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New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 23-32

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God, the Universe, Art, and Communism

Terry Eagleton

The world is divided among foundationalists, antifoundation-alists, hybrids of the two such as foundherentists, 1 those who have no definite view on the question, and those who have never even heard of it. I want to argue in this essay that these do not, in fact, exhaust all the possibilities. I also want to claim that what one might call unfoundedness is in a certain sense a project still to be accomplished rather than a given.

To hold that there are some beliefs which are justifiable independently of the support of other beliefs is to be an epistemological foundationalist, and these days to be egregiously out of fashion. There is a coherentist alternative to this case--the view that a belief is justified if it coheres with beliefs which in turn cohere with others--though conventionalism is an antifoundationalist option rather more in vogue with postmodern thought. There is also the foundherentist case, which holds rather plausibly that some beliefs may be partly founded and partly supported by others. But it is also possible to be an ontological foundationalist, which in a broad sense means believing that there is some basic stuff or furniture to the world, and (in the narrower, more historical sense in which I shall be using the phrase here) claiming that there is something--God, Geist, Mind, Reason, Will, power, economic production, or some other so-called transcendental signified--on which the whole of our activity rests. And this ontological substratum is not itself capable of being reduced to any other reality. This kind of foundationalism is close to a belief in grand narratives, though there is no reason why the thing which supports everything else should be a story. The turtle who holds up the elephant who holds up the world is not a narrative.

There is a third kind of foundationalism--rational foundationalism--which holds that our arguments must be supported by reasons, and which is sometimes rather negligently thrown out with the other two sorts. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that epistemological and ontological foundationalism do not necessarily go hand in hand. One could hold, for example, that there is an ontological foundation to human affairs, but that one cannot establish this other than by a network of mutually [End Page 23] supporting ideas. One could even combine epistemological foundationalism with ontological antifoundationalism, claiming that there is no irreducible basis to our activity and that this can be foundationally established. More commonly, as with much postmodern thought, anti-ontological foundationalism undermines epistemological foundationalism too, so that the proposition that there is no solid basis to things seems as uncertain as everything else. It is thus hard to see how the claim that there is no ultimate truth could itself be ultimately true.

Essentialism, one might argue, is a kind of foundationalism, since here what we say about a thing comes finally to rest in the question of its inherent nature, which will brook no further reduction. We cannot on this viewpoint provide a noncircular answer to the toddler who asks why water is wet, or why Michael Jackson is stupid. We can demonstrate what wetness is, or even, to a precociously intelligent toddler, what it is about the chemical composition of water which makes it fluid. But if the toddler inquires whether there is somewhere in the world a species of dry water, we feel constrained to respond that water is just the kind of stuff that is never dry. We then await its inevitable response to this statement--"why?"--while wondering how to shift it without undue heavy-handedness to another subject. The common form in which foundational arguments are advanced to toddlers is the phrase "just because." "Just because" arguments, like the rules of a game, seem both arbitrary and absolute. There is no gainsaying them as things stand, but one might always wonder whether things might not have been different. "Just because" is among other things a polite way of shutting up two-year-old metaphysicians...


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