||The idea that there exist fixed, indubitable, and final foundations that guarantee the truth of a given claim to knowledge. Foundationalism is most associated with western philosophy, and its historical quest for epistemological certainty; that is, the search for a set of philosophical criteria that if found delineate iron-clad from spurious knowledge. Failure to find such criteria produces, as Bernstein (1983) calls it, the \'Cartesian Anxiety\' (after the seventeenth-century French philosopher RenÃ© Descartes, 1596-1650). This is the fear that by not locating foundations we are doomed to a world of \'intellectual and moral chaos, radical scepticism, and self defeating relativism\' (Bernstein, 1992, p. 17).
Many of philosophy\'s \'isms\', including a large number proposed within the last hundred years or so (e.g. critical rationalism; logical positivism; Marxism; phenomenology; realism; and structuralism) are foundationalist in that they designate \'certain sorts of representations, certain expressions, certain processes a[s] â€œbasicâ€, â€œprivilegedâ€, and â€œfoundationalâ€\' (Rorty, 1979, pp. 318-19). Those foundational terms, in turn, are the touchstones for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate knowledge: legitimate knowledge makes reference to them, thereby guaranteeing that the acquired knowledge mirrors the world, while illegitimate knowledge does not. For example, under (logical) positivism all meaningful statements are either synthetic or analytic; with these two foundational terms, logical positivists are able to scrutinize any statement and assess its validity. Or again, Marxism in its classical form reduces the explanation of all social, cultural and political events to the foundation of economic relations (a position known as economism). This second example brings out the close relationship between reductionism and foundationalism. Reductionism means the strategy of explaining a phenomenon or event by determining its fundamental cause, which is usually not immediately apparent. In this sense, the cause to which the event of phenomena is reduced is foundational; it is the very basis of the phenomena or event in question.
Running parallel historically to foundationalism has been a counterpunctual movement that in different forms has sought to deflate foundationalism\'s inflated claims. In brief, the criticism is that all foundational claims to truth are circular because by definition the only guarantor of the foundation selected is the foundation itself. Instead, argue the critics, we should see foundationalist philosophies as no more than particular social practices arising out of given historically and geographically contingent conditions, with no more justification than any other social practice. In recent years, perhaps the best known critic of foundationalism in philosophy is Richard Rorty (1979), although he freely acknowledges his debt to other twentieth-century philosophers, especially those working within the Continental European tradition (cf. pragmatism). For Rorty (1979, Part 3) philosophy should be \'edifying\' or \'therapeutic\' rather than architectonic â€” constructing foundationalist systems to know everything. The central task is not to fabricate foolproof methods (for they will always be nothing other than fabrications), but to understand how life is led in the absence of foundations. For Rorty, denying foundations is both scary and liberating: scary because we live life without a safety net, and liberating because it returns us to a Ptolemaic universe where humans are at the centre. We decide our fate.
Rorty\'s anti-foundationalism resonates with a range of post-structural and postmodernist writers who also proffer anti-foundationalism, such as Derrida who makes use of deconstruction, and Foucault who practises discourse analysis. In addition, there are a number of feminist theorists who contend that foundationalism is frequently used as a front for masculinist theory, and therefore represents at best the interests of only half the world. Similarly, many post-colonial writers argue that foundationalism continues to legitimize various forms of imperialism and the maintenance of a subaltern class. Given the recent move by some in geography towards a post-structural sensibility, there is increasing awareness of foundationalism as an epistemological issue (Gregory, 1994). Demeritt (1994), though, is one of the few geographers to work it through systematically and substantively, in his case, in writings about ecology and nature.Â (TJB)
References Bernstein, R.J. 1983: Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics, and praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Â Bernstein, R.J. 1992: The new constellation: the ethical political horizons of modernity/postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Â Demeritt, D. 1994: Ecology, objectivity and critique in writings on nature and human societies. Journal of Historical Geography 20: 22-37.Â Gregory, D. 1994: Geographical imaginations. Oxford: Blackwell.Â Rorty, R. 1979: Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Suggested Reading Bernstein (1983), ch. 1.Â Demeritt (1994).