A priori and a posteriori (philosophy)

A priori and a posteriori (philosophy)

:"A priori" redirects here. For other uses, see A priori.":"A posteriori" redirects here. For the Enigma album, see A Posteriori."

The terms ""a priori" and ""a posteriori" are used in philosophy primarily to distinguish between two different types of knowledge, though the distinction is often used to distinguish different types of justification or arguments. Either way, the distinction is an epistemological one.

The exact definitions of the terms have changed over time. However, roughly speaking, "a priori" knowledge is independent of experience (e.g. All bachelors are unmarried); "a posteriori" knowledge is dependent on experience (e.g. Some bachelors are lonely). More precisely, the issue concerns how one knows the proposition or claim in question—what justifies or grounds one's belief in it. Is what justifies one's belief in the proposition partly due to experience or not? As the philosopher Galen Strawson once put it, an "a priori" argument is one in which "you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don't have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don't have to do any science." [(Sommers, 2003)pn]

Although similar, the "a priori/a posteriori" distinction is not exactly the same as the following distinctions: deductive/inductive, analytic/synthetic, necessary/contingent.


Use of the terms

The terms "a priori" and "a posteriori" are used in philosophy to distinguish two different types of knowledge, justification, or argument: a priori knowledge is gained independently of experience, and a posteriori knowledge is based on experience. Thus, they are primarily used as adjectives to modify the noun "knowledge", or taken to be compound nouns that refer to types of knowledge (for example, "a priori" knowledge"). However, "a priori" is sometimes used as an adjective to modify other nouns, such as "truth." Additionally, philosophers often modify this use. For example, "apriority" and "aprioricity" are sometimes used as nouns to refer (approximately) to the quality of being "a priori". Examples of proposed candidates of "a priori" knowledge include "2+5=7", the propositions of Euclidean geometry, and "all bachelors are unmarried". [cite book
url = http://books.google.ca/books?id=sAe6GppFPDAC
title = Introduction to logic
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pages = 323
year = 2001
isbn = 0415226740
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title = The Century of Taste: The Philosophical Odyssey of Taste
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cite book
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title = Conventionalism in Logic
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cite book
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] Examples of proposed candidates of "a posteriori" reasoning include "Protons are made of quarks" and "Hitler died in 1945."

The intuitive distinction

Although definitions and use of the terms have varied in the history of philosophy, they have consistently labelled two separate epistemological notions. The intuitive distinction between "a priori" and "a posteriori" knowledge is best seen in examples. To borrow from Jerry Fodor (2004), take, for example, the proposition expressed by the sentence, "George V reigned from 1910 to 1936." This is something (if true) that one must come to know "a posteriori", because it expresses an empirical fact unknowable by reason alone. By contrast, consider the proposition, "If George V reigned at all, then he reigned for a while." This is something that one knows "a priori", because it expresses a statement that one "can" derive by reason alone.

History of use

Early uses

The phrases "a priori" and "a posteriori" are Latin for "from what comes before" and "from what comes later" (or, less literally, "before experience" and "after experience"). An early philosophical use of what might be considered a notion of "a priori" knowledge (though not called by that name) is Plato's theory of recollection, related in the dialogue "Meno" (380 B.C.E.), according to which something like "a priori" knowledge is knowledge inherent in the human mind.

Immanuel Kant

Eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1781) advocated a blend of rationalist and empiricist theories. Kant states, "although all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that that it arises from experience"Kant (1781), introduction, §I.] According to Kant, "a priori" knowledge is transcendental, or based on the "form" of all possible experience, while "a posteriori" knowledge is empirical, based on the "content" of experience. Kant states, "... it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself (sensuous impressions giving merely the "occasion")." Thus, unlike the empiricists, Kant thinks that "a priori" knowledge is independent of the content of experience; moreover, unlike the rationalists, Kant thinks that "a priori" knowledge, in its pure form, that is without the admixture of any empirical content, is knowledge limited to the deduction of the conditions of possible experience. These "a priori", or transcendental conditions, are seated in one's cognitive faculties, and are not provided by experience in general or any experience in particular. Kant nominated and explored the possibility of a transcendental logic with which to consider the deduction of the "a priori" in its pure form. Concepts such as time and cause are counted among the list of pure "a priori" forms. Kant reasoned that the pure "a priori" forms are established via his transcendental aesthetic and transcendental logic. He claimed that the human subject would not have the kind of experience that it has were these "a priori" forms not in some way constitutive of him as a human subject. For instance, he would not experience the world as an orderly, rule-governed place unless time and cause were operative in his cognitive faculties. The claim is more formally known as Kant's transcendental deduction and it is the central argument of his major work, the "Critique of Pure Reason". The transcendental deduction does not avoid the fact or objectivity of time and cause, but does, in its consideration of a possible logic of the "a priori", attempt to make the case for the fact of subjectivity, what consititutes subjectivity and what relation it holds with objectivity and the empirical.

Analyticity and necessity

Relation to the analytic-synthetic

:details|Analytic-synthetic distinction

Several philosophers reacting to Kant sought to explain "a priori" knowledge without appealing to, as Paul Boghossian explains, "a special faculty...that has never been described in satisfactory terms."Boghossian (1996), p. 363.] One theory, popular among the logical positivists of the early twentieth century, is what Boghossian calls the "analytic explanation of the a priori." The distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions was first introduced by Kant. While Kant's original distinction was primarily drawn in terms of conceptual containment, the contemporary version of the distinction primarily involves, as Quine put it, the notions of "true by virtue of meanings and independently of fact." [Quine (1951), p. 21.] "Analytic" propositions are thought to be true in virtue of their meaning alone, while "a priori synthetic" propositions are thought to be true in virtue of their meaning "and" certain facts about the world. According to the analytic explanation of the "a priori", all "a priori" knowledge is analytic; so "a priori" knowledge need not require a special faculty of pure intuition, since it can be accounted for simply by one's ability to understand the meaning of the proposition in question. In short, proponents of this explanation claimed to have reduced a dubious metaphysical faculty of pure reason to a legitimate linguistic notion of analyticity.

However, the analytic explanation of "a priori" knowledge has undergone several criticisms. Most notably, the American philosopher W. V. O. Quine (1951) argued that the analytic-synthetic distinction is illegitimate (see Quine's rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction). Quine states: "But for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between analytic and synthetic statements simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith." [Quine (1951), p. 34.] While the soundness of Quine's critique is highly disputed, it had a powerful effect on the project of explaining the "a priori" in terms of the analytic.

Relation to the necessary/contingent

The metaphysical distinction between necessary and contingent truths has also been related to "a priori" and "a posteriori" knowledge. A proposition that is "necessarily true" is one whose negation is self-contradictory (thus, it is said to be true in every possible world). Consider the proposition that all bachelors are unmarried. Theoretically, its negation, the proposition that some bachelors are married, is incoherent, because the concept of being unmarried (or the meaning of the word "unmarried") is part of the concept of being a bachelor (or part of the definition of the word "bachelor"). To the extent that contradictions are impossible, self-contradictory propositions are necessarily false, because it is impossible for them to be true. Thus, the negation of a self-contradictory proposition is supposed to be necessarily true. By contrast, a proposition that is "contingently true" is one whose negation is not self-contradictory (thus, it is said that it is "not" true in every possible world). As Jason Baehr states, it seems plausible that all necessary propositions are known "a priori", because " [s] ense experience can tell us only about the actual world and hence about what is the case; it can say nothing about what must or must not be the case." [Baehr (2006), §3.]

Following Kant, some philosophers have considered the relationship between aprioricity, analyticity, and necessity to be extremely close. According to Jerry Fodor, "Positivism, in particular, took it for granted that a priori truths must be necessary...." [Fodor (1998), p. 86.] However, since Kant, the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions had slightly changed. Analytic propositions were largely taken to be "true by virtue of meanings and independently of fact", [Quine (1951), §1.] while synthetic propositions were not—one must conduct some sort of empirical investigation, looking to the world, to determine the truth-value of synthetic propositions.

However, aprioricity, analyticity, and necessity have since been more clearly separated from each other. The American philosopher Saul Kripke (1972), for example, provided strong arguments against this position. Kripke argued that there are necessary "a posteriori" truths, such as the proposition that water is H2O (if it is true). According to Kripke, this statement is necessarily true (since water and H2O are the same thing, they are identical in every possible world, and truths of identity are logically necessary) and "a posteriori" (since it is known only through empirical investigation). Following such considerations of Kripke and others (such as Hilary Putnam), philosophers tend to distinguish more clearly the notion of aprioricity from that of necessity and analyticity.

Thus, the relationship between aprioricity, necessity, and analyticity is not easy to discern. However, most philosophers at least seem to agree that while the various distinctions may overlap, the notions are clearly not identical: the "a priori"/"a posteriori" distinction is epistemological, the analytic/synthetic distinction is linguistic, and the necessary/contingent distinction is metaphysical. [See Baehr (2006), §2 & §3.]


References and further reading

* Baehr, Jason. (2006). " [http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/apriori.htm A Priori and A Posteriori] ," "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy".
* Boghossian, Paul. (1997). " [http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/boghossian/papers/AnalyticityReconsidered.html Analyticity Reconsidered] ," "Nous", vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 360–391.
* Boghossian, P. & Peacocke, C., eds. (2000). "New Essays on the A Priori", Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Descartes, René. (1641). " [http://www.wright.edu/cola/descartes/ Meditations on First Philosophy] ". In Cottingham, et al. (eds.), "The Philosophical Writings of Descartes", Cambridge University Press, 1984.
* Fodor, Jerry. (1998). "Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong", New York: Oxford University Press.
* Fodor, Jerry. (2004). "Water's water everywhere", "London Review of Books", Vol. 26, No. 20, dated 21 October 2004.
* Greenberg, Robert. " [http://www.psupress.psu.edu/books/titles/0-271-02083-0.html Kant's Theory of A Priori Knowledge] ", Penn State Press, 2001 ISBN 0-271-02083-0
* Heisenberg, Werner. (1958). "Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science", pp. 76–92. New York: Harper & Row.
* Hume, David. (1777). " [http://eserver.org/18th/hume-enquiry.html An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding] ", Nidditch, P. N. (ed.), 3rd. ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
* Kant, Immanuel. (1781). "Critique of Pure Reason", trans. N.K. Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929). [http://www.hkbu.edu.hk/~ppp/cpr/toc.html Online text]
* Kant, Immanuel. (1783). "Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics", Paul Carus (trans.). [http://eserver.org/philosophy/kant-prolegomena.txt Online text]
* Kripke, Saul. (1972). "Naming and Necessity", in "Semantics of Natural Language", edited by D. Davidson and G. Harman, Boston: Reidel. (Reprinted in 1980 as "Naming and Necessity", Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)
* Leibniz, Gottfried. (1714). " [http://www.rbjones.com/rbjpub/philos/classics/leibniz/monad.htm Monadology] ", in "Philosophical Essays", edited and translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.
* Locke, John. (1689). " [http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/locke_understanding.html An Essay Concerning Human Understanding] ", Prometheus Books.
* Plato. (380 B.C.E.). " [http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html Meno] ", in "Plato: Complete Works", Cooper, J. M. (ed.), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
* Sommers, Tamler: " [http://www.believermag.com/issues/200303/?read=interview_strawson The buck stops—where? Living without ultimate responsibility] " ("The Believer", March 2003).
* Quine, W. V. O. (1951). " [http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html Two Dogmas of Empiricism] ", "The Philosophical Review", Vol. 60, pp. 20–43. (Reprinted in Quine's "From a Logical Point of View", Harvard University Press, 1953.)

External links

* [http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/apriori.htm "A Priori and A Posteriori"] - an article by Jason Baehr in the "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy".
* [http://www.philosophypages.com/dy/a5.htm#a-pr A priori / a posteriori] - in the Philosophical Dictionary online.
* [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/ "Rationalism vs. Empiricism"] - an article by Peter Markie in the "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy".

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