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Say It In Latin: A Posteriori And A Priori

December 22, 2016 2 Comments

The Latin phrase a posteriori refers to the process of inductive reasoning. It means “from what comes after” or a proposition based on experience. A close relative, also used in philosophical arguments, is a priori, which is knowledge based on previous understanding of the concept.  It means literally from what comes before. A priori can be a mathematical equation, or any other agreed upon fact deriving from the agreement.  It would be correct to call the statement “It is cloudy outside.” a posteriori because I looked outside and can see the fact that it is cloudy now. The statement, “Cumulous clouds are the harbinger of rain.” is an assumption based on scientific agreement, and therefore is a priori.  We agree on the definition of cumulous clouds without the need to experience them directly. “That bow is red” is another a priori belief.  We all have agreed on what red is (except the colorblind).

A posteriori is based on empirical evidence, direct contact with the facts.  A priori is based on logic previously accepted as sound.  On the surface it might seem that a posteriori is the only valid way to defend a position.  I have learned from my studies of ancestry and history that both methods can fail miserably.  My grandmother thought she knew her birth year, but there was no certificate.  Later in life she forgot, and then nobody really knew, or bothered to look it up because it did not matter.  She had no way to remember her own birth, so her a priori birthday was a year off the real date.  Many “facts” in records from the past have been recorded incorrectly.  Census records that list step mothers as natural parents, step children as children, and other errors can throw a wrench in the works for investigators trying to follow a lineage.

Be careful, gentle reader.  Logic and truth are tricky subjects.  Check your logic, and double-check your data before you make any big conclusions.  Caveat emptor.



To Live Existentially

November 9, 2016



“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre

From the post war philosophers and artists who created the existential movement to Woody Allen who made movies designed to parody the literary and philosophical culture, existentialism flourished.  Jean-Paul Sartre coined the title.  He was a French writer who is known for philosophical as well as fictional books. He and his contemporaries were concerned with the individual’s freedom and responsibility  rather than social or political issues.  They concluded that to understand the human nature science and morals were insufficient.  They were obsessed with how to live life by taking responsibility for creating reality.  They believed that every individual action taken changes the world to some degree.  Each act must therefore be done in full awareness and with precision.  Our acts, not particularly our thoughts, make the atmosphere we inhabit what it is.  The personal power and responsibility to act wisely belongs to each individual.  The sum of all these individual actions creates the entire world.

Existential therapy deals with the inevitability of death, freedom and its attendant responsibility, existential isolation, and finally meaninglessness. This remedy aims to answer the big questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” in each individual life.  This is an extension of the philosophy focuses on helping clients make good choices and thorough evaluations of all the options available.  I always liked this way of thinking.  Now is a perfect time to take stock and evaluate how we are creating the world around us.  This life is a limited time offer.  We never know how limited until it ends…and then there will be nothing else.

“You are — your life, and nothing else.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit



Protagoras, the Gods, and You

July 17, 2013 2 Comments

Writing twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 490-420 BCE) might provide wise counsel to our troubled, conflicted age, and offer some hope: “Concerning the gods,” he wrote, “I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what form they are; for there are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”

When a pantheon ruled many dramatic events took place between gods and goddesses, as well as between the immortals and the mortals; life was more exciting. The potential for anything to happen was greater in the collective consciousness before pesky science invaded religious belief.  Philosophy turned a corner when Protagoras, a sophist who died when Plato was young, brought forth his teachings.  He wrote and taught from 490-420 BC, and is reputed to be the first Greek to make money in higher education.  His fees were reputedly very steep. He wrote, but none of his written work survived.  He was itinerant, traveling all over Greece to find students.  The new ideas he fostered and taught were:

  • Relativism- there are two sides to every story
  • Orthoepeia- it is possible to convince the majority that the the lesser choice is the better one with rhetoric
  • Agnosticism-there is no way to have direct knowledge of any of the gods

This has meaning today as we see those who defend absolute truth of any kind. Modern courts of law have their foundations in these three ideas. Law schools teach orthoepeia as part of trial training.  Reasonable doubt is relativism.  Before Protagoras all earthly events were explained by relating nature to the gods’ whims.  Once there was reasonable doubt of that, the world started to look more controllable. Justice, however, is not served when these valuable teachings are not spread equally and given to all citizens. We still have giant problems with democracy and education.  What would Protagoras teach the Congress of the US???

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