I am reading about epistemology and foundationalism and I see this claim that beliefs about your own inner mental states are incorrigible and basic. But is that really so? For someone to believe the proposition: "I am in pain" one has to believe: "There are propositons", "Truth exists" or "Words refer to actual things". This would mean the belief "I am in pain" is not basic, since it is derived from other beliefs. And it may not be incorrigible, since the belies from which it derives may be false.

Has someone raised there objections to foundationalism or am I just not seeing something here?

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    One can be noncognitivist about sensations, making propositions about them somewhat queer and after the fact. jimpryor.net/teaching/courses/epist2001/given.html
    – J Kusin
    May 27, 2023 at 17:12
  • "one has to believe: "There are propositions", "Truth exists" or "Words refer to actual things". " I'm afraid that's not as simple as you seem to think. Those propositions are not premisses in an argument in which you derive the belief. To derive any conclusion in an argument you do need to be able to speak and understand language. That implies you have various beliefs facts about the world. But they are part of the skills you need to derive the conclusion from the argument. They are the foundations of a sort, but not of the sort posited by foundationalism.
    – Ludwig V
    May 27, 2023 at 17:45
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    Another part of the problem is that you are aware of the pain, but not as the result of a deduction in an argument. To see this, ask yourself what the premisses are for the conclusion "I am in pain". Only the sensation, which is not language and therefore not a premiss. That's the start of the journey to Wittgenstein's private language argument, which is outlined below.
    – Ludwig V
    May 27, 2023 at 17:47
  • Indiana Jones does not believe he can cross the abyss, but anyway, he takes a leap of faith: youtu.be/q-JIfjNnnMA and then he senses the bridge beneath his feet, and then he knows he can cross the abyss. The sensation of pain and expression "I am in pain" is true knowledge otherwise the true knowledge would be stated "I am not in pain." May 27, 2023 at 18:24
  • @SystemTheory: Wat. That is not a philosophical argument, you just saw a film & seem to think that means your unsupported point stands. Pain is a language game. A baby doesn't know they are in pain, only that they want to cry etc. They don't come to give meaning to the words by an act of faith. That's this logic: xkcd.com/1860
    – CriglCragl
    May 27, 2023 at 21:24

2 Answers 2


Wittgenstein famously argued against this perspective, to which you could add the 'Cogito' as an example of supposedly directly accessing something both private and universal.

How do words refer to sensations? -- There doesn't seem to be any problem here; don't we talk about sensations every day, and give them names? But how is the connection between the name and the thing named set up? This question is the same as: how does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations? -- of the word "pain" for example. Here is one possibility: words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain -- behavior. "So you are saying that the word 'pain' really means crying?" -- On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.

For how can I go so far as to try to use language to get between pain and its expression?

In what sense are my sensations private? -- Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it. -- In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word "to know" as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain. -- Yes, but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself! -- It can't be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I now I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean -- except perhaps that I am in pain? Other people cannot be said to learn of my sensations only from my behavior -- for I cannot be said to learn of them. I have them.

The truth is: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself.

"Only you can know if you had that intention." One might tell someone this when one was explaining the meaning of the word "intention" to him. For then it means: that is how we use it. (And here "know', means that the expression of uncertainty is senseless

PI §244-248

“When one says “He gave a name to his sensation” one forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word pain; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.”

-PI §257

““I can (inwardly) undertake to call THIS ‘pain’ in the future” – “But is it certain that you have undertaken it? Are you sure that it was enough for this purpose to concentrate your attention on your feeling?” – A queer question. -”


These arguments and some others in his Philosophical Investigations, became the basis of the Private Language Argument.

You might also like to read about Munchausen's Trilemma, with a fundamental challenge to the pursuit of foundations of any kind to our knowledge.

It is not uncommon for people to respond with an 'argument by lack of imagination', that they feel if this is allowed to stand we cannot get anywhere with our thinking. So I will say I see the response as rooted in Hofstadter's Strange Loops as the hallmark of minds, where different modes of thought and experience are turned on each other in 'tangled hierarchies', allowing construction of a Coherentist fabric, rather than an Idealist's shining temple of knowledge built to a single architectural principle.

  • What would Cohere with abstract pure mathematics? Human inquiry and that's it?
    – J Kusin
    May 27, 2023 at 17:25
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    @JKusin: Objectivity is just reified intersubjectivity. See 'The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics in most sciences' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/92058/…
    – CriglCragl
    May 27, 2023 at 19:20
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    It just doesn't seem like a tangled web is necessary for parts of math to me, but I see your argument from the link thanks. But I'm kinda of in the idealist camp but don't think their temple is built toward rationality, perhaps will instead.
    – J Kusin
    May 27, 2023 at 21:27

Five cents.

For someone to believe the proposition: "I am in pain" one has to believe: "There are propositons", "Truth exists" or "Words refer to actual things". This would mean the belief "I am in pain" is not basic,

No, this is not so. Certainly not necessarily so.

One can turn this line of thought around and say that abstract propositions and thoughts eg "there are propositions", "there are truths" are in fact built and abstracted from a number of concrete and immediately accessible propositions like "I am in pain", "I am hungry".

So this type of argument does not prove that propositions like "I am in pain" are not basic and incorrigible. In other words it is not a definitive argument, it can easily (and more plausibly) be turned around and claim the other option.

Horse I see, horsehood I do not see.

-- Antisthenes.

  • Counterpoint to Antisthenes: don't you see chairness, when you consider something suitable to sit on, but not necessarily a chair?
    – CriglCragl
    May 27, 2023 at 19:51
  • @CriglCragl no not necessarily, one sees what is there, not chairness. But one can see chairness but does not mean it is a basic concept and not secondary and derived. That is the whole point of the answer.
    – Nikos M.
    May 27, 2023 at 19:57
  • You just say "concrete and immediately accessible propositions" like there can be no issues with that, but whether there are is the question. Surely pain is an abstraction, like horsehood.
    – CriglCragl
    May 27, 2023 at 21:27
  • @CriglCragl the point is that "I am in pain" can be taken as a most immediately accessible proposition. One may doubt that, but then one doubts any other proposition as well because there is.no other type of proposition that can claim such immediacy. Pain is not an abstraction any more than horse is.
    – Nikos M.
    May 28, 2023 at 5:16
  • "The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things." - Laozi
    – CriglCragl
    May 28, 2023 at 9:01

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