I'm sure my terminology is poor here (background in math more than philosophy), but are there any philosophers who have advanced a distinctly non-relativist epistemology without ultimately coming out foundationalist? I'm not talking about coherentism or something like that; rather I'm wondering if any philosophers have argued that we may be able (incidentally, as it were) to know some things absolutely without claiming that any particular beliefs are axiomatically known to everyone?

For example, let's say that person A has a belief or set of beliefs which when understood in their entirety are self-evident (perhaps "I think therefore I am"). Rather than being merely coherent with person A's other beliefs, this conclusion is taken to be true in an absolute sense. However a person B (with respect to whose framework A's belief must also be considered true since it is an absolute) might be unable to rationally conclude that A's belief or set of beliefs is true, not only with respect to A ("A thinks, therefore A is") but even with respect to herself ("B thinks, therefore B is"). In fact, given the right circumstances it might even be inherently impossible for B to reach this conclusion. And similarly, B might be able to correctly reach absolute conclusions which A is unable to justify (even in regard to herself). Through the process of life the absolute claims which are and are not justifiable may even change for both A and B respectively. And no beliefs of any kind would be considered exempt from this possibility. Thus there exists Reality, an understanding of which is sometimes attainable, but there is no guarantee that any individual will be able to lay claim to a given part of it.

Is there any philosopher who would claim that this could be the case, and advances an argument in support of it? I hope I've explained well enough what I mean. Perhaps this could be called "incidental absolutism". Or is there a better phrase to describe a position like this?

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    Even relativists believe in the absolute that everything is relative. Aug 3, 2011 at 8:52
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    Not all of them... At least, not the ones with a cohesive theory. This seems more like a witty comment than an actual answer to me. Aug 3, 2011 at 17:53
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    @louzer For an excellent explanation of how certain types of relativism avoid this problem, just check out the link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in the top post. It's a very helpful resource. Aug 3, 2011 at 18:47

2 Answers 2


I think the better phrase to describe a position like this would be "confused."

You say that person A's beliefs are "self-evident", and therefore can be "taken as true in an absolute sense."

Whatever epistemological warrant allows you to make the determination of what is or is not "self-evident" would then become foundational, so the resulting epistemology would in fact come out foundationalist.

  • I don't think I explained myself well. What I mean is, what if there existed no general algorithm for determining something to be self-evident or not? So in this case, person A's beliefs happen to be self-evident (because they do think, and are), but in general it can't be guaranteed that the same thing will be self-evident for anyone else. This type of "self-evident" doesn't feel very foundationalist to me, since there's no guarantee of applicability for other frameworks or thinkers. And it could also change quickly (say as dimentia eliminated A's understanding of their own beliefs). Aug 3, 2011 at 18:42
  • or their ability to spell. Aug 3, 2011 at 19:09
  • You're still striving for something that doesn't exist. If there is a way-- general algorithm, intuition, or otherwise-- that we can designate some beliefs as "true in an absolute sense", that "absolute" leaks over to the epistemological warrant and makes it foundational. That's what foundationalism is. "Absolute truths", to be considered absolute, have to be founded on something. If they're not, they're not absolute. Aug 3, 2011 at 19:19
  • Ahh, I think you're confusing my description of the position with the position itself. In order to avoid a complicated reflexive phrasing, I described A and B's situation from an imaginary outside perspective. If this position were true, of course, you and I are in the same position as A and B. So we may or may not be able to designate the referred-to beliefs as absolute, depending on our knowledge and capabilities. If we were able to, then we could be certain of them. But for any specific belief we might lose that ability at any time. Aug 3, 2011 at 20:13
  • So for any given person at any given time who happened to complete their understanding of a self-evident concept, they could be considered to have a foundationalist epistemology with their understanding of the self-evident concept as a basic belief. However, which basic beliefs any given person has, and whether they have any at all, might vary drastically according to circumstances beyond their control. And all of this is a description of a hypothetical situation that we might empirically find ourselves in, not a proof that it is the case. Aug 3, 2011 at 20:20

I'm not exactly sure how to classify Paul Churchland's views, but they seem to be something like what you're looking for.

There's a strategy which one can take to end up as a non-foundational non-relativist of a sort, but you might quibble with one (or both!) of the non-'s: you adopt a basically coherentist point of view, except you note that, conveniently enough, people all seem to end up bound by physical laws (i.e. that is what is coherent), and so you're not really relative in any meaningful sense--even though you formally allowed the possibility, in practice people agree that, for example, snow is white, and anyone who says otherwise (when looking at white snow) is wrong, not operating with a different set of mostly-self-consistent propositions. In my opinion, this is the approach that the neurophilosopher crowd seems to take (Dennett, Churchland, etc.), although I don't recall having any of them spell it out in exactly these terms.

(One could argue that they are foundational because they take as axioms something like the scientific method to learn about the world and do not question those; one could argue that they are relativists because if it so happened that there were ten different societies with radically different but equally predictive interpretations of the physical world then their approach would force them to accept all of them as "true".)

  • any idea of a source where he discusses this? I seem to be finding a lot of stuff on his eliminative materialism, but not much in the way of epistemology. Aug 4, 2011 at 19:18
  • @eMansipater - No, sorry; I'm just inferring from the style of arguments he uses when talking about e.g. eliminative materialism. You could try reading the section on epistemology in Matter and Consciousness to infer what his views are w.r.t. your questions (I don't think he addresses it directly).
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 4, 2011 at 19:49
  • alright, I'll give it a shot. Aug 5, 2011 at 17:04

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