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Memory, Perception, and the A Priori define ‘The Given’

By tdberg

Some skeptical philosophers have wrongly characterized the class of basic beliefs in foundationalist theory known as ‘the given’ as a myth. In response, contemporary epistemologist Roderick Chisholm maintains that some beliefs can be self-justified independently, and that our other non-foundational beliefs, in turn, can be traced back to these basic beliefs. Yet, significantly, what does it mean to be self-justified independently? Chisholm defines a self-justified statement as one that can be justified by the knower simply through repetition. In other words, a statement is part of ‘the given’ if repeating it justifies it. Importantly, these self-justifying statements include psychological attitudes and non-propositional states, such as ‘I am being appeared to’.
As such, Chisholm posits that “there are no self-justifying statements that are not statements about appearance.” (Pg. 7) Why? Because the immediate experience and one’s reflection upon it are both necessary components, since it is only in the context of their occurrence together that a proposition becomes self-justified. In addition to these self-justifying statements, Chisholm also includes memory, perception, and the a priori in his foundation of basic beliefs. So, consequently, his foundation is not supported by appearances alone, but is also sustained by “the cognitive significance of the empirically given.” (Pg. 25) So, it is this group of basic beliefs that do the work of stopping an infinite regress.

Yet, let’s digress for a moment so that we may understand why Chisholm’s meta-theory bottoms out with ‘the given’. It is imperative to be clear and concise on the epistemic and psychological ramifications entailed by his particular class of basic beliefs.The reason that self-justifying experiences for Chisholm are a source of certainty, is because one cannot be mistaken that one is having an experience. For example, the proposition ‘I seem to see a tree’ is foundational, whereas the proposition ‘I see a tree’ is not. Clearly, the first statement can be categorized as possessing cognitive content, thereby be justified by the second statement, which is a lower order empirical proposition. Hence, in order to justify the second statement, one need only make an appeal to the first. Chisholm states, “Every justified statement is justified in part by some statement that justifies itself.” (pg. 7) Yet, does this provide justification for a sound meta-theory? Well, according to Chisholm, it is always possible to describe conditions of observation, including the conditions relevant to the psychological state of the observer. And, in the case of self-justifying properties, the epistemic property of certainty supervenes on non-epistemic data, such as one’s conscious states. Subsequently, sense-datum or the entities that are immediately experienced, constitute a cognitive grasp of some content that is not belief and thus not in need of justification. Or, in other words, the belief-state that requires justification receives its justification from experience.

So, just how does ‘the given’ fundamentally uphold this theoretical framework? If we ask, “What are your reasons for thinking that you know p?” one may respond, “I am justified in thinking that I know p because I know q and, if I know q then I know p.” Continuing, if we further ask, “What are your reasons for thinking that you know q?” one may respond, “I am justified in thinking that I know q because I know r, and if I know r, then I know q.” If we continue in this fashion we will eventually reach a level of self-justification, or for Chisholm, the level of ‘the given’. So, when we ask what justifies a given claim, we presuppose that there is a justification for it, and that we know somewhat the difference between justified and unjustified claims. Moreover, while moving down toward ‘the given’, we will make several other additional assertions which will, in turn, provide stronger support for our edifice. As such, these additional claims lead us to further consider the three other regress stoppers: memory, perception, and the a priori. (Pg. 23)

Memory and perception, for Chisholm are fallible, and a matter of coherence. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, they seek to provide bridge principles from our first-person epistemic beliefs to our justified beliefs of the external world. For instance, if an external world proposition is accepted by one and the rest of one’s beliefs do not go against it, then the proposition in question is made probable. So, consequently, accepting an external world proposition under these circumstances gives it prima facie probability.

1 Response to Memory, Perception, and the A Priori define ‘The Given’

  1. Williammug

    I really enjoy the post.Really looking forward to read more. Will read on…

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