Friday, December 25, 2020

A posteriori and a priori #1

Frankenstein is the 1818 novel written by English author Mary Shelley that tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a hideous sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. The monster has some, but not all, ordinary human characteristics.

The nature of the human mind according to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant has some parallels to the nature of Frankenstein’s monster. The cognitive aspect of mind Kant depicts as human is not an ordinary human mind. This is so regarding Kant’s a posteriori – a priori distinction. A priori and a posteriori ('from the earlier' and 'from the later', respectively) are Latin phrases used in philosophy to identify two types of knowledge, justification, or argument, characterized by the use of empirical evidence found in experience (a posteriori) or the lack thereof (a priori).

If Kant had kept closer to the Latin meaning of a priori, his theory of cognition would have differed. However, this is not how he made his distinction – nor is it -- twofold. According to Kant human a posteriori cognition is empirical, based on the content of experience. His distinction is threefold. Kant held that a priori knowledge is not entirely independent of the content of experience. However, he held that a priori cognition, in its pure form, that is without the admixture of any empirical content, is limited to the deduction of the conditions of possible experience. These pure a priori, or transcendental conditions, are seated in one's cognitive faculties, and are not provided by experience in general or any experience in particular (although an argument exists that a priori intuitions can be "triggered" by experience).

The reproductive and productive imagination that Kant discussed in his Critique of Pure Reason produce determinate (rule-governed) judgments. Kant's thoughts on the creative imagination, which produces indeterminate (non-rule-governed) judgments, as set down in his Critique of Judgment.

Judgment in general is the ability to think the particular as contained under the universal. If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinative (even though [in its role] as transcendental judgment it states a priori the conditions that must be met for subsumption under the universal to be possible). But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the general for it, then this power is merely reflective.(Critique of Judgment, 179).

Reflective judgments "do not constitute acts of knowledge, since they do not involve the determinate structuring of a field of representations according to a definite concept. Reflection is an imaginative activity in which the mind 'plays over' various representations (percepts, images, concepts) in search of possible ways that they might be organized, although this process is free from the control of the understanding (which is the faculty that supplies concepts)" (Johnson 1987,158).

In reflective judgment, there is no previous, given concept that is automatically applied to experience. This ability to generate new concepts and new organization in our experience is not guided by any concept that guarantees success, but it results in novel ideas that can make sense (Jetton 1991).

I don’t consider this very problematic. Kant’s pure a priori is the problem.

For the following I retain the Latin meanings. A posteriori means experienced, i.e. retrospective. A priori means prospective and experimental. The distinction will not be limited like Kant’s to knowledge, justification, or argument. It will be about cognition more widely, including what Kant called imagination or reflective judgment.

Consider trying to do some action X that you have done very successfully in your past experience. You wish to perform a future action that ist very similar to X under present, similar conditions. You consider how action X could be modified to X* to better fit the partly different present conditions. In other words, X is known a posteriori and X* is largely a posteriori but also partly a priori.

Another useful distinction is between identical – with exceptions for time and location – and similar. ‘Similar’ means identical in some respects but not all. Of course, there are degrees of similarity.

That is a very abstract thesis. One or more future posts will be more concrete.


Jetton, M. 1991. Imagination and Cognition. Objectivity 1.3. Online:

Kant, I. 1987 [1790]. Critique of Judgment. W.S. Pluhar, translator. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

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