Philosophy is metaphysics. If we don't understand metaphysics then we don't understand philosophy. If we don't have the foundation in place we can only build sand-castles. I feel you are misunderstanding both metaphysics and philosophy, You can complain about both but you can't separate them and endorse just one.

It is comment by PeterJ in my previous question.

I decided to create new topic because of interesting thing that troubles me. My experience gives me hint that building sand-castles is the only thing that humans do and matters to them. And it is not good or bad, it is ok, it is fun.

The first question. Why do we need any foundations at all? Does it not depend on human to have or not to have them? Is it not possible to live without them?

Better to say a starting point is needed for human, as he can choose and change its position.

Wikipedia says that metaphysics tries to answer some questions like:

  • What is there?

  • And what is it like?

But I personally cannot give any answer to those questions. They make no sense to me. I do not know what is there. For example, I see myself as:

  • some thing of many little things that is grouped together by some pattern ( cells, molecules, other elementary particles, waves, electric currents, transfer of energy, etc.)
  • husband
  • member of society
  • member of subsociety1, subsociety2, subsociety3, etc.
  • programmer
  • entrepreneur
  • son
  • etc.

I reason that there is "something" out there. "Something" is interpreted by my mind with labels it has. Philosophy helps to create new labels. Philosophy gives methodology how to create new framework of thinking, arranging and rearranging labels.

The second question. Instead of asking what is there maybe it is better to ask what we can do with those "lego bricks" we feel by our senses? And instead of what is it like maybe it is better to ask if we humans have limits on inventing things?

  • 2
    Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. Our policy is one question per post, and broad questions such as yours are not really suitable for our format. The response is an entire philosophical subject, and learning about it is best started by reading articles in online encyclopedias rather than asking here, e.g. IEP's Foundationalism. We take more pointed questions that come up after general reading, and can be answered within reasonable space.
    – Conifold
    Nov 20, 2018 at 21:20
  • We can't read your mind as to why you don't feel any foundation is necessary. Maybe to move towards something answerable, you could ask why does Descartes think a foundation is necessary? (substitute a thinker you like for Descartes).
    – virmaior
    Nov 21, 2018 at 5:39
  • Foundations are needed to build bigger, it is not good or bad, it is just part of building sandcastles. - Science cannot exist without a framework of "how can we know things", that is Epistemology. Before you can make rules for epistemology, you must know "what things can be known", this is Ontology
    – christo183
    Nov 21, 2018 at 6:21
  • I appreciate for all your responses and answers. I see how it is important trying to be precise and use appropriate terms. I will ponder and after some time give you some comments.
    – Dimitry
    Nov 21, 2018 at 10:21
  • 1
    @christo183 It is questionable that epistemology involves metaphysics in the sense of ontology. Actually, the most interesting epistemologies of the past 250 years have been agnostic regarding ontology. It is important to answer the question what we can know and what we cannot know, but we can easily omit an answer to the question whether what we (do not) know also exists in the fundamental sense of ontology.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 8, 2018 at 12:57

6 Answers 6


Classical philosophy holds true that there are two things that could be taken as foundations :

  • Time/Space : Sentient being must be able to observe changes, otherwise it would live in singularity and not be sentient at all. Changes of course involve time and space (this happened at that moment and that place) . In fact, changes are method of measuring passage of time and extension of space, because they give at least two reference points (before and after event, at place of event and not at place of event) .

  • Mind : Consciousness itself is necessary, it ask the questions (what, where, why ...) and tries to classify events in time/space. Note that there are certain religious practices (Zen Buddhism for example) that try to "peel off" layers of usual mind and let thoughts pass by, concentrating on underlying emptiness (or singularity mentioned before) . Yet even they admit that mind exists and could only be quieted trough meditative training.

As you could deduce yourself, these two foundations are not enough to describe phenomenons that you describe ( your name is Dimitry, you are husband, father, son, member of society etc ...) . They could not secure your sand castle, but could give you some insight on sand castle building, i.e. possible and impossible ways of stacking lego bricks of thoughts.

  • Time and space are increasingly thought to be emergent en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropic_gravity In Zen there is held to be something universal, intersubjective, about 'bare awareness' - you can hear this put quite clearly in the en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xinxin_Ming You are talking about something more general than Zen, the en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yogachara or mind-only school which is the majority of Mahayana Buddhism including most Tibetan schools. Orch-OR points to how subjectivity could arise from elementary quantum events, uniting this with 'it from bit' monism
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 21, 2018 at 21:27
  • @CriglCragl You are mixing physics (depending on our observations) and metaphysics, that tries to grasp what is necessary to have any sentient process at all. Any scientific theory (and any thought at all) is simply impossible without mind and time/space . Recommended reading Kant transcendental aesthetics.
    – rs.29
    Nov 21, 2018 at 21:34

Why do we need any foundations at all? 

This is not a philosophical issue, but a problem of the structure of reason. Reason is based on logics, and logics require starting from a logical truth (obviously, you cannot start reasoning over a wrong idea, for example, that the basic truth is that the big bang occurred two years ago). Applying this idea to philosophy, an absolute truth is required to base any rational over.

For Descartes, the elementary and basic truth was cogito ergo sum. For Kant, the unity of the self (Wolff). For Darwin, survival. Kant went further: since we normally base our reasoning on our history of knowledge, which is based on the result of our perception, for Kant, we live in a tautology (right, without finding an essential truth and creating any rational structure over it). For example, we cannot validate physics. There's no final test that we can apply to any knowledge resulting from our perception. If you suggest one, just ask yourself, what is the test that validates this test?

For you second question, philosophy is not about labeling entities, that's for language. Philosophy deals with topics like the way we get knowledge.

You are precisely basing your reasoning over the idea of the existence of things, (an idea that is not anymore accepted, neither by philosophers nor by physicists), and upon uncertain knowledge. You can go in such direction, considering that you are basing any further conclusion upon the aforementioned tautology. Has that any value?

Asking ourselves "if we have limits inventing things" is very biased and subject to interpretation. Rhetorically, no. Physically, yes (if you invent 1 thing per second, you are limited to a number of inventions, since your lifetime is limited).


Good question. But then I'm bound to think so.

Metaphysics is the study of foundations whether we need them or not so metaphysicians have no choice about 'needing' foundations. Establishing them is the name of the game. They are not needed for physics or mathematics but still physicists and mathematicians spend a lot of time looking for them.

'Foundations' here mean axioms or first principles. If we do not understand first principles then we cannot understand philosophy. This would be why Descartes paid such close attention to his grounding axioms.

If we build a theory on dodgy foundations then sooner or later it will collapse into incoherence and paradox. We often create extended theories specifically in order to test whether its foundations survive analysis. This is a common activity in both physics and philosophy.

It is a common approach to philosophy to get on with creating theories before paying attention to foundations and the result is about the same as it was for the Tower of Babel. To avoid such chaos we must find a secure foundation for our theories. There is no other way.

Just have a look around. Materialists build theories on the assumption that Materialism is true. Idealists do the same for Idealism. Nihilists do the same for Nihilism. This is hopeless and rather like shopping in a supermarket. The first task would be to establish the soundness of our foundations. Theory-building may be an important part of the testing process but is not much use otherwise.

This would be why philosophical theorising is a waste of time where metaphysics is ignored. Physics and mathematics can usually ignore foundations for the sake of practicality but philosophy is all about foundations and without them is useless.

If you want to verify the uselessness of theorising without worrying about foundations then the literature of scientific consciousness studies will be very helpful.

  • Descartes was forced by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia to recgnise the mind-bidy problem he created was intractable, and his dualism has collapsed in incoherence and paradox, so.. not a great example..
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 21, 2018 at 21:35

Why do we need any foundations at all? Does it not depend on human to have or not to have them? Is it not possible to live without them?

Better to say a starting point is needed for human, as he can choose and change its position.

'Foundations' is a metaphor. Why do buildings 'need' foundations? To make something solid and unmoving, we start somewhere that seems solid and unmoving. But what if you want to live in a tent? Saying you must begin with foundations would be a category error.

The idea of grounding things in shared assumptions is a methodology aimed at serving a purpose, drawing people into premises that seem hard to question, and then creating a structure of thought intended to last, and shape modes of life. But there are different modes of life, and different ways to structure our thoughts.

Can we live completely without foundations? Probably we would call this epistemological nihilism, and it is often argued by those with instinctive objections to it, that it's an inconsistent stance because it 'makes a structure of having no structure'. It has been argued that in fact it's a common tactic in philosophy, and that showing the lack of foundations can be liberating.

When people really look for foundations, the justifications for them reduce in purely logical terms to the three types of paradox, in Munchausen's trilemma. For instance, the foundations of scientific method have the Problem Of Induction. More generally, Godel's Incompleteness Theorems can be argued to make any thought-structure like mathematics or science such that it's consistency with first principles cannot be proven, or else it cannot be represented by finite symbols. The typical argument against these limitations is from exasperation. If you don't cease questioning at some point, how do you begin to think, or get anywhere?

Hofstadter's Strange Loops model of tangled hierarchies avoids the need for foundations. You begin wherever you are, and Munchausen's Trilemma is no longer a limitation because the hierarchy-looping is different from circular reasoning, the rules are not determined foundationally but from within the system/s, like thought rather than like language.

The idea that some specific foundations are necessary is part of an attempt to coerce an associated way of thinking, and mode of life. Doing without them is pictured as an untenable situation, like sleeping under the stars. But by saying you don't think specific, or any foundations, are neccessary doesn't mean never going into a building again, but only doing so knowing there could be other ways to build. Sleeping under the stars might have some romance, or might be impractical, depending. But deciding what mode of life you want and structuring what is appropriate, that is far more useful than however solid a foundation. And to know there is nothing so solid, so certain, that it can't change and be reunderstood, has to be understood as the most solid foundation there can be.

  • 1
    Very good answer. I wonder if you can give Hofstadter's first name? Does he have any books in the English language? Thank you.
    – Gordon
    Nov 21, 2018 at 17:36
  • I got it. Douglas Hofstadter.
    – Gordon
    Nov 21, 2018 at 18:14
  • 1
    @Gordon Thankyou. Read them all, he is a boss! Godel Escher Bach is the best place to start, and should be compulsory reading for those interested in philosophy of mind
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 21, 2018 at 21:13

To the first question: One cannot need what it is impossible to have. Foundations, as an overall concept, can't exist.

Logical Positivism failed in a clear way that not only pointed out the impossibility of using the set of foundations they proposed, but any really well-established set of foundations.

Philosophy itself is what Wittgenstein called a "language game". What we have are negotiated stable points where we can be sure we have a limited shared understanding. We take those as foundational within a given context in order to work together. But however we focus on them, they also always get changed over time by the interactions of the people using them.

All fields of study have to anchor themselves to a shared set of experiences and expand both upward and downward from there. They can seek 'foundations', but below those there will always be other material that is not yet negotiated. And when something more stable and more attractive is found lower down, what we considered foundational will no longer be true.

This is most obvious in science. Take the nature of particles. Electrons are not round, they extend throughout space, because they have a tiny but nonzero likelihood of moving anywhere next. So they can't spin. But we have a lot of quantum mechanical discussions of their spin. But that spin goes through 720 degrees. So it has little or nothing to do with spinning. At the same time it works out really nicely to give it the same units as rotational inertia... We choose to think of things in ways we can share, and then we build downward, as well as upward, to make sense out of them. Things we know about electrons can't quite be true -- they will get better over time, which means they are not right already.

To the second question. That is why we have disciplines within philosophy, and especially within science.

Everyone is asking the same question: What matters? But the interpretation of what matters is not the same between any two people. All we can do is agglomerate together with the people who share parts of our agenda.

Surely we have limits on inventing things. Especially if we impose them. Math puts one set of limits on you. Neurology puts another. Psychology includes both and immediately also changes them. A religious or spiritual focus chooses another, which is often not absolutely compatible with any of these. (For example, the Trinity is numeric and every answer compatible with math leads into something heretical, because it is essentially mysterious in a way that is not compatible with our notions of number. But it still has a real meaning, both at a psychological level and in a way that feels deeper than mere psychology. Jung can explain, but only in a way that admits we won't ever let ourselves explain it.)

This brings us back to why we have metaphysics. To answer a question, you need to understand what it means. But it is not going to have a single meaning, unless it is a trivial and pointless question. So we need paradigms, in order to determine when we are and when we are not asking the same thing with the given question. Without a shared paradigm, however informal, we are not really communicating. We may feel like we are using language in a meaningful way, but if we really care about the answers, we find ourselves disappointed.

  • That is a horrible treatment of electrons. Moebius strips have a symmetry of 1/2, and we can see there is an analogy using the en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinor model, which underlies their behaving as fermions, and so generation of en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electron_degeneracy_pressure
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 21, 2018 at 21:51
  • @CriglCragl You seem to be finding fault with something irrelevant. This is not an attempt to educate anyone about electrons. But the model is pasted together out of a number of metaphors none of which is ultimately foundational. Who cares if we can then make up other foundations? The foundations have shifted over and over again, and the resulting language shows the problem.
    – user9166
    Nov 21, 2018 at 23:53

Why do we need any foundations at all? Does it not depend on human to have or not to have them? Is it not possible to live without them?

The main problem with the question is not the need of a foundation, is it existence. Any kind of argument you think, have implicit some metaphysical foundation. You could not know this foundation, but the fact that you don't know will not vanish the existence of that foundation. When a philosopher points out some kind of foundation or presupposition in a thinking, what he is doing is a favor for that person, illuminating the person's thinking. The error would be think that not knowing the foundation of a thinking means that the foundation do not exist.

So the answer is, yeah, you have to live with the existence of the foundation of your thinking, but you don't need to know this foundation, it is a personal option of lifestyle.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .