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A priori and a posteriori

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The terms a priori ("from the former") and a posteriori ("from the latter") are used in philosophy (epistemology) to distinguish two types of knowledge, justifications or arguments. A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience (for example 'All bachelors are unmarried'); a posteriori knowledge or justification is dependent on experience or empirical evidence (for example 'Some bachelors are very happy'). A priori justification makes reference to experience; but the issue concerns how one knows the proposition or claim in question—what justifies or grounds one's belief in it. Galen Strawson wrote that an a priori argument is one of 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."[1] There are many points of view on these two types of assertion, and their relationship is one of the oldest problems in modern philosophy.

See also the related 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 known independently of experience, and 'a posteriori knowledge' is proven through 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."

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 at least a day." 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.), according to which something like a priori knowledge is knowledge inherent, intrinsic 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 it arises from experience"[2] 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)."[2] 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 constitutes subjectivity and what relation it holds with objectivity and the empirical.

Analyticity and necessity

Relation to the analytic-synthetic

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."[3] One theory, popular among the logical positivists of the early twentieth century, is what Boghossian calls the "analytic explanation of the a priori."[3] 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."[4] 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."[5] 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."[6]

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...."[7] 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",[8] 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.

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.

Kripke's definitions of these terms, however, diverge in subtle ways from those of Kant. Taking these differences into account, Kripke's controversial analysis of naming as contingent and a priori would best fit into Kant's epistemological framework by calling it "analytic a posteriori".[9]

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.[10]


  1. (Sommers, 2003)[page needed]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kant (1781), introduction, §I.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Boghossian (1996), p. 363.
  4. Quine (1951), p. 21.
  5. Quine (1951), p. 34.
  6. Baehr (2006), §3.
  7. Fodor (1998), p. 86.
  8. Quine (1951), §1.
  9. Stephen Palmquist, "A Priori Knowledge in Perspective: (II) Naming, Necessity and the Analytic A Posteriori", The Review of Metaphysics 41:2 (December 1987), pp.255-282. See also "A Priori Knowledge in Perspective: (I) Mathematics, Method and Pure Intuition", The Review of Metaphysics 41:1 (September 1987), pp.3-22. In this pair of articles, Palmquist demonstrates that the context often determines how a particular proposition should be classified. A proposition that is synthetic a posteriori in one context might be analytic a priori in another.
  10. See Baehr (2006), §2 & §3.

References and further reading

  • Baehr, Jason. (2006). "A Priori and A Posteriori," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Boghossian, Paul. (1997). "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). "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. "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). An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Nidditch, P. N. (ed.), 3rd. ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
  • Jenkins, C. S. (2008). A Priori Knowledge: Debates and Developments, in Philosophy Compass 3.
  • Kant, Immanuel. (1781). Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N.K. Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929). Online text
  • Kant, Immanuel. (1783). Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, Paul Carus (trans.). 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). Monadology, in Philosophical Essays, edited and translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.
  • Locke, John. (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Prometheus Books.
  • Palmquist, Stephen. (1987). "Knowledge and Experience - An Examination of the Four Reflective 'Perspectives' in Kant's Critical Philosophy", Kant-Studien 78:2, pp. 170–200; revised and reprinted as Chapter IV in Kant's System of Perspectives: An architectonic interpretation of the Critical philosophy. University Press of America, 1993.
  • Plato. (380 B.C.). Meno, in Plato: Complete Works, Cooper, J. M. (ed.), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
  • Sommers, Tamler: "The buck stops—where? Living without ultimate responsibility" (The Believer, March 2003).
  • Quine, W. V. O. (1951). "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.)

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