Thursday, January 12, 2012

Regress problem and foundationalism vs coherentism

To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Regress problem and foundationalism vs coherentism
Date: 21 November 2006 10:06

Dear James,

Thank you for your email of 15 November with your University of London essay, 'The Regress Problem and Foundationalist-Coherentist Debate'.

I have to say straight away that this is an issue which I, personally, find difficult. It seems obvious to me both that:

1. Human knowledge is a complex, holistic structure which displays a large degree of coherence, the larger the circles of mutual justification the harder it is to reject the beliefs and theories which form those circles.

2. There are basic beliefs which in normal circumstances it is unreasonable to question, like 'There is a mug of tea on my desk,' or 'It is sunny today,' or 'I have two hands.'

As you show in your essay, the basic motivation is the desire to defend knowledge claims in the face of sceptical attack. However, if we are giving free reign to the sceptic then any proposal is bound to fail. Coherence fails because of the (alleged) possibility of alternative coherent systems. Foundationalism fails because of the (alleged) possibility that any given basic belief might still be false.

I would therefore question whether it is correct to see a theory of justification as a response to scepticism.

The purpose of a theory of justification is to make the nature of knowledge more perspicuous, to enable us to understand how knowledge relates to perception, testimony, theory etc. The dialectic of scepticism is a separate enterprise. There are various motivations which might lead to scepticism - for example, the belief in 'Cartesian mental events' which can occur just as easily in a dream as in waking experience - and each one has to be met and rebutted, in the Cartesian example by deploying the private language argument.

As an essay, I found this well structured and evidently knowledgeable. However, I sensed a certain 'distance' from the issues themselves. You report that a certain view is held, and that it fails for such-and-such a reason, but the reader is given no insight into what the view is or why it fails. For example, '...although Chisholm attempted to clarify a distinction between certain 'appearance' statements and 'appeared to' statements, he failed to make a clear distinction between the two groups...'. I would like to know more. How did he attempt to clarify the distinction and why did he fail? A couple of sentences would be enough.

On the basis of what you have written, the reader would have a hard time even deciding whether Chisholm is for or against foundationalism, or whether Sellars is for or against coherentism.

I am not sure what an examiner would say. Certainly, in a one hour paper, a student will get credit for doing just what you have done as this is evidence that they have grasped - or at least know about - this piece bit of the argument. However, if this was, say, a submission to the Philosophy Pathways e-journal or an essay submitted for the Associate award I would object on the grounds that it amounts to doing philosophy 'second hand'. You need to rehearse the philosophical arguments, it is not enough to just report on them. I want to see you doing philosophy.

In your final paragraph you say, 'We either must accept the sceptical conclusion of infinite regress, or we must reject the very premise of the regress argument; namely, that knowledge is justified through reference to an internal belief structure which can be presented on request.' I wonder whether it would not have been a better strategy to signal at the start that this was your objective, reminding the reader at each key stage that there is a choice to be made between the internalist and the externalist view?

Another thing that occurred to me is that part of the problem might be that you have tried to squeeze a paper into the essay format. A question on the UoL Epistemology paper would be a lot more focused than the title you have given yourself, which allows you to attempt an appraisal of foundationalism and an appraisal of coherentism - at least two essays, if not more.

However, you obviously have a very good grasp of these issues and I have no doubt on the basis of the work you have sent me so far that you will do very well in the exam.

All the best,

Geoffrey