Kevin Briggs Photography

“A Priori”

Kevin Briggs

One of my favorite observations pertaining to the vast realm that is art was made by Paul Gauguin: “Art requires philosophy, just as philosophy requires art. Otherwise, what would become of beauty?”

When I was graduate student at Virginia Tech I had the opportunity to participate in a form of an “educational exchange” wherein I partook of a semester-long graduate course in philosophy through Harvard University’s Extension School. The subject of the course was metaphysics.

If you reference any reputable guide to metaphysics, you will quickly find that metaphysics — especially today — is difficult to define. In fact, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy declares (in the very first sentence of its somewhat broad online treatise), “It is not easy to say what metaphysics is.” A few quick paragraphs later we find another not so helpful statement: “The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define.”

Great, thanks for clearing that up.

In fact, there is even considerable disagreement today amongst philosophers not only with regard to exactly how metaphysics is to be defined but also with respect to which sub-branches of philosophy are to be included within its nexus. 

(Imagine that — disagreement amongst philosophers!)

Nevertheless, to present the briefest summary possible — although this summary would surely broach a diligent and comprehensive conversation by those who may disagree — the study of metaphysics represents an exploration of “first causes.” By “first causes” we are speaking of existence itself (including matter) and the resulting causes of such existence. Additionally, and by extension, we are also speaking of the study of the nature of existence itself — not only the “stuff” of existence but the intangible nature of reality as well.

By the way, philosophers beginning with Aristotle (who is considered the father of metaphysics) all the way to the 21st century have included the idea of God as the origin of all existence (along with defining its nature) down to the more traditional theoretical antecedent of the Big Bang.

What this means — and this could constitute a more precise definition — is that metaphysics represents “the philosophical study of being and knowing.”

If you believe this is all getting a little thick by this point, just bear with me.

What is existence? If we exist, what makes up the constituent nature of such an existence? And furthermore, how do we know? How do we know we know? How do we know anything, really? 

These questions are all found within the comprehensive umbrella of metaphysics. (Although some would say that we have now broached the subject of “ontology” and “epistemology.” But that is for another time.)

… And the point, Kevin?

Within this semester-long smorgasbord of philosophical delicacies, our excellent professor focused on one particular metaphysical morsel above all others. It signified to him the summum bonum of not just the study of metaphysics but of the study of philosophy itself: a priori.

(The phrase is pronounced ah pree-awr-ee or ey pree-awr-ee, depending upon your philosophical perspective).

Great, Kevin! Just great. Yet another philosophical morass.

Not so!

The concept of a priori is, to me, one of the more savory aspects of metaphysical inquiry because it is at once more easily defined and at the same time more mysterious than general metaphysics. It was this mysteriousness that captivated our professor.

And don’t worry, we’re coming close to the end of today’s mini-thesis.

For the purposes of not only this blog post on my color abstract photography work — yes, I haven’t forgotten about that — but also as a summary of our professor’s teachings on the subject, a priori simply means “the awareness and/or comprehension of reality (of existence, if you will) which is independent of personal experience.” It is this independence from personal experience which forms the key to the mysterious nature of a priori.

In other words, the term refers to that knowledge which is independent of any “first-person” experience one has enjoyed throughout their sentient lifespan. And we are not necessarily speaking of a “sixth sense” here, although a “sixth sense” may (or may not) be indicative of a priori awareness. (A “sixth sense” may simply represent an as yet defined awareness which is the product of rational experience and its attendant comprehension.)

In its most unpretentious form, a priori can mean the simple “awareness” that all bachelors are unmarried men. In other words, it does not require that the individual possess a first-hand, first-person knowledge — by literally coming in contact with all adult males who are not married — in order to possess a logical understanding of a portion of humankind’s sociological makeup.

Another example would be the specific mechanics associated with the earth’s rotation around the sun. None of us has sufficient first-hand, first-person experience to be able to declare that we know matter-of-factly and can attest to the reality of this precise gravitational relationship. Instead, we rely upon the testimonies of others (such as physicists and astronomers), along with the predictions associated with mathematics, to find comfortability in such a reality.

Yet according to my former Harvard professor, a priori also extends to those realms of awareness beyond reliance upon common assumptions, if you will, or the testimony of authority figures. A priori seems to extend to those aspects of awareness which one might term as “innate.”

The uptake of all of this means that on many levels a priori contradicts one of the foundations of epistemology (that branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge) in the form of the 18th century English philosopher John Locke’s declaration that “no man’s knowledge can go beyond his experience.” In other words, according to Locke you can only truly know what you have personally experienced. If you have simply read about a concept, construct, idea, place, time, object, etc., but have never experienced such in the first-person — through the physical senses — then you do not truly possess knowledge of the same.

So far so good.

But now here’s the rub: a priori justification (as it is now called) constitutes a well respected phenomenon within the larger realm of epistemology and metaphysics. 

OK… Go on…

But if the individual possesses a true comprehension (a true awareness) of that which did not result as a product of the utilization of the five human senses — through personal sensory experience — how exactly did the individual acquire such “knowledge”?

That is the question that fascinated our professor. Furthermore, the more he was able to show the reality of “deeper” examples of a priori — by metaphysical experiment and logic — the more we all began to question and appreciate such supposedly innate knowledge.

Once again, are we referring to a sixth sense? Are we speaking of the acquisition of certain traits (or “talents”) acquired through the genetic-mutation process that is human procreation? Or are we speaking of something else when we refer to the ultimate workings of the a priori principle? According to my former Harvard professor, genetic mutations alone cannot explain all that seems inherently innate.

The concept of a priori has been analogized to intuition. In fact, there are a number of published papers within the philosophical realms that seek to compare and contrast intuition with a priori (the formal definition for intuition being “an immediate cognition of an object not inferred or determined by a previous cognition of the same object.”) The point being, we are speaking of what is also referred to in these same philosophical realms as "special knowledge." And once again, the question is: how is such special knowledge obtained?

My goal in creating a priori as a piece of abstract fine art was to represent that knowledge that is, at least seemingly, independent of sensory awareness. 

Thus, what is the origin of such knowledge…?

This work constitutes the artistic representation of my answer to this question.