold’s own work on Kant’s philosophy.
Reinhold was largely concerned (as were most philosophers in his world) with tensions between philosophy and science, and whether or not philosophy itself was a science, and once his most serious concerns was whether or not philosophy was a science was whether or not it had a foundation, and it was in the Kantian doctrine of consciousness that Reinhold found his own fundamental principle: “In consciousness the subject distinguishes the representation from the subject and object and relates it to both.” This was Reinhold’s foundation, derived from no other premise but the fact of consciousness itself given in consciousness:
Components of Reinhold’s strategy for interpreting Kant were to be replayed time and again in the history of the reception of Kantian philosophy. As that strategy laid out the terms of debate, the central problem to which Kant was supposed to have responded was that of epistemological skepticism; the solution to that skeptical problem was supposed to consist in demonstrating or finding some truth that the skeptic could not doubt; for that to work, such a truth had both to possess “certainty” and to be something with which we are directly acquainted. Since we cannot sensibly deny that we are conscious, and since a close attending to the “fact” of consciousness discloses the elements of the “principle of consciousness,”a close analysis of what is meant by the terms, “subject,” “object,” and “representation” should suffice to put philosophy on a scientific footing, give philosophers the professorial authority they should have, and answer once and for all the doubts raised by the skeptic. This, Reinhold concluded, was the answer to the question that Kant should have asked but did not. Indeed, understood in that light, the whole of Kant’s own critical enterprise, Reinhold concluded, should be considered as a kind of grand theorem of his Elementarphilosophie. (p. 100)
This is, clearly, a markedly different response to skepticism than Kant himself gave, which is much more akin to (1) above. Reinhold’s interpretation makes Kant out to be much closer to the dogmatists Kant decried, who attempted to refute skepticism by arguing for facts so certain that not even the skeptic could doubt them. It is this interpretation of Kant by Reinhold as a foundationalist and the Kantian system as foundationalism that has so often informed contemporary discussions of Kant and epistemology: ‘Reinhold was instead convinced, like Descartes, that he had to find a principle that was so absolutely certain that even the skeptic could not deny it. Reinhold thus offered a way of interpreting Kant to which people have time and time returned (often without knowing how Reinhold paved the way)’ (p. 101). The point of tension appears to be between thinking of Kantian foundations either transcendentally or foundational-ism-ly. Given Kant’s own resistance to seeing the ‘I’ in empirical consciousness, the evidence appears to point towards the following conclusion: to interpret Kant as responding to skeptics, in a time of crisis, as it were, by positing undeniable, immediately available facts is to interpret Kant in precisely the way that he shouldn’t be. Kant and Fichte’s foundations of human knowledge derive their status as foundational not by being immediately available to consciousness, perception or as objects of knowledge but by the exact opposite: by locating the conditions for the possibility outside of experience itself. Were Fichte and Kant foundationalists? Yes and no: yes in that they agreed that knowledge had to start somewhere, no in that they forcefully rejected attempts to locate this start in demonstrable self-evident facts present to immediate consciousness. Perhaps a moral might be gleaned from this: contemporary debates about foundationalism and the justification of belief stand to gain a good deal if the insights of German idealism are incorporated into the debate, namely the reconfiguration of epistemology as fundamentally transcendental (that is, concerned with the conditions for the possibility of experience and knowledge) and therefore as fundamentally normative. While it has not been touched on here, the normative dimension of German idealist epistemology is deeply social, and a reconfiguration towards the transcendental implies a reconfiguration to the social as well.