Basic Issues in Philosophy
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Dr. Ned Beach
25 September, 1998


Key Terms:

  1. You should be able to define and characterize the three main branches of philosophy. You should also be able to provide examples of philosophical issues that would fall under each of these areas.




  1. You should be able to define what is meant by "a priori knowledge" as opposed to "a posteriori knowledge." Also, be prepared to distinguish between examples of each type.

Key term #1:

Briefly define "epistemology." Give an example of a problem or theory that falls within the domain of epistemology.

Student's Answer: Epistemology is the study of knowledge.

1. What constitutes genuine knowledge?
2. What is the criteria for knowledge?
3. What separates knowledge from opinion or belief?

Comment: This definition is a bit vague. After all, there are many different "studies of knowledge," and it could even be said that every discipline at the university is a "study of knowledge." More accurately, epistemology can be defined as a critical inquiry into the fundamental principles of knowledge, including its possibility, its certainty, and its justification.

The student's next three numbered sentences are fine, except that they should be clearly labeled as examples of epistemological issues.

Key term #2:

Briefly define "metaphysics." Give an example of a problem or theory that falls within the domain of metaphysics.

Students' Answer: Metaphysics is the question of being. All being is material, matter, or spirit, the fundamentals of "being."

Comment: The first sentence is correct, but needs to be spelled out more clearly. Metaphysics is the inquiry into the question of being. (Or: it concerns the question of being.) It involves theories about the nature of being, such as which kind or kinds of being are primary realities, and which are secondary.

The second sentence should state that the following are examples of metaphysical theories: "For example, there is the theory that all being is material ..."

The third sentence is misleading, because the question of virtue is more concerned with axiology, the third main division of philosophy, than with metaphysics per se.

Key term #3

Briefly define "axiology." Give an example of a problem or theory that falls within the domain of metaphysics.

Students' Answer: Axiology is the study of the things that are valuable. Art and ethical conduct would be examples of axiology.

Comment: This is a bit off the mark. Axiology is not the study of valuable things -- in that case art galleries and the stock market would be institutions of philosophy, which they are not. Rather, axiology is concerned with the study of the criteria of value and the rational justification of such criteria. Axiology treats the fundamental principles that would determine what it means for something to be valuable as such.

The examples show the same misunderstanding. Art is not a branch of axiology, but the philosophy of aesthetics is. Ethical conduct is not part of axiology, but the philosophical study of the principles of ethics and the justification of ethical values is.

Key term #4

Briefly define a priori knowledge, as the term is understood by contemporary philosophers. Give one example of a proposition that could arguably be regarded as knowable a priori.

Student's Answer: A priori means before. It is defined as before your senses experience, or not depending on your sense experience. An example of this is your faith, because you have no previous experience.

Comment: The term, a priori, does indeed come from the Latin phrase meaning "from before." For Plato, what is a priori true is that which one "recollects" from the time before one was born, when one dwelt in the paradisaical realm of the eternal Forms. Nowadays, however, the term "a priori" no longer carries the connotation of temporal priority, but instead it refers to a strictly logical priority. So the students are correct that a priori truths are logically independent of sense experience, in that their truth can be established without relying on any physical observations. The example of faith, however, is incorrect, because this is based on feeling or intuition, not reason. I may have faith (firmly believe in) in the existence of God, even if I do not claim to be able to demonstrate his existence with an air-tight logical proof. An example of a priori knowledge would be the Pythagorean theorem, whose truth can be established independently of all sense experience.

See also the classroom exercise on the a priori versus a posteriori distinction.

Key term #5:

Briefly define a posteriori knowledge and give an example of a proposition that would be classified as being of that kind.

Student's Answer: A posteriori means after. It is defined as after you used your senses experience, or relying on your senses experience. An example is when the dogs are salivating for food. They use their past experience.

Comment: This is essentially correct. Perhaps a better example than salivating dogs would be our knowledge that Eau Claire is located in northwestern Wisconsin. There is no way one could possibly discover this without empirical observation.

See also the classroom exercise on the a priori versus a posteriori distinction.

Questions for Understanding:

Charles Sanders Peirce suggests that the goal of inquiry is essentially to attain the "fixity of belief" (as opposed to knowledge), as well as to remove possible doubts. He describes four methods that have frequently been used in the past to achieve such fixity of belief. What are the four methods? Which method does Peirce advocate, and why?

Discuss William Kingdon Clifford's reasoning concerning the "ethics of belief." Why does he insist that "it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence"? What arguments does he use to show this?

What does William James mean by a "genuine option," and of what three main components does this consist? Why is this concept important, according to him, and how does he use it to answer W.K. Clifford's argument?