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Grounding and a priori epistemology: challenges for conceptualism

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Abstract

Traditional rationalist approaches to a priori epistemology have long been looked upon with suspicion for positing a faculty of rational intuition capable of knowing truths about the world apart from experience. Conceptualists have tried to fill this void with something more empirically tractable, arguing that we know a priori truths due to our understanding of concepts. All of this theorizing, however, has carried on while neglecting an entire cross section of such truths, the grounding claims that we know a priori. Taking a priori grounding into account poses a significant challenge to conceptualist accounts of a priori knowledge, as it is unclear how merely understanding conceptual connections can account for knowledge of grounding. The fact that we do know some grounding truths a priori, then, is a significant mark in traditional rationalism’s favor, and the next frontier for those who aim to eliminate the mystery surrounding a priori knowledge.

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Notes

  1. Several authors espouse such skepticism: Oliver (1996) thinks demands for metaphysical explanation can only be understood in terms of conceptual analysis, ontological commitment, or truth-making (p. 50). Thomas Hofweber (2009) takes grounding talk to be the worst kind of philosophy, esoteric metaphysics, in virtue of “introducing distinctly metaphysical terminology” (p. 267). Christopher Daly (2012) argues that none of the strategies for clarifying grounding talk can render it intelligible.

  2. Correia and Schnieder (2012) note this variation of grounding skepticism (p. 30).

  3. There is some debate as to what precisely it means to say that a priori knowledge is obtained “without the aid of experience.” Even though experience is often needed to acquire the concepts that factor in sentences used to express a priori propositions, such propositions do not require any sort of empirical information to justify believing them.

  4. See Fine (2012a, 2012b) and Litland (2017). For more on the distinction between the material and formal components of grounding, see Sect. 1. Thank you to Michael Raven for pointing out that nonfactive grounding claims are the ones that are known a priori.

  5. This is not to deny that there are also a posteriori grounding facts, as some grounding claims require empirical discoveries. The fact that water boils at one hundred degrees Celsius is grounded in a combination of water’s microphysical identity and the laws, where both are arrived at through scientific investigation. There may also be cases of a priori causation—see Sober (2011) and Bradley (2017).

  6. See Bealer (1996, p. 2) and Peacocke (2000, pp. 256–257, 2005, p. 755.) Such conceptualism about the a priori has been applied to domains ranging from logic, to mathematics, to modality, with the conceptualist program best embodied in the works of Bealer (1996, 1999) and Peacocke (1992, 1999, 2000, 2005). Other authors that have also employed varieties of conceptualism in various domains include Boghossian (2003a) on logic and Jenkins (2008) on mathematics.

  7. Those who endorse grounding necessitarianism (or principles that entail it) include Audi (2012a,2012b), Barker (2012), Bennett (2011), Correia (2005), deRosset (2010, 2013), Dasgupta (2014a), Fine (2012a), Rosen (2010), Trogdon (2013a, b), and Witmer et al. (2005).

  8. Even though necessitarianism is the orthodox view of grounding, it is not held unanimously. For objections to grounding necessitarianism, see Bricker (2006), Dancy (2004), Leuenberger (2014), Schaffer (2010), Schnieder (2006), and Skiles (2015). For responses, see Trogdon (2013a). I do not have the space here to defend the orthodox view of grounding against objections, so I will proceed as if the standard picture, including necessitarianism, gets grounding right. The question I will be examining is how to account for the epistemology of a non-revisionist notion of ground. Necessitarianism is accepted by the vast majority of those working on grounding, and so we will take on this assumption for our account of grounding’s epistemology.

  9. The asymmetry of grounding is endorsed by Audi (2012a, b), Bolzano (1837, vol. II, sections 168, 177, and 198–222), Fine (2012a), Koslicki (2012), Rosen (2010), and Schaffer (2009 and 2012). Bliss (2014) discusses whether circular grounding, a situation that makes it possible that both \(\Gamma \) grounds \(\alpha \) and \(\alpha \) grounds \(\Gamma \), creates a vicious regress. For possible examples of symmetric ontological dependence, see Barnes (2018), Priest (2014, Ch. 11), and Rodriguez-Pereyra (2005).

  10. This formulation is identical to that of Fine (2012a).

  11. See Fine (2012a, b). Fine (2012a, p. 47) notes that this view has the advantage that, if one takes the view that molecule x is water and that molecule x is H\({_{2}}\)O are the same proposition or fact, then on the sentential operator view one can still maintain that molecule x is water because it is H\({_{2}}\)O. Correia (2010) favors an operational approach as well, but only because this allows ontological neutrality in a discussion of ground (p. 254).

  12. Some take it that grounding is an explanatory relation; others that it backs such explanations. Those who take the former view include Dasgupta (2014a), Fine (2012a), Litland (2013), Raven (2012) and Rosen (2010) while those who endorse the latter view include Audi (2012b), Correia and Schnieder (2012), Koslicki (2012), Schaffer (2012) and Trogdon (2013b). All we need for our purposes is that grounding claims coincide with explanations, something to which both parties to the disagreement assent.

  13. Kim (1994) and Ruben (1990) take the view that explanations are backed by worldly relations, and Trogdon (2013b) and Rodriguez-Pereyra (2005) then put this point to use in arguing that grounding is in fact a relation as opposed to a sentential connective.

  14. For arguments in this vein, see Sider (2013, ch. 10).

  15. Those that endorse the relation view include Audi (2012a, b), Bolzano (1837, Vol. II, section 168), Cameron (2008), Dasgupta (2014a, b), Jenkins (2011), Rodriquez-Pereyra (2005), Rosen (2010), Schaffer (2009), and Trogdon (2013b).

  16. Audi (2012a, b), Dasgupta (2014a, b), and Rosen (2010) all stump for the facts view.

  17. See Cameron (2008), Jenkins (2011), and Schaffer (2009). Schaffer (2010) also treats it as a possibility that substances and modes can be related by grounding. In Bernard Bolzano’s early work (1810), he also allowed that grounds and groundees could be a variety of ontological types, though this may have been a result of his running together a number of relations as one, including causation, metaphysical dependence, and truth-making. In his mature work, however, when he had distinguished between causation and grounding, Bolzano took the orthodox position in only allowing facts as the relata of grounding. For a full account of the evolution of Bolzano’s views on this issue, see Correia and Schnieder (2012), Schnieder (2014), and Tatzel (2002). One response that Trogdon (2013b) suggests for the defender of the facts view is to differentiate between the specific relation of grounding, which holds only between facts, and ontological dependence generally, which can trade in other sorts of ontological types, a route taken by Koslicki (2012).

  18. This argument is put forward in Bennett (2017, p. 58), Raven (2015, p. 327), and Sider (2011, ch. 8).

  19. Supporters of transitivity include Bolzano (1837, section 213), Correia (2010), Fine (2012a), Schaffer (2009), and Whitcomb (2012). Rosen (2010) is more cautious, saying “[t]he grounding relation is not obviously transitive,” yet ends up adopting transitivity into the logic of ground. Both Schaffer (2012) and Tahko (2013) offer what they take to be counterexamples to transitivity—for responses, see Javier-Castellanos (2014), Litland (2013), and Raven (2013).

  20. Those who reject monotonicity for grounding include Audi (2012a, b), Dasgupta (2014a), Raven (2013, 2015), and Rosen (2010).

  21. Rosen (2010) makes this same point regarding the non-monotonicity of explanation and grounding (pp. 116–117). Schnieder (2011) tentatively allows that explanation is transitive. Those that take issue with the transitivity of explanation include Daly (2005), Hesslow (1981), and Owens (1992). Two sorts of challenges are immediately obvious. On the one hand, even though causation is an explanation-backing relation, it does not appear to be transitive in all cases; see, for example, Hall (2000) and Hitchcock (2001). If this is right, then there will be intransitive, causation-backed explanations. On the other hand, pragmatic and epistemic factors often influence explanation in a way that would not trace the underlying structure of reality, a point made by Trogdon (2013b). If either of these challenges is right, then explanation is not transitive after all, so the motivation for the transitivity of grounding will have to be drawn from elsewhere. For an argument that we should not move from the intransitivity of causation to the intransitivity of grounding, see Raven (2013).

  22. Any references to the necessity of grounding should thus be understood as referring to the fact that grounds necessitate their groundees.

  23. The capitalized notation here is used to indicate that we are discussing concepts. Grounding can thus be read as “the concept of grounding.”

  24. As far as views in the literature on understanding are concerned, a number of theorists take it that understanding why clearly involves propositional knowledge, see Hills (2009, p. 4) and Pritchard (2008, p. 8), while other think that objectual understanding does as well, see Gordon (2017), Grimm (2011), Kvanvig (2003, 2009), and Pritchard (2007). Nevertheless, there are some, like Williamson (2008), who deny that understanding necessarily involves knowledge of any conceptual truths. Rejoinders to Williamson, like that of Balcerak Jackson and Balcerak Jackson (2012) and Horvath (2020), have responded by pointing out that, even if conceptual understanding doesn’t necessarily involve knowledge of conceptual truths, it at least puts a person in a position to come to know such truths. Thank you to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the relevance of responses to Williamson for conceptualist epistemology.

  25. Strictly speaking, this will not be completely sufficient for explaining our knowledge of grounding’s necessity. Conceptualists will also have to give a conceptual account of how we know modal truths, and thus the necessity of conceptual truths, in the first place. The space to assess such a project goes beyond the scope of this paper, but one such attempt can be found in Peacocke (1999).

  26. Chalmers (2012) entertains a number of suggestions without committing to a single picture as to how to secure the link between conceptual grounding and metaphysical grounding (pp. 450–460), but he only explicitly considers this account of conceptual priority, a closely related account to his notion of “translucent settling” in his (2011).

  27. Representational views include Evans (1982) and Prinz (2002, p. 150).

  28. Inferentialism concerning concept possession encompasses views as diverse as Peacocke (1992) to Chalmers (2012, pp. 464–465).

  29. See Horvath (2018).

  30. See Chalmers (2012, pp. 457–458).

  31. See Peacocke (1992, pp. 6–8).

  32. For more on the distinction between genus-species relations and determinate-determinable relations, see Funkhouser (2006), Rosen (2010), and Wilson (2017).

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Correspondence to Robert Weston Siscoe.

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For much helpful discussion and feedback, I am indebted to David Chalmers, Nevin Climenhaga, Stew Cohen, Juan Comesaña, Tom Donaldson, Jane Friedman, Michael Raven, Greg Robson, Jonathan Schaffer, Joseph Tolliver, Jason Turner, and audiences at the Vancouver Summer Philosophy Conference, the Notre Dame/Northwestern Epistemology Conference, and the Johns Hopkins Graduate Conference.

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Siscoe, R.W. Grounding and a priori epistemology: challenges for conceptualism. Synthese 199, 11445–11463 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03297-z

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