What is a priori knowledge? Is there any?To know a proposition a priori is “simply to know that proposition independently of experience” . When looking at questions of a metaphysical nature, it would appear that metaphysics is an a priori discipline, due to its exploration of questions that we cannot gain an answer to through observation. However, the term a priori itself is not one that is simply accepted as truth, rather it incites debate in a number of philosophers regarding its existence. In this essay I shall be exploring a number of philosopher’s views on the term, as well as exploring the distinction between a priori and innate knowledge and if that distinction is important. Overall a priori knowledge can certainly be questionable in nature, however I believe there is definite merit to the term and the understanding from it.
Before examining the contrasting stances on a priori language perhaps it is beneficial to examine the term and its usefulness in more detail. An a priori statement may go as follows; all bachelors are unmarried. The reason this statement is a priori knowledge is because the comprehension of the knowledge can be obtained from the statement without any outside experience. In the case of this example, we know a bachelor is unmarried not because we have to ask a bachelor, but because the definition of a bachelor is an unmarried man. A priori knowledge such as this is useful to philosophers, because “it seems that many philosophical issues aren’t settled by our experience of the world — the nature of morality; the way concepts pick out objects; the structure of our experience of the world in which we find ourselves — these issues seem to be decided not on the basis of our experience, but in some manner by things prior to (or independently of) that experience” . If a priori knowledge does indeed exist, then this allows philosophers to ponder questions outside of experience, and therefore provides us with a far more interesting look at metaphysical questions. Furthermore, a priori knowledge provides us with more understanding about knowledge from experience; “we learn more about how experience contributes to knowledge when we see what knowledge is available independent of that experience” . If we accept that knowledge can be obtained from outside of experience, then we open ourselves up to a number of interesting questions on quite how such knowledge exists.
This is where some controversy can arise. If we allow for a priori knowledge, then we must understand what is truly meant by “independent of experience” . Can knowledge actually exist without any type of contextual experience; “don’t people have to learn from experience what bachelors, crows, and knowledge are in order to be justified in believing” these propositions?If we are to discuss the topic of a priori language; a vital philosopher who first argued for the existence of such knowledge is Immanuel Kant. Kant wanted to know if reason alone could be used for determining propositions, without the use of the senses or other faculties. The purpose of “the Critique is to examine whether, how, and to what extent human reason is capable of a priori knowledge” . He wanted to contrast the views of Hume, in which metaphysics was suggested to be a useless discipline. In Kant’s famous novel: Critique of Pure Reason, he first defines the term;”General truths, which at the same time bear the character of an inward necessity, must be independent of experience – clear and certain by themselves. They are therefore called knowledge a priori while what is simply taken from experience is said to be, in ordinary parlance, known a posteriori or empirically only” A priori is more than just knowledge independent of experience, it is necessary and universal as opposed to subjective and sensed based.
According to Kant, one can have an a priori statement which is also synthetic; a famous case of this type of knowledge is mathematics. For example, the statement “12+10 = 22” is a priori; it is a necessary and universal truth we know independent of experience. However, the statement is also synthetic, as the number twenty-two is not contained within the numbers ten or twelve. It is easy to agree with Kant’s definition of a priori in this way, due to the use of the term universal.
For Kant, some knowledge physics would be a priori but synthetic as physicals processes are universal and necessary, but we understand them through experience. The ability to distinguish knowledge is this way is very beneficial; it allows us to ask questions above the realms of normal understanding. If we accept that mathematical knowledge is somehow a priori, then we can infer that pure reason can be capable of knowing important truths. Here Kant tries to redefine metaphysics as a discipline tasked with studying the role, power, and limitations of reason itself. Such a task is clearly beneficial in understanding the world around us, and if a priori knowledge can be used to do that then it suggests it has significant merit.Here, Kant continues by discussing how he believes a priori affects our perception of the physical world.
He states that “we can have a priori knowledge about the general structure of the sensible world because it is not entirely independent of the human mind” . This means that a priori knowledge is only possible when it depends on the way the mind structures its experience. He states that the mind does not passively receive information from the senses, rather it shapes it and makes it comprehensive.
Our most important sense comes from our intuition, rather than sensory experience, as according to Kant, sense experience only makes sense due to our intuition. Kant includes in this the knowledge of things such as time and space; these too are constructs of the mind and not accessible independently from the mind. These ideas were revolutionary, to think of our perception as creating reality, rather than reality creating our perception. However, it provides an interesting point of discussion within this debate.
If a priori knowledge can be used to understand the world, then it appears to have considerable benefits.Another debate linked to the question of a priori knowledge is the question of innateness. A distinction must be made between innate knowledge and a priori knowledge. The distinction between the two is a small one. Innate or learnt knowledge is concerned with how knowledge is acquired, while a priori and a posteriori (knowledge gained from experience) focus on how knowledge is justified. This distinction is important as there are some philosophers such as John Locke and Chomsky who discuss the strengths and weaknesses of knowledge being innate but not necessarily a priori. An example of this may be the interesting relationship between babies and innate ideas of physics. It seems that “infants are born with expectations about the objects around them, even though that knowledge is a skill that’s never been taught” .
Obviously, the rules of gravity are not a priori knowledge, we cannot understand them without experience. Yet if this phenomenon is true, then the babies have the innate knowledge about a posteriori concepts. This being said, there is clearly a connection between innate knowledge and a priori knowledge, as philosophers such as Kant often discuss the two together.
Furthermore, some make take a priori knowledge to mean “apart from experience” rather than independent; such a connotation would therefore suggest that a priori knowledge can be innate, if not potentially always innate. Therefore, it is interesting to look at a priori knowledge from an innate standpoint when debating its existence. Two such thinkers that argue for and against the existence of innate knowledge are John Locke and Noam Chomsky. For Locke, innate knowledge is not real, due to the fact that all knowledge must be gained from experience;”Everyone will agree, presumably, that it would be absurd to suppose that the ideas of colours are innate in a creature to whom God has given eyesight, which is a power to get those ideas through the eyes from external objects.
It would be equally unreasonable to explain our knowledge of various truths in terms of innate ‘imprinting’ if it could just as easily be explained through our ordinary abilities to come to know things” .While Locke does not mention the word a priori in his work, this case can be used to critique the idea of a priori knowledge as Locke is arguing against the existence of evidence independent of experience. Locke states that there is no evidence to support the idea that knowledge can be innate because “if propositions were innate they should be immediately perceived—by infants and idiots (and indeed everyone else)—but there is no evidence that they are” .
If we are born with a priori knowledge, then the fact that it is not immediately accessible does raise some questions. Furthermore if a priori knowledge is not innate in any way, then it seems difficult to comprehend how such knowledge can exist. It could be suggested that a priori statements such as a bicycle has two wheels seem a priori based on semantics; knowledge that a bicycle has two wheels either comes from direct experience of a bicycle or from the lexical understanding that “bi” means two. However, it could be argued that actually neither of these ideas come from a priori knowledge, even if comprehension of the sentence may appear this way. No new understanding is gained from the statement; therefore, it questions the usefulness of characterising the proposition in this way. However, there are also thinks such as Noam Chomsky who believe that knowledge can indeed exist innately. Here Chomsky’s focus is on language acquisition, in which he believes that “the language faculty contains innate knowledge of various linguistic rules, constraints and principles; this innate knowledge constitutes the ‘initial state’ of the language faculty” .
Chomsky believes that we are all born with an innate understanding of universal grammar, and it is this knowledge which allows humans to pick up and understand language. Universal grammar, “is the reason why humans can recognize grammatically correct yet nonsensical phrases, such as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” . Chomsky’s reasoning for believing this is that when children are learning to speak, they can be exposed to a variety of helpful and unhelpful stimuli and yet appear to be able to disregard unhelpful stimuli when learning language.
If children learnt language purely through experience conditioning, then “it is unclear that conditioning could even in principle give rise to a set of dispositions rich enough to generate the full range of a person’s linguistic behaviour” . If knowledge of language is only based on experience, then the ability for children to acquire it at the speed they do even surrounded by adults who disregard grammar rules or provide a lack of helpful conditioning, is difficult to comprehend. Here Chomsky certainly makes a compelling point for the existence of innate language and in part for a priori knowledge. If language, a fundamental tool for the study of philosophy, has an innate quality to it, then it may be more plausible to imagine how statements can contain a priori knowledge. If our understanding of “bi” comes from an innate place, then it makes more logical sense as to how we can suggest that “A bicycle has two wheels” is a priori.
It is clearly evident that a priori statements can certainly be useful when trying to discuss propositions in the philosophical world. There can be no doubt that experience must play a role in how we obtain knowledge. This is how we know that the grass is green or that the sun is a star.
However, this does not mean that all knowledge has to be obtained this way. As Kant states;”There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience… in the order of time, therefore we have no knowledge antecedent to experience, and with experience all our knowledge begins. But though all out knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it arises out of experience” .Having a priori knowledge allows us to explore concepts and ideas that just sensory understanding does not give us access to. Above we have looked at a number of different views on a priori and innate knowledge, and while Locke may be compelling with his demonstration of the lack of evidence to support some a priori statements, I believe it is undeniable that there are benefits to using the term a priori. If nothing else it provides us with a useful way to categorise certain aspects of knowledge, perhaps however, it allows us to reach higher levels of understanding that we would not be capable of if our knowledge purely came from experience.