Lecture Notes, UC Davis Philosophy 102, Theory of Knowledge


G. J. Mattey, Senior Lecturer

Picture of Aristotle


Text: William Alston, "Two Types of Foundationalism" (1976)

This lecture will follow the text somewhat more loosely than in the previous classes. For a comprehensive account of the Alston paper, click here. We shall be concerned in this lecture with possible basic structures of justification. The focus will be on foundationalism. Alston's account of foundationalism will be supplemented with some outside material.

Aristotle and the Structure of Demonstration

In his book Posterior Analytics, Aristotle was concerned with the question of "scientific" knowledge of facts about the world. The best way to attain such knowledge, on his view, was through the "demonstration" of a conclusion from premises that are already known. As he puts it in the first sentence of the Posterior Analytics, "All instruction given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge." For example, from the known premises that the planets do not twinkle and that objects that do not twinkle are near, we can demonstrate that the planets are near (Book I, Chapter 13).

In Chapter 3 of Book I, Aristotle considered a skeptical objection to the possibility of demonstration. Since the premises must already be known, our knowledge of them may itself be the result of demonstrations. If it is, then the premises of those demonstrations may be the results of demonstration. If the process of demonstration must proceed to infinity, then there can be no demonstration. The reason is that demonstration is a process undertaken by human beings, and we do not have the capacity to carry out a process that requires an infinite number of steps.

The regress can be evaded by allowing that there are ultimate "primary" premises that cannot be demonstrated. If it is granted that demonstration is the only form of knowledge, then knowledge is impossible, because the primary premises are not known. "And since thus one cannot know the primary premisses, knowledge of the conclusions which follow from them is not pure scientific knowledge nor properly knowing at all, but rests on the mere supposition that the premisses are true." So either there is an infinite regress or there are indemonstrable primary premises, and in neither case is there "pure scientific knowledge."

One way to stop the regress and save the possibility of "pure scientific knowledge" would be to allow that demonstration may loop back on itself. The demonstration then would be "circular" or "reciprocal." That is, the conclusion of a demonstration may occur as a premise that occurs somewhere in the path of its own demonstration. If B is demonstrated from premise A and C is demonstrated from premise B, then we could terminate the regress by allowing A to be demonstrated from C.

Aristotle argued against the view that knowledge can be gained from circular "demonstration." His first reason is that for C to be a premise in its own demonstration, it would have to be known already, in which case nothing is demonstrated. In order to allow for circular demonstration, one would have to modify the meaning of "demonstration" in such a way that it did not make reference to our knowledge.

There is another objection which is based on logic. Suppose B is demonstrated from A. Then we can say, "If A is, then B must be." Now suppose C is demonstrated from B. Then we can say, "If B is, then C must be." Given circularity, we can say, If C is, then A must be." If follows from these three claims that "If A is, A must be." But this "demonstration" can be applied to anything, even what does not exist. "Consequently the upholders of circular demonstration are in the position of saying that if A is, A must be--a simple way of proving anything."

The only remaining alternative is to allow that there is scientific knowledge of premises that are not demonstrated. "The necessity of this is obvious; for since we must know the prior premisses from which the demonstration is drawn, and since the regress must end in immediate truths, those truths must be indemonstrable." This means that the primary premises must be known in some other way. For Aristotle, they are known through "rational intuition," which does not require demonstration (Book I, Chapter 33). (For more information about Aristotle's regress argument, click here.)

The skeptic might protest that this move is dogmatic, i.e., that it assumes that scientific knowledge exists and thus precludes any skeptical objection. To overcome this objection, Aristotle could give independent reasons why human beings are capable of rational intuition. We shall not pursue this matter any further here, except to note that an analogue of the problem will be seen in Alston.

The Alternatives

Aristotle's discussion allows us to classify four different alternatives in the matter of demonstration, justification, or knowledge. We shall phrase the classification in terms of justification, since this is the language Alston uses.

These are only basic alternatives. Some philosophers have proposed "hybrid" accounts which contain some elements of foundationalism and some items of coherentism. Perhaps the first to do so was C. I. Lewis, writing in 1946: "Our empirical knowledge rises as a structure of enormous complexity, most parts of which are stabilized in measure by their mutual support, but all ow which rest, at bottom, on direct findings of sense" (An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, Chapter VII, Section 1, p. 171). More recent thinkers such as Roderick Chisholm (Theory of Knowledge, all editions), Susan Haack (Evidence and Inquiry), and Keith Lehrer (Theory of Knowledge, have proposed their own hybrid theories.

Descartes's Foundationalism

The foundationalism of Descartes resembles very much that of Aristotle. According to Descartes, some items of knowledge are perceived very clearly and distinctly at the time they are attended to. There is a "mental vision," or rational intuition of the items that are known. This is what provides us with premises for demonstrations. (It should be noted that Descartes construed demonstration more broadly than did Aristotle, who held that it always uses a form of logical inference called the "syllogism.")

Descartes recognized that in the process of demonstration, we generally must rely on our memory of previous clear and distinct perceptions. This poses the problem that a slight reason for doubting the truth of the premises creeps into the demonstration. Descartes sought to overcome this doubt by proving that God exists and is no deceiver. If he could not do this, he would be stuck with intuitionism. (The best discussion of this matter is at the end of the Fifth Meditation, which is not reprinted in the text. Click here for a translation of the text, and see especially paragraphs 12 to the end.)

Most commentators have taken that foundation to be the indubitable truth of one's own existence, when one is contemplating it. And indeed, this is how Descartes himself used the metaphor of a foundation. His idea was to clear out of his mind whatever he could doubt. "I shall have the right to conceive high hopes if I am happy enough to discover one thing only which is certain and indubitable."

In the modern sense of foundationalism, knowledge that he exists and is a thinking thing would not be classified as a foundation. Rather, it is the key to the discovery of the standard of clear and distinct perception. If we wish to pursue the metaphor of foundations, knowledge of his own existence provided him the means to identify the bedrock on which the edifice of knowledge can be built.

Modern Foundationalism

C. I. Lewis was one of the first, if not the first, twentieth-century philosophers to work out a detailed version of foundationalism in 1946. Chisholm's 1966 text Theory of Knowledge was even more elaborate. It was still the gold standard for foundationalist theory ten years later when Alston wrote "Two Types of Foundationalism."

Alston presents us with an account of foundationalism that looks a good deal like Chisholm's. He compares the version he will consider with that of Descartes, not Aristotle. First, the modern account is stated in terms of justified belief, rather than knowledge. What lies at the foundation is beliefs, and what is supported by foundational beliefs is other beliefs. The supported beliefs are said to be justified by the foundational beliefs.

Second, the relation of "support" is understood in terms of justification rather than deductive proof (or, it could be added, demonstration). So one belief supports another insofar as the former justifies or provides justification for, the latter. Justification may be non-deductive, so that the truth of the supporting beliefs is compatible with the falsehood of the beliefs that are supported by them.

Third, neither the supporting beliefs nor the supported beliefs need be indubitable. As for foundational beliefs, they do not have to be indubitable or certain. If they are uncertain, than what they support will inherit some uncertainty from them. And the fact that the support relation can be non-deductive introduces a further element of uncertainty. Beliefs supported by certain beliefs may nonetheless themselves be uncertain. And beliefs supported non-deductively by uncertain beliefs become doubly uncertain.

Alston's Formulation of Foundationalism

For Alston, foundationalism is a doctrine about the structure of justification. In this structure, some beliefs do not depend for their justification on other justified beliefs. These will constitute the foundations. Note that in phrasing it this way, Alston leaves open whether foundational beliefs are justified by their relation to other beliefs which are unjustified, and whether they may be justified by their relation to something other than beliefs (perhaps sense-experience).

Alston calls foundational beliefs "directly (or immediately) justified." (Alston constantly switches back and forth between the two formulations. In these notes, we will use "directly," with the caution that in some quotations, Alston uses the term "immediately." Similar remarks hold for the contrastive terms "indirectly" and "mediately.") Since the account of being directly justified is defined negatively, it could be fleshed out in many different ways. An Aristotelian or Cartesian rational intuition would qualify, for example.

Indirectly (mediately) justified beliefs comprise the rest of the justified beliefs. Every indirectly justified belief depends for its justification on at least one justified belief. What does the justifying is called "reasons or grounds." If a directly justified belief is a case of knowledge, then the knowledge is direct, while it an indirectly justified belief is a case of knowledge, then the knowledge is indirect.

The justification of indirectly justified beliefs will have a tree-structure. We begin with the belief at issue, and trace its grounds back along "branches" to other justified beliefs. If any of those beliefs is directly justified, then the tree terminates. If not, then the intermediate indirectly justified belief is then traced back to its grounds. The process ends when every ground is a directly justified belief.

The precise formulation of this account of foundationalism is as follows:

(II) Every indirectly justified belief stands at the origin of a (more or less) multiply branching tree structure at the tip of each branch of which is a directly justified belief.
Alston will assume that there are indirectly justified beliefs (that is, that (II) has "existential import"). Because there are indirectly justified beliefs, there have to be directly justified beliefs, claim (A). Further, there must be enough directly justified beliefs to terminate every branch of the tree generated by any given indirectly justified belief a person has.

The Modern Regress Argument

The argument presented by Alston in favor of foundationalism is parallel to that given by Aristotle. The thesis which the argument is supposed to establish is that:

The original belief is mediately justified only if every branch in the tree structure terminates in an immediately justified belief. Hence every mediately justified belief stands at the origin of a tree structure at the tip of each branch of which is an immediately justified belief.
It proceeds by showing that any alternative to the situation (a) where in the regress from the original node, each branch terminates in a directly justified belief would leave the original belief unjustified. The argument as presented by Alston is quite elaborate, because there are many combinations of possibilities where the tree structure does not have the form just described.

Basically, there are three alternatives with respect to the nodes downward from the original node of a tree. The first (b) is that one of its downward nodes is unjustified. The second (c) is that somewhere down the line, the original belief is encountered, making the justification circular. Finally, (c) has it that some branch does not terminate at all, but proceeds through infinitely many nodes.

So we are left with four cases. The positive case (1) is made that if all the branches do terminate at beliefs which are directly justified, then the original belief is justified. The justification is transferred back upward from the directly justified beliefs to the oroginal, and the regress is ended.

The first negative case (2) is that justified belief cannot be based on belief that is unjustified. So if there is a branch that ends with an unjustified belief, the entire tree is corrupted, and there is no justification of the original belief. (There may, however, be justification of intermediate beliefs all of whose trees terminate in a directly justified belief. This point holds for the other two negative cases.)

The second negative case (3) is that a belief cannot be justified on the basis of itself. There is a chain of justification from the original belief back to itself, so that all we have is the true but trivial fact that if p is justified, then p is justified. If we are entitled to assert the antecedent, we must have already been in a position to tell that p is justified.

The final negative case (4) is that a belief cannot be justified if there is no end to the tree of justification on one of its branches. In the absence of a stopping point, there is no mediate justification. Note that Alston cannot invoke Aristotle's argument here, because that argument depended on understanding demonstration as a process of demonstrating. Justification here is understood in terms of the having of grounds, not of the giving of reasons.

The regress argument supports what Alston calls "simple" foundationalism. The regress itself is stopped simply by there being the requisite directly justified beliefs. It says nothing about any justified belief in there being such things. A foundationalism with respect to our beliefs about what is justified is called "iterative" foundationalism. It is the second of the two types of foundationalism under discussion in the article.

Showing vs. Justification

Alston is careful to distinguish between being justified in having a belief and showing that a belief is true. Showing is a process, one that might be undertaken in defending the truth of a belief in opposition to a skeptic. One would try to show that a belief that p is true by citing grounds q which support the belief that p.

The skeptic could demand that q be shown to be true in order for it to be legitimately called upon to show that p is true. If such a demand is made, it cannot be satisfied. Showing is like Aristotelian demonstration in this respect. One cannot show anything to be true by appealing to its own truth, and one cannot complete an infinite number of steps in the process of showing. To stop the regress, Alston suggests an analogue of Aristotle's indemonstrables. The skeptic might agree to grounds for which there is no reason for a reasonable person to doubt.

A Concrete Case of Showing

The discussion thus far has taken place at a high level of abstraction. Let us try to make it more concrete by considering a relatively simple case of a belief that most theorists of knowledge would say is justified. The belief is that "Two human hands exist." G. E. Moore claimed in his 1939 paper "Proof of an External World" to be able to show that this is true by means of "a perfectly rigorous proof."

Here is how he tried to show it:

By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, "Here is one hand," and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, "and here is another." (G. E. Moore, Philosophical Papers, p. 144)
We can take the claim "Two human hands exist" to be indirectly justified by the grounds adduced by the gesture and the claims "Here is one hand" and "Here is another."

Confronted with this attempt at showing, the skeptic could demand that Moore show the grounds for the claim "Here is one hand." Perhaps Moore would respond by saying that he has pointed to the hand, and the skeptic has seen it. The skeptic could then demand more grounds, and more, and more, never being satisfied. Or, the skeptic could throw in the towel and renounce his skepticism because he has no reason to disagree with the grounds that Moore brought forward.

A Concrete Case of Being Justified

We are here primarily interested not in showing but in being justified. So let us look at a belief p that I have, namely, that I have two hands. Perhaps the grounds for my belief are that q1 I have a left hand and q2, that I have a right hand. It seems that this is not quite enough, though. One must have reason to put one and one together to make two. So we might require qe, that 1 + 1 = 2.

Now that we have assembled three beliefs that look like they would support p, we must still describe exactly how it is that they support p. Let us suppose that it is (roughly) a matter of logic that the conjunction of q1, q2 and q3 implies p. Then we might enunciate an epistemic principle that ties to grounds to what they support:

(L) If the conjunction of grounds logically implies p, then p is indirectly justified by those grounds.
Note that this principle does not itself have to be a belief, nor need it be justified for the person, in order to serve as a bridge between the grounds and what they support. On the other hand, if one were trying to show that p, then it seems that one would have to believe (L) in a way that is justified. This is an additional problem with the process of showing, in that not only does it add an additional demand, but it seems especially vulnerable to the regress argument.

Externalist and Internalist Foundationalism

Now we are faced with the question of whether each of q1 through q3 is directly or indirectly justified. It seems as if the belief that 1+1=2 is a plausible candidate for direct justification. Perhaps it is justified by rational intuition, as Descartes would say. If so, then that branch of the tree is terminated.

The justification for q1 and q2 would proceed on exactly the same grounds for a normal person, so let us turn our attention to q1, that I have a left hand. Is this directly justified? Some philosophers would claim that it is. If I see and feel my left hand, then that is enough support for my having it. Moore seems to have had something like this in mind, and many modern foundationalists support this view. We might call this "externalist" foundationalism.

Other epistemologists of an "internalist" stripe would say that q1 is indirectly justified, in that it is supported by a belief about one's perceptual experience. In his 1986 paper covered earlier, Alston specifically endorsed an internalist approach to justification.

One consideration favoring internalism is that one might appeal to one's experience if one were trying to show that the belief that q1 is true. Suppose in response to a skeptical query about p, you respond that you see your left hand. The skeptic might ask you to show that you see it. You might then try to show this by saying that it looks and feels to you that you have a left hand. This is an internal matter that must play a role in showing if one is not to be dogmatic. Yet we have already seen that Alston wants to distance himself from an account of justification in terms of showing, so this cannot be a decisive consideration in favor of internalism.

Another factor favoring internalism is that the belief seems to be a causal consequence of the having of experiences. The claim is that we do not directly perceive a hand, but the hand is the beginning-point of a complex chain of physical, physiological, and psychological events culminating in an experience. Once we have the experience, we form the belief. This factor seems to be what motivated classical empiricist theories of knowledge, such as that of John Locke in the seventeenth century.

Now let us work with an internalist variant of justification, one which is no doubt highly over-simplified. We may say that what justifies belief in q1 is a number of beliefs about experiences we have had. We will summarize these beliefs in a single belief that r: I have had many hand-like experiences.

If r is to justify q1, there must be an epistemic principle connecting the two together. Let us propose the following:

(M) If S believes he has experiences like that of a thing with character F, and there is no reason to believe that they are not generated by thing with the character F, then S is justified in believing that there is a thing with character F.
This principle confers "prima facie" justification, unlike principle (L). Experience is taken to be accurate, but it is allowed that there are many ways in which it may not be accurate. Logical implication, on the other hand, gives unimpeachable support.

It should be noted right away that there are many alternatives to (M). We might invoke a causal connection, for example that the experience of F-things be caused by the F-things. Any principle of this sort linking the objective to the subjective is very controversial, but we shall not discuss it further.

With r in hand, we must ask again whether it is directly justified. Many philosophers would say that it (or something like it) is rock-bottom. Only the having of the experience itself justifies the belief that I have the experience. And the experience itself is not a belief. So we have a third epistemic principle at work:

(N) If S has an F-like experience, then S is justified in believing that S has an F-like experience.
We might motivate this as the last stop in the descent toward foundational beliefs on these grounds. If asked to show that one has F-like experiences, there seems no other response except to say "I just have them."

A Coherentist Objection

A coherentist would say that this is not the end of the story. To be sure, it seems hard to say what would justify a belief that one is having an experience. It may not even make any sense to say, for example, "Well, it seems to me that I am having an experience." And even if it does, then maybe beliefs about seeming to have an experience are foundational, for it makes even less sense to say, "It seems to me that it seems to me that I am having an experience."

Nonetheless, it does make sense to ask for a justification for S's belief that he has an experience of a specific kind, such as of a hand. For this, it seems that he would need to have some beliefs about hands: what they look like, how they feel, how they function, and so forth. The coherentist would go on to say that beliefs of this sort are not directly justified, and it is hard to see what would directly justify them.

This kind of criticism stems originally from the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant's view was that raw experience is of no value unless it is brought under concepts. Wilfrid Sellars, writing in the mid-twentieth century, expanded Kant's suggestion. He declared that the "given" in experience is a "myth." Bruce Aune, Sellars's student, then presented a variant of the argument that Alston addresses.

Alston brushes Aune's argument aside, essentially because it has to do with showing rather than the state of being justified. Any claim that I make, whether about my experience or what I observe, is going to be plausible or "acceptable" only under the assumption that I am normal and reliable. But to show this, we must rely on "our confidence that a complex body of background assumptions . . . and, often, a complex mass of further observations all point to the conclusion that it is true." In that case, the belief is not directly justified

Aune's point is conveniently side-stepped in our tree of justification. Specifically, epistemic principle (M) has a negative clause to the effect that there is no reason for S to think that he is not normal and reliable with respect to the present subject-matter. We could require, instead, that S believe that he is normal and reliable if he is to be justified in his belief. Keith Lehrer, for example, requires for justification a belief that one is worthy of one's own trust on the matter. This requirement may be incompatible with foundationalism. We shall not pursue this issue further here.


Alston describes simple foundationalism as a way to stop the regress problem without resorting to a stopping-point that is not justified. Instead, it stops with the directly justified. If one were to base one's indirect justification on what is unjustified, one would be believing dogmatically. So simple foundationalism promises an antidote to dogmatism. Alston raises a final challenge regarding his solution: that simple foundationalism "must allow that some beliefs may be accepted in the absence of any reasons for supposing them to be true." If it does, then it is open to the charge of dogmatism.

The idea behind this criticism is that the notion of direct justification is very skimpy. A directly justified belief has some justification, but the justification is not based on any other justified belief. If it is not based on any other justified belief, then when it is believed, it would seem that it is believed for no reason (as opposed to being believed on no grounds), since presumably a reason would be a justified belief.

Alston responds that even if S does not have a reason for accepting that p, S may have reasons to accept that he is immediately justified in believing that p. This second-level epistemic belief is not subject to the negative constraint that stops the regress on the first level. If one has this second-level epistemic belief, then we should not say that the acceptance of p is arbitrary or dogmatic. "The curse (of dogmatism) is taken off immediate justification at the lower level, just by virtue of the fact that propositions at the higher level are acceptable only on the basis of reasons." What makes the belief justified directly is that it satisifies some epistemic principle or principles of justification. Recognizing that the belief satisfies the epistemic principle(s) requires reasons to think that it does.

We may contrast the reasons one has for accepting a directly justified belief with those which one has for accepting an indirectly justified belief. The first kind of reasons can only be found at the higher level, as we have just seen. The second kind of reasons are found at the lower level: they are the justified beliefs which support the indirectly justified beliefs. There may also be higher-level reasons to think that one has an indirectly justified belief.

It may be that, for any given epistemic proposition, one will fail to find reasons to accept it. Indeed, this may be the cae for any proposition. But the anti-dogmatism argument is supposed to show that there is nothing in principle to stop one from finding a reason for the belief that a belief is directly justified.

In demanding that every belief have a reason for its being accepted, the critic is appealing to an ideal. In ordinary life, we should not demanded to produce a reason for every belief we have. All the critic is asking is that a theory of justification imply that having a reason is possible. And simple foundationalism does make it possible.

The critic could finally maintain that the regress ends in dogmatism when one attempts to show that p. To do this, one must give grounds for believing that p, and that this process must end with some foundation f which cannot be shown to be true. All that can be done is to assert its truth. But Alston has argued that more can be done than mere assertion, namely, to establish the higher-level belief that one is directly justified in believing that f. This is all we can ask, unless we are going to surrender to the skeptic by requiring that no matter what grounds are given at what level, grounds must still be given for them. A final point is that it is not up to the foundations theorist to say exactly where the end-points of justification may be. He just has to allow that there may be some.

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