concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Negative foundationalism

Negative foundationalism is one of two complementary elements of justification in Middle Way philosophy - the other being coherentism. In epistemology, foundationalism (justification for beliefs based on a foundation of certainty) and coherentism (justification for beliefs based on coherence) are taken as opposed theories of justification. Neither derivation from a foundation nor coherence with other beliefs provides an adequate basis for justification by itself. However, it is argued in Middle Way philosophy that both together provide incremental justification, provided that the foundationalism is negative.

Positive foundationalism is equivalent to a metaphysical way of understanding beliefs. In positive foundationalism, a positive belief is dogmatically assumed to be true, then other beliefs are derived from it which are considered to true because of their dependence on the foundation. The basic weakness here is that we never have sufficient reason to consider the foundation absolutely justified - which it must be if it is to serve this purpose. However, in negative foundationalism, it is assumed instead that no claim is absolutely justified, only relatively justified on the basis of experience. Negative foundationalism is the contradiction of foundationalism, yet it also provides an important basis for the justification of relative judgements as incrementally objective rather than irredeemably subjective because relative.

If positive foundationalism is metaphysical, coherentism is not an adequate alternative, because beliefs that are merely coherent may be coherently false. One could have a coherent view of the world that is extremely localised or extremely subjective, in that it took into account very few conditions. States of insanity in which patients construct an isolated world-view based on coherent but very limited assumptions illustrate this. Negative foundationalism is necessary for us to subject merely coherent beliefs to an appropriate scepticism, and to accept the limitations and provisionality of merely coherent views.

Epistemological justification requires our beliefs to be both coherent with other beliefs and to take into account their likelihood of falsity. Negative foundationalism offers continual challenge to revelations, scientific 'laws' or other dogmas about final knowledge, and also ensures the provisionality of the values we apply to our actions. However, without coherentism, negative foundationalism would also be unjustified, because it would only consist in destructive criticism and have no constructive dimension. Both elements are necessary for justification, but no justification using them can ever be absolute because of the very assumptions beuilt into negative foundationalism.

Negative foundationalism is equivalent to falsifiability as discussed in the philosophy of science. Popper's insight that falsifiability formed one of the basic requirements for a theory capable of objective investigation is a crucial one. The falsifiability of a theory is a direct indication that its provisionality and possible falsity is being taken into account. This falsifiability needs to be combined with the positive scientific evidence that justifies a scientific theory's coherence.

Links to further discussion

The heuristic process (from thesis)

Foundationalism as a feature of eternalism (from thesis)

Verification and falsification (from thesis - scroll down to section c)


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