I have long thought Empiricism to be the sole method available for acquiring new knowledge. I felt that any alternative method, if employed, was merely the regurgitation of previously experienced concepts, which ultimately offers nothing new, and was generally trivial. I didn’t adopt this attitude irresponsibly, however. I became a proponent of empiricist epistemology through Locke and Hume. Their works provided a consistent foundation that affirmed my own cogitations. Moreover, I read the opposing rationalist views, such as Descartes and Leibniz, but remained unconvinced of a priori knowledge. That is not to say that I opposed their philosophies altogether; I simply could not accept certain portions therein. Ironically, my rejection of Descartes’ epistemology – with respect to eternal truths – emerged from adopting the first of his four precepts of logic from Discourse on Method:
“… accept nothing as true which I [do] not clearly recognize to be so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.”
So, by following Descartes’ advice, I dismissed Descartes’ arguments. I have repeatedly practiced this – adopting and rejecting arguments from the same philosopher – and have come to find it’s rather common; everyone does this, consciously or not. Furthermore, philosophers become well known because they present new arguments; or old arguments from a fresh perspective. For this reason, philosophy is anything but static. I remind myself of this as I develop my own philosophy; for newly acquired knowledge has the potential to impact the principles one currently holds; and the implementation of this maxim is at the centermost point of this discourse.
Over the course of my education, I have repeatedly come across examples of a priori knowledge that momentarily made since; but upon further examination I usually came to the same conclusion: the example used would not be possible if it originated outside of experience. Because these examples continued to arise, and because contemporary philosophers now largely agree that a priori knowledge is possible, I thought it was necessary to reconsider my position. Appropriately, the same man that caused me to reject his philosophy, caused me to reconsider it:
“… first of all employ much time in preparing myself for the work by eradicating from my mind all the wrong opinions that I had up to this time accepted, and accumulating a variety of experiences fitted later on to afford matter for my reasonings, and by ever exercising myself in the Method I had prescribed, in order more and more to fortify myself in the power of using it.”
In order to abide by this maxim, it became necessary to extirpate my previous judgments and start anew. In doing so, I naturally revisited past conclusions, but I tried to remain more malleable throughout the process.
First, my position on innate principles largely remained unchanged. To imagine that a child contains ideas that are imprinted on its brain, yet are inaccessible until a reasonable age, seems unintelligible. How can one argue that propositions exist on the brain that remain unknown? To be sure, one could cite memory lapses that provide instances when ideas that were previously acquired proved temporarily inaccessible; but these instances only occur when using the faculty of recollection. In order to use such a faculty, one must first be aware of the idea, then recall it to use. This would be impossible for innate principles under the “age of reason” argument based on the second Law of Thought: Nothing can both be and not be. In other words, I cannot recollect something I am unaware of because that would imply that I am both aware and unaware simultaneously. Moreover, if the information merely becomes apprehended after one reaches the “age of reason”, then how do we explain principles that are attained prior to the use thereof? In this scenario, the faculty of reason becomes nothing more than the discovery of pre-existing concepts. This leads to cognitive determinism, which limits the scope of humanity’s knowledge. Therefore, it is reasonable to affirm – as Locke did – that the capacity is innate, while knowledge is acquired.
After establishing, at least, that knowledge is initially derived a posteriori, I was then able to turn my sights on the following question: After acquiring a degree of knowledge, is it possible to arrive at additional truths outside of experience? Various arguments have been put forward, which I revisited with the same conclusions as before. But then it occurred to me that I had not revisited Kant since I first began my philosophical studies. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was one of the first philosophy books I read, which meant I likely misunderstood it. I was not ignorant of this; in fact, I already had plans to read it again. However, while reading Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, Russell referenced multiple a priori examples from Kant’s work that I could find no fault in. So, Critique of Pure Reason moved directly to the top of my priority list.
Not surprisingly – owing to Russell’s synopsis – Kant’s first few sentences were altogether compatible with my deliberations. He said, “That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt… But, though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience.”
Kant established a harmony between Empiricism and Rationalism by dividing a priori knowledge into two classifications: analytic and synthetic judgments. In simple terms, a judgment is analytic if the predicate concept is contained within the subject. In contrast, a judgment is synthetic if the predicate concept is absent in the subject. For instance, “all triangles have three sides” is an analytic judgment; it is necessary by definition for a triangle to have three sides. Moreover, the proposition provides no additional knowledge, and although grounded in experience – one must comprehend the nature of a triangle to gather that it has three sides – it does not require experience to verify. By comparison, the proposition “7 + 5 = 12” is a synthetic judgment; the concepts of “7” and “5”, and the idea of adding them, are not found within the subject concept of “12”.
Of these judgments, the synthetic allows for knowledge to arise outside of experience, which I will address below. Before I do so, however, one must assent to the counterintuitive truth that a priori knowledge is the only form by which certainties can be obtained. Simply stated, a posteriori is limited in scope, and therefore can only supply probabilities because we can never hope to experience every variation of a given proposition. For instance, we expect the laws of motion to continue as they always have because experience has yet to provide converse examples. The verification of our expectations are therefore limited because we cannot project with certainty into the future. This is the Principle of Induction as stated by Russell.
“(a) When a thing of a certain sort A has been found to be associated with a thing of a certain sort B, and has never been found dissociated from a thing of the sort B, the greater the number of cases in which A and B have been associated, the greater is the probability that they will be associated in a fresh case in which one of them is known to be present;
(b) Under the same circumstances, a sufficient number of cases of association will make the probability of a fresh association nearly a certainty, and will make it approach certainty without limit.”
This principle is well known in all fields of science. Any scientist will explain that when dealing with empirical evidence, uncertainty is the only certainty; thus the agent of antagonism towards the scientific community manifests itself. For this reason, Empiricism is often mistaken as an inadequate method for understanding nature; and perhaps to a degree, this is true. Yet, advocates of this ethos are engaging in a fundamental misapprehension. That is, if a proposition has been demonstrated as probable by applying the induction principle, it does not necessarily follow that the argument is deficient. On the contrary, it remains valid until conflicting evidence comes into being.
In comparison, a priori knowledge can be verified with certainty for two reasons. First, all a priori knowledge applies to the relation between general ideas, such as numbers. Conversely, all a posteriori knowledge applies to the relation between particular experiences, such as migratory patterns. With migratory patterns, the probability of future patterns can be induced through past experiences; but by nature contain potential inconsistencies. In the case of numbers, the concept of “7” is general and consistent. Numbers are consistent by nature, just as other general ideas such as triangles – a triangle by nature consists of three sides. These attributes are described as necessary – they are necessary in all possible scenarios. Whereas a particular concept, such as mortality, may not be necessary in scenarios yet to be experienced. This attribute – necessity – is the second reason a priori knowledge can be verified with certainty.
Thus, by way of a priori, new knowledge can be acquired. This, as discussed, is possible due to the nature of general ideas and the resulting relation thereof. The recognition of this is truly inspiring; for it suggests that man can exceed the limitations of his own experiences. What’s more, it remains entirely compatible with Empiricism by virtue of its origins – all knowledge originates in experience. It has become apparent that I reviewed these principles rapidly, and without a solid foundation. Let it be a lesson for all future considerations.
Tags: a posteriori, a priori, Analytic and Synthetic Judgments, Cognition, Contemplation, David Hume, Development, empiricism, Epistemology, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Philosophy, Rationalism, Reason, Rene Descartes