Spring 2016, NYU Abu Dhabi

BonJour's Arguments against Foundationalism

BonJour's Argument

We see BonJour's main argument against basic beliefs on pp. 54-5 of "Externalist Theories of Empirical Knowledge," and then again, in more detail, on pp. 5-6 of "Can Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?"

This is an argument that really calls for, and rewards, close study.

BonJour wants to argue that the very concept of justification poses some obstacle to the idea of basic or immediately justified beliefs. His basic idea will be that if you're to be justified in holding some belief B, then you have to be justified in believing that B has features that make it likely to be true. So your justification for believing B depends on other beliefs, beliefs about the features that B has. So B can't be a basic belief.

That's the basic idea. Let's see how BonJour builds up to it. We will concentrate on the argument as it appears in "Can Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?" And we will take the argument apart step by step.

BonJour begins by examining the concept of justification. He notes that there are different kinds of justification: moral justification, pragmatic justification, religious justification, epistemic justification... What seems to distinguish epistemic justification is that it has some special connection with truth. BonJour spells this connection out as follows:

Knowledge requires epistemic justification, and the distinguishing characteristic of this particular species of justification is, I submit, its essential or internal relationship to the cognitive goal of truth. Cognitive doings are epistemically justified, on this conception, only if and to the extent that they are aimed at this goal--which means roughly that one accepts all and only beliefs which one has good reason to think are true. To accept a belief in the absence of such a reason [i.e. a good reason to think it's true]...is to neglect the pursuit of truth; such acceptance is, one might say, epistemically irresponsible. My contention is that the idea of being epistemically responsible is the core of the concept of epistemic justification. (p. 5)

So in other words, to believe B in the absence of any reason to think B true is epistemically irresponsible and hence unjustified. BonJour thinks this follows from the very concept of epistemic justification. He thinks this is the connection between justification and truth that makes epistemic justification different from other sorts of justification.

We will call this first step in BonJour's argument B1:

B1. If your belief in B is to be justified, then you need to have some reason to think B is true.

On one reading this sounds innocuous enough. On that reading, "you have some reason to think B is true" just sounds like another way of saying "you are justified in believing B." If that's all BonJour means here, then everyone can accept this premise B1.

There is a problem for this reading. If we interpret "you have some reason to think B is true" in this way, then it's not really any explanation of the notion of justification to say that you are justified in believing B only if you have some reason to think B is true. The justification-talk and the reason-talk here would be just two different ways of saying the same thing. So we wouldn't really have done anything to explain justification by saying this. But BonJour does want B1 to be saying something which does help explain the notion of justification. That is a point against this reading of B1.

There are other readings of B1 where it says something more substantial. On these readings, a reason for believing B would be something that makes you justified in believing B. Notice the connection BonJour draws between justification and notions like epistemic blame and responsibility. He thinks that accepting beliefs in the absence of any reason to think them true is epistemically irresponsible; that's why they are unjustified. So "the reason" would be something that we should be aware of, and take as a guide, when we're deciding what to believe. (This should remind you of the idea that justification has a role to play in regulating or guiding our beliefs.)

We should not assume at this point that "having some reason to think B is true" means "having some other justified beliefs one could cite as evidence in support of B." That would make premise B1 incompatible with foundationalism. And while it's true that BonJour wants to refute foundationalism, it wouldn't be fair of him to start with a premise that already rules foundationalism out. BonJour is supposed to be giving a good argument against the foundationalist. You can't begin an argument against the foundationalist with the premise that all justification comes from other justified beliefs. That's the very thing the foundationalist denies. So you'd just be begging the question.

So if BonJour's argument here is to be a good one, we have to assume that there might be some reading of "having a reason to think B is true" where even the foundationalist might accept that being justified in believing B entails having some reason to think B is true. It's not clear to me how exactly to understand BonJour's talk about "reasons" here. But let's press on, perhaps things will become clearer as we proceed.

What is the next step in the argument?

BonJour's next paragraph discusses the implications his conception of justification has for the project of defending some epistemological theory:

A corollary of this conception of epistemic justification is that a satisfactory defense of a particular standard of epistemic justification must consist in showing it to be truth-conducive, i.e. in showing that accepting beliefs in accordance with its dictates is likely to lead to truth... Without such a meta-justification, a proposed standard of epistemic justification lacks any underlying rationale. Why after all should an epistemically responsible inquirer prefer justified beliefs to unjustified ones, if not that the former are more likely to be true? To insist that a certain belief is epistemically justified, while confessing in the same breath that this fact about it provides no good reason to think that it is true, would be to render nugatory the whole concept of epistemic justification. (p. 5)

The first sentence of this paragraph makes it clear that BonJour is here discussing what it takes for an epistemologist to defend some particular account of what makes a belief justified. We can sum up BonJour's main claim as follows:

B2. If your belief in B is justified, then the fact that it is justified must itself be a reason to think that B is true.

Notice that here BonJour is really just talking about what would follow, if you knew that a given belief was justified. It's not clear that this has any implications for what has to be true, for the belief to be justified. After all, can't a subject be justified in believing B, without knowing that she is justified, and without knowing what the correct account is of what makes her justified? So far, we've seen no reason to deny that. B2 talks about what follows from the premise "My belief in B is justified." And for all we've seen so far, you might be justified in believing B without yet being entitled to that premise. This will be important in our later discussions.

(In fact, BonJour does tend to think that if you're justified in believing B, then you need to be in a position to know you are justified and what makes you justified. This is all part of his conservative stance. But so far, BonJour has not given us any argument to believe that.)

BonJour's argument continues:

...If basic beliefs are to provide a secure foundation for empirical knowledge, if inference from them is to be the sole basis for the justification of other empirical beliefs, then that feature, whatever it may be, in virtue of which a belief qualifies as basic must also constitute a good reason for thinking that the belief is true. (p. 5)

In other words:

B3. If your belief B is a basic belief, then whatever it is about the belief that makes it basic must also be a reason to think that the belief is true.

This sounds plausible for the same reasons that B2 does. From the premise "Belief B is a basic, i.e., immediately justified belief--because it has such-and-such feature F" it's natural to think we can conclude that B is likely to be true. After all, B2 said that whenever you know that a belief is justified, you are entitled to conclude that it is likely to be true. But the same qualification applies here as applied to B2. For all we've seen so far, a belief might be immediately justified without your knowing that it is. B3 talks about what follows from the premise "My belief in B is immediately justified." And for all we've seen so far, you might be immediately justified in believing B without yet being entitled to that premise.

BonJour continues:

If we let "F" represent this feature [in virtue of which your belief qualifies as basic], then for a belief B to qualify as basic in an acceptable foundationist account, the premises of the following justificatory argument must themselves be at least justified:

  1. Belief B has feature F
  2. Beliefs having feature F are highly likely to be true.
  3. Therefore, B is highly likely to be true.

...And if we now assume, reasonably enough, that for B to be justified for a particular person (at a particular time) it is necessary, not merely that a justification for B exist in the abstract, but that the person in question be in cognitive possession of that justification... (pp. 5-6)

BonJour says that for you to be justified in believing B, it's not enough that this justifying argument "exist in the abstract." He thinks you also have to yourself be "in cognitive possession" of this justifying argument. That is:

B4. If your belief B is to be a basic belief, and F is the feature in virtue of which it's supposed to be basic, then in order to be justified in believing B, you have to also be "in cognitive possession" of the fact that B has feature F and that this makes B likely to be true.

In order for your belief B to be justified, you also have to be in "cognitive possession" of some information about B--information to the effect that it has certain features, and that those features make B likely to be true. If you were not in possession of that sort of information, BonJour believes, it would be epistemically irresponsible of you to accept B;you would be unjustified in accepting B. In order for your belief B to be justified, you have to be in "cognitive possession" of this information about B.

And, BonJour says, if we understand being in "cognitive possession" of this information as having justification for believing this information, then we get the result that for your belief B to be justified, you have to be justified in holding certain other beliefs (beliefs about B). That shows that B can't be a basic belief, after all. Your justification for B rests on your justification for other beliefs, about B's features and so on.

An example might help make this clearer. Suppose you have a toothache, and you form the belief "I have a toothache." Now we think you are justified in that belief. And at first glance, it seems a good candidate to be a basic belief. It is justified, and its justification doesn't seem to depend on any other beliefs. But now BonJour asks, what makes this belief basic? Presumably the fact that it is a belief about your own sensations. Well, then in that case:

B is the belief "I have a toothache"

Feature F is "being a belief about one's own sensations"

And BonJour says that if F really does make B a justified belief, then the fact that B has F has to be a reason to think that B is likely to be true. Furthermore, BonJour says, if you are really going to be justified in believing B, you need to be justified in believing that it has feature F and that this makes B likely to be true. But then it follows that B is not a basic belief after all. Your justification for believing B does rest in part on other beliefs, namely the beliefs:

B is a belief about my own sensations.

Beliefs about one's own sensations are likely to be true.

The same argument can be given no matter what feature F is, and no matter what you choose as a putative basic belief. Hence, BonJour concludes, it is impossible for there to be any basic beliefs:

...we get the result that B is not basic after all, since its justification depends on that of at least one other empirical belief. If this is correct, [foundationalism] is untenable as a solution to the regress problem... (p. 6)

The crucial step in BonJour's argument seems to be B4. In that step, BonJour is saying: it's not enough that there are facts about your belief that make it justified. You also have to know what those facts are, and that they do make your belief justified. Otherwise, you wouldn't be justified in holding the belief.

Here we can again see BonJour's conservative stance in epistemology driving his argument. In order to be justified in believing you have a toothache, you have to have justification for believing that your beliefs about toothaches are generally reliable. That is, you have to have positive evidence that those beliefs aren't unreliable. In order to be justified in your perceptual beliefs about the external world, you have to have justification for believing your senses are reliable. And so on. These kinds of claims are central to the conservative framework.

BonJour considers two ways the foundationalist might respond to his argument. One way is by being more liberal than BonJour is. In order to be justified in believing P, we wouldn't require you to know that your belief is justified, or to know that it has features that make it likely to be true. It would be enough if the belief has such features, and you lack any evidence that defeats or undermines the belief. BonJour considers this reply:

[The foundationalist] might argue that although it is indeed necessary for a belief to be justified, and a fortiori [this means, "all the more so"] for it to be basic, that a justifying argument of the sort schematized above be in principle available in the situation, it is not always necessary that the person for whom the belief is basic (or anyone else) know or even justifiably believe that it is available; instead, in the case of basic beliefs at least, it is sufficient that the premises for an argument of that general sort...merely be true, whether or not that person (or anyone else) justifiably believes that they are true. (p. 6)

BonJour goes on to discuss this response in section III of his paper. I find BonJour's treatment of this response somewhat puzzling, though, because he only talks about externalist objectors to B4. But liberal internalists would also reject step B4. --Of course, as we've seen, BonJour's criticisms of the externalist work by drawing on conservative intuitions. So if those criticisms work, they will probably work against the liberal internalist as well as they work against the externalist.

The other response BonJour considers to his argument appeals to The Given Theory. BonJour introduces this response as follows:

[The foundationalist] might grant that it is necessary both that [a justifying argument of the form (i)-(iii)] exist and that the person for whom the belief is basic be in cognitive possession of it, but insist that his cognitive grasp of the premises required for that justification does not involve further empirical beliefs which would then require justification, but instead involves cognitive states of a more rudimentary sort which do not themselves require justification: intuitions or immediate apprehensions. (p. 6)

According to The Given Theory, then, it is possible to be "in cognitive possession" of some facts without having beliefs or evidence about those facts. We will discuss the Given Theory later. First let's look at what Alston says in response to BonJour's argument against basic beliefs. Alston will be pushing a more liberal stance than BonJour does.

(Some parts of Alston's discussion suggest a liberal position, other parts suggest a more intermediate, externalist position. I'm not going to fuss about that very much. Our purpose here is not to master Alston's own views, but rather to understand his criticisms of BonJour. So for our purposes, I will treat Alston as championing a liberal position.)

Alston's Response to BonJour

Let's begin by getting clear about the contrast between simple beliefs and epistemic beliefs. An epistemic belief is a belief about someone's or something's epistemic status. So, for instance, the belief that I am justified in believing B is an epistemic belief, since it's a belief about what I'm justified in believing. So too are beliefs to the effect that What makes me justified in believing B is such-and-such. Simple beliefs are beliefs about ordinary subject-matters, beliefs which aren't about epistemic facts.

The central tenet of Alston's defense of foundationalism is that being justified in holding some simple belief B needn't require you to also be justified in holding the epistemic belief, that your belief B is justified. And even if you are justified in holding that epistemic belief, what justifies you in holding it might be different (more complicated and sophisticated) from what justifies you in holding the simple belief B.

In particular, the mere fact that other beliefs are required to justify you in holding the epistemic belief does not show that your justification for the simple belief B rests on those other beliefs. So it does not show that it is impossible for B to be a basic belief. B might be a basic belief, even if I am justified in believing B is not.

If Alston is right about this, then he can block BonJour's argument against the foundationalist. Alston accepts BonJour's claims B2 and B3, which say that for every justified belief, there has to be some feature of the belief in virtue of which the belief is likely to be true. Alston quarrels specifically with BonJour's interpretation of B4, which says that the subject has to know or have reason to believe that there is some such feature. Perhaps you need reasons for believing that your belief has features that make it likely to be true, in order to be justified in the epistemic belief I am justified in believing B. But B4 says you need reasons for believing such things, merely to be justified in the simple belief B, itself. This is what Alston denies.

BonJour's argument is an example of what Alston calls a Level Ascent Argument. A Level Ascent Argument asks us to consider some justified belief B. It then argues that B depends for its justification on some evidence the subject has about B (evidence concerning whether B is justified, or if so, what makes B justified; evidence concerning whether B was reliably formed; that sort of thing). According to a Level Ascent Argument, it can't be reasonable for you to believe the cat is on the mat, unless you also possess some evidence concerning your belief (or your justification for believing) that the cat is on the mat.

Level Ascent Arguments seem to build into justified beliefs about the world conditions which are really more appropriate to our higher-level, reflective beliefs about our beliefs and our epistemic status. Why then should we accept Level Ascent Arguments?

BonJour says that what drives his argument are his observations about the notion of epistemic justification, and its connection with truth. BonJour spells out that connection by appealing to the notion of epistemic responsibility. I think this is the key to understanding BonJour's thinking. He objects to liberal views like Alston's, which allow people to accept simple beliefs like B, without requiring them to also have reasons for thinking that their belief B was formed reliably, has features that make it likely to be true, and so on. BonJour objects to these liberal views because his model of a justified believer is a person who is especially reflective, scrupulous, and careful when deciding what to believe. Someone like Descartes in the First Meditation. BonJour thinks that a person who accepts a belief before it has met such rigorous standards would be epistemically irresponsible, and hence unjustified.

BonJour realizes that this makes justified belief quite hard to attain. On his account, unreflective subjects (including children and animals) would not be able to have justified beliefs. In "Externalist Theories of Empirical Knowledge," he writes:

Any non-externalist account of empirical knowledge that has any plausibility will impose standards for justification which very many beliefs that seem commonsensically to be cases of knowledge fail to meet in any full and explicit fashion. And thus on such a view, such beliefs will not strictly speaking be instances of adequate justification and of knowledge... [We might instead say] that what common sense regards as cases of justification and of knowledge are in fact only rough approximations to an epistemic ideal which strictly speaking they do not satisfy. (p. 66)

We saw this kind of view before, when we were discussing Stroud and skepticism about knowledge. But notice BonJour is going even farther, and denying that our unreflective beliefs are even reasonable or justified!

BonJour's view also makes it hard for even the most reflective subjects to avoid skepticism, unless they accept coherentism. Unfortunately, we don't have the time to look more carefully at coherentism.

BonJour thinks we have to accept these consequences, if we reflect on the concept of epistemic justification, and its connection to notions like epistemic blame and responsibility.

I think we should be cautious to accept any tight connection between justification and notions of epistemic blame and responsibility.

It's standard in moral philosophy to distinguish between performing an act which is morally wrong, and acting in a way which is morally blameworthy. Sometimes people can be blameless, or even merit moral praise, for performing acts that are in fact morally wrong. This will happen when the subject thinks that what they're doing is the right thing to do, and puts a lot of effort into doing it, for that reason. For example, suppose I have a naturally kind and helpful disposition; but I struggle very hard against this disposition in order to be mean and hard on my students. I do this in the false belief that being mean and hard to students is best for their educational development. It takes a lot of effort for me to do this, since it goes against my natural kindly disposition. In fact, let's suppose, being mean and hard to students is very bad for their educational development, and it's bad for their self-esteem, as well. So my efforts are doing nobody any good. Perhaps what I'm doing is even morally wrong, since it crushes students' spirits. Nonetheless, I'm doing what I think is the morally right thing to do. So we might hold me blameless for my actions. I might even merit moral praise, since I'm trying so hard to do the right thing.

On the flip side, imagine a very evil person who does a lot of good deeds in the mistaken belief that these will sow discord and suffering. His deeds were good deeds, but we'd want to criticize him in some way, say that he deserves moral blame, since he was trying to do bad deeds.

These examples show that facts about the moral status of an action can come apart from facts about whether the agent who performed that action deserves praise or blame.

Similarly, we might want to distinguish in epistemology between believing the right thing, or what's genuinely supported by your evidence, and believing in ways which are epistemically responsible or epistemically praiseworthy. It might be possible to have epistemically defective beliefs, even if you've been totally responsible and blameless. For instance, suppose your fundamental assumptions about human psychology are irresistible but unjustified (however, you're not aware that they're unjustified). If they're unjustified, then it's plausible to say that the beliefs about other people which you base on these assumptions are unjustified, too. But you needn't have been irresponsible in any way, in arriving at these beliefs. We said that you can't help but accept those assumptions about human psychology. So perhaps you're epistemically blameless in believing what you do. Here there is a divorce between justification and epistemic blame.

No doubt there are connections of some sort between justification and notions like epistemic blame and irresponsibility. But it's a difficult matter to say precisely what they are.

Alston's Response to Sellars

Alston also examines arguments by Aune and Sellars against the possibility of basic beliefs. A few brief words about Sellars' argument are in order.

So far, we've seen that the claim that you have a justified belief does not necessarily entail that you know or have reason to believe that your belief is justified.

It also seems to be true that you can have a justified belief without being able to give a justifying argument for it, that is, without being able to state or explain what your justification for your belief is. Sellars denies this, however. He thinks that whenever you have justification for believing P, you will always be able to offer reasons or a justifying argument in support of your belief. (See Alston "What's Wrong with Immediate Knowledge?", p. 69ff.) This leads Sellars to a position very much like BonJour's.

Alston argues that Sellars' view is very counter-intuitive:

[Consider] the way in which Sellars hints that all justification is higher level in character. It always consists of showing, or of the capacity to show, that one's belief is justified, or reasonable, or that one has adequate reasons for it...

...Why should we suppose that this is required for epistemic justification? We frequently take ourselves to know things with respect to which we have no such capacity. I often suppose myself to know that my wife is upset about something, where I would be hard pressed to specify how I can tell, that is, hard pressed to specify what makes it reasonable for me to believe this. The same goes for much of our supposed knowledge about history, geography, and physical regularities. In the face of all this, why should we accept the thesis that justification essentially involves the capacity to demonstrate reasonableness? (Alston "What's Wrong with Immediate Knowledge?" p. 70)

If Sellars' view is so counter-intuitive, then we ought to require very good arguments for that view before we accept it. But we haven't yet seen any such arguments. (And as Alston complains, it's hard to find such arguments in Sellars' text.)

Alston cautions us not to confuse:

As we mentioned before, it's easy to confuse these two notions because the word "justification" gets used to describe both. There's a similar ambiguity with words like "acquisition" and "construction": does one mean the activity? Or the thing which was acquired or constructed?

Alston thinks that the status is epistemologically primary, and does not depend on your being able to engage in the activity. It can be reasonable for you to believe something even if you're not able to show that it's reasonable or explain what makes it reasonable. Recall the analogy from Robert Audi that I mentioned earlier in the term. Audi writes:

It would seem that just as a little child can be of good character even if unable to defend its character against attack, one can have a justified belief even if, in response to someone who doubts this, one could not show that one does. (Audi The Structure of Justification Ch. 4, at p. 145)


Over the past few weeks, we've made a bunch of distinctions. We've discussed:

You should think carefully about these distinctions and how they bear on each other. You should also think carefully about whether you agree with my presentation of them. I have been arguing that most of these notions come apart. Other philosophers like BonJour and Sellars think there are closer connections between them. You need to make up your own mind about this. Who do you think is right? And why?

BonJour's and Sellars's arguments against basic beliefs turn on the assumption that there are close connections between various of these notions. If we resist that assumption, then as they stand, BonJour's and Sellars's arguments don't succeed in proving that basic beliefs are impossible.

Of course, it might turn out to be the conservativism is the best epistemic policy, and that BonJour and Sellars are right after all. But the arguments we've seen so far don't go far enough to decisively settle the matter.