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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument

A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the


Foundationalist Argument
The Structure of Empirical Knowledge by Bonjour puts forward what he calls
“conclusive” arguments against the central doctrines of Foundationalsim. In this
essay I aim to show that Bonjour has failed in his attempt for the simple reason that he
has interpreted and portrayed the central ideas that he wishes to dispel inaccurately,
and therefore his reasons for rejecting foundationalism also come into question. I aim
to show that two of his premises in his anti-foundationalist argument are self-
defeating and another begs the question. In the final section of this essay, I aim to
show that his interpretation of the doctrine of the given is fallacious in two ways and
conclude by stating that the central ideas of foundationalism cannot be conclusively
rejected on the reasons Bonjour gives.

Before I delve into the concept of Foundationalism and its central argument, I must
summarise the “story so far”. The primary aim of this paper is to look at
‘propositional knowledge’: the knowledge that something is the case, that a
proposition is true. For a person A to know that P, where P is some proposition, three
conditions must be satisfied:
1) A must believe that P,
2) P must be true, and
Hence, A’s belief that P must be justified

This essay stems from an investigation around condition 3, what does it mean to have
adequate justification for a belief? More specifically, this paper revolves around
Bonjour’s Structure of Empirical Knowledge, in which, he attempts to give a
conclusive account of why foundationalism is flawed. Foundationalism attempts to
defeat the regress problem hence, scepticism by introducing ‘basic beliefs’, beliefs
that are justified but not dependent on other justified beliefs. It is these basic beliefs
that a person has which make up his or her foundation of knowledge on which all of
their beliefs depend on for justification. Bonjour uses the following passage from
Quinton to express the problem:

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
“If any beliefs are to be justified at all…there must be some terminal beliefs
that do not owe their…credibility to others. For a belief to be justified it is not
enough for it to be accepted, let alone merely entertained: there must also be a
good reason for accepting it. Furthermore, for an inferential belief to be
justified the beliefs that support it must themselves be justified. There must,
therefore, be a belief that does not owe its justification to the support provided
by others. Unless this were so no belief would be justified at all, for to justify
any belief would require the antecedent justification of an infinite series of
beliefs. The terminal…beliefs that are needed to bring the regress of
justification to a stop need not be strictly self-evident in the sense that they
somehow justify themselves. All that is required is that they should not owe
their justification to any other belief.” [Bonjour, Ch. 2, Structure of Empirical
Knowledge]
My concern is that Bonjour has failed to give an account of the anti-foundationalist
theory that conclusively puts to bed foundationalism. Instead, he has set up
foundationalism in his book, to fail. I aim to show that his argument is not as
conclusive as he makes out.

Bonjour at the end of chapter two summarises his anti-foundationalist argument as


follows (lightly edited):
a) Suppose there are basic empirical beliefs (beliefs that are epistemically
justified and not reliant on any other belief for its justification)
b) A belief is justified if there is a reason why it is likely to be true
c) A belief is justified for a person only if he or she is in cognitive possession
of such a reason
d) A person is in cognitive possession of such a reason if he or she believes
with justification the premises from which it follows that a belief is likely
to be true
e) The premise of such a justifying argument must include at least one
empirical premise as it cannot be entirely ‘a priori’
Bonjour goes onto say that premise ‘e’ contradicts premise ‘a’ as the justification of a
supposed basic belief depends on the justification of at least one other empirical belief
and therefore there can be no basic beliefs. Bonjour claims that foundationalists can

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
only attack premise ‘c’ or ‘d’ which he goes onto defend in later chapters, however I
aim to show that he fails to conclusively defend either.

My concern with premise ‘c’ is that it seems to “beg the question”. What is it for a
person to be in ‘cognitive possession’ of a reason why one’s belief is likely to be true?
Bonjour says that in order for a belief ‘B’ to be justified for a person ‘A’, it is
necessary that ‘A’ himself be in cognitive possession of that justification, or in other
words believes justifiably 1 and 2 of the following justificatory premises:
1) B has a feature Ø
2) Beliefs having a feature Ø are highly likely to be true
3) Hence, B is likely to be true
Therefore premise ‘c’ of the anti-foundationalist argument claims that a belief is
justified for a person only if he believes in the premises of a justifying argument. But
foundationalism denies this claim and thus premise ‘c’ begs the question.

The second immediate objection to Bonjour’s anti-foundationalist argument is that


premises ‘c’ and ‘d’ together leads to scepticism. His premise ‘c’ states that a person
must have a reason for believing that his belief is likely to be true and that he must be
in cognitive possession of that reason. Following onto premise ‘d’, it states that it is
not enough for a person to be in possession of a reason which makes a belief highly
likely to be true, but instead asks that the justificatory premises themselves be
justified. In other words, a person’s belief that ‘r’ is justified only if he justifiably
believes both that a) his belief that ‘r’ has Ø and b) beliefs having Ø are highly likely
to be true.

So, if I were to apply Bonjour’s premises ‘c’ and ‘d’ to any situation, it would lead to
an endless regress and hence scepticism as it entails that a persons belief that ‘r’ at a
time is justified only if he has infinitely many other justified beliefs at that specific
time. If I were to believe that my neighbour has a red car, under premise ‘c’, I must
have a reason for believing that my neighbour has a red car and be in cognitive
possession of it at the same time. However, my justificatory proposition that “I have
seen a red car outside my neighbours house” must itself be justified under premise
‘d’. The question that arises from the example is that how is my perception that “I

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
have seen a red car outside my neighbour’s house” itself be justified? Howard-
Snyder (Anti-foundationalist argument and the doctrine of the given, 1998) makes a
similar point regarding Bonjour’s anti-foundationalist argument. He has said that two
major problems arise from premises ‘c’ and ‘d’. ‘The first problem is that given our
present cognitive powers, humans cannot have infinitely many beliefs at once and
secondly, even if they could, the type of beliefs generated by the reiterative
application of premises ‘c’ and ‘d’ are too complex for us to grasp them all’.
(Howard-Snyder, 1998) Therefore, if Bonjour’s premises ‘c’ and ‘d’ are true, I
justifiably believe nothing as I lack the cognitive capacity it requires.

Therefore the anti-foundationalist argument is self-defeating given that premises ‘c’


and ‘d’ entails that one cannot justifiably believe anything, thus, one cannot also
believe the anti-foundationalist argument itself. Howard-Snyder makes the point that
‘even if the argument was correct, it gives us no justifying reason to reject
foundationalism’.

How is Bonjour to defend premise ‘c’ and ‘d’ against the charge that they lead to
scepticism and thus are self-defeating? One way in which Bonjour could potentially
defend himself against this charge is by appealing to a form of implicit commonsense.
By this I mean that a person could meet premise ‘c’ and ‘d’ by naturally believing the
premises of a justifying argument. When one is said to believe a proposition
naturally, all that is being said is that one would affirm it sincerely and unhesitatingly
were one to consider it, and since humans have infinite premises of this kind, it can be
followed that one can have infinite beliefs at once and hence, act as a counter against
Howard-Snyder’s conclusion that humans cannot possess infinite beliefs at any one
time.

There would be a problem if Bonjour were to give this type of response to the attack
on his anti-foundationalist argument. Firstly, there is a difference between a “natural”
belief and “natural” to believe. While it can be said that often our natural beliefs
entail a natural inclination to believe those propositions, it still does not follow that a
natural belief is synonymous to the statement ‘natural to believe’. For example
imagine a man is snoring too loudly in his cabin (keeping awake all the other

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
campers), although he would sincerely and without hesitation agree that he was
snoring too loudly were it brought to his attention, he may “naturally” believe it or
disbelieve it. Even if it is possible for a person to have infinite beliefs at once, it is
still not possible to have the justified meta-beliefs that Bonjour requires.

Imagine that I hold a belief ‘r’ that “I can see a laptop in front of me”. According to
Bonjour, I must believe ‘r’ only if I justifiably believe that ‘r’ has a feature Ø and
such beliefs with this feature are highly likely to be true. Therefore, my belief ‘r1’ is
that my belief that I can see a laptop in front of me – has a feature Ø (which makes it
highly likely to be true). Of course I can only believe ‘r1’ if it is itself justifiable.
And ‘r1’ can only be justifiable if I believe that the belief ‘r1’ has itself the feature Ø
to make a new meta-belief ‘r2’ – being that “I see a laptop in front of me” [r] that has
a feature Ø [r1] that itself has a feature Ø [r2]…and so on and so forth to infinity. Of
course none of my meta-beliefs have to be explicit in order to meet Bonjour’s initial
criteria, for all my justifications can be tacit or “natural”. Can this infinite regress of
meta-beliefs be graspable by the human mind? It seems plainly clear that it cannot. If
I cannot even tacitly or naturally grasp what belief ‘r5’ might be like then I cannot be
said to be in cognitive possession of it and hence generalising the rule does not defeat
scepticism even if “natural” beliefs are “natural” to believe and we can have infinitely
many “natural” beliefs.

A completely different type of response that Bonjour could give to defend his anti-
foundationalist argument is to apply premise ‘c’ to basic beliefs only. Therefore, a
basic belief is justified for a person only if he was in cognitive possession of such a
reason. However, this would also fail due to the simple fact that there is no way to
restrict cognitive possession of a justifying argument to basic beliefs only. In fact it is
more suitable to apply it in the context of non-basic beliefs as their justifications are
directly derived from other beliefs.

So far, I have given two major objections to Bonjour’s anti-foundationalist argument;


namely, that premise ‘c’ and ‘d’ lead to scepticism thus, are self-defeating for which I
have considered two potential answers that Bonjour could give and dispelled both.
Secondly, that premise ‘c’ begs the question. I will now consider how Bonjour could

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
potentially defend premise ‘c’ which says that a belief is justified for a person only if
he or she is in cognitive possession of such a reason.

Bonjour says that premise ‘c’ must be valid as without it a person cannot be
epistemically responsible in accepting beliefs unless he himself has access to the
justification. Otherwise the person in question will have no reason for thinking that
the belief is true. In addition, if a person believes a belief ‘B’ without having “access
to its justification, then he could be said to be acting irresponsibly” according to
Bonjour. (Chapter 3, Structure of Empirical Knowledge) For example, suppose Jay
believes his secretive neighbour has a red car but has no direct or indirect access to
any form of justification for his belief (hence his belief does not have feature Ø),
Bonjour would say that he is acting irresponsibly and should give up his belief that his
neighbour has a red car until he has had access to any justificatory premise(s). On the
surface this argument seems conclusive and if taken to be so, then foundationalism is
indeed false. But can I believe responsibly without a justifying argument?

Imagine that Jay through careful investigation has attempted to find out belief ‘r’ –
that his secretive neighbour has a red car. His investigation seems to have
conclusively justified his belief ‘r’ – his secretive neighbour does indeed have a red
car. But suppose unknowingly to Jay his neighbours car is a car used by spies
designed to deceive people by making them see the colour they want to see (in Jay’s
case – the colour red) but in actual fact the car is black. Jay, it can be said, is in direct
access with a justificatory argument (belief that ‘r’ has Ø and beliefs having Ø are
highly likely to be true), that he has seen a red car on several occasions on his
neighbours drive, however he is still wrong as in actual fact his neighbour has a black
car. Imagine if another person saw his neighbour’s car as black, was this because he
saw the ‘real’ colour of the car or was it that he wanted to see black and so did indeed
saw what he wanted to see – can this be classed as justification? How are we to
know? Of course this is beyond the scope of this paper. However, one thing seems
clear and that is, it cannot be said that Jay is blameworthy for believing ‘r’ if contrary
to appearances the argument turns on a subtle error and in fact there is no good
argument for believing ‘r’ as Jay has done everything he could to get to the truth.
Bonjour would maintain that if his belief does not posses feature Ø (and beliefs with

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
feature Ø are highly likely to be true) then he would be irresponsible for believing ‘r’.
So what exactly does it mean to have a belief with feature Ø?

Bonjour is unclear on the matter, and in fact never attempts to make it explicit.
Nevertheless with reasonable certainty, it can be assumed that by feature Ø Bonjour
meant ‘in fact’ makes my belief highly likely to be true as only through ‘facts’ can it
give me sufficient grounding to profess that it is likely to be true. If this were the
case, then the first premise of the justifying argument (my belief that ‘r’ has Ø) would
have to be false. As I cannot be responsible for that over which I have no control, and
I have no control over whether my reason is ‘good’ in the sense that it ‘in fact’ makes
my belief highly likely to be true. All one can do is try their best to position
themselves to find the truth and, having done so, the rest is out of ones control.
Therefore, epistemically responsible believing does not necessarily correlate well with
the notion that my reason for believing ‘in fact’ makes my belief highly likely to be
true. So in simplistic terms, I can be epistemically responsible and still not have a
good reason ‘in fact’ that makes my belief highly likely to be true. On the other hand,
if it is possible to have a good reason epistemically that does not make my belief that
‘r’ highly likely to be true then the second premise (beliefs having Ø are highly likely
to be true) is false.

In addition, the second reason to refute Bonjour’s claim that epistemically responsible
believing requires justifiably believing the premises of a justifying argument is that
one can believe in a proposition responsibly and be completely astray from the ‘fact’.
Suppose that I believe that my neighbour has a red car but ‘in fact’ is black and
unknown to me, it is engineered in such a way as to deceive me (following the
previous example). Am I still irresponsible for believing that my neighbour’s car is
red? – I think not, as I am not responsible for that which I have no control over. As
discussed earlier that premise ‘c’ of the anti-foundationalist argument with premise
‘d’ leads to scepticism and surely one would be irresponsible for believing in it unless
one has infinitely many meta-beliefs or believes nothing. Neither is possible. As one
in only responsible for what one can do, epistemically responsible believing does not
permit premise ‘c’.

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
So far, I have discussed the anti-foundationalist argument put forward by Bonjour in
his book Structure of Empirical Knowledge. I have attempted to show that the
premises ‘c’ and ‘d’ lead to scepticism and hence are self-defeating and I have also
shown that premise ‘c’ begs the question along with dispelling the notion that one is
epistemically responsible for believing through Bonjour’s justificatory argument. I
have shown that one can be responsible in believing and still not satisfy Bonjour’s
justificatory argument.

In Bonjour’s Structure of Empirical Knowledge, chapter 4, he discusses the doctrine


of the given, a doctrine upon which foundationalist arguments rest. Bonjour argues
that the central thesis of the doctrine of the given is ‘incoherent’. I aim to show that
Bonjour just as he did with beliefs, has not conclusively dispelled the doctrine. The
doctrine of the given is described as the following; that basic beliefs are justified, by
appeal to states of ‘immediate experience or direct apprehension or intuition’
(Bonjour, Ch 4, Structure of Empirical Knowledge) and not by appeal to other beliefs
or facts in the world. These states provide justification for the basic beliefs without
themselves having to be justified and thus rejecting premise ‘d’ of the anti-
foundationalist argument. Bonjour goes onto say:
‘If the basic belief whose justification is at issue is the belief that P, then
according to the most straightforward version of the doctrine, this basic belief
is justified by appeal to an immediate experience of the very fact or state of
affairs or situation which it asserts to obtain: the fact that P. It is because I
immediately experience the very fact, which would make my belief true that I
am completely justified in holding it, and it is this fact, which is given.
Immediate experience thus brings the regress of justification to an end by
making possible a direct comparison between the basic belief and its object.’
(Bonjour, 1985, Ch 4, Structure of Empirical Knowledge)

The quotation will act as a basis to question the way in which Bonjour has put
forward the doctrine of the given. A significant aspect of the above paragraph seems
unclear, and in fact raises a few crucial objections. Firstly, let me restate the sentence
in question: ‘by appeal to an immediate experience of the very fact or state of affairs
or situation which it asserts to obtain’, this sentence can be taken in one of two ways.

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
The first interpretation is valid, in that a person who has a basic belief looks for
justification via an immediate experience, intuition or direct apprehension which he
would call the ‘given’. The second interpretation is questionable. The same sentence
could be taken to mean that a person may only justify his basic belief via an
experiential state. If taken this way, then Bonjour has given a false perception of the
doctrine and leaves it venerable to two attacks. Firstly, that the person who believes
in the ‘given’ is failing to separate the state of justifying ones proposition as true and
the state of believing once justified. And secondly, one could point to the notion that
one is not entitled to be justified without showing that one is justified.

Another misperception that Bonjour communicates to the reader, is that persons who
support the doctrine, believe that any belief is completely justified as long as it is in
ones sphere of immediate experience. Foundationalists often say that one can hold
onto their beliefs even if their immediate experience does not provide complete
justification as long as other factors contribute to complete the “whole” justification.
Sosa in his book “Knowledge and Perspective” (1991) says ‘proponents of the given
can say that an experiential state can completely justify a persons belief only if other
conditions are met’, and by this he meant conditions such as ‘reliability’ of the
experience, etc.

Therefore, Bonjour has portrayed the doctrine of the given in two fallacious ways.
Firstly, that ones basic belief is justified only if one appeals to experiential states and
secondly, by making the claim that such an experiential state provides complete
justification for ones basic beliefs. In actual fact, the doctrine of the given, according
to Sosa (Knowledge and Perspective, 1991) says, that experience plays a fundamental
role in developing a justification for a basic belief that can end the regress problem.
To say anything more on the matter would be to give a ‘sided’ interpretation of one of
many versions of the ‘given’.

This paper set out to show that Bonjour’s account of the Foundationalist argument
was portrayed in such a way that it may be countered and as a result Bonjour fails to
conclusively dispel either the central idea of basic beliefs or the doctrine of the given.

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Sachin Nandha V7DMET

Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham


A Critique of Bonjour’s Analysis of the Foundationalist Argument
All that the papers puts forward is not that foundationalism is correct but merely that
for the reasons Bonjour gives, foundationalsim cannot be rejected.

Bibliography

1. Bonjour, Lawrence, 1985, Structure of Empirical Knowledge, Harvard


University Press
2. Howard-Synder, 1998, Basic Anti-foundationalist argument and the doctrine
of the Given, Journal of Philosophy
3. Sosa, E., 1991, Knowledge in Perspective, Cambridge University Press

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