The meaning of a priori

Will Wilkinson says the following:

First, I don’t believe in a priori anything. My view is very similar to my one-time grad advisor Michael Devitt in his aptly titled paper, “ There Is No A Priori.” There is only one way of knowing: the empirical way! . . .

Where I definitely part ways with the conservative is that I think it is both possible and desirable to critically evaluate our “full-bodied tradition” — to identity inherited habits of feeling, such as patriotism, that have generally pernicious consequences, and to argue against them on those grounds. (Perhaps Foster should consider that I’m hard on patriotism not because I don’t appreciate the overriding power of moral emotion, but because I do.) This evaluation isn’t done “on a chalkboard,” but through a delicate, messy, and indeterminate process of seeking wide reflective equilibrium — the process of detecting and eliminating internal inconsistencies within our traditional moral judgments, and then detecting and eliminating inconsistencies between our refined judgments and the well-established findings of the psychological, social, and other relevant sciences.

The problem with this is that it’s wrong.

Wilkinson believes that "the only way of knowing" is empirical. By this, he seems to me that he can "critically evaluate our ‘full-bodied tradition’" and render judgment unto it (from on high).

The conservative belief is that this action is impossible for one human being – or any group of human beings – to do. No one can: 1) completely conceive of the entirety of our tradition; 2) understand all possible alternative states; and 3) determine which state would be best.

Wilkinson, however, believes that he can. This belief of his is an a priori belief. There is absolutely no empirical reason to believe that 1-3 are possible. He takes it as a priori true that it is possible. Finally, this belief is obviously the most conceited possible belief that a person could hold. I think it’s difficult to believe in an omnipotent God, but it’s fucking crazy to believe in an omnipotent Wilkinson.

He then goes on to discuss patriotism, which he blithely tells us has "generally pernicious consequences."

This example illustrates my point. Does patriotism have "generally pernicious consequences?" Some types of patriotism do, some don’t. When patriotic societies are compared to unpatriotic or apatriotic (if I can invent a word) what do we see? It’s hard to say, since the latter types don’t last long.


7 Responses to The meaning of a priori

  1. Ryan says:

    The conservative belief is that this action is impossible for one human being – or any group of human beings – to do. No one can: 1) completely conceive of the entirety of our tradition; 2) understand all possible alternative states; and 3) determine which state would be best.

    I like this definition of conservatism. If I’m not mistaken this definition of conservatism is very similar to something Hayek wrote somewhere. And yet, Hayek wrote that essay about how he wasn’t a conservative…

  2. Ulysses says:

    I appreciate some of the things Wilkinson writes, especially in regards to health care and education, but I also know, a priori, that he is pretty reflexively liberal when it comes to subjects like patriotism.

  3. aretae says:

    Will’s a philosopher, and friend from a few years back.

    A priori is a specific, careful philosophical term. Will’s using it that way. You’re not. Further, you’re implying a lot to Will that just isn’t true. He is 100% empiricist.

    If you read carefully,

    He doesn’t believe 1,2, or 3 on your list.
    He looks at other places which seem to be doing things substantially better (Canada, Singapore), and places that do things substantially worse (France, China) and looks at things they do differently, and guesses at what changes would be helpful. That’s called empiricism.

    Suggesting that it requires someone to “completely conceive of the entirety of our tradition” to propose changes is to suggest never changing at all.

    How about a question instead? When is it reasonable for someone looking at the evidence to suggest that some tradition is probably a bad thing? Will has addressed the question, both a little in this post, and a lot elsewhere. You seem to have assumed that he holds an answer that seems explicitly contradicted by the full text of his piece.

    • Foseti says:

      I stand by what I wrote. The record of people standing back, assessing society, and making reasoned changes to society is terrible. If you’re “100% empiricist” you would simply would not do that.

      Looking at other countries and following them is not an empirical approach unless you control for every different variable across countries. Controlling for everything is obviously impossible. So, actually making any changes requires an a priori belief. It also assumes that things in this country aren’t the way they are for any specific reason – another bold a priori assumption. I don’t really want to defend conservatism here, but he’s misconstruing it.

      Finally, I’d add that I was intentionally a bit snarky. Wilkinson was reacting to a specific comment. I have not changed (or misread) Wilkinson’s position any more than he changed (or misread) the position that he was responding to.

      I’ll answer your question from a conservative perspective. The conservative is pretty uncomfortable (and much to humble) to suggest massive changes in any tradition. Yes, he might think some are stupid, but he’s going to be very careful stating that they should be substituted for other policies even if they work in other countries – like Singapore which has the world’s most discriminatory immigration system, for example.

  4. Matt says:

    Not to mention that, like most commentators from his side of the aisle, he tends to confuse patriotism with nationalism and/or chauvinism. Which makes it rather impractical to have any kind of serious discussion about the putative merits and demerits of patriotism.

  5. icr says:

    What does “patriotism” mean in a polyglot empire like the United States? I wish Willmoore Kendall were still alive to analyze the current condition of the US.

  6. Borepatch says:

    @icr: can we please just leave the concept of “American Empire” of the dustheap of history? It’s been pretty thoroughly debunked.

    And while I hesitate to debate Aretae, it seems that Kant had something relevant to say about the subject of a priori knowledge, and the nature of empiricism.

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