Externalism, Internalism, Foundationalism, and Coherentism


In my recent papers, I shortly stated that I be inclined rather to an externalist than an internalist, and rather a foundationalist than a coherentist position. In this paper, I shall elaborate on this because back then I did not have time and space to explicate what I actually meant. Indeed, my simply using or mentioning the terms ‘externalist’, ‘internalist’, foundationalist’, and ‘coherentist’ may have been a bit misleading.
Reading across the epistemological literature from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, I cannot help the impression that most philosophers actually hold that internalism and externalism, as well as foundationalism and coherentism, similar as once thought of rationalism and empiricism, are disjunctive in the exclusive sense. That is to say, one can either hold an internalist or externalist theory of knowledge, but not a theory comprising both internalist and externalist factors; and, in the same vein, one can either hold a foundationalist or a coherentist theory of knowledge, but not a theory comprising both foundationalist and coherentist elements. I shall argue that these assumptions are false, and that this is so owing to rather trivial reasons. Before I begin with my own account, I shall give the example of Immanuel Kant who, in his first Critique, successfully combined elements of opposite philosophical views, namely, rationalism and empiricism, as necessary for the possibility of knowledge in the first place (1). My account of why knowledge can depend neither exclusively on internal nor exclusively on external factors follows immediately (2). Eventually, I shall give a few thoughts to the contention that one can either have a foundationalist or a coherentist view but not both, which I consider trivially false (3).

1. Kant: How the Combination of Rational and Empirical Factors Yields Knowledge

In his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason), Immanuel Kant proved sufficiently that neither pure rationalism nor pure empiricism can yield a correct analysis of how knowledge can come into existence, that is, becomes possible in principal, and this for rather trivial reasons:

Wollen wir die Rezeptivität unseres Gemüts, Vorstellungen zu empfangen, so fern es auf irgend eine Weise affiziert wird, Sinnlichkeit nennen; so ist dagegen das Vermögen, Vorstellungen selbst hervorzubringen, oder die Spontaneität des Erkenntnisses, der Verstand. Unsere Natur bringt es so mit sich, daß die Anschauung niemals anders als sinnlich sein kann, d. i. nur die Art enthält, wie wir von Gegenständen affiziert werden. Dagegen ist das Vermögen, den Gegenstand sinnlicher Anschauung zu denken, der Verstand. Keine dieser Eigenschaften ist der andern vorzuziehen. Ohne Sinnlichkeit würde uns kein Gegenstand gegeben, und ohne Verstand keiner gedacht werden. Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind. […] Beide Vermögen, oder Fähigkeiten, können auch ihre Funktionen nicht vertauschen. Der Verstand vermag nichts anzuschauen, und die Sinne nichts zu denken. Nur daraus, daß sie sich vereinigen, kann Erkenntnis entspringen. […] 1

[If the receptivity of our mind, its power of receiving representations in so far as it is in any wise affected, is to be entitled sensibility, then the mind’s power of producing representations from itself, the spontaneity of knowledge, should be called the understanding. Our nature is so constituted that our intuition can never be other than sensible; that is, it contains only the mode in which we are affected by objects. The faculty, on the other hand, which enables us to think the object of sensible intuition is the understanding. To neither of these powers may a preference be given over the other. Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. […] These two powers or capacities cannot exchange their functions. The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise. […]]2

In other words, neither a pure rationalism, especially an idealism, nor a pure empiricism, could possibly yield knowledge because if one has only rational capacities but no empirical data on which to utilize those capacities, one will be like someone trying to move forward in a perfectly empty space; and if there are only empirical data but no rational capacities to think them, there will be no thoughts whatsoever. If man really were tabula rasa, as the British empiricists argued3, he could not ever attain knowledge, for he would be like a sheet on which information is impressed, but the sheet itself cannot do anything with the impressed information, and thus not gain, hold, or retain knowledge: he would have to remain passive and silent for ever.

2. Why Knowledge Can Depend Neither Exclusively on Internal Nor Exclusively on External Factors

Now, in a similar vein, I think it quite trivial that knowledge can depend neither exclusively on internal nor exclusively on external factors. For if the former were the case, we would be prone to either idealism or solipsism; whereby, in turn, knowledge would be either trivial because anything someone can think of would depend on their very own mind and would thus count as knowledge, or knowledge would be impossible because one would be insurmountably isolated, so that one could not know anything at all. If, on the other hand, the latter were true, knowledge would be impossible as well because, evidently, in order for a subject S to know that p, S in the first place needs to be able to hold beliefs, which is necessarily an internal factor. Strictly speaking, it would, of course, only be necessary that for S to know that p, S be able to hold one belief both minimally and maximally. It would not, however, be sufficient in order for S to know that p that S be able to hold only one belief if we want to ascribe to S not only direct (which remains to be specified) but also inferential knowledge – which we, I suspect, want to, and usually rightly do. Inferential knowledge, to be precise, can only arise from a background of several beliefs, that is to say, one needs at least two beliefs which function as premises in order to be able to draw an inference from them, which in its turn would result as a further (in the minimal case, third) belief. A further condition, on top of it, is that S be able to hold not only several beliefs but that these, if they, that is, are to qualify as knowledge, at least for a large part, had better be logically consistent. For clearly, if one cannot hold logically consistant beliefs whatsoever, one cannot obtain knowledge. If, for instance, S believed that (i) all ravens are black, (ii) some ravens are white, and (iii) there are no ravens, S would have to be said to know nothing. From these basic beliefs, S would not even be able to draw any inference, so that, beside the fact that S’s basic beliefs would be logically inconsistent, S could not attain any inferential knowledge, either. Logical consistency, needless to say, is also an internal factor.
As I stated elsewhere4, at least to me, it is equally obvious that knowledge necessitates external factors. To repeat, in order for the belief that event e happened to be true, e must occur. One may feel the need to object to this that this condition does not hold for knowledge gained by introspection. For, one may argue, if the belief that p concerns an event within S’s own mind, e will , ex hypothesi, be not an external but an internal factor. In other words, in order for S to know that p, there need be only internal factors, that is to say, without any dependance on external factors. In a way, this is reminiscent of both Cartesian and global scepticism. The premise behind it is the idealist presumption that one mind could bring about each and every thing appearing to it as both internal and external to itself by its own imaginative (in the sense of ‘creative’) powers. Frankly, I see no reason to buy into this. I do not even consider it epistemically, let alone metaphysically, possible that a mind – belonging to a kind of entities I hold, by the way, to be nonexistent in the sense of a single object – could bring about all that we refer to by the expression ‘external world’. An illicit move by global scepticism (and idealism) is to infer from the facility of abstracting, which entails the epistemic possibility of something to be or not to be the case which actually is or is not the case (counterfactual situations, possible worlds), (the possibility of) unrestricted creative (epistemic or metaphysical) mental powers. It is not even clear on this account, what a mind is supposed to be. Be that as it may, in my view, we are not in the world but a part of it. Therefore, our minds, however we may specify this obscure concept, are part of the world, too. In this sense, then, there is no real difference between the so-called internal and external worlds. Each entity is part of one and the same world. As regards our thoughts, something can be only ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, ‘internal’ or ‘external’, in the physical but not in the metaphorical sense of ‘space’. Since this is a topic for the philosophy of mind, though, I shall not continue this line of thought at present but leave it instead to an elaboration to be taken through elsewhere in the future. After all, to resume the epistemological theme, from the ability to abstract from everything concrete to nothing – if we indeed be endowed with such, which I doubt – it does not follow that we are possessed of the same, seemingly overall, opposite, that is to say, epistemically or metaphysically creative, power. So in the sense of our everyday talk of minds, parenthesizing what I call a philsophic-scientific naturalistic view, in order to hold a belief with respect to one’s own mind, I take it that there needs to be something else, call it ‘external’, than the mind itself, whereto the mental event em or mental state sm relates. Therefore, knowledge can never arise due to exclusively internal factors.

3. Foundationalism vs Coherentism

Finally, I hold it to be rather trivial that each conception of knowledge necessarily needs to be coherent in some form or other. It should go without saying by now that coherence is not the same as, or reduces to, mere logical consistency.5 That a certain amount of coherence is necessary does, however, not exclude a foundation from being necessary. In fact, one of the most serious objections a pure coherentism has to face is that a perfecetly coherent system of beliefs may be cut off from any external (causal) influence, thereby leading to solipsism or global scepticism. A foundationalist analysis of knowledge, on the other hand, is not threatened by such objections. It must face, on its part, the objection that any foundational belief would turn out dogmatic, that is to say, unjustified, and therefore not knowledge, if justification be a necessary criterion for a belief to count as knowledge. Against this, I offered a sketch of a theory of levelled or layered knowledge, that is, knowledge which is structured similar to the account of the difference between macro- and microphysics.6 As I pointed out, one can know each macrophysical fact without knowing any microphysical fact whatsoever. In this sense, then, that is, if we interpret macrophysical facts as one (upper), and microphysical facts as another (lower, more basic) level or layer of knowledge, all knowledge may be structured likewise, so that no vicious regress would necessarily follow from making justification a necessary criterion for a belief to qualify as knowledge, as each level or layer may have its own foundational beliefs. Whatever the most basic level or layer may be, one need not know its foundational beliefs in order to have knowledge pertaining to the upper levels or layers. We may call knowing each level or layer ‘absolute’, but knowing only some or other level ‘relative’ knowledge – relative, that is, to a or the respective level(s) or layer(s).

1. Kant, Immanuel: Kritik der reinen Vernunft; Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag 1998; A51/B75-76.
2. Kant, Immanuel: Critique of Pure Reason; translated by Norman Kemp Smith; New York: Macmillan 1929; second edition 1933; A51/B75-76.
3. Confer: Locke, John: An Essay concerning Human Understanding; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008; Book I, Chapters II-IV; Berkeley, George: Principles of Human Knowledge; Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996, 1999; reissued 2009; Introduction, particularly sections 6-9; Hume, David: A Treatise of Human Nature; New York: Dover Publications 2003; Book I, Part I, I. Of the origins of our ideas; Hume, David: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; New York: Dover Publications 2004; Section II Of the Origin of Ideas
4.Confer my ‘Justification Under Scrutiny’: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-oX, 1. Justification and the Import of External Factors.
5. See for an elaboration upon this Bonjour, Laurence: ‘The Elements of Coherentism’ in The Structure of Empirical Knowledge; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985, pp. 87-110 and 239-241.
6. Confer my ‘Justification Under Scrutiny’: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-oX, 3. Endless Justification of Justification?.

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