Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Positions On The A Priori

I'm currently working on a paper on a priori knowledge, and I thought it might be helpful to start out with an overview of available positions, characterized in terms of the answers their defenders would give to a set of questions. I'd be really interested to hear whether people think anything important is missing from my overview, whether the description is helpful, etc..

Before I start, it's useful to have an umbrella term for all forms of the view that some appeal to conceptual truth or something in that area is what does (most of) the interesting epistemological work in helping us understand (at least some of ) our a priori knowledge. I'll refer to all such views as versions of the conceptual approach.

First, then, there is the question of whether or not a priori knowledge is a distinctive epistemological phenomenon at all. Those who deny this include Mill and Quine, both of whom argue, in their different ways, that what appear to be cases of a priori knowledge are in fact cases of ordinary empirical knowledge.

If it is agreed that a priori knowledge is a distinctive phenomenon, there is the question of whether or not to adopt any version of the conceptual approach. If the answer is no, then we can ask whether or not any form of factualism is correct for claims of a priori knowledge or justification: that is, whether there are facts corresponding to acceptable claims of this kind, or whether the acceptability of such claims has some other basis. Field defends a form of non-factualism, at least for basic a priori knowledge, arguing that claims of justification for basic a priori principles are merely expressions of pro-attitude towards these principles. Factualist positions available to non-defenders of the conceptual approach include innatism, certain forms of conventionalism which are not wedded to the conceptual approach, and some forms of rationalism (for instance, some of the thoughts of Gödel could be developed in this way: we could posit a priori knowledge of set theory, for instance, via a rational faculty which is 'something like a perception' of its objects, without our account appealing to conceptual truth).

For those who favour the conceptual approach, we now ask whether or not mind-independence realism is true for any of the a priori knowable subject matters that are covered by the account. Those who answer 'no' here I take to include Ayer, Carnap, Kant, defenders of implicit definition views such as Wright and Hale, and perhaps Boghossian.

Those who do want to be realists then have to decide whether to be rationalists: that is, whether to accept that some propositions can be known solely through the exercise of faculties other than the senses. (I take empiricism to be the denial of rationalism). Those who answer 'yes' to this question I take to include BonJour, Peacocke and Bealer.

There is one node left on my imagined diagram: that is the node which I want to occupy. This node represents the view that a priori knowledge is a distinctive epistemological phenomenon to be explained via some sort of conceptual approach, that we should be realists about at least some of the subject matters to be covered by the account, and that rationalism is not true.

(The fun part is fitting all those things together …)


Aidan said...

I'm confused as to why you count Hale and Wright as falling into the no to mind-independence realism camp. At least in print, they seem like they should be paradigms of yes-men; given that they hold that implicit definition (plus knowledge of some suitable HOL) can give one a priori knowledge of arithmetic, and since on paper they're platonists about number theory.

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Aidan,

Well, they are Platonists in the sense that they believe in mathematical objects. But that doesn't mean they believe those objects are mind-independent. If you think the implicit definitions are true by dint of (linguistic) stipulation, and their truth is significantly linked to the existence of mathematical objects, that at least suggests that you think the objects exist by dint of (linguistic) stipulation, which is to say you don't believe they are mind-independent. H&W only seem to call themselves 'realists' when what they mean is that they believe in mathematical objects.

Brian said...

Hmm, well if the issue isn't one of objects, then why is Kant in the same camp? Analytic knowledge isn't mind-dependent in any particularly interesting way on Kant's account, is it?

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Brian,

I thought that basically everything we can conceptualize is at least partly mind-dependent for Kant ...?

Aidan said...

I was under the impression that they were keen to stress that they didn't believe that mathematical objects exist in virtue of lingusitic stipulation. The line as I understood it was that stipulation introduces the (sortal) concept, but it's not a matter for stipulation whether anything falls under it. (I'd try provide some textual support for that, but my copy is in Austin. From memory, the relevant material is in 'Implicit definition and the A Priori' in the sections on whether HP is arrogant.)

Carrie Jenkins said...

I agree that they *try* to disown this consequence of their view; it's just that I am unconvinced by their efforts! (I guess, though, that when I write up the paper I should be careful to point out that H&W themselves would disagree about being committed to mind-dependence, so thanks for flagging that.)

Basically I see them as attempting to straddle a dilemma, one horn of which is commitment to mind dependence, the other horn of which is a failure to supply any adequate epistemology.

Aidan said...

Ok, sure, lots of people think they don't manage to steer a middle path here. But if you're just offering a taxonomy, it seems a little misleading to characterise them among 'those who answer "no"', even if that's the answer you think they're saddled with.

Aaron Bogart said...

Forgive my ignorance, but where would 'naturalist' theories, like Goldman, Antony, and Casullo, go?

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Aaron,

Naturalist views can come in many flavours. For instance, there are going to be some factualist, non-conceptual approaches which say that we have reliable (or otherwise epistemically virtuous) experience-independent belief-forming processes ("pure thought" and the like). But there are also going to be versions of the conceptual approach (e.g. reliabilist versions) which hold that the reliable (or whatever) processes are processes of concept-examination. In fact, Peacocke sometimes reads a bit like a reliabilist about the knowledge we can acquire through thinking about our concepts. (Without checking, though, I wouldn't like to make claims here as to which 'naturalist' positions are occupied by which actual philosophers ...!)

nenad_miscevic said...

I have a small question about your preferred node. It says a priori knowledge is possible, but rationalism is not true. Does this mean that every proposition that can be known independently of experience (= a priori) can be also known through experience?

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Nenad,

The idea is that knowing a priori (which, for me, means: independently of sensory evidence) *is* a way of knowing through experience. I argue that not all empirical knowledge is knowledge via sensory *evidence*. In particular, I claim, examining your empirically grounded concepts is an empirical way of knowing but not a way of knowing through empirical evidence. Therefore it counts as a priori on many standard definitions, although it is empirical.

nenad_miscevic said...

Thanks Carrie. A further question. Suppose I am examining my empirically grounded concept WHALE, and finding out that "A whale is an animal". I assume that concept (content) is a piece of evidence for me in this case. Now, if its empirical character does not make my piece of knowledge "dependent on sensory experience" (and so the piece of knowledge is a priori), why is the way of coming to know empirical?
Either the empirical character remains, and then nothing in the story is a priori, or it doesn't, and then nothing in the story is empirical.

Carrie Jenkins said...

My thought is that the empirical character of the grounding for the concept WHALE would not mean that the knowledge you obtain by examining that concept is dependent on empirical evidence. I take evidence to be evidence for a proposition, and in this case the empirical input is providing support, not for a proposition, but for a concept.

nenad_miscevic said...

Thanks, Carrie.
Now, suppose an ignorant person (a child, say) asks about "whales are animals". Like, "I read that whales are overweight angels; why do you say they are animals?"
The usual answer would revert to experience (see, "if you open up a whale..."). One would not say: well, look at the definition in the dictionary, etc.
So, isn't the empirical epistemic support being TRANSFERED to the conceptual proposition?

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...


How could you tell from the inside of a whale that it is not an angel? If confronted by this question from a child, I would appeal to the definition of animal and whale. In fact, I do this sort of thing quite often with my children, which leaves them very puzzled.


I'm also unsure of this last branch of your typology, where the conceptualist realists have to also decide if they are rationalists. I'm used to separating apriorism from rationalism using a justification/causation distinction. A priori knowledge is justified rationally, while innate knoweldge is (in some important sense) caused by one's heritage. Is that distinction at work here?

Carrie Jenkins said...


I'm not sure quite what you're asking. Rationalism (as I'm using the word) is the view that belief in some propositions can be justified solely through the use of faculties other than the senses. Innatism - insofar as innate beliefs count as justified - might be one theory conducive to rationalism (though it isn't clear that innatists *have* to be rationalists). Justification is the only thing I'm interested in; causation is only relevant insofar as it is tied up, in some cases at least, with justification.


Propositions which are conceptually true and/or known a priori may *also* be susceptible of vanilla empirical justification. That doesn't undercut my reasons for thinking there is some other, a priori, source of justification.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Sorry I wasn't clear. (It was late.) Let me try again.

Doesn't the first division in your typology, where you separate those who believe in a priori knowledge from those who don't, mean that everyone after that point is a rationalist?

I feet like the final division repeats the first. If you deny that propositions can be known solely through exercise of faculties other than the senses, don't you just wind up being Mill or Quine again?

(I brought in the nativism stuff because I thought it would be a way to distinguish the final division from the first, but never mind.)

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Rob,

Ah, I see what you're saying. I think that there are plenty of standard definitions of 'a priori' on which you can believe in a priori knowledge without being a rationalist in my sense. (I explain why in my BJPS paper 'Knowledge of Arithmetic', though I acknowledge there that some may not like this sort of use of the term 'a priori'.)

nenad_miscevic said...

The fact is that we normally appeal to the deeper empirical justification (when it comes to whales; doesn't this make the a priori justification into a vanilla one, and the empirical into the really serious one?
Or is it just a matter of (vanilla)taste?