Philosophical Studies

, Volume 142, Issue 3, pp 403–426 | Cite as

Naturalism, fallibilism, and the a priori



This paper argues that a priori justification is, in principle, compatible with naturalism—if the a priori is understood in a way that is free of the inessential properties that, historically, have been associated with the concept. I argue that empirical indefeasibility is essential to the primary notion of the a priori; however, the indefeasibility requirement should be interpreted in such a way that we can be fallibilist about apriori-justified claims. This fallibilist notion of the a priori accords with the naturalist’s commitment to scientific methodology in that it allows for apriori-justified claims to be sensitive to further conceptual developments and the expansion of evidence. The fallibilist apriorist allows that an a priori claim is revisable in only a purely epistemic sense. This modal claim is weaker than what is required for a revisability thesis to establish empiricism, so fallibilist apriorism represents a distinct position.


Naturalism Fallibilism A priori Epistemic possibility 



This paper began as a talk for SUNY Albany’s Philosophy Department, which I gave in May 2006. I subsequently presented versions of the paper at the British Society for Philosophy of Science Annual Conference and the Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society in July 2007, and to the University of Connecticut Philosophy Department in October 2007. I am grateful to audience members at all the talks, especially JC Beall, Tom Bontly, Octávio Bueno, Alexander Jackson, Michael Lynch, Robert Meyers, and Ron McClamrock, for useful questions and comments. I would like to thank Ken Akiba, Michael Bishop, and an anonymous referee from this journal for helpful comments on a draft of the paper, and Brad Armour-Garb for stimulating discussion. Special thanks are due to Jonathan Adler and Hartry Field for very helpful comments and discussion.


  1. Adams, E. W. (1975). The logic of conditionals: An application of probability to deductive logic. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.Google Scholar
  2. Adler, J. (2002). Belief’s own ethics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Antony, L. (2004). A naturalized approach to the a priori. Philosophical Issues, 14. Epistemology, 1–17.Google Scholar
  4. Audi, R. (2000). Philosophical naturalism at the turn of the century. Journal of Philosophical Research, 25, 27–45.Google Scholar
  5. Bealer, G. (2002). Modal epistemology and the rationalist renaissance. In J. Hawthorne & T. Szabó-Gendler (Eds.), Conceivability and possibility (pp. 71–126). New York: Oxford.Google Scholar
  6. Boghossian, P. (2000). Knowledge of logic. In P. Boghossian & C. Peacocke (Eds.), New essays on the a priori (pp. 229–254). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boghossian, P. (2001). How are objective epistemic reasons possible? Philosophical Studies, 106, 1–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Boghossian, P. (2003). Blind reasoning. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 77(1), 225–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bonjour, L. (1998). In defense of pure reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Burge, T. (1993). Content preservation. Philosophical Review, 102, 457–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Burge, T. (1998). Computer proof, a priori knowledge, and other minds. In J. Tomberlin (Ed.), Philosophical perspectives, 12, Language, mind, and ontology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  12. Casullo, A. (2003). A priori justification. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chisholm, R. (1977). Theory of knowledge. Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  14. DeCaro, M., & Macarthur, D. (Eds.). (2004). Naturalism in question. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  15. DeRose, K. (1991). Epistemic possibilities. Philosophical Review, 100, 581–605.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. DeRose, K. (1998). Simple ‘might’s’, indicative possibilities and the open future. Philosophical Quarterly, 48(190), 67–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Devitt, M. (1996). Coming to our senses: A naturalistic program for semantic localism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Dummett, M. (1973). The justification of deduction. Lecture. British Academy, London. In M. Dummett (Ed.), Truth and other enigmas (pp. 290–318). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Egan, A. (2007). Epistemic modals, relativism, and assertion. Philosophical Studies, 133(1), 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Egan, A., Hawthorne, J., & Weatherson, B. (2005). Epistemic modals in context. In G. Preyer & G. Peter (Eds.), Contextualism in philosophy (pp. 131–168). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Evnine, S. (2001). Learning from one’s mistakes: Epistemic modality and the nature of belief. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 82, 157–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ewald, W. (Ed.). (1996). From Kant to Hilbert (Vol. I). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Field, H. (1998). Epistemological nonfactualism and the a prioricity of logic. Philosophical Studies, 92(1–2), 1–24.Google Scholar
  24. Field, H. (2000). A prioricity as an evaluative notion. In P. Boghossian & C. Peacocke (Eds.), New essays on the a priori (pp. 117–149). Oxford: Oxford University Press; and In H. Field, Truth and the absence of fact (pp. 361–390). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Firth, R. (1967). The anatomy of certainty. Philosophical Review, 76(1), 3–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Goldman, A. (1994). Naturalistic epistemology and reliabilism. In P. French, T. Uehling, & H. Wettstein (Eds.), Midwest studies in philosophy, 19, Philosophical naturalism (pp. 301–320). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.Google Scholar
  27. Goldman, A. (1999). A priori warrant and naturalistic epistemology. In J. Tomberlin (Ed.), Philosophical perspectives, 13, Epistemology (pp. 1–28). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  28. Haack, S. (1979). Fallibilism and necessity. Synthese, 41, 37–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hacking, I. (1967). Possibility. Philosophical Review, 76(2), 143–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hacking, I. (1975). All kinds of possibility. Philosophical Review, 84, 321–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hawthorne, J. (2002). Deeply contingent a priori knowledge. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 65(2), 247–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hookway, C. (2007). Fallibilism and the aim of inquiry. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 81, 1–22.Google Scholar
  33. Kitcher, P. (1992). The naturalist returns. The Philosophical Review, 101, No. 1, Philosophy in Review: Essays on Contemporary Philosophy. Jan., 1992, 53–114.Google Scholar
  34. Kripke, S. (1972/1980). Naming and necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Lehrer, K., & Kim, K. (1990). The fallibility paradox. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50(Suppl.), 99–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lycan, W. (1993). MPP, Rip. In J. Tomberlin (Ed.), Philosophical perspectives, 7, Language and logic, 411–428.Google Scholar
  37. MacFarlane, J. (2005a). The assessment sensitivity of knowledge attributions. In J. Hawthorne & T. Szabó-Gendler (Eds.), Oxford studies in epistemology (Vol. 1, pp. 197–253). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. MacFarlane, J. (2005b). Making sense of relative truth. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 105, 321–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Maddy, P. (2000). Naturalism and the a priori. In P. Boghossian & C Peacocke (Eds.), New essays on the a priori (pp. 92–116). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maffie, J. (1990). Recent work on naturalized epistemology. American Philosophical Quarterly, 27(4), 281–292.Google Scholar
  41. McGee, V. (1985). A counterexample to modus ponens. Journal of Philosophy, 82, 462–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Meyers, R. (1988). The likelihood of knowledge. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Moore, G. E. (1962). Commonplace book, 1919–53, H. D. Lewis (Ed.). London: George Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  44. Nagel, E. (1956). Logic without metaphysics. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.Google Scholar
  45. Nagel, T. (1997). The last word. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Peacocke, C. (1993). How are a priori truths possible? European Journal of Philosophy, 1(2), 175–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Peacocke, C. (1998). Implicit conceptions, understanding and rationality. In E. Villanueva (Ed.), Philosophical issues, 9, concepts (pp. 43–87). Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing.Google Scholar
  48. Peirce, C. S. (1931–1958). Collected papers, C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, & A.S. Burks (Eds.). Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  49. Quine, W. V. O. (1953). Two dogmas of empiricism. In W. V. O. Quine, From a logical point of view (2nd ed., pp. 20–46). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Quine, W. V. O. (1960). Word and object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  51. Quine, W. V. O. (1981). Theories and things. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  52. Rey, G. (1993). The unavailability of what we mean I: A reply to Quine, Fodor and LePore. Grazer Philosophical Studien, 96, 61–101 (reprinted in J. Fodor (Ed.), Holism: a consumer update. Amsterdam: Rodopi).Google Scholar
  53. Rey, G. (1998). A naturalistic a priori. Philosophical Studies, 92, 25–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Rey, G. (2005). The rashness of traditional rationalism and empiricism. In M. Ezcurdia, R. Stainton, & C. Viger (Eds.), New essays in the philosophy of language and mind, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 30, 227–258.Google Scholar
  55. Richard, M. (2004). Contextualism and relativism. Philosophical Studies, 119, 214–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Russell, B. (1948). Human knowledge. New York: Simon Schuster.Google Scholar
  57. Siegel, H. (1995). Naturalized epistemology and ‘first philosophy’. Metaphilosophy, 26, 46–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Stroud, B. (1996). The charm of naturalism. In Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 70, no. 2. Newark, DE: American Philosophical. Association (reprinted in M. De Caro & D. MacArthur (Eds.), Naturalism in question. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).Google Scholar
  59. Szabó-Gendler, T., & Hawthorne, J. (2002). Conceivability and possibility. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  60. Teller, P. (1972). Epistemic possibility. Philosophia, 2, 303–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Williamson, T. (1986). The contingent a priori: Has it anything to do with indexicals? Analysis, 113–117.Google Scholar
  62. Wright, C. (2004). Warrant for nothing: Notes on epistemic entitlement. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 78, 167–212.Google Scholar
  63. Yablo, S. (1993). Is conceivability a guide to possibility? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53(1), 1–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Yablo, S. (2002). Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda. In J. Hawthorne & T. Szabó-Gendler (Eds.), Conceivability and possibility (pp. 441–492). New York: Oxford.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.PhilosophyUnion CollegeSchenectadyUSA

Personalised recommendations