Reasoning and Presuppositions

Philosophical Topics 49 (2):203-224 (2021)


It is a platitude that when we reason, we often take things for granted, sometimes even justifiably so. The chemist might reason from the fact that a substance turns litmus paper red to that substance being an acid. In so doing, they take for granted, reasonably enough, that this test for acidity is valid. We ordinarily reason from things looking a certain way to their being that way. We take for granted, reasonably enough, that things are as they look Although it is a platitude that we often take things for granted when we reason—whether justifiably or not—one might think that we do not have to. In fact, it is a natural expectation that were we not pressed by time, lack of energy or focus, we could always in principle make explicit in the form of premises every single presupposition we make in the course of our reasoning. In other words, it is natural to expect it to be true that presuppositionless reasoning is possible. In this essay, I argue that it is false: presuppositionless reasoning is impossible. Indeed, I think this is one of the lessons of a long-standing paradox about inference and reasoning known as Lewis Carroll’s (1985) regress of the premises. Many philosophers agree that Carroll’s regress teaches us something foundational about reasoning. I part ways about what it is that it teaches us. What it teaches us is that the structure of reasoning is constitutively presuppositional.

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