Discussion:
  1. George Bealer (2000). A Theory of the a Priori. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 81 (1):1–30.
    The topic of a priori knowledge is approached through the theory of evidence. A shortcoming in traditional formulations of moderate rationalism and moderate empiricism is that they fail to explain why rational intuition and phenomenal experience count as basic sources of evidence. This explanatory gap is filled by modal reliabilism -- the theory that there is a qualified modal tie between basic sources of evidence and the truth. This tie to the truth is then explained by the theory of concept (...)
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2009-05-15
MLE seminar comments on Bealer

Cross-posted from http://mleseminar.wordpress.com/

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George Bealer - A theory of the a priori


For the first meeting of Trinity, we discussed George Bealer’s 'A theory of the a priori'. The paper is available here, and the handout is here.

Alex lists some objections to Bealer’s view at the end of the handout, all of which we agreed with. Taken together, they seem to significantly undermine the interest of the theory presented in the paper. But here are a few more problems we raised in discussion:

The anti-Quinean argument seemed unconvincing. It doesn’t have any force against Quineans who either a) reject the normative force of a demand for justification of their epistemological theory or b) think that ‘justification’ and allied concepts will appear in well-developed theories of psychology and sociology. Since I guess that all contemporary Quineans will take one or other of these options, I don’t think Bealer’s argument will worry anyone.

I worried that there was an uncomfortable methodological circularity in Bealer’s position. He argues for the reliability of intuitions based on certain intuitions about possible scenarios, for example intuitions about whether we determinately possess concepts in the ‘multigon’ case. But someone who rejected the thesis that intuitions are evidence would reject the premises of this argument that intutions are evidence – so the argument is not at all persuasive.

We wondered exactly what Bealer means by the distinction between analytic and synthetic a priori knowledge. The best reconstruction we could give of it was as follows: analytic a priori knowledge is ‘brute’ knowledge, while synthetic a priori knowledge results from theoretical systematization of the analytic a priori knowledge. But there really isn’t enough on the distinction in this paper to be sure what Bealer intended.

Finally, I just want to emphasize how weak the conclusion seems to be. Bealer seems to be arguing simply that a priori knowledge is metaphysically possible, for some creature with appropriate cognitive powers and conceptual resources. He says that this gives us reason to think we can have a priori knowledge insofar as we approximate these conditions. But this gives us no reason whatsoever to think that we can in fact have any a priori knowledge. For all Bealer has shown, these conditions cannot even be approximated by creatures in our epistemic situation. The only positive argument that they can seems to be an equivocation on ‘determinate concept-possession’.