The Idea of Pressuppositions in Western Philosophical Thought

Posted: August 17, 2014 in General Presup Issues
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Due to the ambiguity in the term “Presuppositionalism” as well as misunderstandings concerning what a “presupposition” even is, some have argued for giving up the term completely.   (Dr. Oliphint, for example, argues for using the name: Covenantal Apologetics).

Objections to the phrase, especially from atheists who feign ignorance and suggest it’s meaningless, seem a little overplayed.  Many philosophers, after all, seem to share Van Til’s concern about the noetic structure.  As such, the term “presupposition” (or at least – the concept described by the term) has a respectable pedigree in the history of western philosophy.  A few examples should suffice to prove this:

Descartes is concerned with presuppositions.  In the Discourse on Method (Part II, pg. 17 of the E. N. Meyer translation), he states four precepts that, if rigidly adhered to, would help him properly order his beliefs:

“The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid prescipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in the thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.”

Descartes is clearly concerned with properly ordering his beliefs, from the more ‘foundational’ or ‘simple’ (whatever that may mean) to the more ‘complex’.   He, presumably, realizes this sort of self-conscious method of ordering thoughts is needed because so many people do not realize the beliefs that underlie, lay-behind, or that are “presupposed” by their more complex beliefs.

Bertrand Russell realizes this as well.  In “Problems of Philosophy” (chapter 2) he says this:

“Philosophy should show us the hierarchy of our instinctive beliefs, beginning with those we hold most strongly, and presenting each as much isolated and as free from irrelevant additions as possible.  It should take care to show that, in the form in which they are finally set forth, our instinctive beliefs do not clash, but form a harmonious system.  There can never be any reason for rejecting one instinctive belief except that it clashes with others; thus, if they are found to harmonise, the whole system becomes worthy of acceptance.”

Russell here, admits to a hierarchy of beliefs that we hold instinctively and realizes that if these beliefs conflict, the entire system (or, as a rough parallel:  what Descartes was calling a “complex belief”) must be rejected.  This, arguably, is comparable to Van Til’s Presuppositional methodology, which seeks to investigate this series of “instinctively-held beliefs” to see if they conflict with each other.  Although, Van Til would maintain that, in the Christian / Reformed metaphysical system, all non-Christian systems will have (at some point or other) conflicting beliefs.  Along with Russell, he would agree that, this inconsistency is cause for a rejection of the particular system under consideration.  Russell’s “instinctive beliefs” then, are comparable to the term “presuppositions.”

Alfred North Whitehead goes even further than this, in his “Process and Reality” (chapter 1, section 1).  He realizes at the outset that the system he is trying to construct must necessarily involve fundamental principles that, in isolation, are meaningless, but when ordered,  take on meaning.  In this hierarchy, Whitehead admits, the more foundational ideas are presupposed by the more complex:

“Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.  By this notion of ‘interpretation’ I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of particular instance of the general scheme.  Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate.  Here ‘applicable’ means that some items of experience are thus interpretable, and ‘adequate’ means that there are no items incapable of such interpretation.

‘Coherence,’ as here employed, means that the fundamental ideas, in terms of which the scheme is developed, presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless.  This requirement does not mean that they are definable in terms of each other; it means that what is indefinable in one such notion cannot be abstracted from its relevance to the other notions.   It is the ideal of speculative philosophy that its fundamental notions shall not seem capable of abstraction from each other.  In other words, it is presupposed that no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe, and that it is the business of speculative philosophy to exhibit this truth.  This character is coherence.”

To Whitehead, an idea becomes coherent when it is properly fitted into the system of general ideas which give it meaning.  There is, then, at least to Whitehead, a certain necessity to the idea of ordering one’s beliefs into a hierarchical system.

Karl Popper is less discreet than Whitehead, preferring to think of these foundational beliefs as vague, common-sense notions:

“My first thesis is thus that our starting-point is common sense, and that our great instrument for progress is criticism.

But this thesis raises at once a difficulty.  It has been said that if we wish to criticize a theory, say T1, whether or not it is of a commonsense character, then we need some other theory, T2, which furnishes us with the necessary basis or starting-point or background for criticizing T1.  Only in the very special case that we can show T1 to be inconsistent (a case called ‘immanent criticism’, where we use T1 in order to show that T1 is false) can we proceed differently; that is, by showing that absurd consequences follow from T1.” – (Objective Knowledge, chapter 2 pg. 34)

Popper goes on to explain why he thinks that this particular criticism of the method of criticism is invalid.  We can ‘objectively’ critique T1 without having a basis in some other system (T2) from which to stand to make the criticism, because, when T1 and T2 are presented side-by-side, we simply show which one has more advantages over the other.  (By way of a passing critique, it seems that Popper is unknowingly critiquing both T1 AND T2 from his ignorantly presupposed system of T3!)

So, whether our underlying assumptions about the world are investigated systematically, according to an arbitrary set of standards (as Descartes did above), whether they are rigorously worked into an overall metaphysical system (like Whitehead), or whether they’re simply assumed to be vague, common-sense notions (like Popper), it must be admitted that they are arranged in some order, from simple to complex…at least as far as these guys are concerned.

This all roughly correlates to what Van Til meant by a “presupposition.”  The critics of Presuppositional Apologetic methodology seldom take the time to do a fair comparison.  Compare the above citations to Dr. Bahnsen’s classic definition of a presupposition:

A “presupposition” is an elementary assumption in one’s reasoning or in the process by which opinions are formed. In this book, a “presupposition” is not just any assumption in an argument, but a personal commitment that is held at the most basic level of one’s network of beliefs. Presuppositions form a wide-ranging, foundational perspective (or starting point) in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated. As such, presuppositions have the greatest authority in one’s thinking, being treated as one’s least negotiable beliefs and being granted the highest immunity to revision. (Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 2 n.4)

While all these thinkers use the idea of a hierarchy of beliefs in different ways, (and mean slightly different things in each of their conceptions) there is an obvious similarity among them all.  Some beliefs precede others in one’s worldview, and those, more simple beliefs, are presupposed by the more complex beliefs.

There is ice in the freezer presupposes there is such a thing as a freezer, that water turns into ice when frozen, that there was water in the freezer to begin with, that the freezer was working properly, that there is some idea of change by which objects gain or lose characteristics, and so on.  All of these beliefs are presupposed by the complex belief: “There is ice in the freezer.”  They all precede “There is Ice in the freezer” in one’s hierarchy of beliefs.

That’s not hard to understand, nor should anyone (being intellectually honest) feign ignorance about what is meant by “presuppose” in a general sense, even if it remains for the presuppositionalist to detail some specific account of epistemic operation.


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