Non-foundationalism for the layman.
I’m reading Thomas Kuhn’s controversial classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which Kuhn put forward, among other things, the suggestion that there not be any sense in which we can say that modern science puts us closer to the truth than Aristotelian and Ptolemaic science. Kuhn rejects the kind of foundationalist epistemology that claims we can have objective certainty about our knowledge. Since intellectuals were practically required to take a position on Kuhn in the several decades after he published, I’ve been flipping through the books on my shelf to see if I can make more sense out of discussions of Kuhn the second time through.
List night I pulled down Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and found that its one reference to Kuhn was simply dripping with disdain:
So psychologists like Freud are in an impossible halfway house between science, which does not admit the existence of the phenomena he wishes to explain [i.e. consciousness], and the unconscious, which is outside the jurisdiction of science. It is a choice, so Nietzsche compellingly insists, between science and psychology. Psychology is by that very fact the winner, since science is the product of the psyche. Scientists themselves are gradually being affected by this choice. Perhaps science is only a product of our culture, which we know is no better than any other. Is science true? One sees a bit of decay around the edges of its good conscience, formerly so robust. Books like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions are popular symptoms of this condition.
-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. 200.
Bloom is contemptuous of Kuhn and other thinkers that he takes to be relativists because he takes the desire for wisdom to be the starting point of philosophy, which is for him the only truly worthy way of life. Taking non-foundationalism as a starting point — a paradoxical position, perhaps — makes mush of the yearning for truth. If the transcendentals are out of reach, why strive? A large part of the rhetorical power of Closing comes from the series of insults in the early part of the book, which Bloom designed to evoke the passion he wants to see: You have no connection to literature! You have no heroes! Your taste in music disgusts me!
But the non-academic can make good use of non-foundational thinking without doing away with the hope for the Good, the True, the Beautiful. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my reading, it’s that a good grasp on the transcendentals is hard to come by. That is to say, real access to truth, if you can get it, is either the product of immense intellectual achievement or it’s a truly precious gift, a pearl of great price. For someone who doubts her access to truth and hasn’t formally joined an intellectual tradition, a non-foundational stance is actually good way to navigate our intellectual culture, where competing conceptions of the world offer radically different answers to the question of what the world’s really like. The non-foundational stance means that the searcher puts off the task of trying to find one way of talking that explains all the other ways of talking, and instead tries to understand different speakers in their own terms. If the searcher is reflective enough to be aware of her own tradition — and searchers should be reflective in this way — then she no longer has to consider those outsider her tradition to be fools, liars, or makers of drastic mistakes.
What’s the alternative? Bloom offers a ready-made intellectual history, into which the searcher is supposed to fit other thinkers until she has time to study them on her own. Bloom wants to convince us that any thinker we come across will fit somewhere in the frame, and that we can express their thoughts and expose their errors in the language that he offers. In my experience, non-scholars who take this approach set themselves up to terribly misunderstand thinkers that don’t fit easily in the frame. While a deep and careful study of a hard-to-understand thinker could conceivably yield a real understanding of what that thinker meant to say, the non-scholar probably doesn’t have the time for such a study, and ends up with a reduced image or a bad reading of, say, Sartre or Derrida.
It is better, I think, for the non-scholar to adopt the non-foundational stance when exploring the landscape of contemporary inquiry. The layman doesn’t have to take the position that truth is always, necessarily, and forever out of reach: her non-foundational stance can and should be combined with a sincere hope that somewhere out there somebody’s getting it right.