Thursday, October 11, 2012

Where does apriority live?

Here are some things that can be violent:

  • Neighborhoods
  • People
  • Actions
Violence inheres in these different kinds of things in different kinds of ways. A violent person is liable to punch you in the face if provoked; that the neighborhood will never punch you in the face doesn't count against its violence. Still, it's not like there's not a general category, violence, that applies in some sense to violent neighborhoods, violent people, and violent actions. These things are certainly connected somehow or other.

When you have this kind of set-up, you can sensibly ask which kind of entity is the best candidate for a more fundamental bearer of the property. To put it a bit colorfully: where does the violence live? Although I can imagine some people disagreeing, it seems to me pretty plausible that the violence of a neighborhood is explained by the violence of the people who populate it, rather than vice versa. Violence doesn't live in neighborhoods. And what makes a violent person? It seems to me that it has something to do with a propensity to perform violent actions. On this way of answering the question, violence ultimately lives in actions. But maybe not, maybe there's no real way to understand a violent action independently of the violent character traits that make a person violent. Maybe violence ultimately lives in people, or in character traits. I'd be curious to hear arguments about this interesting question. It's not my area.

But my area has some similarly interesting questions, too. Consider apriority. Here are some things that can be a priori:
  • Knowledge
  • Justification of beliefs
  • Justification for beliefs
If you believe in apriority, it's worth spending a bit of time thinking about where the apriority lives. Presumably, a priori knowledge is somehow related to a priori belief and to a priori justification; but how? If you think that apriority lives in knowledge, then your theory of the a priori will begin with a theory of what it is to know something a priori; then you'll explain these other notions in terms of a priori knowledge. If, by contrast, you think that apriority lives in the justification of beliefs, then doxastic justification will be your entry point in your theory of justification; a priori knowledge might be characterized as a priori justification plus truth and the right kind of connection that knowledge requires; a priori justification for belief might be a matter of being in a position to have an a priori justified belief.

At this start of his 2003 book, Al Casullo offers this argument apriority's living in knowledge:
[A]n analysis of a priori knowledge must address the Gettier problem. The goal of an analysis of a priori knowledge, however, is not to solve that problem. Its goal is to mark the difference between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, but it is not very likely that this difference resides in the details of the solution to the Gettier problem. (10)
But I think this argument misses its mark. While I agree that thinking about Gettier cases doesn't seem likely to have anything super interesting to say about apriority, that doesn't mean anything about apriority lives. (Think about how hard it is to give a theory of personhood -- this is neither here nor there for the question of whether violence lives in people or actions or neighborhoods.) One could think that apriority lives in knowledge, offering a theory of a priori knowledge in terms of knowledge, and then characterizing other the apriority of other categories derivatively. So I think it's just false that an analysis of a priori knowledge must address the Gettier problem.

I don't really know how to offer a direct argument for apriority's living in one place rather than another. Casullo argues against knowledge, and supposes instead that apriority lives in the justification of beliefs. I'm on the record as thinking that apriority lives in propositional, rather than doxastic, justification. (This option isn't considered by Casullo, as far as I can tell.) The closest thing to an argument I can think of is that the best example I know of of a theory of apriority in terms of propositional justification looks like the best theory of apriority to me. But I'd be interested to think a bit more about whether there are general arguments to be made at this more abstract level.


  1. Yet another possibility that should be taken seriously, I believe, is that the ultimate home of the priori is the justification of *patterns of reasoning*.

    This is not to deny that there is a priori justification of beliefs, or for beliefs, or a priori knowledge; it is to claim that the a priori justification of beliefs is ultimately explained by the a priori justification of patterns of reasoning.

    E.g. perhaps your a priori justification for believing "If Ralph is an uncle, Ralph is male" is explained by your a priori justification for (a) the rule of inference "From 'x is an uncle' infer 'x is male'" and (b) the rule of conditional proof - since simply by following those two rules, without any additional input from experience or empirical beliefs, you can rationally form a belief in that proposition.

  2. Good point, Ralph -- I agree. Another candidate location is in propositions.