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Foundationalism vs. Antifoundationalism

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Foundationalism vs. Antifoundationalism. The basic difference: Foundationalists believe that there is some ultimate and knowable truth. Antifoundationalists believe that there is only contingency. . Some important qualifications:

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Foundationalism vs. Antifoundationalism

The basic difference:

Foundationalists believe that there is some ultimate and knowable truth.

Antifoundationalists believe that there is only contingency.

Some important qualifications:

Foundationalists are not necessarily fundamentalists. One can believe that there is a truth but be skeptical about what gets identified as truth. One can believe, for instance, that there is a good way to hold democratic elections but be skeptical about the widely accepted practice of allowing people to shirk their civic duty of casting a ballot.

Some important qualifications:

Antifoundationalists are not necessarily anarchists. One can believe that there is no absolutely determinable truth and still be relatively certain that one set of opinions is best. One can believe, for instance, that there are a many viable ways to hold democratic elections but still feel assured that the Australian practice of taxing people who do not cast ballots would benefit U.S. elections.

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Foundationalism vs. Antifoundationalism

Some important qualifications:

One can be a foundationalist about certain things and not a foundationalist about others. One can believe, for instance, certainly that a rock has struck his foot, but that same person can be skeptical about any effort to declare one painting aesthetically better than another.

Aristotle famously argued that dialectic deals with the realm of human knowledge where there is absolute certainty, and rhetoric deals with the realm where we must be uncertain.

  • Both foundationalists and antifoundationalists can be dogmatic or cautious in their assertions.
  • A dogmatic antifoundationalist will assault all efforts at securely determining any position, refusing even to consider an argument that presupposes the possibility of arriving at certainty. This is relativism at its worst.
  • A dogmatic foundationalist will assault all efforts to question what s/he believes to be true, no matter how interesting, complicated, or convincing. This is fundamentalism at its most dangerous.
          • The key lesson here is this: one’s philosophical disposition can be divorced from one’s style of engagement.
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Foundationalism vs. Antifoundationalism

Sophists as Antifoundationalists:

The sophists famously argued that our knowledge about anything is always incomplete and contingent upon some questionable assertion.

Gorgias on Being: In one of the few fragments that we have of Gorgias’s writing (his “On Non-Being”), we find him saying that (1) nothing exists, and (2) if anything does exist, we cannot know it, and (3) if anything does exist and we can know it, we cannot communicate it.

  • Plato as Foundationalist:
  • Plato, through the character of Socrates, consistently argues that there is a knowable truth, especially in the realm of human affairs. In another dialogue (The Republic), this belief in truth leads Plato to champion one mode of aristocratic rule by philosophers.
    • In this dialogue, Socrates, for instance, sez that politics is the art of the soul, the identifiable practice of good legislation and the administration of justice (p. 32).
    • Later in the dialogue, Socrates will explain how his method of dialogue (elenchus) leads to truth, not the spurious, widespread assent that Polus and Gorgias seek (pp. 44-5)
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Foundationalism vs. Antifoundationalism

The basic foundationalist take on rhetoric: Foundationalists have historically been hostile to certain versions of public argument, just as Socrates is hostile to the idea that one can teach persuasion responsibly without also teaching the good. This is not to say that foundationalists are hostile to rhetoric. Rather, they see rhetoric as a means to an end—the good. Socrates makes this point on pp. 37-9 when he talks about being persuasive not to be persuasive but to achieve some other, higher end.

The basic antifoundationalist take on rhetoric: Antifoundationalists have historically been amenable to certain versions of public argument. Since we cannot know what is true, the best we can do is argue about the matter and determine our course of action based on what appears to be the most reasonable case. For the antifoundationalist, the good rhetor makes a persuasive case in public, and in doing so, this rhetor performs an important civic duty by exposing a population to one possible version of events. With multiple arguments and multiple perspectives, people will be more critical and more able to make a reasoned decision, though they may not be any closer to the truth of the matter.

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Foundationalism vs. Antifoundationalism

A recent debate between foundationalists and antifoundationalists: During the 2003 election debacle, people arguing for both Bush and Gore claimed to have determined the ultimately best manner of proceeding, and they both made arguments about what the other party should do. For a while those supporting Bush sed it was not good to resort to legal action in deciding an election. Then, those supporting Bush took legal action to stop the recount afforded Gore as a result of his victory in the Florida Supreme Court. Gore consistently argued that it is best in a democracy to make sure all votes are fairly counted. All of these arguments hinge on some notion of the good.

Stanley Fish, on the other hand, in a New York Times (15 Nov. 2000) editorial, sed that the parties should make whatever arguments they could to advance their case because: “Practicing politics as usual is what everyone always does and should do, because politics is the only vehicle by which our substantive visions -- our visions of what is right and good for the country and the world -- can be realized…Some are now urging that we -- which usually means Mr. Gore -- stop playing politics. But if either candidate were to stop playing politics -- if Mr. Bush were to cease assembling his cabinet in public and Mr. Gore were to cease fighting and concede -- he would be performing an immoral action because he would be abandoning the hope of his supporters for the sake of some empty abstraction. If a candidate believes in an agenda, he should pursue it politically, without rest and without apology (although apologies, strategically offered, can be a means of pursuing it).” Fish is a champion of antifoundationalist philosophy and a participant in a group who consider themselves neo-sophists.