When faced with questions about how one should live, most people begin by exploring answers within the settled norms and conventions that already frame their lives. The conventions we live by are familiar and thus seem right even when life throws curveballs at us, even when we swing and miss. To look for answers outside the settled habits and conventions that frame our lives seems risky because we have no way of knowing if such an adventure will be satisfying or even livable.
Of course, many people do take the risk of following an original path if the status quo is too painful or they are particularly tolerant of uncertainty, but the outcome is always speculative and lacking evidence.
Philosophy promises to solve this conundrum. Philosophy takes a step back from the norms and conventions that govern life and asks if they are justified or not. Are they mere habits thoughtlessly absorbed from one’s culture and history or are there compelling reasons to support them? If one’s way of life is found to be deficient after thoughtful analysis, philosophy promises to reason through alternatives to identify which ways of life might be more acceptable.
But does philosophy keep its promise?
Many disciplines can provide a critique of contemporary mores or social norms. Philosophy is distinctive because it does so from a broad perspective that includes metaphysics, ethics and one’s acting in the world, epistemology, and aesthetics. In other words, philosophy traffics in comprehensive worldviews. In this context, by “worldview” I mean a theory of how all dimensions of reality hang together along with an account of the role one’s own existence plays within that world, an identity that creates expectations and obligations.
Christianity is a worldview as is Marxism or nationalism. Plato’s theory of forms or Bentham’s comprehensive deployment of the principle of utility for all dimensions of life would also qualify as examples. Feminism or other liberation philosophies might also qualify. Thus, a worldview is often a nameable, extant belief system but it need not be. A worldview would be any reasonably consistent ordering of beliefs, values, sensibilities, feelings, and action tendencies based on answers to the fundamental questions of wide scope that philosophy asks.
The hope of philosophy throughout most of its history was that a proper philosophical analysis could discover an indubitable axiom or logically secure normative authority from which to derive the norms and principles that should govern our lives. God, Descartes’ principle “I think, therefore, I am,” Kant’s Categorical Imperative, or ordinary observation statements are historical examples of foundational principles that allegedly anchor our belief systems. With foundational principles in hand, we could then test the practices embedded in our way of life to see whether they meet the standard set by the axiom or normative authority. Such an approach to philosophical justification is called “foundationalism.” It has been under attack since at least the late 19th Century, and that skepticism robustly continues today especially with regard to questions of ethics. (Foundations based on empirical evidence in science invite less skepticism.)
The problem with foundationalism is that none of the candidates for a foundation have proven to be as secure as their adherents believe them to be. Furthermore, foundationalism tends to be dogmatic, ruling out alternative, legitimate claims to normative authority, oversimplifying the complexities of life in order to fit them within a conceptual system while doing violence to perspectives incompatible with the foundational principles.
The promise was not kept.
The primary alternative approach to justifying a way of life or worldview begins from within a provisional acceptance of those settled norms and attachments that already govern one’s life. We can step back and distance ourselves from a few things at a time, but we can’t call into question everything at once. To call everything into question would be to doubt the very reasons we use to generate the questions. Insight into our condition can emerge only against a background of unchallenged assumptions. The “objectivity” allegedly achieved by foundationalism, the so-called “view from nowhere,” entails that we miss that which can be known only through attachment. To understand a way of life, we have to dwell within it, and any answer to the question what one should do or be must establish the appropriate connections to prevailing norms and attachments if one’s life is to be intelligible. This approach to justification is known variously as non-foundationalism, coherentism, or reflective equilibrium. It is probably the dominant approach today although there have been powerful intellectual movements, from existentialism to feminism, cautioning that these norms we live by are already structured by oppressive forces that inhibit the promise of this approach.
However, there are several problems with non-foundationalism. If we are to begin to think about worldviews from within the form of life we have, we must accept certain judgments as provisionally true and then refine those judgments as we consider a wider range of beliefs and values. The idea is that by considering alternative perspectives, our original perspective can be corrected if it is too narrow or fails to consider relevant facts or values. But this approach is subject to the garbage-in, garbage out objection. If there is no reason other than convention or habit to rely on assumptions already embedded in our lives, our subsequent reasoning might be unduly influenced by mistaken assumptions. Can we really give alternative perspectives their due if we begin from principles that are incompatible with them? Why think commitments can be readily overturned even if they are false or harmful?
This question seems particularly relevant if we make the safe assumption that both the physical and social dimensions of our world are in constant change. If we assume that what appears sufficiently clear and distinct to serve as a provisional anchor for our reasoning must have some claim on our allegiance, will we be alive to the unending flux of things, the subtle movement of events that eventually erode the point and purpose of any actuality? For instance, think about what life was like before smart phones and computers. Why think the norms that governed social interactions in the past are up to the task of rendering life coherent today?
Furthermore, most accounts of non-foundationalism treat consensus as an important criterion. One reason why settled norms and conventions have a claim on our allegiance is that they are widely endorsed. They are not the idiosyncratic beliefs of individuals but enjoy broad and deep agreement among the groups to which we belong. Yet, the history of civilization is littered with beliefs and institutions which were invaluable at first but turned deadly as they suffer inevitable corruption. Might it be the case that what is most intelligible to us and beyond question is where the worst erosion and corruption occurs? Neglect is seldom benign. Isn’t non-foundationalism too comfortable with the assumption that what seems most settled and obvious is least susceptible to corruption? Difference constantly emerges and the stability of norms is an illusion. We need look no further than the erosion of democracy in the U.S as an example.
Even once we recognize that some of our norms or practices are not well justified, why assume that change must occur through minor or piecemeal modifications of pre-existing norms. Significant change seldom occurs from the center where people are likely to be comfortable with the status quo. Change occurs because new possibilities and capacities emerge. This requires experimentation and creativity. Yet, the intelligibility and meaning of new developments cannot be judged until their contours become clear and their features well established. The context of discovery must precede the context of justification which suggests philosophy’s over-riding concern with justification may not help manage the process of personal and social change.
I agree with the non-foundationalist that we must start from where we are. But rather than looking for a criterion such as consensus or intersubjective intelligibility regarding the habits and conventions of life, we should be asking questions about beliefs that seem unassailable even as we continue to live by them. How did they come to be? Whose interests do they serve? But most importantly, what are the alternatives? Attempts at justification are always weakened by lack of imagination. As noted, justification must come after discovery. Otherwise we are always defeated by the inertia of the status quo.
Habits and conventions are central to life. We cannot live without them. But we must become capable of a double mind—to believe and act while simultaneously reserving psychological space for doubt and uncertainty.
If philosophy is to keep its promise it will be because it teaches us to live well with uncertainty.