Park Your Priors Not Your Principles

Thomas Reid, in 1763, wrote, “For before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; and it is impossible to reason with a man who has no principles…”

“For before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; and it is impossible to reason with a man who has no principles in common with you.” Thomas Reid wrote, “There are, therefore, common principles, which are the foundation of all reasoning, and of all science. Such common principles seldom admit of direct proof, nor do they need it. Men need not to be taught them; for they are such as all men of common understanding know; or such, at least, as they give a ready assent to, as soon as they are proposed and understood. Such principles, when we have occasion to use them in science, are called axioms.”

I realize I am straying into UD “Self-Evident Truths” territory here, but is that really such a bad thing? Isn’t the insistence on such truths a recognition that it is indeed the case that it is impossible to reason with a man who has no first principles in common with you?

This OP is offered as an acknowledgment that we all have priors and that “parking them at the door” doesn’t mean that people are expected to proceed as if they have none, and also as an appeal to be more willing to examine those priors, where they come from, and what their influences are. But to do so don’t we need to hold certain principles in common? Is it even possible for us to agree on what those principle are and why we all hold them or at least ought to hold them? How far does skepticism go before it becomes solipsism?

Also as an opportunity to discuss Thomas Reid. I keep hearing about this guy and have never read him. He apparently didn’t think highly of Hume’s philosophy. So sort of a self-prodding to investigate further.

14 thoughts on “Park Your Priors Not Your Principles

  1. I’ve never read Reid, and I’ve long been aware that I should — not least because of his influence on Peirce and other pragmatists.

    I do wonder, however, what we might think of a Brandomian inversion of Reid’s thesis, beginning with a reading (or Reid-ing?) of this remark:

    before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; and it is impossible to reason with a man who has no principles in common with you.

    I am puzzled by this “before”. It suggests the following picture. First, we have individual, isolated thinkers. Then, each thinker gives his or her assent to a principle. Only then, after assent has been given, can they then proceed to form a community of inquirers. Hence the capacity to recognize a principle as a principle, and to give assent to it, is an essentially individual capacity and logically prior to a discursive community.

    But then, if the capacity to recognize principles and assent to them is essentially individual, what guarantees that the principles will be common for all? What guarantees that any two people will share any principles at all?

    To support this argument, Reid gives the following bit of evidence:

    Men need not to be taught them; for they are such as all men of common understanding know; or such, at least, as they give a ready assent to, as soon as they are proposed and understood.

    Notice the phrase “of common understanding” here. That would suggest that one must be a “man of common understanding” in order to assent to shared first principle. But how does one become a man of common understanding? Reid tell us that the principles themselves are not “taught,” which suggests that they are perhaps “innate”, whatever that might have meant to Reid.

    It is curious, however, that assenting to a principle is a very curious kind of assent. Normally we think that, to a rational mind, whatever can be assented can also be denied — it depends on how one evaluates the evidence, considers the argument, the balance of probabilities, and so on. But of course one cannot reason that way to first principles, because one must first have the first principles in order to have anything to reason with. And so one’s “assent” to first principles cannot be anything like one’s assent to any argument or theory.

    If merely understanding a first principle is necessary and sufficient for assenting to it, we have here something like “compelled assent”: one simply cannot help but assent to a first principle. And I submit that when we find a contradiction like “compelled assent” in a philosopher’s thinking, we have exposed a very interesting tangle or knot. How to untangle it?

    We can begin to find the way forward here by noticing that teaching can have a wide range of senses (as can “knowledge”). In the pragmatist tradition (with parallels with Ryle and Heidegger, who are not pragmatists), we often distinguish “knowing how” from “knowing that”, and hold that knowing-how is logically prior (as well as developmentally, psychologically prior) to knowing-that. That is, knowing involves not just facts but also (and, according to pragmatism, more basically) skills. And skills can, of course, be taught.

    Of particular interest to contemporary pragmatists are the skills of discourse, what Brandom calls “deontic scorekeeping”: being able to track what other people are committed to assert and entitled to assert, and recognizing oneself as subject to the evaluations of other people as to what one is committed to asserting and entitled to assert. These are skills that we acquire in the process of learning a natural language that is used to navigate social environments.

    The next step is to introduce the idea of a metavocabulary. A metavocabulary is a way of saying what one must be able to do in order to use some other vocabulary.

    We can propose the Brandomian inversion of Reid: the first principles are not the foundation of the skills of rational discourse, but rather the first principles are the metavocabulary of rational discourse. That is, the first principles allow us to say what one must be able to do in order to engage in rational discourse. And now we have an explanation, without any question-begging innatism, as to why understanding the principles is sufficient to compel assent: because all the principles do is tell us what we’re already doing.

    To conclude: we do not first give our individual assent to first principles and then form a discursive community. Rather, we are able to assent to first principles because we are already part of a discursive community, having acquired the skills of playing the game of giving and asking for reasons in the process of acquiring a language, and first principles are simply the metavocabulary of the skills of rational discourse.

  2. “For before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; …”

    This seems self-contradictory. Reaching agreement already involves reasoning.

    I’m not criticizing Reid for that. I take his statement to be rhetorical.

    I would think that questioning agreed principles is something that philosophers should do.

  3. Although it’s sort of true. Remember all those discussions about the shape of the table during the Paris Peace Accords.

  4. KN, I don’t think Reid’s uses of “first” or “before” should be taken as chronological in those passages. I think he was talking about logical priority. That may be similar to what Brandom is talking about. Not sure.

    Reid is just making the point here that there has to be some common ground for communication to occur.

    Thanks for the links, mung.

  5. walto: KN, I don’t think Reid’s uses of “first” or “before” should be taken as chronological in those passages. I think he was talking about logical priority. That may be similar to what Brandom is talking about. Not sure.

    No, I’m defending a version of Brandom’s claim, which is precisely to reverse the order of explanatory priority between the capacity to engage to rational discourse and the capacity to assent to first principles.

    Reid seems to be saying that we should explain our capacity to engage in rational discourse in terms of our capacity to assent to first principles. Brandom would say that we should explain our capacity to assent to first principles in terms of our capacity to engage in rational discourse.

  6. walto: Reid is just making the point here that there has to be some common ground for communication to occur.

    But the “common ground” doesn’t pre-exist communication; it is constructed through iterations of communicative success and failure.

  7. Kantian Naturalist: But the “common ground” doesn’t pre-exist communication; it is constructed through iterations of communicative success and failure.

    This discussion is really way beyond my pay grade, but … this seems to be directly related to how we construct language to begin with. I mean the simplest baby language, not anything “logical” or in accordance with “principles”.

    Baby talk is literally constructed with nested (iterations?) communication successes and (partial) failures. It’s phonemes which become “sticky” in the infant’s brain because of the cycle of reinforcement for saying (babbling) them, then repeating them, then more reinforcement (vs phonemes which die out when they aren’t reinforced in that cultural setting).

    I have an intuition that it’s analogous so:

    Brandom would say that we should explain our capacity to assent to first principles [to agree that words have specific meanings] in terms of our capacity to engage in rational discourse [to engage in inter-personal communication to begin with].

    In which case, Brandom would be closer to right than the other philosopher who sees the opposite. But I’m not clear that it’s a real dichotomy in real human development.

    Philosophers sure do seem to love spending their lives arguing about where to put the priority-emphasis in a continuous feedback process.
    .
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    oops “spending” not “pending”

  8. hotshoe_,

    Yes, I do think that one virtue of Brandom’s understanding of rationality is that it is more consistent with our understanding of infant psychological development, including (but not limited to) linguistic development. The paper I’m working on now is about Brandom’s version of neopragmatism in relation with “speculative cognitive paleoanthropology” — in other words, trying to understand how primates became philosophers.

  9. Kantian Naturalist: in other words, trying to understand how primates became philosophers.

    which could be the most interesting question remaining in philosophy.

    I don’t want to wish you “good luck” because I’m pretty sure luck will have nothing to do with your writing, but may I wish you Happy Writing, KN.

  10. Despite the criticism, the influence of the Scottish school was notable for example upon American pragmatism, and modern Thomism. The influence has been particularly important concerning the epistemological importance of a sensus communis for any possibility of rational discussion between people.

    here

  11. … John Locke too thought that intuition was a non-inferential source of knowledge: it occurs when we spontaneously perceive a connection between several ideas. We can mentally perceive that “white is not black, that a circle is not a triangle, that three are more than two, and equal to one and two (Locke 1690, 264). Remarkably, to Locke (1690, 264), intuitions afford a higher degree of certainty than inferential reasoning: “This part of knowledge is irresistable, and, like bright sunshine, forces itself immediately to be perceived, as soon as ever the mind turns its view that way; and leaves no room for hesitation, doubt, or examination, but the mind is presently filled with the clear light of it. ‘Tis on this intuition, that depends all the certainty and evidence of all our knowledge.”

    – A Natural History of Natural Theology (p. 33)

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