Foundationalism and the Fracturing of Philosophy

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

It appears that as we move away from the postmodern era, all attempts at foundationalism in the modern era have failed. Empiricism, Rationalism, Kantiansim and Linguistic philosophy have all made foundationalist claims, and while may all work to some degree, none can claim to be the kind of ultimate foundation for knowledge a philosopher in the classical sense might have hoped for-the kind of foundational knowledge Descartes sought.

The modern era in philosophy began with various attempts at discovering a foundation for truth.  For the rationalists there was, beginning with Descartes, the attempt to found truth upon pure reason; for the British empiricists, there was the attempt to base all truth upon the senses; and finally, with Kant there was the attempt to ground all truth within the workings of the mind itself.  Each of these early modern approaches has led to interesting developments both within and outside of philosophy, but none has truly succeeded in giving us an indubitable starting point for seeking knowledge.

This succession of failures has affected the way philosophers consider themselves and their objectives.  With the rise of postmodernism and deconstruction, the leading philosophers defined themselves in terms of their opposition to foundationalist projects. Normally, when we think of traditional philosophy, we think of the attempt to construct systematic worldviews, and yet there no longer seems to be any enthusiasm for such undertakings. Instead, most people seem to spend their time burying themselves in a small corner of philosophy in an attempt to master whatever area they can. Is the budding philosopher to lose himself (or even his enthusiasm for life) in such a corner?  In the process, philosophy is becoming a more and more fractured discipline, less and less accessible to generalists within the field itself. Philosophy as a whole seems to be losing itself in this fracturing.

Gaining a perspective on the failure of attempts at foundationalism may assist the perplexed contemporary philosopher: “What should I study?”  “What direction should I take?”  These questions are more difficult to answer now than at other periods in time when philosophy itself had more of a clear sense of direction.  In what follows, what I would like to do is to take a look at modern and contemporary attempts at foundationalism in particular, in hopes of assessing where we are and how we might move forward.  Philosophy appears to be fracturing from within as a result of the failure of those attempts.  Are we currently in a post-foundationalist era?  What’s a philosopher to do?

Philosophy in the 20th Century

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

The story here, it seems, should begin with Frege.  In his “On Sense and Reference” (1892) he uses the analogy of a telescope in indicating that there is something objective about sense (or meaning).  He writes that the image projected through a telescope that we have of the moon when viewing it is very much like the sense or meaning that relates a word to its object.  For example, either “the Morning Star” or “the Evening Star” are phrases we could use to refer to the planet Venus.  One might say  that they represent two distinct ways of “looking at” Venus.  But inasmuch as the “sense” that each one represents counts as a way of seeing, or referring to Venus, it can also be seen that they are not private or purely subjective: anyone using the language, who understands English in this case, has access to those ways of referring or senses of Venus, in the same way that more than one person might be able to use a telescope to see the same image of the moon being projected through it.  What is subjective is the idea we have of the moon, not the ways in which we refer to it.

This open-access kind of objectivity of sense (as well as of language as such) might be very useful if you were attempting to find a straightforward way in which the elements of a logical expression (e.g. Russell is a philosopher or (∃x)(Rx ∧ Px) in Russell’s later formulation) map onto and might be said to be true of the objects it is about.  Because the idea or image or internal experience we have of objects is subjective, sense, at least, gives us an objective starting point for making truth claims: in the example, if anything matches the sense we understand to be sufficient for referring to Russell and our understanding of what a philosopher is, the whole expression may be true of its objects.  Here, sense acts as a foundational element for making formal logic useful at all.

In the twentieth century, Russellian logical atomism and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus emerged as systematic attempts to see the world from a logico-linguistic standpoint.  It was thought that there might be a way to map language onto the world in terms of a one-to-one relationship: by mapping language onto the world starting from the most basic elements of language (logical subjects) a logico-linguistic map of reality could be created.  It would be the final stage in the application of Russell’s new logic, which could be applied more closely to ordinary language, and onto the world itself.  The project came to be known as “Logical Atomism.”  In a sense, it could be thought of as a re-boot of Aristotle’s original philosophical project, but with better tools.

But the project foundered and was ultimately defeated by Wittgenstein’s later realization that language does not really map onto the world in a straightforward fashion.  This was, in effect, an attack on language as a foundational medium for building a once and for all philosophical system.  Against Russell’s argument in “On Denoting” in favor of removing the intermediacy of sense (so that denoting phrases simply refer to their objects and all sense is a matter of propositional sentences), Wittgenstein came to see that the meaning relation that ties a word together  with its referent was arbitrary in ways that can be said to ultimately defeat logical atomism.

Specifically, Wittgenstein came to see that the meaning relation or semantic tie that established reference between a word and its object was actually a matter of the way in which we use language rather than a matter of establishing some set of facts about the objects themselves.   This thesis was later strengthened by Quine’s discussion of the linguistic webs he called conceptual schemes as subject to endless revision and then by the more sociological investigations of the same theme with reference to the evolution of scientific theories and even worldviews themselves by Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault in the 60’s and 70’s.

Linguistic Philosophy and Foundationalism

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

As we get further and further away from the heyday of early analytic philosophy and attempts at system building fade into the background, problems associated with those enterprises continue to interest philosophers despite the loss of the overall system-building project they were once associated with.  Questions about semantics, for example, and the precise nature of the dispute between Frege and Russel over the basis of reference continue to be the subject of articles and books.  But it would seem that the problems have outlasted the projects themselves.

It might be wondered what further value the study of philosophy of language has.  Is the debate over the metaphysical or ontological nature of propositions important to study? What about the whole debate over the nature of reference?  It appears very much as though such discussions, once motivated by the system building projects they were once a part of no longer give us much reason to be interested in them apart from a historical interest-which may, nevertheless, prove very fruitful.  And yet, many people believe that philosophy of language has ultimate, foundational value because they believe that language structures reality or even determines our thought about reality.

It is true, even at first glance, that language does, in fact, structure reality, but this should not be taken to mean that language has some claim to structure reality independent of all experience (except perhaps in mythologies or in works of fiction).  Whatever we take reference to be, there must ultimately be a pragmatic level at which things either fit our experience or else do not.  When language fails to fit reality, it arises in the form of a realization of the “fictionality”of past world views or  in the falsity of certain past scientific structurings of reality.  This shows that while language itself may be responsible for the structuring of reality as its medium, whatever language-based structures are created must always be subject to plausibility and evidence if they are to be taken on or to survive.  However undeniably necessary language is in its structural role and to whatever extent theorists may be tempted to venture into realms of purely linguistic speculation, ultimately, experience seems to be the ultimate determinant of what we take to be fact or fiction.  Nevertheless, there is a sense in which language determines reality that applies well to sociological matters: the ways in which we refer to people or to other cultures or nations may have an impact upon the way that we, as individuals, think about them.  In such cases, experience may also prove to be the best way to bring about change.

In summary, while language is the medium through which we structure reality, there does not seem to be a very good case for claiming that it has a determining role in relation to the way we think about reality.  There may be a loose sense in which this is the case, where prejudice and institutional and personal goals create distortions of reality out of touch with our experience, but such misuse of language should not be considered as determinative of reality in any ultimate, foundational sense.  Perhaps the best argument that language, purely as a medium shapes our “perception” of reality comes from Strawson’s book Individuals, in which he argues for the primacy of the subject-predicate relation as structuring the way we see reality.  Nevertheless, Russell has also shown that there is nothing absolutely ultimate about such structures: it is possible to do away wtih them by formalizing away the classical subject-predicate structures of classical logic.  Strawson is right in practice, but not in principle-the something which is needed for carrying off foundational and not merely pragmatic claims on the nature of reality.

The Current Crisis in Philosophy

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

Over the centuries, philosophy more and more gave way to the empirical sciences and to the role of assessing the worldview they generated.  The Aristotelian-Scholastic vision of the unity of the sciences has, in a sense, fractured under the intense drive toward specialization, which, in turn, resulted in the creation of autonomous sciences that once belonged under the umbrella of philosophy.  In another sense, inasmuch as philosophy was always about exploring the “Why?” of things, and seeking principles and foundations for explaining the world around us, it could be argued that philosophy has flourished and is flourishing more greatly than ever before in the sciences-albeit at the expense of departments that concern themselves purely with what is left of philosophy proper.   But with respect to philosophy as an academic discipline, if it began as a branch with many leaves, it now appears to be loosing much of its foliage.

This history has a very philosophical underpinning and, in fact, a foundationalist one at that: the basically pragmatic turn in modern science toward viewing any legitimate knowledge as generated by hypotheses confirmed by facts.  Because philosophy does not engage in empirical investigation itself, it is relegated to the outskirts of the  search for truth in the modern world.  Indeed, if we consider the subjects philosophy itself takes up that are not already discussed by theorists outside philosophy, we are left with perhaps only metaphysics and ethics, and areas of psychology or of science that are not at present accessible to empirical investigation, such as the relationship between the mind and body (or mind and matter) or the nature of consciousness or the origin of everything, or whether something can come from nothing.  Philosophy thus occupies a precarious position: it holds sway only in areas where empirical investigation has not yet found a way in.  At present, physicists and psychologists are beginning to discover ways to investigate just such questions.  As they become the subject of such investigation, speculation will give way to empirical research.

It might be argued that, for example, physicists such as Steven Hawking do not do an adequate job in working on the philosophical side of their discipline.  At any rate, it is a constant subject of discussion on blog pages and in comment threads.  But there are a couple of compelling reasons for not leaving bigger picture considerations up to philosophers: firstly, the kind of synthetic work involved in creating generalizing views is inevitably based upon familiarity with the specific facts of the research involved.  Who better to draw general conclusions about black holes or about string theory than the scientists who are intimately familiar with the data and theory building themselves?  Philosophers can always be educated to become familiar with the specifics, but who better than the experts and those who worked out the theories to discuss them and their broader implications?  Secondly, it is the sciences themselves who are working out the synthesis of their own proper fields.  String theory provides one example; theories of consciousness another.  In each case, a theory that will unify the field is being worked out by the scientists themselves.  A hypothesis by an uncommonly well-informed philosopher might conceivably help to further those fields, but as both the study of philosophy as an academic discipline and fields such as physics and psychology become more specialized, it seems much more reasonable to expect such hypotheses to come from the sciences themselves.  In the long run, it seems far more likely that philosophy will come to be defined by whatever problems are specific to it while other fields will be characterized by their specific domains.

Thus, the problem for philosophy in this crush of specialization would then seem to be to define its own particular subject matter; and yet, its traditional understanding of itself and of its own relevance is as a synthetic “science” of sciences.  The considerations outlined above indicate that the possible field for philosophy as an autonomous discipline is narrowing, perhaps to the subjects of metaphysics and ethics and to the purely speculative areas of the natural sciences. Moreover, it seems that they will eventually recede from their speculative role in relation to the empirical sciences as they sciences begin to attempt to find answers to those speculative problems (e.g. the origin of the universe, the nature of time and space, consciousness, and the possibility of free-will) through empirical means.

But, finally, many philosophers today also question the possibility of metaphysics-a necessary adjunct to any foundationalist system building.  The influence of figures such as Derrida and Foucault has made contemporary thinkers far more aware of the difficulty making of any foundational universal claims: the postmodern era worked to demonstrate that all claims toward universality of any kind are inevitably contextualized.  As such, the project of discovering the Being of things (to use the Heideggarian sense) even with the proper transcendental apparatus in place, would appear to be a mistaken adventure.

But, furthermore, if the Kripke-Putnam version of essences is accepted, and the microstructure of things is taken to be the determining factor in deciding their essential Being, so that modern science does investigate essences of a kind after all-and in an empirical way, and on an empirical basis-it is difficult to see how philosophy finds itself in any better position to become a synthetic science. Many scholars, in the excitement over the return of essences that Kripke’s work ushered in have not adequately recognized the limitations of these new essences: because they are always framed from the our current epistemic standpoint (cf. Putnam’s argument for taking H2O to be water in “Meaning and Reference” (1973)) rather than in terms of some fundamental way of looking at them, this view of essence is ultimately a pragmatic one. While Putnam’s argument does lay claim to essence, when understood as defined in terms of microstructure, as a way to differentiate kinds across possible worlds, what it does not claim is that our way of understanding water represents the Being of water in a final sense: the argument does nothing to defeat Quine’s notion of conceptual schemes as infinitely revisable.  Even with the rehabilitation of essences in hand, the currently accepted theory would leave science in a better position to tell us about the essences of things than any amount of philosophical speculation could.

Possibilities and the Philosophy of the Future

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

But even if all this is the case and the field of academic-philosophical speculation is truly narrowing, then perhaps a  synthetic possibility emerges for philosophy: to simply devote itself to synthesizing knowledge as it is discovered by the sciences in hopes of developing a world view that would be beyond the reach of any individual science with the help of the resources of the history of philosophy. Such a worldview, or progress toward such a worldview could include or might highlight, ethical considerations.

This kind of project might be carried out by an individual philosopher, but as a project for an entire discipline would require some restructuring of the questions and aims philosophers take themselves to be concerned with.  Contemporary philosophers most often take themselves to be concerned with particular questions within particular debates, which, it is hoped, will eventually have an overall effect greater than the sum of its parts.  There are many artisans in the cathedral of contemporary philosophy.  Do their efforts contribute to an overall synthesis of the humanities?  A glance at the articles found in contemporary philosophy journals will indicate that their sentiments lie elsewhere.  It appears that the actual state of academic philosophy is that scholars devote themselves to problems of a theoretical nature that is in many cases on par with theoretical mathematics: their results may prove useful, but are deemed to be important for their own sake.  The difficulty for that kind of position is that if philosophy is to be the synthetic science par excellence its success or failure will obviously be bound up with the further question of its relevance.

Another possible response often heard in academic contexts when philosophy departments attempt to advertise their importance and relevance goes as follows: the questions that philosophy raises and the answers given in the history of philosophy by Plato or Aristotle or Kant have a lasting relevance.  There is an undeniable truth behind such a view: philosophy is a treasure of lasting value with contributors spanning civilizations, nationalities, and political persuasions of all kinds.  It is a kind of documentation of the progress of cultural development of entire civilizations and, at its best, can represent the wisdom they have attained. But the difficulty with this view of philosophy is that it turns it far too much in the direction of becoming a specialized branch of history.  Undoubtedly, philosophy as an academic discipline can lay claim to its own history as a field of study, but it has always also attempted to speak to current concerns and its ability to do that in an age of intense specialization appears to be eroding: if philosophers speak to physicists or to mathematicians or to political scientists they must not merely recite answers past philosophers have given but be able to make a strong argument as to why the specialists ought to reconsider their own views-something much discussed among historians of philosophy but rarely carried out in practice with any success.  Important contributions by historically oriented philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn have come about through the intense study of specialized areas outside philosophy: by studying the history, in Kuhn’s case, of science, and by drawing up important perspectives.  But Kuhn is a-typical as a philosopher: his PhD was in physics and he didn’t become interested in the history and philosophy of science until afterward, when he was granted the freedom to study the history and philosophy of science as a Harvard Junior Fellow.  Cases such as Kuhn’s do nothing to encourage the idea that the current structure of philosophy departments can foster such specialized, first-hand knowledge of outside disciplines.   Such cases further highlight the need for philosophy to define its own native area of focused expertise.

A further possibility would also seem to emerge from the evolution of the sciences themselves.  It has been said that the fracturing of philosophy has gone hand in hand with the specialization of areas that were once  traditionally considered part of philosophy.  But it has also been observed that synthesis has been going on within the sciences themselves (e.g. string theory in physics).  It is possible that the sciences may reach a turning point where the move toward specialization will eventually be overtaken by a move toward synthesis: as each science moves toward discovering the foundational principles of its discipline and begins the work of refining and simplifying itself as a discipline they might begin to become more accessible to those working outside their own proper fields.  Uncertainty and flux would give way to structure building, and structure, in the best case, to simplicity and elegance.  In such an environment, philosophy could begin to find itself with an important role that no other discipline has had the traditional role of carrying out.  The difficulty with this view, is of course, that it does not provide any immediate solution for philosophy-it belongs to the “Philosophy” of the future-and it is difficult to see how it can itself work toward that future without taking on the work of turning its students into specialists in outside fields.

Such a solution might benefit a few individuals with the right training in the short-term, and might be a way for philosophy to re-invent itself as a discipline in the long run. But it would require specializing its students in outside disciplines (requiring them to take years of neuroscience and biology, for example) whose study might not be compatible with philosophy as a specialized discipline in its own right unless “philosophy” could itself be transformed into a study of outside disciplines by integrating their study more and more into its own proper curriculum.  Such an outcome would re-invent philosophy as a study in the synthesis of the sciences.  Such a transformation would, however, seem to amount to a degraded role for philosophy in comparison with its traditional aspirations.

And thus, the final possibility that seems to emerge is that some new form of foundationalism might emerge from the sciences themselves-perhaps from physics in its search for the first principles of nature.  Once accomplished, such a foundationalism could eventually fall under the special provenance of the philosophy of the future.  Such a philosophy might be envisioned as a fully humanized form of scholasticism philosophers could work on for centuries, that might eventually crystallize the prior achievements of human kind.

For the present, philosophers could do a great amount of good for humanity by making the study of ethics and politics more accessible and pertinent that it is in its current state.  Philosophy should not be afraid to popularize itself in order to achieve a much-needed relevance.  In the age of the internet, such relevance can be more easily achieved than ever before, and a genuine, meaningful synthesis of theory and social practice in social matters would be an achievement for any contemporary philosopher to be proud of.