After Epistemology: How Aquinas and Wittgenstein Can Help Philosophy Gets Its Groove Back

Aaron B. James

Philosophers are bound to have, along with a favorite philosophical hero, a favorite philosophical whipping boy. For many post-foundationalists, perhaps the favorite whipping boy is the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. But before whipping on Descartes, I should offer two caveats. First, this essay is not really about post-foundationalism, and I will try to justify why I can write a piece putatively about post-foundationalism that turns out not to be about post-foundationalism. Secondly, “post-foundationalism” is a broad term, and to what it exactly refers depends in part on who is doing the referring. Along with “post-foundationalism,” other related terms such as “nonfoundationalism” or “antifoundationalism” are often used, sometimes distinguished from “post-foundationalism,” sometimes not. Some use “post-foundationalism” to refer broadly to any account of knowledge that rejects a foundationalist model; others more specifically to one of a number of the variations of ways of talking about knowledge that does not require foundations. As J. Thiel notes, “At most, one can speak of a commitment to a style of philosophizing shared by a number of thinkers, and often in very different ways” (Nonfoundationationalism [Fortress, 1991] 1). Here, I am content to allow the term “post-foundationalism” to refer to any general philosophical approach or tendency that rejects a foundational model.

If post-foundationalism, broadly speaking, is simply any account of knowledge that rejects foundationalism, what is foundationalism? This requires a return to Descartes. Descartes 17th- century Europe was a chaotic time of social, political, and religious upheaval. In the context of such confusion, Descartes had a crisis of confidence, on the one hand, in the claims people were making, and on the other hand, the claims he was accepting to be true. For instance, he saw Protestants claim that Catholics were heretics. In turn, he saw Catholics claim that Protestants were heretics. And worst of all, both made such claims on the basis of religious authority! What was one to do in such an epistemically confusing time? Descartes’ answer was to find a sure foundation on which one could build knowledge, a foundation that depended not upon unreliable authority (my pastor against your priest), misleading experience, or even unexamined “reason.”

Though highly influential in Western culture, as well as western philosophy, what Descartes identifies as that solid foundation is unimportant for our purposes. What we want to note is the pattern, a pattern that shapes Western philosophy for several hundred years. The pattern plays off of something fairly common-sensical. Consider for a moment that we all have lots of beliefs, and we are more likely to hold true beliefs if we “ground” some less certain beliefs in more certain beliefs. For example, if I happen to believe that Bill Clinton was a president of the United States, but hold that belief solely on the grounds that my imaginary friend Rufus told me so, then even though in this instance I happen (accidentally) to be right, you would have some prudent reservations about the reasons for which I hold the belief. After all, what is to prevent my imaginary friend Rufus (who is a bit of a cut-up anyway) from telling me that Big Bird was a president of the United States? On the other hand, if I believe that Bill Clinton was a president of the United States because I was at his inauguration, then I am probably on better footing.

Foundationalism takes a fairly ordinary observation like this and expands it to an account of all of knowledge. On a foundationalist model, in order to reliably say I know something, what is important is that a belief that I hold be dependably built on other beliefs that I hold, and that the belief(s) on which that other belief depends, itself be sure. In other words, some of my beliefs are “basic” in that they need no justification. Other beliefs need to be justified—that is, I need to see how they depend upon basic beliefs. In the history of philosophy, there have been two broad approaches to this foundationalist model, one arguing that the basic beliefs that ground others are from experience, the other arguing that the basic beliefs are rationally self-evident. In any case, for our purposes, what is important to note is the pattern: foundationalism is the broad philosophical approach of justifying beliefs in such a way as to show how the belief in some way depends upon basic beliefs, beliefs that require no justification. It is important to note that this epistemological claim is fundamentally delinked from any actual community, time, or place. After all, particular communities, times, and places were precisely the problem—we need a foundation that is not subject to the shifting sands of history (Cf. S. Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity [Free, 1990] 31-35). Descartes sets the pattern that characterizes so much of modern Western philosophy: How do we ground beliefs in such a way as to have enough confidence to claim knowledge?

We must also note the presumption behind the move to timeless, certain foundations, namely, the presumption of skepticism. Note that Descartes’ project grows out of a pervasive skepticism about our beliefs, a fear that our beliefs might systematically mislead us. Because we think our beliefs might mislead us, we feel the need to “ground” them in a foundation that we can be certain of. Because of this fear, the philosophical project itself, not just particular beliefs, must be grounded in a timeless, community-less foundation on which it can build its claims. So, other philosophical inquiries, say, into ethics or metaphysics, depend ultimately on epistemology. In other words, because of a pervasive skepticism in western philosophy, epistemology becomes the fundamental philosophical discipline. Consequently, one could tenably argue that the history of Western philosophy is more or less the history of Western epistemology.

But, what if we simply reject skepticism? What if we presume a general trust, and even though certainly we will be mistaken at times, our beliefs on the whole successfully engage us in the world in which we find ourselves; and hence, reject the need for some ultimate ground of the philosophical project? This, I submit, is the deep insight of post-foundationalism. Considered a general tendency in philosophy, post-foundationalism rejects the claim that knowledge is a structure of beliefs that are fundamentally grounded in basic beliefs; and by extension, that the philosophical project more broadly conceived depends upon some sort of epistemological foundation for its success. Rejection of foundationalism frees us from the pervasive fear of skepticism because it turns our attention away from a timeless, community-less foundation, toward the particular ways we make claims in the world in which we live. Of course, rejecting foundationalism does not necessarily entail a rejection of skepticism. In fact, many who would self-identify as post-foundationalists relish the skepticism that they think follows from rejecting foundationalism. And of course, for many foundationalists my claim simply begs the question—without foundations, are we not left with skepticism? Even so, I stand by the claim, and I think this is where Aquinas and Wittgenstein can be helpful in showing us the way out of the thicket of modern western skepticism.

The conjunction of Wittgenstein and Aquinas may be a strange one to some. After all, Aquinas writes before Descartes, and roughly 700 years before Wittgenstein. So far as I can tell, Wittgenstein never read Aquinas. So there seems an obvious anachronism in considering the two together. Others have done the work of noting a family resemblance (to borrow a notion from Wittgenstein) between Aquinas and Wittgenstein (cf. D. Burrell’s Analogy and Philosophical Language [Yale University Press, 1973], H. McCabe’s On Aquinas [Continuum, 2008], or the collection of essays edited by J. Stout and R. McSwain in Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Aquinas and Wittgenstein [SCM, 2004]). Without developing the resemblance, I simply note that Aquinas and Wittgenstein provide important bookends to the modern epistemological project. As premodern and postmodern (“post-modern,” is like “post-foundationalism” a highly contested term), they both provide insights that can help us navigate our way through the thicket of modern skepticism. Of course, there is much more to be said than can be said here, but let me highlight two points, and do so briefly.

In philosophical discussions, Aquinas is generally treated as a philosopher. The selections from Aquinas’s major work Summa Theologica that appear in introductory philosophy classes, for example, are usually selections on knowledge or morality, or the arguments for God’s existence. These selections are given as discrete chunks without any context. But, as the title of his work suggests, Aquinas is fundamentally a theologian who uses philosophical tools for his theological project. This could not be more clear from the opening questions of the Summa where Aquinas states that he is doing sacred doctrine—that is, investigating God and the world under the presumption that God has revealed himself. The structure of the Summa as a whole, likewise reflects this. The Summa is structured in three major parts. Part I deals with God and God’s relationship to what he has made—the world as it is and humans in particular are investigated in the context of the doctrine of God as creator. Part II takes up, more specifically, the nature of human life as it is constituted by virtues and vices, and how human life relates to God’s governing of creation. Part III deals with the incarnation of Christ and the church and its sacraments. This overall structure is instructive, for it makes clear that Aquinas does not start with a perceived need to justify his project epistemologically. Rather, he starts with the assumption that God is, and that God is the creator God who relates in various ways to his creation, and furthermore, that God is the God who visits God’s creation in Christ and graciously works out the witness of Christ in the church. In other words, Aquinas sees no need for a general epistemological justification of his project, but rather a submission to what God is actively doing in the world.

This is a very different posture from the modern project of attempting to overcome skepticism, for it is a posture of fundamental trust, that even though sin has corrupted God’s creation, including human capacities for knowing, God has not left us in our sin, nor does our sin eradicate our ability to know God and to know God’s world. So, if as modern westerners we were to search more narrowly for Aquinas’s “epistemology,” we first must note that he does not have one. (For a different take on Aquinas, see A. Plantinga’s “Reason and Belief in God,” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader [Eerdmans, 1998] 121-32.) Rather, what Aquinas has is a theology, which engenders a context out of which he reflects on the various processes of human knowing. All of this presumes, of course, not a timeless, non-particular “system,” but a church—a time-full, traditioned way of life where trust is lived and embodied. So, for Aquinas we have not so much a rejection of modern skepticism (that would be an anachronism), but a living witness of how to go on as if God were the gracious creator of all.

Wittgenstein reminds us to pay attention to language, and more specifically the particular and time-full ways in which we actually use language to live in the world. We might say that for modern western philosophy (at least, up until the last hundred years or so) language was essentially invisible (for more on this point, see G. Hallet’s Essentialism: A Wittgensteinian Critique [SUNY Press, 1991] 126-31). Philosophers talked and wrote about all sorts of issues (though, as we have noted the fundamental issue was epistemological), but what they failed to note was that they were talking and writing; and that the language they use to talk and write about these weighty issues is language that is most at home in the everyday tasks of working, eating, playing, loving, and so on. Wittgenstein was convinced that so many of the knots in which philosophers found themselves bound could be loosed by attention to language at work. “Back to the rough ground!” Wittgenstein exclaimed, by which he meant the turning of our attention to the ways language functioned in life (cf. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, § 107). Attention to language would not solve philosophical problems; it would dissolve them. Attention to language would not give us a better analytic argument against skepticism. Rather, it would help us note that apart from any theory we simply engage the world successfully. Whether we can “ground” it or not, we do love our children, know our birthdays, eat ice cream, negotiate treaties, and the like. Of course, we make mistakes. And, of course, we do not always agree with one another. But in those instances what is required is not a general theory of knowledge, but friendship, friendship in order to argue well with one another, and, friendship in order to correct and sharpen one another.

I said at the beginning that this essay was not really about post-foundationalism. And of course, although I gave a brief description of foundationalism, what has been lacking throughout the essay is a careful description of post-foundationalism with an accompanying argument for it. Furthermore, were one to select representative thinkers in regard to post-foundationalism, while Wittgenstein might be on the list, Aquinas would certainly not be. This lacuna and strange selection is intentional. For I am convinced that in its best moments, post-foundationalism does not offer us better ways of conceiving of knowledge. This would be to find ourselves still trapped by the terms coined by modern western epistemology. Rather, it reminds us that epistemology is not the fundamental discipline. Indeed, while clarification and analysis are absolutely essential to any argument, in order for the argument to get off the ground it requires so much more than an epistemological tool or theory. It requires a shared way of life; it requires shared practices that give sense to the claims and reasons of the argument; it requires attention to one another and our shared communities. In short, rather than a timeless, community-less theory of knowledge, it requires friendship; and the repeated adjective “shared” ought to remind us that this friendship requires grace, not epistemology.

Posted Apr 01, 2009