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A Theory of the A Priori: Philosophical Perspectives Essay

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Updated: May 30th, 2020

The main ideas in the journal

Quite a number of issues have been addressed in Bealer’s journal ‘A Theory of the A Priori’. In the journal, Bealer discusses the relevance of the a priori and posteriori knowledge in building a concept. Simply put, a priori knowledge is that knowledge that is derived from a priori justification. A priori justification is that which is not based on any experience but which is intuitively generated. Bealer challenges the philosophers who assume that the concepts of a priori knowledge, analyticity and the necessary truth are, in the actual sense, one and the same thing. A necessary truth is one that cannot just be false in the ordinary context, in every possible world. A negative argument of the statement will be contradictory and will often be referred to as self-defeating and justificatory.

For instance, given the reproductive nature of animals, it will be necessarily true that all the mothers are females. This will be the case among all the living animals in the universe. Analytical justification is one that follows some logical reasoning. The idea that emerges here is that, what can be true for analytical justification may not be true for a priori knowledge or necessary truth. The former may be considered the whole truth and this does not necessitate the acceptability of the other two. It is first illustrated here that the concept of a priori knowledge is actually acceptable having assumed that modality is acceptable.

An issue is also addressed concerning whether a priori justification can be defeated by other forms of evidences like the empirical evidence. This is discussed and it emerges that the a priori justifications cannot ordinarily be defeated by the empirical evidences. Cases are however hypothesized where a priori knowledge may be defeated by empirical evidence. The debate is however still fresh among the philosophers of today.

There is also a notion that knowledge and true belief are equivalent concepts. There is a further allegation that justification is equivalent to providing good evidence to support a concept that is in question. Controversial issues arise concerning these concepts. Bealer believes that if the equivalences were to hold then the knowledge and evidence would be closely married to one another. On the other hand, others like Gettier (4) have proved that both true belief and evidence are not enough to constitute knowledge as others further suggest that good evidence is not necessary at all for knowledge. They believe that the rational intuitions are not in any way capable of providing a form of justification. However, a consensus seems to have been reached that some element of good evidence is necessary for knowledge especially in the theoretical contexts.

The importance of one’s intuition in a priori knowledge is also developed and addressed in details. It is shown that intuition is good evidence that is necessary in the fields like Mathematics and Philosophy. A significant difference between intuition and belief is developed and it is observed that one can be pushed or pulled into belief a concept, but cannot have his /her intuition swayed toward some direction by a third party. It is hereby believed that ignoring our intuitions, as evidence, will impede the development of a concept, as well as establishing the validity of statements.

It is further asserted that intuitions are actually evidences and that there is a modal tie between the truth and intuitions. It is also evidently shown that there is such a binding factor between intuition and truth. This binding factor has an explained origin, and results from the need to understand our perception of various concepts in nature. Besides, those who are opposed to the use of intuition as evidenced are challenged as being unable to develop justificatory points to support their principles. The principles of empiricism, holism, and naturalism are challenged as being self-defeating principles, those that are not justificatory in their own respect.

Personal opinion about the ideas and Justifications

As has been stated earlier, a priori knowledge (or justification or argument) is that knowledge (justification or argument) which does not follow any previous phenomenal experience. It has a distinction from the posteriori knowledge, which is drawn from the evidences of the experience. In this latter case, another point of concern arises in establishing the validity of the premises that support the final (justified) statement.

The distinction between the two kinds of knowledge has often drawn attention in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, logic, and other empirical sciences. While it is true that there are statements that cannot be just accepted without the empirical accounts, there are also statements that can hold just based on the principle of reason. For instance, it requires knowledge of the past for one to know that the United States was colonized by the British who brought civilization into the States. More information is required to reveal that the missionaries established the first learning institutions in the area and that Harvard was the first institution of higher learning that was established. However, if all the above statements hold at all, then one only needs to reason out and say that Harvard is the oldest University in the United States.

This last statement is an a priori knowledge that is obtained just through reasoning. Butchvarov observed that ‘all the necessary propositions are knowable a priori and that all propositions knowable only a posteriori are contingent propositions’ (105). Thus, some a form of intuitional evidence is established here. We then notice that the two concepts are not actually exclusively related as had been perceived by many philosophers. Rather, some form of a merger need to be made for the two concepts to have a general knowledge. Butchvarov further asserts that the concept of a priori knowledge is a valid one since it ‘identifies the notion of a necessarily true proposition with that of a proposition knowable a priori’ (105). A contingent proposition is that which is not a necessary truth, while a necessary truth is that statement that cannot just be false in whichever contexts.

The concept of a priori knowledge is evidenced in the fields of mathematics and logic. Consider the principles encountered in the Set Theory in mathematics. Suppose A denotes a set that is a proper subset of another set U. If x is an element contained in the set A, it then follows through reason that x is also contained in U. The idea extends to the occurrence of mutually exclusive events as seen in Probability and Statistics, a branch of mathematics. Two or more events are said to be mutually exclusive if the occurrence of one event means that none other events can occur. If an event has occurred, then our knowledge that no other event can occur in that category is a priori knowledge. The birthday of an individual can fall on any of the seven days of the week. However, if my birthday of this year has fallen on Tuesday, then the knowledge that my birthday will not be on Wednesday is a priori knowledge.

In the field of logic, we also encounter a priori knowledge in several cases in establishing validity of statements. If we accept the first premise that the occurrence of an event P will definitely lead to the occurrence of another event Q, then if the event P actually occurs, it is definite that the event Q will occur. Our knowledge that event Q will occur having established the previous premises as true is a priori knowledge.

Moreover, other kinds of a priori knowledge are obviously deduced from our sense of intuition. For instance, one would need no experience to be able to understand that no single statement can be true and false at the same time, or that no individual or object can be present in two different locations at the same time. Rufino (48) however pointed out that this a priori knowledge might not be a necessary truth, as it could be differently perceived in other worlds. Having established that a statement is true (or false), then we can simply reason out that is negation is false (or true). Similarly, if we have identified an object or individual as being present in a particular location at a given time, then we simply reason out that the object is not present elsewhere at that particular time. A priori knowledge is not limited to the propositions arising from the necessary truth (Turri, 2). Our own intuitions naturally guide us in developing such a proposition, which results into a knowledge. Thus intuition is, indeed, good evidence.

However, a priori knowledge or justification is also subject to certain criticisms and have proved not to be perfect either. It would be justified as a priori knowledge that all the married men are bachelors. Nevertheless, this may not be so always. It has been stated in the recent past that, the Catholic popes and priest do not marry, and are not referred to as bachelors either. The understanding of the term “bachelor” will thus depend on a given a societal setting and the social norms that are practiced the society (Smith, 362). Besides, it has often been argued out that every event that occurs has a definite cause and as such, it has been a priori knowledge that if an event has been witnessed then there is surely a cause to the event. This has been proved wrong in some cases. Metaphysics has been used to reveal that they are certain events, which occur randomly and whose definite cause cannot be fully illustrated.

An eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant criticized both the pure empiricists and rationalists. According to Kant, all the knowledge that we can acquire begins with the experience that we get but goes ahead to suggest that it is not the case that the knowledge actually arise fro the experience. He differs with the empiricists and asserts that a priori knowledge is not dependent on experience. He also differs with the rationalist and argues that a priori knowledge is actually drawn from deductive elimination from all the possible conditions. In general, Kant suggests a likelihood of a priori knowledge that is different from the likelihood of an empirical experience (Greenberg, 4).

His criticism of the theory of the a priori was however challenged by philosophers like Strawson. Strawson challenged Kant’s criticisms as applying scientific models in investigating the abilities of individuals to recognize the object and their related concepts like time, space, and category (Greenberg, 7). This suggests that to some extent, the a priori knowledge has some relationship with the experience. He thus observes that a priori knowledge is based on all the possible experience concerning the concept while a posteriori knowledge is based on just the contents of the experience. On the other hand, Hawthorne (Para. 4) argues that a priori knowledge is that which is completely independent of both the ‘perceptual and sensory experience’.

The theory of the a priori has also been criticized as being a narrow-minded approach, especially as it has been described by Kant as being completely independent of any previous experience. It is argued out that should this be the case, then the a priori knowledge would solely depend on ideas that an individual is naturally born with. As such, the a priori knowledge cannot be acquired. It is thus believed that if the a priori knowledge is to be that independent, then it has to be independent even to the earlier concepts that are necessary to explain the concepts that are being addressed presently.


Despite the few criticisms that are given in opposition to the a priori knowledge, it is evident that in deed there is such kind of knowledge and that we do encounter and use it in everyday life.

What also need to be noted is that the a priori knowledge is not equivalent to a necessary truth and neither is a true belief. It is not a substitute of the posteriori knowledge. Rather, the two, a priori and posteriori knowledge are complementary to each other with one filling the gap the other has left. In other words, if one knows a concept because of the experience he or she has concerning the concept, then he also justifies the negated statement simply by reason. Therefore, both a priori and posteriori justifications are necessary in obtaining the full knowledge of a concept.

Further, it can be reasoned out that although there instances when the a priori knowledge can be disapproved by the experiential justifications, the a priori knowledge is not completely independent of experience. Instead, there are the possibilities that there are justifications that are completely independent of the experience; there are those that are independent of experience but which can be ruled out by the experiential evidence, and that there are those justifications that fully depend on the experience. The a priori knowledge can fall in the first and second category while the empirical falls in the last category. The supposed close relation between the two kinds of justifications is thus evident. It is observed that there are possible cases of a priori knowledge, but with empirical justifications, or posteriori cases with non-empirical evidence (Butchvarov, 104).

There is also a need to acknowledge that even though a priori knowledge is independent of experience, we cannot just detach it from empirical evidence. The fact that our a priori knowledge is independent of empirical evidence is not a guaranty that the experiential justifications cannot rule out our a priori justifications. The experiential justification could not be dominant in some cases and yet they defeat the a priori justification that we provide as evidence of knowledge.

Works Cited

Bealer, George. “A Theory of the A Priori: Philosophical Perspectives.” Epistemology, Vol.33, pp.29-55. 1999.

Butchvarov, Panayot. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. 1970. Web.

Gettier, Edmund. “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Analysis, Vol.23, No. 6, pp.121-123. 1963. Web.

Greenberg, Robert. Pennsylvania: Penn State Press. 2001. Web.

Hawthorne, John. Deeply Contingent A Priori Knowledge. N.d. Web.

Rufino, Marco. “The Contingent A Priori and de re Knowledge.” Latin Meeting in analytic Philosophy Geneva, pp.45-58. Web.

Smith, Michael. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2004. Web.

Turri, John. Contingent A Priori Knowledge: Forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Huron University. N.d. Web.

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