Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification
First published Mon Feb 21, 2000; substantive revision Mon Oct 24, 2016
Foundationalism is a view about the structure of justification or knowledge. The foundationalist’s thesis in short is that all knowledge or justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferential knowledge or justified belief.
A little reflection suggests that the vast majority of the propositions we know or justifiably believe have that status only because we know or justifiably believe other propositions. So, for example, I justifiably believe that there is at least one dog in our neighborhood, because I justifiably believe that my next door neighbor has a dog; I justifiably believe that our garbage will get picked up tomorrow, because I justifiably believe that tomorrow is Tuesday and that our garbage gets picked up every Tuesday; and I justifiably believe that there is going to be at least some rain in the next week, because I justifiably believe that the forecast calls for a good deal of rain, and forecasts are almost always right when it comes to similar short-term forecasts in this area. And the dependence seems to be inferential in nature: in each case, I justifiably believe the former only because I have inferred it, or at least am readily able to infer it, from the latter. Foundationalists about epistemic justification (knowledge) want to contrast my inferentially justified belief (knowledge) with a kind of justified belief (knowledge) that doesn’t involve the having of other justified beliefs (knowledge). There is no standard terminology for what we shall henceforth refer to as noninferential or foundational justification (knowledge).
Many interesting and difficult questions can be raised about the relation between justification and knowledge, including whether knowledge should be analyzed in terms of justification, as epistemologists traditionally seem to have thought, or the other way round. In what follows we will concentrate on foundationalism about justification, though much of what we say also applies to foundationalism about knowledge.
Epistemologists commonly distinguish between doxastic and propositional justification. Very roughly, one has propositional justification when one has justification for belief in a proposition—i.e., when one possesses good reasons, evidence, or justification to believe a proposition. One has doxastic justification when one not only has justification to believe a proposition but also believes the proposition and believes it at least partly on the basis of good reasons, evidence, or justification one has. For ease of exposition, much of our discussion is put in terms that most naturally refer to doxastic justification—e.g., “justified belief”, “being justified in believing”. However, even when we use such terms, we focus on propositional justification (which is also required for doxastic justification) and assume that the other conditions involved in believing on a proper basis are satisfied. (For more on the basing requirement, see the entry on the epistemic basing relation.)