I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on the following question. Why does classical foundationalism claim that basic beliefs are epistemically privileged in the sense that they are indubitable, infallible, indefeasible, and so on?
Roughly speaking, foundationalism is the view that some beliefs are basic in the sense that they are non-inferentially justified, while all other beliefs are non-basic in the sense that they are inferentially justified by their relations to basic beliefs. It’s a further commitment that basic beliefs are epistemically privileged in the sense that they are indubitable, infallible, indefeasible, etc. Moreover, contemporary foundationalists tend to distance themselves from further commitments of this kind: see, for example, Pryor’s discussion of foundationalism in “Highlights of Recent Epistemology”. So, what is the motivation for classical foundationalism to incur these further commitments in the first place? Here are three suggestions.
The first suggestion appeals to the contents of basic beliefs. Classical foundationalism tends to claim that basic beliefs are restricted to beliefs about one’s own experience and perhaps a priori justified beliefs, whereas contemporary foundationalism tends to include a posteriori beliefs about the external world among one’s basic beliefs. To explain why classical foundationalism is committed to the epistemically privileged properties of basic beliefs, we need to add the further claim that a priori justified beliefs and beliefs about one’s own experience are epistemically privileged in the relevant sense, whereas a posteriori justified beliefs about the external world are not. I think much of the opposition to classical foundationalism is motivated by the rejection of these sorts of epistemic asymmetries. However, I’m not satisfied that this suggestion answers the original question about motivations, since I think it get things backwards. My suspicion is that classical foundationalism restricts basic beliefs to beliefs about experience and a priori matters because of the prior commitment to the claim that basic beliefs are epistemically privileged, not the other way around. So the question remains: what’s the motivation for this commitment?
The second suggestion appeals to skepticism. I’m not sure exactly how to flesh this out, but I suppose the rough idea is that an adequate response to skepticism requires establishing that our basic beliefs are epistemically privileged in the sense that they are indubitable, infallible, indefeasible, etc. The problem with this suggestion is that it remains quite unclear why this should be a criterion for an adequate response to skepticism. Indeed, contemporary foundationalists (e.g. Pryor) are quite explicit in rejecting these sorts of criteria of adequacy. So, I think we need to look deeper in order to find an answer to the original question about motivations.
The third suggestion, which seems to me roughly on the right track, is that classical foundationalism is motivated by epistemic internalism, i.e. roughly the idea that epistemic facts about which propositions one has reason or justification to believe are epistemically privileged in the sense that they are certain, infallible, indefeasible, etc. Moreover, it seems plausible that these epistemic facts are epistemically privileged only if they are grounded in non-epistemic facts that are epistemically privileged too – the best candidates being facts about one’s own experience and certain a priori facts. As it seems to me, the commitments of classical foundationalism cannot be explained without taking into account its commitment to epistemic internalism.
Of course, there are further questions about the rationale for epistemic internalism, which I won’t take up here, although I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts. I’d also like to hear whether people think that this is a plausible diagnosis of the motivations for classical foundationalism and whether there are better alternatives that I haven’t considered. If anyone has references to useful discussions of these issues in the literature, those would be very much appreciated too.