Foundationalism is an ancient theory of knowledge, going back at least as far as Aristotle, that we can know the world 1) immediately (i.e. directly, in an unmediated manner) and 2) incorrigibly (i.e. with no need of correction). The problem is, foundationalism does not hold up well under criticism. Nicholas Wolterstorff has explored the collapse of foundationalism in his brief work Reason within the Bounds of Religion (see also this helpful review). Some in discussing an alternative to a total post-modern collapse have discussed various versions of a moderate foundationalism in which we can at least partially know the world veridically. The question remains: what of our experiences are true, and how might we know them as true? Where do we start?
I have a friend profoundly mired in a post-foundationalist crisis. His worldview, once anchored in a naïvely foundationalist, modernist Christianity (and he is intelligent and well-educated), has crumbled under the 20 year weight of his experiences in what he thought was an authentic Christian community, which he now understands to be a deeply deceitful cult. Now nothing at all is certain, and he told me recently that he was well on his way to becoming a Logical Positivist (in which the meaning of a statement is the possibility of its verification; with no possibility of verification a statement is simply unintelligible). I think I have dissuaded him of that futile path, but he remains without an epistemic anchor.
Having lived through something of the same process as my friend, I have begun recounting to him what for me has been the best fallback to date, which is Karol Wojtyla’s Person and Act.** This was Wojtyla’s most significant pre-papal work, in which he explores the concept of “person” through a phenomenological lens. Summarizing extremely, we come to know ourselves through our interaction with others; we are not detached knowers of the world in the typical modern sense, but our knowledge of ourselves is intimately bound up in relation to others and to the world. Precisely because our self-knowledge is intertwined with our experiences of the world, when we encounter something outside ourselves that seems true, to then deny its veridicality, though perhaps provisionally and subject to further understanding, is in some way to deny ourselves. We most fully become ourselves in transcending ourselves toward the truth we encounter outside ourselves.
The starting point thus becomes not a near-solipcistic Cartesian cogito, but our knowledge of ourselves through experience of the world, and, most significantly, the other. This seems the best explanation of how I have come to recognize the truth to which I can hold. It may be partial, mediated, and subject to correction and fuller knowledge, but certain things ring so true that for me to deny them is to deny myself. As I experience the world, I find things that present themselves as true, in that I can re-cognize an underlying reality; to deny the truth of the world as it presents itself is at some level to deny my existence in it. As I experience the love of and for another, to deny that love is to deny my existence as one who can love and be loved. I have had certain mystical experiences, some of which involve the most immediate knowledge I have ever had of both good and evil, that are as real to me as any sense-based experience; to deny those would perhaps be the most profound denial of myself, as these touch me at my core, well beyond my normal interaction with the world. In Wolterstorff’s terms, I think of these as my “authentic commitments”, or a set of control beliefs, from which basis I seek to further understand the world.
Such an epistemology loses the comfortable certainly of foundationalism. So be it; contra Protagoras, I am not the measure of all things. As I see things at the moment, any certainty that I have does not derive from my ability to reduce the world to the scope of my theories, whether scientific or theological, but from these truths which I re-cognize outside myself, toward which I reach beyond myself.
** The text I am reading is the Italian translation of “Persona e Atto” (“The Acting Person” in its English translation) from the original Polish by Giuseppe Girgenti and Patrycja Mikulska, contained in the Italian language compendium of all Wojtyla’s philosophical works Metafisica della Persona, Giovanni Reale and Tadeusz Styczen, eds. (Bompiani, 2003).