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The SEP article on metaphysical grounding says of the history of the topic:

There are interesting and difficult questions about grounding, its history, and what its relationship to the history of philosophy is. On one view, the notion of grounding is old, perhaps as old as philosophy itself, with many of its most important thinkers engaging with questions related to grounding. On another view, the notion of grounding is decidedly new—it’s a recent development in contemporary analytic metaphysics. ... Ultimately, however, it seems that the “Is grounding old or new?” question should give way to nuanced and text-based discussions of structural similarities and causal continuities between specific thinkers. As this entry will make clear, contemporary figures don’t fully agree on the concept of grounding. Hence, it seems that there is little to be gained by asking whether thus-and-so historical figures used the same notion as the contemporary figures, as the contemporary figures aren’t using the same notion themselves!

Both that SEP entry and the one on fundamentality have sections about well-foundedness.E And there is not so much difference between, "A is the foundation of B," "A grounds B," and, "A is fundamental to B." The appearance of the old-or-new question turns, it seems, on an uptake in the use of the word "grounding" in this context, then. Was this because of analytic philosophy's "romantic relationship with" science? Like, from talk of electricity being grounded to talk of ground states in quantum physics, or even grounding-talk in set theory, do we have the newfangled inspiration for analytic philosophy to start obsessing over the word "grounding"?

Or, to be less mean about it: is there an indispensability argument from grounding-talk in science to grounding-talk in metaphysics, and this argument (subconscious or not) is what explains/justifies analytic philosophy's peculiar concern for this terminology?


EIt might be objected that the SEP articles in question do prise apart grounding-talk from the scheme of well-foundation. However, drop the "well-" part and then nothing else is lost to the equation of, "A grounds B," and, "B is founded upon A." For if this were not so, then we would not distinguish, "A is unfounded," from, "A is ill-founded"; so likewise, we can distinguish between talk of being grounded in general, and talk of being well-grounded more specifically (and this latter seems equivalent to well-foundation).


EDIT 2: in quantum physics, the ground state is a vacuum, and the dependence of the nature of the world on this being a true or false/stable or unstable (metastable?) vacuum is such that they say that the laws of physics would be transformed by a false-vacuum collapse. So it is as if to say that the world is grounded in, or founded upon, the "void." If Heideggerian grounding-talk is also at stake, then what overlap there is between the image of quantum vacua and "Being and Nothing" might not be slight.

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  • it's weird how you make your footnotes look small when you think of them. +1 anyway!
    – andrós
    Commented May 28 at 10:37
  • I don't see the connection. Has any philosopher who used the term "grounding" in a metaphysical sense alluded back to to the QM sense of the term as an inspiration or analogy? I doubt it. Commented May 28 at 11:27
  • I doubt it has anything to do with physical ground states, Heidegger and other continentals, who cannot be suspected of being "romantic" with science, used it too. The uptick is likely related to disenchantment with both supervenience and reductions, it is a middle path. I posted an answer about it some years ago. "Founding" is not specific to connotations of the current context and would not do as a term.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 28 at 11:30

2 Answers 2

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If Etymonline's article on 'grounding' is to be believed, 'grounding' as a term for arguments goes back to the 14th century with potential roots back into Old English. From the article:

mid-13c., "to put on the ground, to strike down to the ground;" late 14c., "lay the foundation of," also, figuratively, "to base" (an argument, sermon, etc.), from ground (n.). Meaning "instruct thoroughly in the basics" is from late 14c. Of ships, "to run into the ground," from mid-15c. (intransitive), transitive sense from 1650s. Of arms, from 1711. Electrical sense from 1881. Meaning "deny privileges" is 1940s, originally a punishment meted out to pilots (in which sense it is attested from 1930). In the sense "establish firmly" Old English had grundweallian, grundstaðelian; also gryndan "descend," gegryndan "to found."

Clearly, an electrical ground state comes 400 years after the sense we use in philosophy. I would suggest this makes sense because "laying the foundation of an argument" is a metaphor for the beginning stages of building an edifice or structure and thus is metaphorical. Intuitively, grounding of meaning or argument appeals to the intuitions that a building without a good foundation will not stand, quite literally.

For instance, Robert Audi makes deliberate and extensive use of the metaphor in several of his works. In particular, The Architecture of Reason (GB) (one of my go-to's on rationality) he explicitly discusses the metaphor. He then goes on to explain the core tenets of the theory he presents in the first two chapters before moving forward. Thus, any similarities drawn that exceed this notion of metaphor would seem to be from commonalities between electrical thinking and architectural thinking, or stem from a very imaginative brain, conceivability being an important skill in philosophy naturally.

Thus, from your own citation:

Ultimately, however, it seems that the “Is grounding old or new?” question should give way to nuanced and text-based discussions of structural similarities and causal continuities between specific thinkers.

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to in specific cases, consider certain hair-splitters may directly be inspired by QM in the development of their idiolect. Such claims, however, would not apply in the general case, as it seems the intuitive power of the metaphor is a much more likely motivation for use, and that any specific claims for any specific thinker would need to be supported with historical evidence.

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  • I did review Conifold's answer, and he seems, as your clip of the article suggests, seem to fall into the other camp, that using 'grounding' at least as jargon, is a more recent development. That seems to me to introduce hair-splitting (as philosophers are wont to do) with the notion of introducing philosophical distinctions and problems where none really exist, a fact much maligned by ordinary language philosophers. I would think relevant to your personal experience, it might be seen as apophenia, which isn't a slight, but offer of mechanism.
    – J D
    Commented May 28 at 14:29
  • You know, I often reread questions and answers multiple times (partially because it's a weak compulsion) and feel the need to fill in gaps. I would say this, in addition. Ground in electrical terminology literally comes from the ground, where electrical grounds are buried or in contact with the earth or are part of the earthing system. Ground state in QM is more like a metaphor with the ground floor in a building (traditionally no floors below), and the grounding that Conifold references is an improvement over supervenience as a theoretical...
    – J D
    Commented May 28 at 19:01
  • relation (and has some coverage in the SEP's Supervenience). That's in addition to grounding as in the sense of arguments. I see such polysemy as empirical evidence of the utility of the conceptual metaphor. If you think about it, billions of years of evolution have been required to get us to successfully cope with gravity, and the relationship between grounding and gravity is immensely important conceptually, quite literally for survival. I guess I'd offer that as...
    – J D
    Commented May 28 at 19:07
  • a theoretical framework in which to explain the polysemy of grounding. In addition, one sees expressions like "down-to-earth", "ground facts", and "cover a lot of conceptual ground" to show how central the notion of literal and metaphorical ground is to our thinking.
    – J D
    Commented May 28 at 19:10
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Ground states in QM are simply minimum energy states, so there isn't, as far as I can see, a literal or metaphoric link with the use of the word 'ground' to mean the justification or basis for an argument or a belief. Ground, in the QM sense, just means as low as you can go.

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  • I'm talking about metaphysical grounding, which is supposed to be somewhat distinct from grounds-of-arguments. The role played by a quantum vacuum, in the overarching scheme, seems equivalent to that of a fundamental ground of things, just less abstract (more or less). Or then the role played by symmetry considerations in the grounding of physics comes to mind, too. Commented May 29 at 0:31
  • Understood, and many thanks for the correction! Commented May 29 at 5:18

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