How is a priori knowledge possible? The dominant recent response on the rationalist (pro-a priori) side to Benacerraf-style worries has been the conceptualist one, featuring prominent thinkers like Peacocke, Boghossian, Jackson, perhaps Hale and C. Wright, and a host of their followers. The approach concentrates upon our grasp of relevant concepts and upon their alleged a priori connections, and attempts to account for a priori knowledge in terms of the grasp. It attempts to preserve realistically factual character or substantiality of a priori knowledge. At the same time typical recent conceptualists subscribe to for a version of naturalism, albeit a somewhat weak one, and attempt to neutralize the worries traditionally connected to causal or causal-like explanations. The idea is that the mere possession of concepts, no matter how it has been arrived at, provides the thinker with substantial (factual) knowledge about the items concepts refer to. And this is valid for all concepts, empirical, mathematical, moral, or social-conventional; there is nothing very special about the traditional “a priori concepts” like mathematical or moral ones. The conceptualist development has been quite impressive, but there are some residual worries. The story is just too good to be true.
First, the assumed uniformity and equal status of all concepts is problematic. Is the proposition “2+2 = 4” really of the same epistemic kind as “Whales are material objects”? Conceptual truths about whales seem to be rather trivial and superficial, those about numbers are probably a priori in a much deeper way. Not to mention that it has proved to be very difficult to find conceptual truths about very many empirical concepts (natural and artefactual kinds being the most obvious examples). The proposed candidates, like, for instance, complicated conceptual networks (disjunctions of conjunctions of weighted criteria) lack intuitive force; I for myself just cannot decide whether a proposed such network is believed by me a priori, or whether experience plays some role in justifying it. (Both Peacocke and Jackson and Chalmers move to meta-level and stress the richness of apparently conceptual rules of belief revision which are supposed to be a priori. But the move, although reasonable in itself, leaves the crucial, first-level issues open. And moreover, the question whether rules of revision are a priori seem to be much more difficult than the original question; there are almost no spontaneous, naïve intuitions available about such complicated matters.)
Second, there is the crucial problem of accounting for apriority. The conceptualist line is: don’t worry, all a priori truths are conceptual truths, they are explained by our having concepts, and this is not particularly mysterious. But this seems to reverse the right order of explanation: concepts are OK, but they don’t fully explain our apparent access to (alleged) a priori domains, nor fully justify our beliefs. The deeper question remains: where do these very concepts of number, of metaphysically fundamental properties or of moral qualities come from? And what justifies their use in our inquiry? They are thus themselves in need of explanation and justification, they belong to explananda (and vindicanda) not to explanantia (and vindicata). (The same question can be reiterated for higher-order conceptual items, like a priori rules of belief-revision, entitlement and the like). Neglecting explanation amounts to giving up on the one of the most exciting problems in the history of epistemology from Plato, through Descartes and Kant to Wittgenstein and Carnap. The original epistemic Platonism was not satisfactory, but at least it kept the issues alive, and focused the attention to the domain of problematic objects, mostly abstract objects, themselves.
Here is then the worry in the nutshell. By offering the most superficial, purely analytic apriority as a model, without seriously addressing the explanation issue, conceptualism might direct our attention away from real and difficult issues about serious candidates for a priori knowledge, and away from the serious a priori domains like math and morals. To use a graphic metaphor, it might turn out to place a concept-barrier, a veil of conception so to speak, between us and the domain of presumably abstract object, in the similar way in which strongly indirect theories of perception place a veil of perception between us and material objects.
So, my dear fellow bloggers, do these worries make sense? Or am I being old- fashioned and paranoid?
And, HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!!!!!!!!!!!