A-level Philosophy/AQA/Reason and experience
AS Philosophy for AQA
Unit 1: Reason and Experience
- 1 Specification – What you need to know
- 2 Assessment Level Descriptors;
- 3 Section 1: The Mind as Tabula Rasa
- 4 Section 2: Innate Ideas
- 5 Section 3: Conceptual Schemes
- 6 Section 4 - Key Terms:
Specification – What you need to know
For this unit you need to know the following:
- The Mind as Tabula Rasa: 1. The Strengths and Weaknesses of the view that all ideas are derived from sense experience: 2. The strengths and weaknesses of the view that claims about what exists must be ultimately grounded in and justified by sense experience.
- Innate Knowledge: 3. The Strengths and Weaknesses of the view that the mind contains innate knowledge regarding the way the world is: the doctrine of innate ideas and its philosophical significance; 4. The view that some fundamental claims about what exists can be grounded in and justified by a priori intuition and/ or demonstration.
- Conceptual Schemes: 5. The idea that experience is only intelligible as it is because it presents sensation through a predetermined conceptual scheme or framework and the philosophical implications of this view.
- Key Terms: 6. The contrasts and connections between necessary and contingent truths, analytic and synthetic propositions, deductive and inductive arguments, and a priori and a posteriori knowledge.
Assessment Level Descriptors;
For each type of exam question you will be allocated a certain number of marks for each of the assessment objectives.
In Unit 1: Reason and Experience part ‘a’ questions will be out of 15 and this is testing only A01: Knowledge and Understanding – so you can get full marks for just showing this skill. Part ‘b’ questions will be out of 30 and will test A01, A02 and A03 skills. You can get at most 3 marks for A01, 18 marks for A02 and 9 marks for A03 type answers – so the most important skills for these questions are A02: Interpretation, Analysis and Application and A03: Assessment and Evaluation.
A01: Knowledge and Understanding
This means that you understand the main point of the themes that we have studied by being able to explain arguments and theories such as Empiricism and Rationalism. You will need to be able to use key terms (e.g. a priori, necessary) correctly as well as give basic definitions of key theories and words. Also, you will need to give some explanation of the reasons why someone might hold a certain philosophical position and how this might affect the way they understand the world.
A02: Interpretation, Analysis and Application
This means you need to be able to give the counter-arguments/ criticisms of certain theories and philosophical positions as well as explain the theories themselves. You may need to give famous examples of weaknesses or holes in some arguments and explain why they might undermine a certain position. You might also need to write about what the consequences of holding certain views are.
A03: Assessment and Evaluation
This is the most interesting, but certainly also the most difficult bit since now you need to give your own view of the whole thing and explain what the weaknesses of the theory or position are. You need to give a balanced assessment of the various arguments and counter-arguments you have considered in A02 and described in A01 in order to come to a reasoned judgement. That means, you can’t just give your opinion, but must back it up and explain it so that it is convincing and shows that you have thought about all the possible strengths and weaknesses. This is the true mark of a Philosopher, but you can’t get here without visiting the other two A0s first!
Section 1: The Mind as Tabula Rasa
Tabula Rasa means ‘Blank Slate’ and refers to the Empiricist belief that humans are born knowing nothing –our minds are blank. Empiricists believe that we ‘fill up’ this blank slate with knowledge which we gain through experience.
For further investigation on this topic:
- Read: ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 2: Of the Origin of Ideas’ by David Hume
- Read: ‘Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation 1’ by Descartes (Criticisms of Empiricism).
Research Questions on this topic:
- Who are the most famous Empiricists and when were they alive?
- What other philosophical theories were popular at the same time as Empiricism?
- What is Logical Positivism? How does it relate to Empiricism?
Empiricists have two basic claims about knowledge which you need to understand and be able to explain. You may get an exam question on either or both – make sure you know which claim the question is asking you about.
Claim 1 – All ideas come from experience
Empiricism is the philosophical view that all knowledge comes from sense experience. It holds that anything which I claim to know I will have gained by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching it, or having an internal impression of it, such as an emotion or feeling. Empiricists believe that when I experience something I gain an idea of it which is separate from the experience itself.
e.g. I see a can (an experience) I have the idea of a can (an idea)
This means I can think of a can even when I am not experiencing (seeing) one. In other words the idea is ‘a copy’ of the experience.
Once we have the idea of the thing in our mind we can do what we want with it – i.e. imagine it in different places, as a different colour, and we can combine our ideas together to make new, imaginary things.
- Explain whether a can is a simple or a complex concept.
The basic building blocks of all thoughts and experiences are simple impressions which come from single smells, single colours, single feelings etc. And once we have had these single impressions from something outside of ourselves we will have a corresponding idea in our minds, which are simple concepts.
We can combine these simple concepts to make complex concepts of things in the world which have a specific colour, specific smell, and specific look and so on.
e.g. This dog is a complex impression, because we use a number of senses to experience it (sight, smell, touch, taste(!) etc.) and once we have experienced it we have a corresponding complex idea of it in our mind.
- Imagine an animal which you have experienced – what do you remember of it? How would you identify the same animal again?
Going further, because I can hold the idea of a thing in my mind, I can also make an abstract concept of it. So, I can I have the concept of DOG as such, which is not a concept of any particular dog, but the idea of DOG (or dogs) in general. (e.g. they feel furry, they make barking sounds, they smell bad, they make you feel scared etc.) This means that if I come across a thing which I have not met before which has these features I can still identify that it is a dog.
- How do you know what these things are even though you have never experienced them individually before?
- Make a list of the simple ideas you have of each which help you to identify what they are.
|“||Empiricists are making the claim that all ideas come from experience||”|
So, whilst I am born with a Tabula Rasa with nothing in my mind, through experiencing the world I come to have lots of ideas and thus knowledge, which I can express as propositions like: ‘Dogs are brown’, ‘Water has no smell’, ‘Coffee is hot’.
If I never experienced anything, then I could not know anything.
- Could a blind person ever know anything about what the world looks like? Could they ever know what the colour blue is? Or that dogs are brown?
Claim 2 – All knowledge is justified by experience
David Hume, the Empiricist, thought that we could know some things without experience, but these claims were purely definitional – meaning that they were true just because of the words in the proposition.
E.g. Without experience I can know that ‘All bachelors are unmarried’, but it is only true because ‘Bachelor’ means ‘Unmarried’. This suggests that we really can’t know anything useful or interesting in this way – we can only know interesting and useful things through experience. Anything useful or interesting that we can know can only be known either through direct experience OR by inference from direct experience.
For instance, I know that ‘The Milk is in the Fridge’ if a) I am stood in front of the fridge and can see it in there or b) I put the milk in the fridge five minutes ago and, although I can’t see it right now, no one has been in the kitchen and I cannot remember a time when the milk moved itself. This is an ‘inference’ from my previous experience = Induction.
There are a number of things which we know but cannot experience directly – instead we know them through inference from other experiences. These include:
Causation (Cause and effect) - Can I actually see or experience causation? When I see a snooker ball travelling towards another snooker ball I expect the one to ‘cause’ the other to move – but do I actually see ‘Causation’, or am I just used to seeing the two events following one another?
Physical Objects – Can I know whether the objects around me which I experience persist through time when I am not experiencing them? Do I know that the chair I am sat on still exists when I am not sat on it nor looking at it? It seems the only things I know about the chair are what it looks like or feels like, but do I ever actually see the ‘object’?
Self – I never perceive myself directly, only through occasional experiences which lead me to infer that there must be an ‘I’ to do the perceiving!
Hume and the Empiricists argue that only knowledge which is received through the senses is truly knowledge of the world, and even the things, like those above, which we think we know without experience, are in fact only inferred from experience.
|“||Empiricists are making the claim that all knowledge is grounded or justified by experience||”|
Objections to Empiricism
These objections are against the claim that all ideas come from experience:
- The concept of ‘simple ideas’ doesn’t make sense;
At what point do we stop breaking our ideas down from complex to simple ideas. E.g. we could break the complex idea of a unicorn down into the simple ideas of a horn and a horse, but both of those ideas are in themselves complex not simple, so where do we stop?
- Not all of our simple ideas come from experience:
It would seem that sometimes I can have an idea of something which I have never experienced before, like a different shade of colour, or a certain note. E.g. If I have seen lots of different shades of blue – but am I limited to knowing only the shades that I have seen, or can I imagine one which is slightly different in shade?
- Not all complex ideas come from experience;
There are two problems here: 1) How do I have the idea of an ‘atom’ or ‘justice’ when I have never seen either? I may connect certain images or feelings to it, but the idea cannot be a copy of something which I have experienced since I have never experienced it. 2) What ‘idea’ do I have of words like ‘on’ or ‘near’? I have never experienced these as such, but just the relation of two other things to one another.
- Language doesn’t have to come from sense experience
Hume claimed that all ideas derive from sense experience, including words, but what sense experience relates to words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘although’, ‘but’?
These objections are against the claim that knowledge is justified by experience:
- We can’t know that what we are experiencing is actually real (Solipsism):
What if we are in the Matrix or a brain in a vat having experiences pumped in by a machine? What if there is an evil demon (Descartes’ idea) who is tricking us into seeing things? All of these questions make us doubt whether what we experience is reality, and therefore whether our ‘ideas’ are copied from reality.
- We can’t know about the past or the future;
As long as I am experiencing something then I can say that I know it – i.e. that the chair I am sat on exists now – but this doesn’t tell me if the chair existed in the past or will exist in the future when I am not experiencing it.
- Experience can be misleading;
The Empiricist claims that the experiences we have are the building blocks of our ideas, concepts and therefore knowledge. But sometimes I am mistaken, like when I think I am eating chicken but am actually eating Turkey, or can’t decide whether a colour is yellow or orange. If we can be mistaken in what we experience then we can also be mistaken in the claims we make about the world, and thus in our knowledge.
- We can gain knowledge of the world through reason;
Can we know things about the world without experiencing it? It would seem that I can know mathematics without experience? Or that the degrees in a triangle are equal to 180 degrees? So then some knowledge is not justified by experience, but by reason – This is philosophical view called Rationalism.
Questions about Empiricism
- What is Empiricism?
- What is the first Empiricist claim?
- What is the second Empiricist claim?
- What is a sense impression?
- What is an idea?
- What is a simple idea?
- Give an example of a simple idea.
- What is a complex idea?
- Give an example of a complex idea.
- What is the relation between a simple and Complex idea?
- Identify 5 simple impressions we have of the cat which help us know what it is.
- Give two examples of things that we can know through experience.
- What are 3 strengths of the view that all knowledge comes from experience?
- What are 3 weaknesses of the view that all knowledge comes form experience?
- What does Tabula Rasa mean? What does it mean in English?
- Which Philosophers believe that the mind is a Tabula Rasa at birth?
- What is the ultimate source of knowledge of the claim ‘If you don’t water flowers then they will die’?
- What is the ultimate source of knowledge of the claim ‘All triangles have 3 sides’?
- What are 3 strengths of the view that the mind is a Tabula Rasa?
- What are 3 weaknesses of the view that the mind is a Tabula Rasa?
Testing your knowledge of Innate Knowledge – Key Words Draw an arrow between the Key word on the left with the description of that work on the right. Key Word Description Ideas This person was an Empiricist who tried to show that humans do not have innate knowledge by defining it as ‘knowledge we have and are aware of from birth’, which is basically impossible. A Empiricism This word means the mental image of an object that we gain by having a sense impression of it. These can be simple _____, such as a colour, a smell or a taste, or complex ______, such as a cat, a tree or a green can. B Descartes This word means the experiences that objects in the world cause us to have through our 5 senses. C Experience A Rationalist philosopher who believed he could prove his own and God’s existence without experience. He was a Rationalist. D John Locke This word means the act of having a sense impression and gaining knowledge of the external world. E David Hume This term can be translated as ‘Blank Slate’ and means that we are born knowing nothing, i.e. with no innate knowledge. F ‘All ideas come from experience’ This is the philosophical view that all knowledge comes from experience. Philosophers with this view believe we are born with a Tabula Rasa and no innate knowledge.
‘All knowledge is justified by experience’ This is the first claim that Empiricists make which means that all the ideas about the world that I have have been caused by a direct or indirect experience of the world. H Tabula Rasa This is the second claim that Empiricists make and means I can link all of my knowledge about the world back to either a direct experience of the world or an indirect experience of it. I Sense Impression This person was an Empiricist philosopher from the 18th Century who believed that we can only know things through experience. J
Section 2: Innate Ideas
Innate ideas are ideas for which we do not need experience, but can know separately from experience. Exactly how they are defined is argued about by philosophers. For further investigation on this topic:
- Read: ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ Chapter 1, by John Locke
- Watch: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/steven_pinker_chalks_it_up_to_the_blank_slate.html
- Read: ‘The Meno’ by Plato at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html
Research Questions on this topic:
- Which modern philosophers believe that humans have innate ideas?
- Which other subjects does the question of ‘innate ideas’ connect to?
An argument against the existence of innate ideas:
John Locke (An Empiricist) defines Innate Ideas as those which we have in our minds from birth – and since he believes that we can only gain ideas from experience he does not think that we have any ideas of this kind – instead we are born with a Tabula Rasa.
To rule out the possibility of innate ideas, Locke says that if we have an idea in our minds we must be aware of it and that we cannot have ideas which we are not aware of.
If we are born with certain ideas then we would have to be unaware of them at least to start with, so we must be born without any.
Also, if we had such innate ideas then there would be certain truths that all human beings would agree on from the day they were born – but there aren’t!
- At what point in your life did you come to ‘know’ or agree that ‘3+4=7’?
- At what point in your life did you come to ‘know’ or agree that ‘triangles have 3 sides’?
Some people argue that we know these things from birth, but that we have to wait until we have the concepts of ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘+’ and ‘=’ etc and of ‘triangle’ before we are aware of them and thus claim to know them.
But Locke says no! - If you have to gain these concepts through experience then the knowledge is not innate.
Question: This is Tony, he is 3 months old. Does he know anything? Does he ‘know’ that ‘3+4=7’ and that ‘Triangles have 3 sides’?
Nativism and why John Locke is wrong
Locke gives a very specific definition of innate ideas which makes it almost impossible to argue that we have innate ideas – no one really wants to claim that we know stuff from the moment we are born, do they?
To defend the existence of innate ideas philosophers have given a different definition of innate ideas called Nativism which says that an innate idea is an idea the content of which cannot be gained through experience.
This means our awareness of the idea is ‘triggered’ by experience – that is, we are reminded by experience that we have certain ideas.
For instance, a baby knows how to suckle (has the idea of suckling) in its head innately, but needs to be made aware of this idea (namely, by its mother helping it suckle for the first time).
Language is also like this – I am not born able to speak English, but I am born with the innate capacity to use language. Thus, I can say things which I have never said nor heard before once my experiences of others using language has made me aware of my own ability to do it.
Nativism Vs David Hume
David Hume (Empiricist) thought that we cannot have any ideas which do not derive from experience. This meant that he thought we could not properly have an idea of Self, Causation or Physical Object – because we can only experience these things through the senses and not directly.
- What direct experience have you had of these three concepts:
Self Causation Physical Object
- In the sentence ‘The brick caused the window to break’ do we see the ‘causation’ of the window making the window shatter? Or just two separate events, the brick flying through the air and the window shattering, and infer that one caused the other?
- In the sentence ‘I am in Spain’ what is it that is in Spain? Is there anything separate from my experiencing being in Spain to which ‘I’ refers?
- In the sentence ‘This chair was here yesterday’ to what physical object are we referring by the word ‘chair’? Is it just what we see and the memory of seeing something similar yesterday? In which case, is what we see all that the object is? Or is the object more than what we sense of it?
These are all examples of ideas which we cannot derive from experience (we can only infer or invent them out of our experiences), so Hume has to say that when we talk about them we are confused, and that they don’t really make sense (See link in Section 1 to read Hume’s text on this). Nativists disagree with Hume and say that we have the ideas of Causation, Physical Object and Self innately – the experiences we have of these things just make us aware that we already had the idea of cause and effect etc in our minds.
The following are examples of Nativist thinkers who believe that we do have innate ideas.
Plato: The realm of the Forms is innate
Plato (in Ancient Greece) thought that we did have innate ideas, and that these ideas were knowledge of the ‘realm of the forms’.
He thought that when I see something I am able to recognise it because it reminds me of the ideal form of that thing which exists in the ‘realm of the forms’ (which we cannot experience directly).
So when I see a tree I can recognise it because I already understand the idea of the perfect tree from the realm of the forms. In other words, in order to recognise an actual tree I apply the concept of ‘Tree’ to it – and this reminds me that the concept of ‘Tree’ already existed before I encountered an example of it.
Plato also argued that this is what happens with more abstract concepts like Physical Object, Causation, Justice and Equality.
Another example that Plato gives is that we can never know whether two things are exactly equal through experience alone – only that they are almost equal.
But, saying that they are almost equal still requires the idea of ‘Equal’ which, according to Plato, is a perfect concept which we innately know from the realm of the Forms when we apply it.
In The Meno Plato tells a story of a slave boy who is asked the following question:
- If you have a square and you want to make another square with twice the area how do you work out what size the sides should be?
The slave boy has never been taught geometry or maths, but is able to figure out the right answer.
Plato says that this is proof that the boy has knowledge of geometry innately.
Noam Chomsky: Grammar is innate
Chomsky argues that children learn language, and specifically grammar, so fast and without examples for everything that their knowledge cannot come from experience – so they must know grammar innately.
- Which of these sentences is correct?
- The sleepy cat is on the mat.
- The sleepy cat look there is on the mat.
- The mat cat is on.
‘I think therefore I am’ is known innately, as is God
Descartes thought that I can know that I exist without any experience.
|“||Cogito Ergo Sum = I think therefore I am||”|
As long as I know that I am thinking, I also know that I am existing – I reach this piece of knowledge through reason, but it is an innate idea which I have to use reason to discover I know (See Meditation 2 from the link in Section 2 to read Descartes’ text on this).
Descartes also gives 3 rational proofs for the existence of God – the Trademark argument, the Contingency Argument and the Ontological Argument, which he says shows that we know God exists innately too.
Questions on Innate Knowledge
- What is innate knowledge?
- What definition of Innate ideas does John Locke give?
- Why does John Locke want to disprove the existence of innate ideas?
- Why is John Locke’s definition of innate ideas hard to agree with?
- What does a priori mean?
- What does a posteriori mean?
- What is Nativism?
- What is the Nativist definition of innate ideas?
- Plato can be described as a Nativist – explain what he says about innate ideas.
- Descartes also agrees that we have innate ideas – what 2 things does he show to be known innately?
- Name 3 criticisms of Nativism.
- What criticisms can be given of the view that the mind contains innate knowledge?
- What are some strengths of the view that the mind contains innate knowledge?
Testing your knowledge of Innate Knowledge – Key Words Draw an arrow between the Key word on the left with the description of that work on the right. Key Word Description Descartes An Empiricist who tried to show that humans do not have innate knowledge by defining it as ‘knowledge we have and are aware of from birth’, which is basically impossible. A Empiricism A specific type of Innatism which holds that innate knowledge is ‘knowledge the content of which is not gained from experience’. B Nativism The view that humans do have some innate knowledge. C Rationalism A Rationalist philosopher who believed her could prove his own and God’s existence without experience. D John Locke An Ancient Greek philosopher who believed that we have innate knowledge which helps us to make sense of the world. He called innate knowledge ‘The Realm of the Forms’. E David Hume A modern philosopher/ linguist who believes that we are born with the innate potential to learn language. F Plato The philosophical view that all knowledge comes from experience. Philosophers with this view believe we are born with a Tabula Rasa and no innate knowledge.
Innatism The philosophical view that the only way to know things for certain is to reason to them without using experience as this can be wrong. H Realm of the Forms There are 3 different types of this: propositional …, … by acquaintance and practical … I Chomsky An Empiricist philosopher from the 18th Century who held that we can only know things through experience. J
‘I think therefore I am’ This is a transcendental world which we know to exist but cannot experience. It is how Plato explains innate knowledge. K
Knowledge This term is how Descartes proved that we have innate knowledge of the fact that we exist. L
Section 3: Conceptual Schemes
Conceptual Schemes are the sets of concepts we have which help us to make sense of the world and the experiences we have of it by applying the concepts to them. Philosophers argue about whether we are born with these sets of concepts and which concepts exactly we need in order to understand and function in the world. For further investigation on this topic: - Go to and read: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/language/whorf.html; - Read and research further: AQA Philosophy textbook by Atherton et al pp. 23-29. Research Questions on this topic: - How does Kant’s philosophy connect to that of the Empiricists? - What are Kant’s 14 categories and how do they make the world intelligible through experience? - What other subjects does the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis relate to?
Talking point: What would it be like to have a sense experience without being able to ‘think’ about it? Is this even possible? What would it mean to experience something without even being able to understand what type of sensation it was (i.e. sight, sound, taste etc)?
Philosophers claim that we have ‘Conceptual Schemes’ in our minds in order to make sense of our experiences. Empiricists, such as Hume, argue that we develop these schemes through experience, whilst Rationalists argue that we have these conceptual schemes in our minds innately. Without these schemes, Rationalists say, we would be unable to distinguish anything from anything else, and thus we would ‘experience’ the world as a kind of buzz. Talking point: Think about when you hear a foreign language spoken for the first time – you are unable to identify individual words or gain any meaning from it. This is a bit like experiencing without a conceptual scheme because you have no context in which to place your experience.
A Conceptual Scheme is a system (Set of concepts) which we use in our minds to sort out our sense experience – thus, it helps us to put senses into the correct category (e.g. Something I see, Something I hear etc) and helps us to understand things in the world by connecting different experiences of the same object (e.g. The food is hot, it looks red, it tastes likes tomatoes, and it smells like tomatoes – so it must be hot tomatoes!).
If we weren’t able to do this then we would either just have had 4 different experiences (Smell, taste, feel, look) or all of the experiences might have come at the same time – so would be confused.
Think about how difficult it would be then to do anything or make any claim about the world – I can’t say ‘the car is loud’ if I can neither identify the experience as a noise, nor connect it to my seeing a car.
Or, I can only make claims like ‘Red thing’, ‘Hot thing’ etc if I am unable to connect simple impressions with one another as being different experiences of the same thing.
Along with dividing experiences up into the five senses, we also need to be able to distinguish between different types of the same sense experience – e.g. we ‘see’ both colour and shape and if we couldn’t tell the differences between colours and shapes then we couldn’t tell the difference between a green shirt and a green ball.
The same is true of the other senses – we have to be able to tell the difference between tasting ‘sweet’ and tasting ‘dry’, hearing ‘loud’ and hearing ‘tuneful’ and feeling ‘hot’ and feeling ‘sad’ otherwise life would be just like a ….
This is because, when we have an experience of the world what we mean is that we must have an ‘experience of’ something. A confused wash of sounds, feelings, tastes, seeings and emotions does not count as an ‘experience of’ anything. It is just an experience.
e.g. I have an experience of a bike, of a pizza, of a sneeze, of a fizzy drink.
Kant was an 18th Century Philosopher. He thought that there was only one conceptual scheme (Set of concepts) which could possibly enable us to have experiences as we do.
So, anyone or anything that we think has (proper) experiences must have this conceptual scheme. Kant defines proper experience as ‘intelligible experience of objects’. So, in order for it to count as an experience we must be able to identify what thing or object caused us to have the experience.
This is the same as saying we must have ‘experience of’.
Kant wanted to work out exactly what it is that makes it possible for us to make sense of the experiences we gain from the world (i.e. why do we have experiences of things rather than a buzz?)
He did not think this was obvious, rather he thought there is a complex and sophisticated interaction between our minds and the objects that we see which makes our understanding of the world seem sensible.
So, he didn’t doubt that there was a link between the object we see (the tomato) and the idea we have of it in our minds (an idea of a tomato). Rather, he thought that how we gain the idea of the tomato is a lot more complicated than just seeing it.
What can you see?
Kant argues that in order to see the letters we need to have the concept of Unity – meaning, we need to have the concept that ‘one thing can be separate from another’ before we can then identify what the thing is.
A computer (and the statue above) do not have the concept of unity, nor of space and time, and so are unable to separate things they see from one another. So, they cannot have ‘experiences of’ the letters or of anything else.
Kant is claiming that we never have an ‘experience of’ anything without interpreting it with our minds. This means that the very act of having a sense impression/experience is an act of interpretation. This also suggests that there is no such thing as a ‘fixed’ world that we all experience; rather, the world as we experience it necessarily involves an act of interpretation. Implications of Kant’s view Kant’s theory makes clear that there are certain concepts which we cannot develop from experience (e.g. Substance, Unity, Causality) because we need them in order for us to make sense of the idea of an ‘object’ and of the real world before we can know anything by experience. These concepts, then, are known a priori – i.e. before and without needing experience. We cannot, according to Kant, know what the real world is like independently of our minds – although this doesn’t mean that there is not a real world out there! It is still obvious that things in the real world cause us to experience them (e.g. there is still an actual tomato which is causing me to see a tomato) but in order to know what it is I have to use my mind. Overall, this means that we need these a priori concepts in order to have knowledge of the world – because, unless I can make sense of what I receive through my senses I can’t make claims about what the world is like.
e.g. Unless I am able to identify the object that is a car, and tell the difference between the car shape and its red colour then I am unable to make the knowledge claim that ‘The Car is Red’!!!!
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: Conceptual Relativism
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf claimed that people from different cultures have different concepts of certain things, which means that they experience the world in a different way.
People have different conceptual schemes often because they speak different languages, since some languages do not have words for certain things, or they refer to them in different ways.
Some philosophers have argued that the fact that conceptual schemes are relative (i.e. only used by some people) means that truth is also relative – meaning that, the real world is in fact different for different people.
This seems a little odd and counter-intuitive and some people have criticised it to say that either we can translate one conceptual scheme into another or that the fact that someone hasn’t the conceptual scheme to make sense of an experience can’t mean that certain things are false for them, only that they just can’t know about it.
Questions on Conceptual Schemes
1. What is a Conceptual Scheme?
2. What does it mean to say that ‘experience is only intelligible through a predetermined conceptual scheme or framework’?
3. Why is it necessary to have the concepts of Space and Time in order to have experience?
4. Conceptual Schemes are a priori. What does this mean?
5. If we don’t have a basic conceptual scheme the world may appear to us like a buzz. Why? 6. Outline Condillac’s thought experiment about conceptual Schemes. 7. Outline Kant’s view on Conceptual Schemes.
8. What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and what does it tell us?
9. How do conceptual schemes relate to our knowledge of the world?
10. What are the philosophical implications of the view that ‘experience is only intelligible through a conceptual scheme’?
Testing your knowledge of Innate Knowledge – Key Words Draw an arrow between the Key word on the left with the description of that work on the right. Key Word Description Kant This term refers to Kant’s argument that in order to have an experience it must be of an object. Thus, if we cannot make sense of our experiences we cannot know anything through experience. A Conceptual Scheme This is knowledge which we can gaine without experience. Innatists believe we can have this type of knowledge, whilst strict Empiricists believe we cannot. B Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis This person was a philosopher of 18th Century who argued that all humans are born with the same conceptual scheme. He took inspiration from both rationalism and empiricism. C Conceptual Relativism Kant argued that without conceptual schemes to help us make sense of our experiences the world would appear in this way to us. D Space and Time This person was an Empiricist philosopher who gave the thought experiment of the statue with 5 senses, which he argued shows that we can make sense of our experiences without being born with an innate conceptual scheme. E ‘Experience of’ This is the view that not all humans have the same conceptual scheme and thus some people experience the world differently from others. F Condillac This word refers to what our thoughts are made up of. They are either gained from experience or they are innate and they are what help us to make sense of the world. G ‘Buzz’ This is the argument made by researchers Sapir and Whorf which says that some tribes around the world have a different understanding of time from how we understand it. H a priori This is a set of concepts which we are born with which makes it possible for us to make sense of the experiences we have of the world. I Concepts These are the two most basic concepts that most philosophers argue we must have in order to be able to make sense of our experiences. J
Section 4 - Key Terms:
These are important terms which you should try to apply to all of the sections above.
For further investigation on this topic: - Visit and explore: http://www.philosophy-dictionary.org/ - Visit and explore: http://plato.stanford.edu/ Research Questions on this topic: - Why does Kant introduce the idea of synthetic a priori knowledge? - What is the connection between all of the words? Do some of them mean the same thing? - How do these terms relate to deductive and inductive arguments?
= knowledge which does not require experience to be known to be true. So, if you know what the proposition means you don’t need to check experience to know it is true;
e.g. ‘Bachelors are unmarried men’ e.g. “I think therefore I am’ (Descartes)
Innatists believe we can have a priori knowledge, whilst strict Empiricists believe we cannot. The advantage of things known a priori is that we can be certain about them since we cannot be mistaken – unlike things we know through the senses about which we could be confused (e.g. something looks small when in fact it is just far away).
= knowledge which can only be established through experience;
e.g. Snow is white e.g. All 17 year olds do A levels.
Empiricists believe this is the major, or even the only, sort of knowledge we can have.
= A proposition which is true just because of the words in it – i.e. It is definitional;
e.g. ‘Squares have 4 sides’ e.g. ‘In 5 days it will be a week since the day which was tomorrow 3 days ago.’
Sometimes Analytic truths are known as Tautologies or logical truths because they are true by definition. Empiricists believe that all a priori knowledge is Analytic, and thus does not tell us anything about how the world is since they would be true even if the world were different – this means that the Empiricist thinks analytic truths are relatively uninteresting.
= A proposition which is true not because of the meaning of the words in it, but because of the way the world is; e.g. ‘Roses are red’ e.g. ‘Violets are blue’
This implies that the opposite of the statements could be true without contradiction (i.e. Roses could be blue). The word ‘synthetic’ suggests that it is man-made, meaning that it is built out of human experience.
= a truth which could have been false if the world had been different;
e.g. Gordon Brown is Prime Minister. e.g. Man Utd are reigning premier league champions.
= a truth which could not have been false;
e.g. 5 x 5 = 25. e.g. Water is H2O
Necessary truths would be true in all possible worlds and the opposite of them (i.e. Water IS NOT H2O is impossible). In other words, we cannot imagine a world in which these things are not true.
Usually it is agreed that a priori knowledge is necessary and a posteriori knowledge is contingent.
Empiricists have tended to hold that a priori knowledge is necessary because it is analytic.
But, Rationalists might also claim that a priori knowledge gained through reasoning is necessary too.
= where we infer a conclusion from reasons or evidence that we have, but where it is not 100% certain that the conclusion follows form the reasons.
This is the way in which Science and Empiricism draw conclusions from experience.
e.g. If I drop this bowl on the floor then it will smash. e.g. Every time I flipped a coin in the air it fell down again, therefore if I do it again it will fall again.
The problem with this sort of reasoning is that the knowledge that we end up with is not 100% certain, although we might be very sure about it. It is just our best guess based upon the reasons or evidence that we have.
= where the conclusion is logically entailed by the reasons. Here we cannot be wrong about the conclusion because we can reason to it using logic and without experience, which can be incorrect.
Thus, the conclusion necessarily follows from the reasons, so we can know it for certain.
e.g. All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal. e.g. A > B, B > C, therefore A > C.
David Hume argued that this way of finding knowledge is limited and does not help us to know about the external world in which we live.
Synthetic A priori : Kant
Kant tried to argue that there was such a thing as a ‘Synthetic A priori’ which meant that he could gain a priori truths about the world independent of experience.
He included things like Causation (e.g. ‘Every Event has a cause’) because, he argued, although we learn that every event has a cause through experience (Synthetic), we already have the concept of Causation which makes it possible for us to experience one event causing another – and thus we come to know this without experience (a priori).
In this way, Kant, unlike the Empiricists, thought that a priori knowledge could tell us interesting things about the world beyond merely analytic/ tautological truths.
In a different way, Empiricists are unable to fully explain causation and similar things because they can only know synthetic/ a posteriori things about the world.
Questions about Key words
1. What is a priori knowledge? Give 3 examples of this?
2. What is a posteriori knowledge? Give 3 examples of this?
3. What is a contingent truth? Give 3 examples of this?
4. What is a necessary truth? Give 3 examples of this?
5. What is analytic knowledge? Give 3 examples of this?
6. What is synthetic knowledge? Give 3 examples of this?
7. What is inductive reasoning? Give 3 examples of this?
8. What is deductive reasoning? Give 3 examples of this?
9. Which of the above types of knowledge and truths do Empiricists believe we can have?
10. Which of the above types of knowledge and truths do Rationalists believe we can have?