A priori

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The term a priori ( Latin a / ab 'from ... her' and Latin prior 'the front, earlier, first [of two], following'; correct Latin actually “a priore”) was used in scholastic philosophy as a translation of the Aristotelian distinction used between “proteron” and “hysteron” (condition and conditional). From there, the expression entered German technical language as a syntagma in the 16th century .

In modern philosophy , the term describes an epistemological property of judgments : a priori judgments can be made without a basis of experience ( empiricism ); they are conditions of experience or are derived from it. In contrast to this are judgments a posteriori . In general, all analytical judgments are considered a priori . The terms a priori and a posteriori have had their theoretical meaning since the middle of the 17th century, but at the latest since Immanuel Kant .

Derived from the more recent usage, a priori knowledge denotes knowledge that is independent of experience (see Apriorism ). In contrast to this, there is empirical or experience-based knowledge, which was obtained in particular through one's own sensory perception. In everyday language and in various technical language contexts, facts that are already fixed “from the start” with the assumption of certain conditions are referred to as a priori .

History of philosophy

Ancient and Middle Ages

The term was first mentioned in the 14th century in the writings of the logician Albert von Sachsen . An a priori argument here meant “from causes to effect” and an a posteriori argument meant “from effects to causes”. Similar definitions were given by many later philosophers including Leibniz. The same meaning sometimes still exists today in a non-philosophical context. It should be noted that medieval logicians used the word causa ("cause") in a syllogistic sense that corresponds to the aitia of Aristotle and does not necessarily mean a prius , ie "earlier, preceding". This can be seen in the use of the phrase demonstratio propter quid ("explaining why something is so") equivalent to demonstratio a priori , similar to demonstratio quia ("showing that something is so") as an equivalent for demonstratio a posteriori . Similarly, Aristotle distinguished between knowing the justification or explanation of a thing and knowing a mere fact .

Although the term was first used in the Middle Ages, philosophers have been interested in a priori knowledge, i.e. knowledge independent of experience, since the beginning of philosophy. Knowledge that is not obtained by seeing , feeling or hearing , but rather learned through pure thought , required a special explanation. Plato argued in his Menon and Phaidon that learning geometrical truths just a recollection of knowledge from a previous existence is, as it was still possible to think directly through eternal ideas and forms. Augustine of Hippo and his medieval followers partially agreed with Plato's views, but did not recognize the details of his theory and stated that the ideas came only from God , who occasionally gave people intellectual enlightenment.

Modern rationalism

In the traditional epistemology of modern European times ( rationalism and empiricism ) it was generally assumed that at least in the area of mathematics and logic, knowledge a priori is possible. A sub-project of the Enlightenment examined the question of whether there could be such inevitable laws in the field of natural science and ethics in order to be able to compete with the validity of religious revelation . Only a priori judgments could claim to be true , necessarily, and not merely accidentally, based on the current situation.

Rationalists like René Descartes or Gottfried Leibniz insisted that people have epistemic access to such truths even without empiricism (sensory experience), while empiricists like John Locke or David Hume only allow judgments about the activity of their own mind to have the status of a priori judgments.

Immanuel Kant

In Kant's philosophy, which is supposed to form a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism , structural conditions of the world that can be experienced - such as the categories or the structures of space and time , which Kant calls "forms of sensual perception" - are a priori , since they are transcendental conditions of experience at all. He uses the term - initially in the sense of the rationalist tradition - for knowledge that is not based on any concrete empirical experience and therefore can take the form of general and necessary judgments. In contrast to rationalism, however, he considers innate concepts of genera, species or individuals to be impossible. Not the structures of the world itself, but only those of our experience are a priori . The faculty of knowledge cannot a priori recognize individual objects in the world, but it can access the prerequisites for knowledge that lie within itself, the categories of understanding and the forms of perception. Since the same structures and cognitive faculties must also be used for cognition a posteriori, rules and relationships recognized a priori also apply to these. From Kant's position it follows that individual objects are only recognizable insofar as they can be conveyed through the a priori given knowledge conditions. How objects are created independently of this mediation, the so-called things “in themselves” , is therefore not recognizable.

An investigation that relates to the prerequisites and conditions of every cognition inherent in cognition itself is called transcendental by Kant . He also describes this methodical approach as transcendental philosophy . Kant's theory of the a priori can be found above all in his main epistemological work, the Critique of Pure Reason, and in the Prolegomena .

Deconstruction and discourse analysis

In continuing criticisms of classical transcendental philosophy, as developed by Martin Heidegger , theorists, especially of late modern French philosophy such as Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault , criticized the requirement of fixed, a priori set conditions and instead spoke of quasi-transcendental conditions. According to these approaches, the basic structures of experience, thought and action are not eternal truths, but an expression of historical and cultural conditions. This has both epistemological and practical consequences, although the respectively valid basic structures are inevitable for people under these conditions and therefore remain a priori for them.

Foucault's discourse analysis, for example, introduces the concept of a historical a priori , which is described as follows:

“I want to designate an a priori that is not a validity condition for judgments, but a reality condition for statements. It is […] about […] the conditions for the emergence of statements, the law of their coexistence with others, the specific form of their being and the principles by which they persist, transform and disappear. An a priori not of truths that could never be said or really be given to experience; but a story that is given because it is that of the things actually said. "

- Michel Foucault


Web links

Wiktionary: a priori  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Cf. H. Scherpers: A priori / a posteriori, I. In: Historical dictionary of philosophy. Vol. 1, pp. 462-467.
  2. Compare Hans Schulz, Otto Basler, Gerhard Strauss (eds.): German Foreign Dictionary. Vol. 2: Antinomy Azure. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-11-014816-1 , pp. 133ff.
  3. a b A priori knowledge . In: Encyclopædia Britannica .
  4. Michel Foucault: Archeology of Knowledge. Translated by Ulrich Köppen. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt / Main 1973, ISBN 3-518-27956-4 , pp. 184f.