Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Foundationalism in Descartes

To: Maureen O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Foundationalism in Descartes
Date: 4 September 2003 10:19

Dear Maureen,

Thank you for your e-mail of 25 August, with your third essay for the Associate program, in response to the question, 'Foundationalism is sometimes construed on the model of a pyramid. With reference to the epistemology of either Descartes or Locke (not both) discuss the nature of the basic level in relation to the whole structure.'

Your essay is on the whole well constructed, and shows evidence that you have thought carefully about this problem. However, I get the clear impression that you have struggled to make sense of the texts that you were recommended to read (presumably by the instructor who originally set the essay). So when you say, 'There is considerable lack of clarity in the texts that I have covered, the same term can be used by different authors to mean different concepts....' I read this more as a confession of your own puzzlement than as a critique of these authors.

My recommendation is that you avoid as much as possible pitting one author's words against another ('Aune says this, but Alston says this...') and instead confine references to footnotes. Give *your* best judgement on these issues, referencing the points you make in footnotes, where these reflect, or are derived from the author or authors concerned.

What is the issue with foundationalism in Descartes? How does it reflect on the foundationalist strategy in general?

The major issue, which should be addressed in an essay responding to the question set, is how far foundationalism is able to survive the criticisms made of Descartes particular brand of foundationalism. A refutation of Cartesian foundationalism is not a refutation of foundationalism in general, but rather sets a challenge to the foundationalist to produce an alternative account of basic propositions and their relation to the superstructure.

The essay will therefore seek to differentiate between the aspects of Cartesian foundationalism which survive the critique of Descartes' account of basic propositions, and those which must be rejected.

At one point you say, '...it is apparent that [Descartes'] 'intuitions' or 'clear and distinct ideas' are very personal to him, and if they represent infallible truth, then it is infallible truth for Descartes only, and therefore not the basis of a foundational epistemology.' This criticism is central, but the way you present it begs the question. According to Descartes, all questions of knowledge resolve into, 'What do *I* know?' Each of us must ultimately solve the epistemological riddle for ourselves. That is a powerful idea which has exercised an influence over centuries of philosophy. It is therefore entirely appropriate, from Descartes' perspective, that the basic propositions should be statements about ones own clear and distinct ideas.

If Descartes is wrong about this, might there still be basic propositions which you and I can share - like Moore's 'this is a hand' (where, e.g. we are both sitting in the front row of the audience looking at Moore's left hand)? That is the main issue. If basic propositions can be public rather than private, foundationalism takes on a very different character.

Another shortcoming of your essay is that you do not sufficiently emphasise the difference between Descartes and Locke. For Descartes, it turns out that most of scientific knowledge is not derived empirically, but is a priori, based on general principles. A telling example is the way Descartes produced a 'physics' founded upon pure geometry. In Cartesian physics, physical laws are to be derived solely from the a priori analysis of the concept of extension! It was as a result of this approach (criticized later by Leibniz on the ground that it failed to account for the empirically observed properties of impenetrability and inertia) that Descartes came to the erroneous view that the non-physical soul could, consistently with the laws of his physics, affect the movements of the 'animal spirits', thus enabling the interaction between soul and body.

It is harder to see how this approach to scientific knowledge can be saved in the face of modern empiricist critique, not of Descartes foundationalism but rather of his rationalism.

All the best,

Geoffrey