Chisholm on A Priori Knowledge

A great many philosophers have claimed that, in addition to mundane a posteriori knowledge about the world, which depends on our having particular experiences, we have a priori knowledge, which is independent of experience insofar as we don’t have to have any particular experience to acquire it.

For example, “something that is red all over is not blue all over” is supposed to be a piece of a priori knowledge. Proponents of a priori knowledge would grant that you need to have experiences to acquire the concepts of redness and blueness, but you don’t need to observe any particular red thing or any particular blue thing to acquire those concepts. Further, once you acquire those concepts, you don’t need to do any more observations to grasp that nothing is ever completely red and completely blue. You can just put the concepts together in your mind and grasp the connection between them, according to the story, and that’s what makes it a priori. 

Naturally, some have been skeptical about whether there is really any such knowledge. After all, how could we get knowledge of universally true propositions about the world without at least going out and performing observations? Part of Chisholm’s reply to skepticism about the a priori in his book Theory of Knowledge is as follows (p. 49):

The general reply to a skepticism which addresses itself to an entire area of knowledge can only be this: we do have the knowledge in question, and therefore, any philosophical theory implying that we do not is false.

While that’s unlikely to satisfy the skeptic, I think it’s one of the more plausible retorts in this area.


2 thoughts on “Chisholm on A Priori Knowledge

  1. Dale Stamps

    If the question is, “Is the existence of priori knowledge true? Perhaps we need to look at creatures who are unlikely to have reason. If such a creature acts in a way that can only be explained by priori knowledge, then it would exist. If it exists for such creatures, then it would be reasonable to assume that such knowledge could also be present in creatures that reason. With this in mind, lets look at a creature that is unlikely to have reason but acts in an almost unexplainable way. Scientists attempt to explain it through DNA; but is it possible for DNA to explain it?

    Does a Monarch Butterfly have priori knowledge?

    The normal life span of a Monarch Butterfly is 2-6 weeks. Every 4th generation of the butterfly, though, has a life span of around 8 months. All Monarch Butterflies during the 8 months cycle of life, fly to a particular location in a warm climate and hibernate through the winter season. For North America, that particular location is in Mexico. When winter is over, they fly north, die, and the first generation begins the 4 generation life cycle over again. A monarch butterfly can be captured in the middle border area of Canada, taken Washington DC, and the butterfly will head toward the Mexico location. The butterfly making the journey, acts in a totally different way than its previous 3 generations. What changed in the DNA? If a change occurred, from where did the change come

  2. makagutu

    If we have a priori knowledge, on the question of color identification, would a person who has not been exposed to a particular colour be able recognize it when exposed to it having already been told such a colour exist?


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