Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hegelian Foundationalism

Some comments on my last post (mostly received in private correspondence) suggest that my use of the term “epistemic foundationalism” was a bit too broad—implying, in effect, that one had to choose between epistemic foundationalism and some more nuanced alternative such as the one offered by Hegel.

In putting things this way, I oversimplified matters by lumping a range of foundationalist epistemologies into the same category. More significantly, I gave the impression that Hegel was not a foundationalist. But there’s a sense in which that’s exactly what Hegel was, insofar as he thought we had to have starting points from which to build the belief systems that we then make use of to engage with the world—starting points that, among other things, determine the parameters of what counts as evidence.

What distinguished Hegel was his consciousness of the diversity of potential starting points and our human fallibility in their selection. And he wanted to endorse an approach that took these seriously. His question thus became what we should do given the fact that our judgments about what should and should not be foundational might be mistaken. His Hegelian method was intended as an alternative to dogmatic allegiance to a set of starting points.

But that’s not to say that he didn’t think we have to have starting points (it's just that we have to adopt them in a way that reflects our fallibility). Nor is it meant to imply that all starting points are seriously suspect.

Consider the principle of non-contradiction. Hegel’s entire dialectical process depends on assuming the unacceptability of “contradictions” that emerge as one seeks to live out one’s worldview (I think of a worldview as being a product of one’s starting points as they interact with the field of experience). And while Hegel’s sense of “contradiction” may be broader than what the principle of non-contradiction focuses on, it clearly includes contradictions in this narrower sense. As such, any evolution in one’s worldview that did away with the principle of non-contradiction would also do away with the dialectical process itself. It would be a kind of evolutionary dead end. All progress would stop, because no “failures” in the resulting system could be called failures.

“Yes,” the advocates of this failed system might say. “It is true that our system systematically fails to achieve any of the ends that the system endorses. But such failure does not rule out calling the system a total and perfect success. To rule out perfect success simply on the grounds that what we have here is abject failure is to endorse a principle of non-contradiction that we reject. Since we reject the principle of non-contradiction, there is nothing stopping us from saying that our ends are most perfectly realized when those ends are completely thwarted at every turn. Since we reject the principle of non-contradiction, ruling something out should never be taken to mean that anything has been ruled out.”

You get the idea. Deny the principle of noncontradiction, and you’ve got no epistemology, no methodology for guiding belief formation, Hegelian or otherwise. I doubt any human being could actually do this in practice. And this means, of course, that whether he was explicit about it or not, Hegel has to treat the principle of non-contradiction as a starting point that isn’t going away in the course of the dialectical evolution.

And there are probably other starting points that will be like this, although it seems clear that no one’s actual foundations are limited to these. But while I’m pretty sure Hegel would have to say that some foundations are, in fact, secure (that is, they’re not going to be exposed as inadequate in the course of the dialectic), it doesn’t follow from this that Hegel believes we are infallible in our judgments about which of them is secure and which isn’t.

We might get this wrong—being convinced that one of our foundations is rock-solid, only to find out in the course of the dialectical evolution that it is crumbling underfoot. But this fallibility cannot prevent us from treating our starting points as foundational. Not only don’t we have any choice but to start somewhere, but he thinks that it is only by presumptively trusting our starting points enough to live them out seriously that we come to discover their inadequacies.

In this sense, then, Hegel remains a foundationalist. But it is a different kind of foundationalism than, say, the foundationalism of the die-hard empiricist or the strict biblical fundamentalist. It is, if you will, a fallibilistic foundationalism--one that acknowledges the fallibility of our starting points by inviting us to live them out critically, that is, live them out with an eye towards noticing their shortcomings, the ways in which they fail us, and then revising them to overcome these failings.

In short, there are different species of foundationalism, and Hegel's strike me as a species that avoids the failings of others. In my next post, I want to offer a kind of taxonomy of foundationalisms, situate Hegel's dialectic within this taxonomy, and show what I take to be Hegel's virtues.


  1. I'd have a question: why is "living out" a theory any better than using logic and/or evidence upon it? Why is logic a suspect form of foundationalism, while "living out" is somehow default or unexceptional, even if it is "critical"? Indeed it seems gloriously vague, prone to accept any old belief and practice as long as it is psychologically congenial. It almost seems like a philosophical reversion to Darwinism, where the philosophy resulting in the most pragmatic, perhaps even physical, offspring wins. Has it come to this?

    At any rate, I look forward to your upcoming taxonomy.

  2. Hi Burk: I think you pose a false dichotomy here between "living out a theory" versus "using logic/evidence upon the theory". If a theory conflicts with the evidence or if the theory contains logical contradictions then it seems to me the theory must be rejected. But in cases where logic/evidence haven't rendered a verdict--or when evidence/logic don't seem to be ABLE to decide the theory, "living out" seems to me to be a perfectly valid approach to the search for truth.

    In fact, I'd say that logic/evidence is PART of the living out process.

    your friend