Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Defense of Strong Foundationalism

Here's a positive article by Tim McGrew, which, as one can guess, purports to defend strong foundationalism. One can also find a more worked-up version of this in the fourth reading in Part V of The Theory of Knowledge: Classic and Contemporary Readings.


Anonymous David Gadbois said...

Mr. PP,

I am happy to count myself as one of the 37.42 readers who greatly appreciates the disproportionate amount of effort and insight you give to such a small audience.

However, I am still a little unsure at just what stake we have in defending Foundationalism as evangelicals. (I had posted this same equestion in the Ntrmin areopagus before it went on the fritz).

Most Reformed Christians today are not Foundationalists, and I am not sure that you could even accuse earlier figures such as Charles Hodge (hey, didn't he write an article once that TGE is fond of?) of being uncritically reliant on Foundationalism, as TGE's original article states. Would ANY broadly evangelical exegetes call themselves foundationalists?

Most in the Reformed camp either hold to some form of VanTilian Presuppositionalism (especially Poythress, following much of Frame's elaborations) or Plantigan Reformed Epistemology (although I know of no exegetes who are self-consciously reliant on Plantinga in their methods). From what I have gleaned, even White and Svendsen have sympathies with the Pressup school.

So why are we interested in defending Foundationalism? Our Anglican friend, Dr. Tim, obviously has a stake here, but I am not sure that modern (confessing) evangelicalism at large or its interpretive methods and conclusions do, simply because TGE's broad assertions somehow clump together Descartes, Charles Hodge, and (by implication) James White and the rest of us modern evangelical gnostic sectarian heretics.

Notice that TGE's original article only cites a SECONDARY SOURCE to make the link between the "Princeton theologians" and foundationalism. And it seems that he didn't even consult the secondary source itself - Marsden's book is cited BY CLAPP. Again, no specifics to back up this charge. Based upon one "expert testimony" alone, he feels that it is safe to conclude that "American Protestants adopted foundationalism in the form of radicalizing the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura." Is this what passes for academic rigor at New St. Andrews College? How embarrassing.

As a VanTilian, I can say that there is much that Foundationalism can teach us that is true and good(as we would expect with the reality of Common Grace), but biblical presuppositionailsm is SYSTEMICALLY antithetical to Foundationalism, as it is to all unbelieving philosophies. We expect some overlap here on particulars, but we cannot be criticized for the sins of Foundationalism.

I could just as easily make such a facile argument against TGE.

1.TGE is a pomo.
2.Derrida is a/the father of pomo
3.Derrida sucks (is intellectually disrespectable)
4.therefore pomo sucks
5.therefore TGE sucks


On a related note, I should also mention that TGE seems to think that epistemological concerns alone justify his "Reformed catholicism" project. If we would just adopt his epistemology, then his dogma and biblical interpretation fall right into place, right? Ludicrous. Notice that he will never actually follow through with his epistemology (which he really does not positively develop anyway) to address specific doctrinal or exegetical issues (beyond, of course, non sequitur bare assertions). Even if we get on the same page epistemologically, that doesn't automatically mean I will find baptismal justification in Acts (per Owen) or conclude that Rome is a true church. Ironically, it is the pomo TGE who seems to assume (in practice, not formally) that all things can be deduced from a set of meta principles.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005 3:41:00 PM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

Hello David: I'll try to answer your question with a thread instead, either tonight or tomorrow. It'll relieve me of having to think about the topic for the next thread!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005 3:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...


PP can answer for himself, but since I wrote the piece he's linked to, I'll give it a whack.

I think you're using the term "foundationalism" in a non-standard way. It isn't an apologetic program -- not a rival of Montgomery's evidentialism or van Til's presuppositionalism, for example.

Plantinga's epistemology is foundationalist in structure, though it is externalist with respect to warrant.

As for the "stake" that evangelicals have in defending foundationalism, I think the answer is that in one sense they have no stake in it and in another sense they have a considerable stake in it.

Sense 1: Foundationalism, which is an epistemological position rather than a practical method of doing something, needn't concern most people at all. They can and should just do good work in their fields. If the foundationalists are right, that good work will turn out to have a foundationalist structure. But it is no more important for a pastor or an exegete to be self-conscious about this than it is for a driver to be concentrating on the details of oxidation reactions as he maneuvers his car through traffic.

Sense 2: Lots of attacks on perfectly reasonable ways of thinking have been rolled together under the heading of the Failure of Foundationalism (or the Failure of Enlightenment Rationalism, or some other such portentious phrase). These attacks are desperately confused, but they are also (typically) couched in an obscure terminology that leaves the uninitiated reader feeling like he is simply not smart enough to follow something this complex and had better acquiesce quickly so as to seem smart and savvy.

Here's an example, from Joel Garver's review of D. A. Carson's criticisms of postmodernism:

I frankly don't know what Carson means by the phrase "objective truth," but as that phrase is typically understood within modernist philosophy, it refers to a theory of truth in which the world and the mind are regarded as externally and extrinsically related to one another so that the world is objectified under the scrutinizing gaze of instrumental reason and registers in the consciousness through mental representations that passively appear there in mirror-like correspondence with it.

Does Carson believe that? ... I should think not. But in that case he rejects "objective truth" as well.

Now insofar as I understand what Garver thinks is so horrible, it's something like this (my paraphrase):

To believe in objective truth is to believe that in at least some important respects the world is the way it is regardless of what you think of it. [If you think Bill Clinton is still president in 2005, you're wrong, and your thought doesn't change the facts.] We recognize truths about lots of things -- baseballs, pizzas, people -- largely in virtue of seeing them, which involves having experiences that represent them and some of their relationships to us. [So when I see that there's a pizza in the box, it's in virtue of my having the experiences that represent the pizza and the box to me.]

This is still confused -- in the second half it's slipping over from the nature of truth to the nature of empirical knowledge -- but it's a heck of a lot clearer than the obfuscatory original.

And it doesn't sound half as bad. In fact, the revised paragraph sounds like it's telling us some obviously correct things about the nature of empirical knowledge.

Now, the postmodern anti-foundationalists are using jargon-laden "arguments" (I use the word advisedly) like this in order to get people to abandon fairly straightforward common sense. And they're claiming that what they're doing is undermining (or deconstructing) "foundationalism."

In that sense, everybody ought to be concerned to defend "foundationalism."

Does that help?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005 5:31:00 PM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

David --- Tim has answered your main question about what stake there is in defending foundationalism in his usual capable fashion.

You didn't ask this explicitly, but I'll state my reasons for putting up the McGrew piece:

(1) It provides a positive argument for a position that has come under fire, and I try to put some positive things up every now and then.

(2) I wanted to provide an example of substantive philosophy as compared to a lot of the drek that is out there.

(3) The article was relevant to the entire kerfluffle, and it was good posting material. [Or did you want to hear more about Wyoming?!]

By the way, my PhD is in statistics, not philosophy. That I've been a co-author on a thing or two with a real philosopher such as Tim still doesn't push me into the ranks where I can speak with the same condescending and hectoring tone as, say, an Enloe. But, as should be the case with anybody, degrees or not, I can spot [or hope to spot] bad arguments when I see them.

I first got interested in pomo'ism back in graduate school, because it made very triumphalistic claims and it happened to be the hot thing in humanities-related fields. Even in grad school I found a lot of silly pretentiousness in humanities-related items. I wondered if there was something to it.

Well, in talking, interacting, and actually attempting to read some of the po-mo canon, I came to the conclusion that postmodernism really does two things: (i) spout jargon-heavy abstract gibberish, and (ii) utter trite truths that were already known, but the pomo's uttering them had this really annoying [to me, at least] affectation that they were making some oracular pronouncement whose profundity was sublime.

Much of the pomo stuff I've seen [which may or may not be representative of the corpus of literature] tries to push itself up at the expense of "Modernism" or "The Enlightenment" or some sort of caricatured boogeyman. Also, I see within the Church itself a call to replace our old, stale, outdated, [insert pejorative adjective here] exegesis or approach with something new, relevant, modern, hip, trendy, [insert a marketing adjective here!]. And then out comes the pseudointellectual jargon designed to impress, but when you try to hold people to terms and arguments or just a logically flowing argument, you get all sorts of silly responses.
One response I've gotten multiple times is that asking for evidence indicates a thrall to modernism!

I can't prove or argue that pomo exegesis is poor, alethically challenged, etc, because I have yet to see any substantial demonstrations of exactly what pomo exegesis actually is. [All I've seen are these very sweeping claims that grammatical-historical exegesis is lacking.] As for pomo ministry, that too means completely different things to completely different people --- for some, it means emphasizing the fuzzy-wuzzy parts of Christianity to the detriment of the harder-to-swallow parts, and for others, it means a functional relativism that exists no matter how much the protaganist demurs. So, I've come to the conclusion, which is fairly firmly held by now [though I'd like to think I'm still open to being changed] that "postmoderism" --- that amorphous blob that intersects philosophy, exegesis, ministry, etc --- is nothing more than a somewhat fashionable affectation.

If people won't define terms, won't support their arguments, and make sweeping sensationalist claims about whatever, you don't need a PhD in critical studies to see that the emperor, if not completely naked, is not wearing much more than a Speedo thong.

I rambled pretty badly there, but I mean exactly what I say.

As for your comment about rigor at Tim Enloe's NSA college, I can't answer either way. I've checked out the NSA website, and I'm favorably disposed to their big idea on things. I'm in no position to say if Enloe's writings are his own private writings, or the product of a certain sort of education conditioning that can be solidly traced back to NSA.

Anyway, I can catch myself rambling again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005 6:45:00 PM  
Anonymous David Gadbois said...

Dr. Tim,

Thanks much for the comments.

Actually, I was using "presuppositionalism" in a non-standard way. Most Vantilians (such as John Frame, perhaps his chief expositor) have come to see Vantil's epistemology (which undergirded his apologetic method)as being his most important contribution. This is why Vantilians have expounded his work and applied it to the exegetical task (Poythress), political philosophy (Bahnsen and the theonomists), economics (Gary North), etc. So "Vantilian Presuppositionalism" is sometimes referring to an epistemology. Conversely, "Reformed Epistemology" (Plantinga, Kelly James Clark) often can refer to the apologetic method (see "Five Views on Apologetics", ed. Cowan)

I think I understand your points (I am an aerospace engineer, not a philosopher!). In (Sense 1) you seem to be making a similar point to what I was saying, when I criticized TGE for basically substituting epistemology for practical fields of study. If we just adopt TGE's epistemology, then that settles the debate on, say, exegetical methods and conclusions.

However, I think you would agree that very often (although not always, as I think you are saying) we DO have to be self-conscious about our epistemology in, say, exegetical studies. Especially when those with competing epistemologies challenge our studies. This is not to say that epistemology REPLACES the study. Most exegetes I have read I do not think would consider an "epistemological position" to be as compartmentalized from "practical method" as I think you are suggesting. VanTilians, especially, would tell you that the Bible has much to say about epistemology.

To put it another way, let me use your car analogy. What if we wanted our car to go faster? Or perhaps we hear a weird sound in the engine. Perhaps we even want our car to beat another car to the finish line. Whatever. Then perhaps we need to look into this business about oxidation reactions a bit more?



I was not suggesting anything negative about New St. Andrews. I asked it in the form of a question, because I really do not think they would stamp "A+" on TGE's article if he submitted it. Nonetheless, it is embarrassing for any institution when a product of that institution puts out work like that.

I understand your reasoning for putting up the article. No doubt, Foundationalism can supply us with good arguments against pomos, but I would be careful to make sure that we do not defend Foundationalism, per se, just because we want to give pomos a wedgie.

While they were contemporares of Descartes, I think it is hard to charge the Westminster divines and Francis Turretin with being dependent on his foundationalism. Yet how far, really, do modern Presbyterians diverge in theology or exegesis from them? Did Hodge and Berkhof make a left turn from their positions? Has Steve Hays, David King, Joseph Pipa, Mike Horton, R.C. Sproul Jr., J. Ligon Duncan, Robert Godfrey, Westminster West, Mississippi Valley Presbytery, and other Federal Vision/Reformed catholicism skeptics all stalled in the carpool lane together, [switching analogy here] poisoned by secondhand Descartes imbibed in seminaries where their systematic theologies were required reading?

Thursday, July 14, 2005 1:55:00 PM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

David ---

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I'm *not* "Reformed" in the specialized sense of the meaning. I'm probably a hodge-podge of orthodox Lutheranism and conservative Presbyterianism, if you can imagine such a brew.

I can only meaningfully deal with Reformed issues insofar as they're also broadly-defined Christian issues. Thus, you won't see any Aubrun Avenue posts here, for example!

I can't answer your question on Hodge because I studied Pieper's Lutheran dogmatics instead! Right now, I'm a "mere Christian," sort of denomination-free, so I can't speak with any definiteness on Reformed theology by the likes of Hodge, Berkhof, Sproul, etc.

Steve Hays would be the guy to ask these questions to, if he has the time.

Thursday, July 14, 2005 2:57:00 PM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

David --- I don't know if I'm reading too much into your words, but I'm not adopting foundationalism or trumpeting it because of its purported wedgie-inducing capabilities into a despised group, such as po-mo's.

All that matters in the end is whether, broadly speaking, foundationalism is actually true.
If so, then we have to accept it regardless of the consequences; if not, it would be silly to hold it merely because it let us poke at pomo types.

If this sounds trite, my apologies!

Thursday, July 14, 2005 2:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...


Thanks for the response. In some ways, it leaves me more confused than before; in others it helps me better to see where you're coming from.

First at the risk of exposing my ignorance (which is pretty vast) -- which Westminster divines were contemporaries of Descartes?

Second, I'm not sure that checking your exegetical car in at the epistemological garage is going to make it go faster, but if it does, it almost certainly won't be because the conceptual mechanic gives you a lecture about foundationalism. What's far more likely to do some good is more down-to-earth advice: learn your languages, keep context in mind, take genre into consideration, don't ignore counter-evidence, etc.

I'm not very familiar with presuppositionalism as a global theory of knowledge; I just read Van Til, Frame, Bahnsen, Notaro and a few others back in the late 1980's and then lost interest in it. I hope it didn't get developed along the lines Notaro laid out in Van Til and the Use of Evidence, however, since I think that sort of Kuhnian "paradigm" talk leads to epistemic relativism. You can find my critique of this aspect of Kuhn in the Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy 2 (May, 1994).

Thursday, July 14, 2005 5:32:00 PM  
Anonymous David Gadbois said...

Dr Tim,

Well, the Westminster assembly, starting in 1643, approved the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647, and the assembly seems to have stopped meeting in 1652, though was never officially dissolved. Descartes died in 1650. I, myself, was unsure about the details, so I had to look this up on wikipedia.com

This section was directed more towards PP, not you, since it deals more with the theological side. I was just pointing out that one cannot lump Descartes with modern Reformed theologians if modern Reformed theology is basically the same thing as post-Calvin-pre-Princeton (and thus pre-Foundationalist) brand Reformed theology.

Frame's "Doctrine of the Knowledge of God" (1989) and "Cornelius VanTil: An Analysis of His Thought" (1995?) are probably the best treatments of Vantil's thought as it relates to epistemology. His very recent "Doctrine of God" also has chapters devoted to it, as theology proper illuminates and relates to epistemological concerns.

I have not seen Notaro's book quoted by Vantilians recently. Poythress (Frame's scholastic soul brother- http://www.frame-poythress.org ) has been more recently influential with his writings on hermeneutics and mathematics (in which he has a PhD). I have seen him apply some of Kuhn's ideas in "Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation", but no one is going to call him a Kuhnian.

Thursday, July 14, 2005 6:47:00 PM  
Anonymous David Gadbois said...

If I get this right, Kuhn was also interested in the pressuposition-method-conclusion relationships in science and various fields of study, but he would not, as a Vantilian, "start" with Christian (or perhaps, any) presuppositions - the Christian worldview and revelation en toto - to ground his project in. Nor did he have any use in transcendental arguments to prove such presuppositions.

Thursday, July 14, 2005 7:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...


If I thought the transcendental arguments worked, I would be more interested in the question. But I'm convinced that they don't.

Good thing that Christianity can be defended empirically, the way Luke and Paul did it!


Friday, July 15, 2005 6:07:00 AM  

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