James F. Sennett, “Direct Justification and Universal Sanction,” Journal of Philosophical Research, XXIII (1998), 257-87.
A little while ago one of my readers, Silver Bullet, gave me a copy of this paper by James Sennett and asked me my opinion on Sennett’s argument. I promised to write an article in reply and so here it is.
The core issue concerns the means by which we identify those beliefs which are properly basic (i.e. beliefs which do not depend on other beliefs for their justification). This is an important question because the distinction between properly basic and properly non-basic beliefs is really the difference between those beliefs which don’t require evidence in order to be justified (properly basic) and those which do require evidence in order to be justified (properly non-basic).
By the way, in his paper Sennett uses the term “direct justification” instead of “properly basic” and “indirect justification” instead of “properly non-basic.”
Sennett observes that there is no agreement among epistemologists on just which beliefs are properly basic such that they do not require evidence in order to be justified. He explains:
“Though foundationalists are united on the existence of directly justified beliefs, they are notoriously divided on the nature of such beliefs, as well as the necessary and sufficient conditions for direct justification. Theories have run the gamut from those so narrow as to compel skepticism to those so broad as to compel a very counterintuitive relativism.” (258)
The position often called “classical foundationalism” or “strong foundationalism” is representative of the position so narrow as to compel skepticism. On this view a belief is only justified if it is self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses. This is a very narrow and restrictive set of criteria for proper basicality, so narrow that many epistemologists believe a consistent application of its principles would land one in the above-mentioned skepticism.
So Sennett is keen to avoid the danger of a collapse into the skepticism of strong foundationalism. But he is equally keen to avoid the dangers of what he calls “a very counterintuitive relativism”. So who ends up as a relativist on Sennett’s criteria? You might expect to find somebody like Richard Rorty here. But instead Sennett provides as an example of counterintuitive relativism everybody’s favorite Dutch Calvinist philosopher, Alvin Plantinga (261). Sennett observes that on Plantinga’s view we set aside a priori, stipulative criteria as a way to determine in advance which beliefs can count as properly basic. Instead, we take an inductive approach toward proper basicality by observing which beliefs are held as properly basic within a doxastic community and we use those as our starting point for critical reflection on just what proper basicality is and thus which beliefs constitute that set.
Those who are familiar with my modest work in this area will know I am a defender of Plantinga’s approach. With that in mind, I must say that Sennett’s setting up of the issue strikes me as an example of the golden mean fallacy. This fallacy is borne of the mistaken idea that truth is likely to be found in the compromise between two extremes. Of course sometimes it is. But then sometimes it isn’t. If the “extremes” of parental corporal punishment are beating your children to death and never laying a hand on them, it doesn’t follow that the “middle course” of beating them only to the point of bruising is the advisable golden mean of good discipline.
By the same token, I am rankled by the suggestion that an a posteriori approach to proper basicality, one that takes into account the inescapable role that doxastic frameworks play in belief formation, is necessarily on the margin of an extreme “counterintuitive relativism”. On the contrary, sometimes the so-called extremes have things exactly right.
In part 2 I’ll turn to address Sennett’s proposed golden mean, the criterion of universal sanction, and I’ll show why it is not such a golden alternative after all.