[hist-analytic] Frederick's conception of the A Priori

Danny Frederick danny.frederick at tiscali.co.uk
Thu Apr 2 12:16:31 EDT 2009

Hi Roger,

Of course, you can use the word 'justification' in any way you want. The
members of a cult, for instance, may have a procedure for deciding on
whether to accept particular mystical statements, and any statement that is
accepted in that way they can call 'justified.' No doubt the term
'justified' will seem a natural enough one for them to use in such a
situation. But if our concern is epistemology (and that has been my
assumption throughout this discussion), then the use of the term 'justified'
should have some real connection to truth. I maintain that that we are not
in a position to ascertain whether our statements are true or likely to be
true or even whether one of them is closer to the truth than another. So it
seems to me misleading to use the word 'justified' in epistemology, though
we can find uses for the word in other contexts in which truth is not in
question (for example, when deciding to buy something we may say that the
benefits justify the costs).

A 'convincing demonstration that a conjecture is provable in ZFC' might
justify accepting the conjecture as a move in a game, for instance; but it
does not justify it epistemically, since a convincing demonstration may turn
out to be invalid or unsound. As you say, 'we are free (as individuals or in
groups such as professions) to decide what kind of justification we will
demand before some conjecture is accepted by us or by some institution as
accepted fact.' Of course we are. But unless we can show that conjectures
accepted in this way are true, or probably true, or closer to the truth than
conjectures accepted via some other rigmarole, then we have not shown that
these conjectures are epistemically justified. Yes, they are justified by
our rules. But what bearing do these rules have on truth? We can invent any
game we like for accepting propositions that we can then SAY are justified
(religious sects and cults do this, don't they?); but that does not mean
that they are epistemically justified. 

I am a bit puzzled why you are a bit puzzled about why I take a stand on the
classification of propositions as a priori or empirical. Given the arguments
I presented last time (which derive from Duhem), I do not see how we COULD
distinguish empirical and a priori propositions. I think we can distinguish
empirical and a priori KNOWLEDGE (using 'knowledge' here in a fallibilist
sense, given my rejection of all justification). If we know something, we
should be able to say how, and that should (eventually at least) identify
what we know as either empirical or a priori. But for all the propositions
that we don't know, we obviously cannot say how we know them, so the same
style of demarcating a priori from empirical is not open to us. We cannot
use falsifiability because it seems that any proposition can be an essential
part of a falsifiable system of statements.

Popper never concerned himself with the issue directly. In fact, he says
very little about a priori knowledge or its sources. Lakatos, of course,
extended Popper's approach into this area; but, so far as I know, he never
ventured to distinguish a priori from empirical propositions. I seem to
recall that John Watkins wrote a paper called 'Between a priori and
empirical' (or something similar), the topic of his discussion being
metaphysical statements.

I hope I am still around when you post your further reflections. And I will
comment if I think I have anything worthwhile to say. But we come at this
from such different angles that we may, as you say, 'fail to reach



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