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Introduction | Agrippa's Trilemma
Introduction Back to Top

Foundationalism is the theory in Epistemology that beliefs can be justified based on basic or foundational beliefs (beliefs that give justificatory support to other beliefs). These basic beliefs are said to be self-justifying or self-evident, and do not need to be justified by other beliefs, being an inherently different kind of belief than a non-foundational one. Thus, a belief is epistemically justified either if it is justified by a basic belief or beliefs, or if it is justified by a chain of beliefs that is supported by a basic belief, and on which all the others are ultimately based.

Anti-Foundationalists (like Nietzsche and Foucault) have used logical or historical/genealogical attacks to refute foundational concepts. Other doctrines such as Coherentism, Foundherentism and Reformed Epistemology were developed as alternatives to Foundationalism.

Agrippa's Trilemma Back to Top

Foundationalism is justified by its proponents on the grounds that some set of epistemologically basic propositions must exist, or else the process of justification will always lead to Agrippa's Trilemma, which ends in either an infinite regress, a dogmatic stopping point, or a circular argument, none of which are logically valid.

Agrippa's Trilemma (also known as Münchhausen-Trilemma, after Baron Münchhausen who allegedly pulled himself out of a swamp by his own hair) argues that all of the three possible attempts to obtain a certain justification must necessarily fail:

  • All justifications of certain knowledge have also to justify the means of their justification and in doing so they have to justify anew the means of their justification (an infinite regress).
  • One can use a circular argument to justify knowledge, but this then sacrifices its validity.
  • One can stop at self-evidence or common sense or fundamental principles, etc, but in doing so the justification will not be certain.

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