Rational Insight


[Some of this was written by Erik, some of this was written by me]

Abstract: In this paper I aim to illustrate, explain, and defend the existence of rational insights; I want to describe what a rational insight is, maybe offer a causal explanation (if there even is one), and respond to objections. I also plan on discussing the issue of meta-justification, and I will be exploring both Bonjour’s and Mcgrew’s contributions.

What is a rational insight?: A rational insight is a direct insight of the necessity of a given proposition. Let us take a proposition that we take to necessarily be the case, such as “a ball can’t be both fully red and fully blue.” According to Bonjour, one would “understand or grasp (i) the properties redness and greenness, (ii) what it is for them to be features of a surface, and (iii) what it is for the presence of one of them to exclude the presence of the other in the way that the proposition in question claims” (2, In Defense of Rational Insights, Bonjour).

Rational insights themselves are also epistemically private, meaning that they are non-inferential, non-propositional, and refer to a first-person mental state. Although the rational insight itself is not propositional, its content is (since its object is a necessary proposition). In addition, a rational insight is a type of acquaintance-relation- the relata are the necessary proposition(s), and the subject.

Is there an explanation for rational insights? If so, what is it?: Some may allege (cough cough Boghossian) that the notion of being acquainted with a necessary fact simply upon immediate reflection, without any discursive process, is a weird or inexplicable thing to posit. Bonjour argues against this, saying that:

If, as suggested in my earlier discussion, I am genuinely able to grasp or understand the properties redness and greenness, why should I not thereby be able to directly apprehend at least some (though perhaps not all) of their essential features and relations, such as the fact that they exclude each other from 6 occupying the same surface — and similarly in the other cases? Indeed, what could a genuine grasp of such properties that did not bring with it any insights of this sort possibly amount to? How, to shift the example, could I possibly grasp or understand the relation of being taller than without thereby being able to see immediately that it is necessarily transitive?” (5, 6, In Defense of Rational Insights, Bonjour)

Similar to Bonjour, I don’t see what’s weird about knowing the necessity of a proposition given that you understand the concepts being used. I understand the concepts of a straight line and two points, and it sounds even weirder to say that my understanding of the concepts doesn’t entail that I know the shortest distance between them is a straight line. It may be weird or mysterious to accept it (as Bonjour grants), but it’s even weirder and much more implausible to say that I can’t apprehend necessary propositions given that I understand the concepts!

Okay, so the relation may be somewhat weird, but is it explainable?- maybe in principle, but I don’t think such an explanation exists. But, as I have argued earlier, that isn’t a point against rational foundationalism (there is also the option available of asking the empiricist for an explanation and giving a parody, where abstract objects replace concrete objects and the faculty of sense-perception is replaced by the faculty of reason). To add, an explanation for a relation/object being weird or not present isn’t a good reason to reject the existence of such a relation/object, given that we presumably accept that the shortest distance-relation between two points is a straight line, and that we accept weird and unexplained objects into our ontology like the number one.

In summary, I don’t have an explanation. But, that does not take plausibility points away from rational foundationalism. If we have a relation/object that probably exists, weirdness alone doesn’t give us a good reason to reject it; we don’t reject general relativity because the bending of space-time is weird, we don’t reject modal logic because modal terms are explicable independent of modal terms, etc. There also exists the concern of a parody argument against the empiricist, wherein the rational foundationalist can give a mirrored explanation.

Are rational insights epistemically circular, and do they require meta-justification?:

There are multiple ways to ask for meta-justification for rational insights. I will go through this question, and see which ones actually bring out concerns.

  • What’s the argument for your rational insight?” This question is a category error in two regards. Rational insights are (i) non-propositional, and (ii) non-inferential. Since an argument is showing something to be true through some inference, (i) cannot imply. Since an argument involves an inference, (ii) is also not applicable.
  • Why are your rational insights truth-indicative?” (i) Non-inferentially, we can say that we are having a genuine insight into the reality of a given proposition and its constituent concepts, and how such concepts entail its necessity. It being presently genuine to us gives us the immediately accessible reason for why this proposition being necessary is really the case. In other words, that our rational insight is truth-conducive is “self-evident.” Bojour gives a good example: “…could I possibly grasp or understand the relation of being taller than without thereby being able to see immediately that it is necessarily transitive?” (6, In Defense of Rational Insights, Bonjour).

On Logical Circularity: Some may charge that our view is logically circular, through asking questions like: “How do we know we are having rational insights? How do we know they are self-evident?” I took this out of the last section, as I think this demands much more than a bullet-point response. That aside, all we need to do is give a non-circular and non-infinitst answer, and then we are done. (i) Let us first understand that the KK thesis, i.e., the epistemological thesis that puts forward that a condition for knowing is knowing that you are knowing. I think while the KK thesis can seem intuitive, after reflection, we can see how it doesn’t really hold much water, nor does the push to an infinite regress the skeptic is trying to push us toward. If you ask me, “Do you know that you know that this proposition is self-evident?” I can answer “Yes!” But, then you can ask me, “Do you know that you know that you know this proposition is self-evident?” and I can respond “Yes!” This could go on infinitely, but I see no reason why it must. Why must I know that I know that I know to know? (ii) Another option is a retreat to epistemic privacy- we do not need to publicly show our knowledge to another agent, as that isn’t possible. If something is non-inferential, non-propositional, and a first-personal cognitive state, we can’t show it publically. As a result, it also cannot be questioned in terms of demanding a demonstration of the fact that you know it. The retreat to privacy is not only a way to avoid issues related to meta-justification, but is also a means by which we can

Some Final Remarks: I also want to make it clear that we can easily intuit that an epistemic ban of logical circularity is certainly reflective of reality. However, epistemic circularity and infinite regress are a different story. Erik and I plan to deal with epistemic circularity and infinitism in their own respective essays. We will also deal with coherentism in a future essay. Once we have done that, a refining of our foundationalism will be explicated in its full force hopefully by the end of the month.



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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille