Wednesday, February 08, 2012

E = K as foundationalism?

I'm re-reading Timothy Williamson's Knowledge and Its Limits for a reading group at UBC. I'm struck by this passage, from the introduction to Chapter 9 on Evidence.
[W]e may speculate that standard accounts of justification have failed to deal convincingly with the traditional problem the regress of justifications—what justifies the justifiers?—because they have forbidden themselves to use the concept knowledge. E = K suggests a very modest kind of foundationalism, on which all one's knowledge serves as the foundation for all one's justified beliefs.

I'm not at all sure what to make of this. I'm very impressed by E = K, but I have a hard time seeing reason to accept either of these claims:

  1. E=K is a kind of foundationalism

  2. E=K provides a solution to the traditional problem of the regress

Here's the story about foundationalism and the regress that I tell to my undergrads. I think it's pretty standard; if its somehow idiosyncratic, I hope someone will tell me. Everybody thinks that the justification for some beliefs depends on other justified beliefs. How do those other beliefs get justified? Maybe by yet further justified beliefs. Foundationalism is the thesis that there are basically justified beliefs -- beliefs that are justified in some other way than by being supported by other justified beliefs. If you're not a foundationalist, then you think that all justified beliefs are justified by other justified beliefs; for any given justified belief, there must be a chain of justified beliefs in successive support relationships that never ends, either because it continues infinitely, or because it doubles back on itself. Insofar as these latter two options are implausible forms of regress, there is intuitive support for foundationalism.

So as I understand it, what it is to be a foundationalist is to think that there are basic beliefs — i.e., beliefs that are justified, not in virtue of being supported by other justified beliefs. I'm surprised to see Williamson suggest that his view is a foundationalist one; E = K appears to me to be neutral on the question of whether there are basic beliefs. The Knowledge First project is consistent with the traditional idea that knowledge entails justified belief; I don't think it's a stretch to say that, on Williamson's view, knowledge is a (special, metaphysically privileged) kind of justified belief.

So if one's knowledge is among one's justified beliefs, then read literally, the claim that "[all of] one's knowledge serves as the basis of all one's justified beliefs" is tantamount to the claim that the chains of justification of the sort foundationalists talk about are in fact circular: some of my justified beliefs—the knowledgable ones, at least—are supported by chains that include themselves. But this is anathema to foundationalism, as the label for that view makes vivid.

Maybe I'm reading uncharitably literally; the thesis is that the knowledge is basic, and it supports the mere justified beliefs. All the knowledge is at the bottom of the pyramid and nowhere else. This now looks like foundationalism, but it carries the commitment that all knowledge is basic: all knowledgable beliefs are justified, not in virtue of being supported by other justified beliefs. This is a stronger claim than any I'd thought Williamson was committed to; I'm not sure it's particularly plausible. There is such a thing as inferential knowledge; in such cases, it seems very intuitive that justification depends on justification of the beliefs from which it's inferred. If you're a knowledge first program, you shouldn't think that's the main thing or the fundamental thing or the most interesting thing going on -- knowledge first people should be more excited about the fact that the knowledge of the conclusion flows from the knowledge of the premise -- but I see no reason to deny that there's also justificatory dependence at a less fundamental level. But foundationalism is (I thought) precisely about justificatory independence.

So what's going on? Does Williamson intend a weaker sense of 'foundationalism'? Or am I wrong about what the traditional sense would require, given his comments? Or is Williamson really committed to the thesis that if S knows that p, then S's justification for p does not depend on S's justification for any other proposition?

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