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Author(s): Robert Audi

Source: Noûs, Vol. 33, Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives, 13, Epistemology (1999), pp.
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Philosophical Perspectives, 13, Epistemology, 1999


University of Nebraska

In defending their positions, some philosophers and many others appeal to

the notion of the self-evident. Commonly,this is meant to imply thatthe position
in question needs no explanation or argument. Propositions held to be self-
evident are often central in philosophical discussion. They are, for instance, re-
gardedas axioms on which much depends,or they functionas underivedpremises
from which much is inferred.But some of the very propositions so regardedby
some areconsideredby othersto be downrightmistaken.Skepticismrunsdeep in
many philosophical temperaments,and even apartfrom skepticismphilosophers
have some naturalresistanceto the idea that anythingphilosophically significant
needs no argumentor explanation. For many philosophers, an appeal to self-
evidence is like a dogmatic insistence on one's position or, at best, a sign of
reluctanceto give fair considerationto alternatives.
This paperis writtenin the hope of clarifying the concept of the self-evident
in a way that enables us to see not only what kind of proposition deserves the
name, but also what range of jobs the concept can be expected to do. My central
questions are these: What is it for a proposition to be self-evident? Does self-
evidence admit of degrees or divide significantly into kinds? And how is the
self-evident relatedto the obvious, the a priori,the necessary,andthe analytic?In
the light of what emerges in discussing these questions, we can see something of
its philosophical importance.

I. The Basic Notion of Self-Evidence

Let us begin with the idea that a self-evident propositionis one whose truth
is in some way evident "in itself." This is what one would expect from the mean-
ings of the parts of the compound, and it accords with standarduses of the term.
Now if a proposition,p, is evident in itself, simply "looking at it" in the right way
should reveal some positive status-at least its truth. Looking at it in a way
appropriateto seeing its truth(or to appreciatingits being evident) requiresun-
derstandingit. It will not do, for instance,just to considerit undera non-identifying

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206 / RobertAudi

description, such as 'Her obviously sound point', or to study a sentence that

expresses it in a language one knows only slightly.
If, moreover,the self-evident is evidently true,or even simply evident in any
sense of thatterm, one might think that what must be revealed by properconsid-
eration of such a proposition is that it is evident.l Beingevident,however, is an
epistemic notion; and one could have a proper cognitive response to a self-
evident proposition,p, withoutusing the concept of the evident-or even having
it, as where a young child learningelementarylogic grasps, throughunderstand-
ing the proposition,that if no dogs are cats, then no cats are dogs. What, then, is
revealed by the kind of comprehendingconsiderationof a self-evident proposi-
tion that concerns us?
Considerwhat is meant when it is said to be "evidentto everyone"that (say)
the sopranois flat. Whatis standardlymeantis thatto everyone presentthis seems
true,not that to everyone presentthis seems evident, or even that anyone present
can tell that it is evident. Its evidence is roughly its manifest truth(in this case it
is manifest not in itself but on the basis of hearingit). Even if, by reflection, one
may also discern its higher-orderpropertyof being evident, its being evident is
not what is revealed when one simply comes to know the proposition. I take
self-evidence to be a kind of manifest truth of a proposition in itself, not the
higher-orderpropertyof being manifestly evident in itself. In virtue of its self-
evidence one can come to know it-here, thatp-by appropriatelyconsideringit.
If one could also come to know its status by such consideration-say, to know
thatp is evident this is a differentmatter.

Thebasickindof self-evidence

Given these and other points about the notion of the self-evident, I construe
the basic kind of self-evident proposition as (roughly) a truthsuch that any ade-
quate understandingof it meets two conditions: (a) in virtue of having that un-
derstanding,one is justified in believing the proposition(i.e., has justification for
believing it, whether one in fact believes it or not); and (b) if one believes the
proposition on the basis of that understandingof it, then one knows it.2 More
briefly (but not quite equivalently), p is self-evident provided an adequateun-
derstandingof it is sufficient for being justified in believing it and for knowing it
if one believes it on the basis of that understanding.Three elements in this ac-
count need clarificationshere. The first concerns the relationbetween the under-
standingin questionandbelievingp, the second the notion of the adequacyof that
understanding,and the thirdthe need for the second, knowledge condition in the
First, as (a) indicates, it does not follow from the self-evidence of a propo-
sition thatif one understands(and considers) it, then one believes it. This is not to
deny that rational persons tend to believe self-evident propositions they ade-
quately understand,more or less upon comprehendinglyconsidering them. This
tendencyindeed seems partlyconstitutiveof what it is to be a rationalperson.But

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Self-Evidence/ 207

it is only a tendency,not an entailment.Skepticism, caution, and slow uptakecan

explain delay and resistance in belief formation here, and not even the last of
these entails lesser rationality.Quite apart from how much of a deficiency in
rationalitymay be indicatedby certain persistentfailures to form beliefs in such
cases, there are surely instances in which one can see whata self-evident prop-
osition says and thus understandit-before seeing that,or how, it is true.
Another way to see the plausibility of a non-belief-entailing conception of
self-evidence is to note that we can fail initially to "see" a self-evident truth,so
that it does not seem clearly true at all, yet later grasp it in just the way we grasp
the truth of a paradigmaticallyself-evident proposition: one that is obvious in
itself the moment we consider it. Take, e.g., a self-evident proposition that is
perhapsnot immediatelyobvious: the existence of great grandchildrenis impos-
sible apartfrom that of four generationsof people. For some, it is quickly (even
if not normallyimmediately)apparentthat since a greatgrandchildis the child of
parentswhose parentsareits grandparentsandhave its greatgrandparentsas their
parents, there are four generations involved. Others may have to think awhile,
perhapsproceeding throughdefinitions (e.g. a great grandchildis the child of a
child's child). Similarly,a beginning logic studentmay need time or examples to
see the truthof De Morgan's theorems. A delay in seeing something, however,
need not alter what it is that one finally sees.
Second, the notion of adequateunderstandingneeds elucidation. I offer no
full analysis, but it may suffice to draw some contrasts,provide some suggestive
examples, and distinguish some differenttypes of understanding.
Adequateunderstandingis to be contrastedwith mistaken or insufficient or
distorted or clouded understanding.One would misunderstand the proposition
about great grandchildrenif one took four generations of people to be a set of
them comprised of four successive thirty-year spans. The original proposition
does not even entail that there are four such "generations."The other three inad-
equacies are better illustratedby a more complex example, say the proposition
thatknowledge entails truebelief. One would insufficiently understand this prop-
osition if one conceived of it as equivalent to the non-modal proposition that if
someone knows something, it is true (where this is also an indicative, non-
materialconditional).This understandingwould also be partial(since it embod-
ies only partof the contentof the proposition);butpartialunderstandingcontrasts
with complete understanding,and such comprehensionalcompleteness (whatev-
er that is) is not a requirementfor adequacy.One would have a distortedunder-
standingof the propositionif one took it to requirethatthereis a minimallevel of
confidence appropriateto knowledge and thatthe entailed belief must be accom-
panied by the subject's attributinga correspondingnumericalprobabilityto the
propositionin question.This complex idea is compatiblewith the propositionbut
not is entailed by it and indicates taking the original propositionto be one that is
at best an interpretationof it. Suppose, however, that one took knowledge to be a
patternin the brainand truebelief to be an instance of the patternthatenables one
to see some aspect of reality.Here one's understandingwould be clouded(as well

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208 / RobertAudi

as, perhaps,distorted); one sees it throughconceptually extraneous,though not

necessarily inapplicable,concepts and for that reason does not grasp the propo-
sition clearly, even in the way the person who merely ascribes distortingproper-
ties to knowledge and belief may.
An adequateunderstandingof p, then, will be non-defective. There may in-
deed be a way to characterizedefectiveness so thatadequacyis plausibly takento
be equivalentto it, but I cannot attemptthis here. In any case, there are limits to
how defective an understandingof p can be if the subject,S, is to be able to believe
it at all. Any of the four deficiencies in understandingjust describedcan push its
inadequacyso low thatS cannotbelievep at all, as opposed to, say,believing some
propositionS confuses with it. In thatcase, S cannothave the kind of justification
forp appropriateto its self-evidence andwould not know thatp on the basis of that
understanding.But understandingis not an all-or-nothingaffair,and belief thatp
surelyis possible with a level of adequacyof understandingthatis insufficient to
provide a basis for justification or knowledge of the kinds in question. This point
applies especially to a deep or suitably complex a prioriproposition.
Adequate understandingof a proposition is more than simply getting the
general sense of a sentence expressing it, as where one can parse the sentence
grammatically,indicate, throughexamples, something of what it means, andper-
haps correctlytranslateit into anotherlanguage one knows well. Adequacy here
implies not only seeing what the proposition says but also being able to apply it
to (and withhold its applicationfrom) an appropriatelywide range of cases, and
being able to see some of its logical implications, to distinguishit from a certain
rangeof close relatives,andto comprehendits elementsandsome of theirrelations.
Having an adequateunderstandingof a self-evident propositiondoes not, of
course, requirebeing able to see all its logical implications. Some are distant, or
difficult to discern, in ways that can make them incomprehensibleto a person
with a minimally adequateunderstanding.Others are trivial, such as the entail-
ment, by the propositionthatnothing is roundand square,of the propositionthat
either that is true or I am not reading.An inadequateunderstandingof a propo-
sition might suffice for seeing this kind of entailment,whereas failure to see that
the propositionthat this page is squareentails thatit has a shape would betrayan
inadequateunderstandingof that proposition so severe that the understanding,
even given an adequateunderstandingof 'beinground',wouldprobablynot ground
justification for believing thatnothing is roundand square.An inadequateunder-
standingof a self-evident propositionis not sufficient to justify believing it, nor
can beliefs of the propositionbased (wholly) on such an understandingconstitute
In addition to differences in how good an understandingis, there are both
occurrentand dispositional cases of understanding.The formerare illustratedby
comprehendinga propositionone is entertaining(and so has in mind), the latter
by such comprehensionas is retainedin memory, say after one's attentionturns
elsewhere.Adistinct, weakerdispositionalcase is illustratedby 'She understands
such ideas', uttered where one has in mind something like this: she has never
entertainedthem,butwould (occurrently)understandthemuponconsideringthem.

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Self-Evidence/ 209

Leaving furthersubtleties aside, the crucial point is that in the above char-
acterizationof self-evidence, understandingin clause (a) may be of any of the
three kinds indicated so long as justification is understoodaccordingly.If S oc-
currentlyunderstandsa self-evident proposition,p, S has occurrentjustification
for it, roughly,justification groundedlargely in elements in S's consciousness,
such as awareness of a relation between concepts. If S has strong dispositional
understandingof p, S has dispositionaljustification, roughly in the sense that S
can bringjustifying elements into consciousness in an appropriateway by suit-
able reflection (but does not at the time have them in consciousness). If S has
weak dispositionalunderstandingof p, S has structural justification for it: roughly,
S does not have occurrentor strongdispositionaljustification for it, butthereis an
appropriatepath leading fromjustificatory materialsaccessible to S to an occur-
rent justification for p.3 (I shall assume that when knowledge of a self-evident
propositionis based on understandingit, the understandingmust be occurrentor
strongly dispositional, but there may be, and one could certainly devise, a con-
ception of knowledge with a looser connection to understanding.4)
Something should also be said about the need for the second, knowledge
condition in the proposed account of self-evidence. It is not obvious that it is not
entailed by the first condition, hence in some logical sense redundant.For at least
two reasons, I am inclined to doubt this.
First, there may be contingent,non-self-evident truthssuch that an adequate
understandingof them can groundthe relevantdegree of justification for believ-
ing them, yet the understandingin question is not such that believing the propo-
sition on the basis of it implies knowing thatproposition.Considerthe proposition
that (normal) people who are insulted tend to feel offended. This sounds like a
truism;but on analysis, it seems testable (given an independentspecification of
normality,which is surely available), and presumablyit can be established only
on the basis of experience. We apparently tend, however, to believe it non-
inferentiallyupon understandingit. Certainly feeling offended is highly appro-
priateto being insulted;thatmuch seems to be some kind of conceptualtruth,and
the normalityassumption also makes the proposition seem truistic. Adequately
understandingit, then, seems to provide significantjustification for it. But apart
from knowledge of how people actually take insults, believing, on the basis of
adequatelyunderstandingit, that (normal) people who are insulted tend to feel
offended, does not guaranteeknowing it.
Second, perhapstheremay be, at least in the domainof mathematicsor logic,
a non-self-evidentthoughprovablepropositionthatcan be justifiably believed on
the basis of an adequate understandingof it. One might see what it says with
sufficientclarityto explain thatand to indicate why it is not equivalentto various
close cousins. One might be able to draw a wide range of (valid) inferences from
it and to reject many invalid ones. But one could still be unable to distinguish it
fromone self-evident close cousin, q, such thatit takes great sophisticationto see
the difference between the two, and one's justification for believing p might de-
pend on thinkingof it-in a certain way-as equivalent to q. This way of think-
ing of it as equivalentto q must not imply inferringit from q, since one then need

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210 / RobertAudi

not have justification for p on the basis of understandingp. We might also sup-
pose that S does not have the false belief thatp is equivalent to q, though, to be
sure, S is disposed to believe this on reflection since it is so difficult to see any
Even if S does believep is equivalentto q, however,it does not follow thatS's
belief thatp is inferential(indeed, thatmight be quite unlikely whereS takes them
to be equivalent), nor that S's understandingof p, though imperfect and incom-
plete, is not as good overall as we commonly have for self-evident propositions.
Suppose, however, that it is not as good. S might still have a high degree of
justification for believing p. It would not be "complete"or, certainly, maximal
justification;but those levels of justification arenot requiredfor believing p to be
appropriatefor a rationalpersonin the circumstances,nor do we achieve them for
all self-evident propositions we justifiedly believe, such as some that are rather
complex (a topic to which I returnbelow). There is some reason to think, then,
thatthereis a kind of understandingof truepropositionswhich is good enough to
provide a high degree of justification for believing them, yet does not suffice for
knowing them on the basis of that understanding.5
There is still anotherpossibility we should consider. Suppose I entertainthe
proposition that (ordinary,full) first cousins have at least two grandparentsin
common. I may have the thoughtthatfirst cousins arechildrenof siblings (broth-
ers or sisters or a brother and a sister) and that siblings have their parents in
common. These two parentsare of course grandparentsof the first cousins, who
thus have two grandparentsin common. I have adequatelyunderstoodthe orig-
inal propositionandI surelyhave ajustificationfor it, since, fromcousins' having
two grandparentsin common it self-evidently follows that they have at least two
in common. Notice, however, that the propositionthat first cousins have at least
two grandparentsin common cannot in this way be non-inferentially known just
on the basis of my understandingit; it is here known only throughthe self-evident
entailmentjust cited (thoughto be sure one would not have to drawthe inference
explicitly to form a belief of the proposition). This is a case, then, where the
knowledge condition is apparentlynot entailed by the justification condition.
Indeed, without that condition one would mistakenlyconsider the propositionin
question self-evident. It is a priori in the broad sense that it is entailed by a self-
evident proposition(andhas anotherepistemic propertyto be describedshortly).
But this is a differentpoint.
Granted,someone thinking about the proposition that first cousins have at
least two grandparentsin common mighthave the thoughtthat the formercould
be "double cousins," children of siblings on both sides, say two brothersmar-
ried to two sisters. Here one could see the truth of the proposition other than
simply on the basis of understandinghow, as just noted, first cousins must
share two grandparents.But realizing that there can be double cousins is not
necessary for adequately understanding the original proposition. Thus, al-
though there is an understandingof it that is a basis of non-inferentialknowl-
edge of it, adequatelyunderstandingit is not in general sufficient for this. Some

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Self-Evidence/ 211

experience or imaginationor luck is needed in a way it is surely not needed for

justification or knowledge of the self-evident.6
Suppose, however, thatthe knowledge condition can ultimatelybe shown to
be logically redundant(a possibility I do not claim to have clearly ruled out). It
does not follow that,philosophically,we are betteroff deleting it. Logical redun-
dancy does not entail semantic redundancy.Moreover, the condition captures
somethingapparentlyessential to the common notion of the self-evident:thatit is
knowable "in itself." The condition may also be needed to capturethe notion of
a proposition's being evidentin itself. Indeed, a case could be made that this
condition, even if no more importantthanthe first, entails it. I cannot pursuethis
issue furtherhere (though the discussion, in Section III, of knowledge without
justification bears on it), but even if one of the conditions should be logically
redundant,the account can still be correct. Whether it is or not, it is surely not
self-evident that either entailmentholds.


It should be clear that if understandinga self-evident proposition provides

justificationfor believing it, then self-evident propositionsarejustifiable a priori:
if all one needs to acquirejustificationfor believingp is (adequate)understanding
of it-which is a matter of the use of reason to comprehendit as an object of
thought surelyp is justifiable a priori, in the sense (roughly) that reason alone
as directedtowardp is sufficient to justify believing it, at least if reason is used
extensively enough and with adequatecare. We may also say thatthe proposition
itself is a priori, meaning simply that it admits of a priori justification, in the
minimal sense thatacquiringan adequateunderstandingof it provides one with a
justification for believing it.
It is importantto see thatthe minimalcase of a priorijustifiability as sketched
here contrasts with the perhaps more common case of justifiability in which it
implies the possibility of a justificatory argumentfrompremises.Obviously the
availabilityof such an argumentis not an appropriateconstraintfor self-evident
propositions:it is at best difficult to see how they could be self-evident if this
constraintheld, and such propositions are regardedby those who countenance
them as precisely the kind capable of serving as justifiedly held premises thatcan
provide supportfor otherpropositionswithoutthemselves needing supportfrom
prlor premlses.'
I shall have more to say aboutthe relationof the self-evident to the a prioriin
Section IV. What needs attention immediately is its relation to the necessary,
since it has often been held that (by definition) both self-evident and prioriprop-
ositions are such that understandingthem entails grasping, or suffices to enable
one to grasp,their necessity.8As I have characterizedthe self-evident, the notion
is non-modal,at least in this sense. It is not defined explicitly in terms of a modal
notion, and its applicationto a proposition does not immediately entail that the
proposition is necessary. Neither the point that (adequate) understandingis a

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212 / RobertAudi

groundfor justification, nor even the point thatbelief on the basis of such under-
standingconstitutesknowledge, immediatelyentails necessity. In denying an im-
mediateentailmenthereI meanroughlythatthe claim thatself-evidentpropositions
arenecessaryis neitherself-evident (in any preanalytic,intuitive sense), nor self-
evidently entailed (in any such sense) by any philosophically uncontroversial
accountof self-evidence. Self-evidence, as I conceive it, is a matterof how a truth
can be seen, not a matterof seeing what kind of truthit is.
This absence of an immediateentailmentfrom the self-evident to the neces-
sary is a desirable result of my characterization.Not only is there dispute about
whetherevery a prioripropositionis necessary;9it also seems possible to see the
truth of a self-evident proposition without either seeing that it is necessary or
even having the concept of necessity.l° These are among the reasons I consider it
desirablefor an account of the self-evident to leave room for a theoreticallyin-
teresting account of why the self-evident is necessary-and for debate about
whetherit is.
I cannotdevelop such an accounthere, but a promisingbeginning is made by
reflection on how there could be the requisite kind of a priorijustification of a
contingentproposition.Supposep is only a contingenttruth,hence false in some
worlds. It is at least not clear how adequatelyunderstandingp might suffice to
justify believing it; but it is at best mysterious how such understandingwould
suffice for knowing it. How, for instance, would the relevantunderstandingrule
out one's being in a world wherep is false? By contrast,if at least part of what is
understoodwhen a self-evident truth is adequately understoodis relations be-
tween concepts, andif concepts areabstractentities existing in all possible worlds,
then (on certain additionalassumptions, above all that the relevant relations of
abstractentities are unchanging across worlds)ll two importantpoints follow:
that the truthin question holds (and may in some cases be seen to hold) in all
possible worlds, and that understandingthe relevant conceptual relations can
ground knowledge of it. The concept of categorial exclusion, for instance, is
(intrinsicallyand self-evidently) symmetrical;hence (adequately)understanding
it to obtain between the concept of a dog and that of a cat is sufficient to ground
knowing the necessary truththat if no dogs are cats, no cats are dogs.
As this suggests, my accountis compatiblewith the existence of a de re grasp
of necessity, for instance of the necessary connection between being squareand
being rectangular.It is also compatible with some such grasp being a necessary
non-inferentialbasis of a priorijustification,ratheras seeing the rectangularityof
somethingmay be an essential basis of one's justification for believing the prop-
osition that it is rectangular.12
The cogito raises interestingproblems.My understandingof the (contingent)
propositionthatI exist is special: unlike my understandingof contingenttruthsin
general,it rules out my being in a world in which this propositionis false. But this
is because I must exist in orderto understandany proposition.It is not because of
my understandingof this propositionin particular.Such understandingis, more-
over, apparentlynot the kind that grounds a priorijustification for believing a

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Self-Evidence/ 213

self-evident proposition.Nor is my justification for believing that I exist clearly

an appropriatekind of exercise of reason; it is not a justification grounded in
understandingthe propositionas opposed to acquaintancewith myself as its sub-
ject. Thus, no one else's understandingof it entails being justified in believing it
(or its truth),whereas anyone who adequatelyunderstandsa self-evident propo-
sition therebyhas justification for believing it.l3
Thereis, however, an importantpropertypossessed by the propositionthatI
exist which is easily assimilatedto self-evidence. For each of us, the first-person
expression of the proposition that we exist is epistemicallyself-sufficient: such
that reflection on it, with adequateunderstandingof it, impliesjustification for
believing it. It implies it because one cannot in this case help becoming self-
awareor even seeing in an experientialway thatone exists. But the groundof the
justificationis not understandingof abstractcontentalone; it is the self-awareness
acquiredin arrivingat that understanding.(If the content includesthe person, as
on some views of singularpropositionsexpressedby sentences containingproper
names, then we have a special category of contingent self-evident propositions;I
prefernot to take this line, but my account could be qualified to accommodateit
as a special case.) A priori propositions, say that first cousins have at least two
grandparentsin common, can also be epistemically self-sufficient without being
In addition to not foreclosing at the outset, at least the possibility of a
contingentself-evident truth,my accountis moderatein not requiringany special
faculty for knowledge of the self-evident. Proponentsof an external causal con-
dition on all knowledge might deny this.l4 Suppose, for instance, that to know a
propositionone must be causally affected by some object(s) it is about. Then it
might be arguedthatknowledge can be groundedin understandinga proposition
only if some abstractentity, such as a constituent in that proposition, causally
affects the mind, which in turnentails our having a special faculty to respond to
the distinctive inputs.
I cannot see either that such a causal condition is needed for a prioriknowl-
edge or that,if it is, a special faculty is requiredto meet it. To understandabstract
entities, if thereis such understanding(as therecertainly appearsto be), is in part
to be in some kind of contact with them;this is presumablya basic capacity of the
mind whetherthe capacity is in some sense causal or not.l5
Whatmakes the causal condition on knowledge plausible may be more than
its apparentapplicationto all empiricalknowledge. I suggest thatthe requirement
is best conceived as a special case of the wider requirementthatknowledge must
be groundedin something in virtue of which the belief constitutingit is true.We
might call this the externalrequirement provided we note that self-knowledge
need not be groundedin something externalto the mind,but only externalto the
belief in question.l6If the propertiesand relationsof abstractentities are external
to the mind, knowledge of self-evident propositions meets the external require-
ment.l7On the other hand, because those propertiesand relations are accessible
to the mind,justification, conceived on internalistlines, is also possible for self-

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214 / RobertAudi

evident propositions. The proposed characterizationof self-evidence thus con-

nects it with both internaland externalepistemological requirements;and in the
light of the above sketch of understandingas a groundof justification andknowl-
edge, it should be clear how, for self-evident propositions,both are possible on
the basis of internallyaccessible grounds.

II. Immediate and Mediate Self-Evidence

Given what I have said about the natureand varieties of the understanding
thatgroundsjustification for self-evident propositions,we may distinguishthose
self-evident propositionsthatarereadilyunderstoodby normaladults(or by peo-
ple of some relevant description,e.g. maturemoral agents) and those (adequate-
ly) understoodby them only throughreflection on them, say on concreteinstances
thathelp to bring out their content. Call the first immediately
self-evidentand the
second mediatelyself-evident,since, for the relevantcategory of persons which
I shall assume is normal adults-their truth can be grasped only through the
mediation of reflection.l8 The reflection may involve drawing inferences, but
their role here is limited largely to clarifying the content of the proposition in
question: as self-evidence is normally understood,a self-evident proposition is
knowable without inferentialgrounds. One may requiretime to achieve an ade-
quate understandingof it, but one needs no premise for it in order to acquire
justification for believing it.

Immediatelyself-evidentpropositionsareobvious,in the most common sense;
roughly,theirtruthis apparentas soon as one considers them with understanding.
This is usually as soon as one encounters them in a natural formulation in a
language in which one is competent. But obviousness, which is a property of
propositions, is sometimes confused with perspicuity,which is a property of
expressions.An obvious truthmay be expressed in an unperspicuousformulation
and may then not initially seemobvious or even true.
The obvious, however, even when perspicuouslyexpressed,need not be self-
evident. It is obvious that there exists at least one person, but this is not self-
evident: the proposition is not evident in itself; but if we consider a natural
formulation of it in a language we understand,we have ample ground in that
situationfor seeing its truth(at least if we know we arepersons). Moreover,there
are degrees(as well as kinds) of obviousness, but there are kindsratherthan
degrees of self-evidence. We could define a comparativenotion of self-evidence
using, for example, the concept of ease of comprehension, a factor in which
self-evident propositions vary. But the notion of self-evidence as normally un-
derstooddoes not admitdegrees, nor does my characterizationinduce differences
of degree in the overall conception of self-evidence as opposed to its dimensions.
Granted,some self-evident propositionsaremore readily seen to be truethan
others, but this is a different point. Even immediately self-evident propositions

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Self-Evidence/ 215

can differ in obviousness, whether for everyone or for some people or for one
person at differenttimes. Considerthe propositionthat if A is longer than B and
B is longer than C, then A is longer than C. This is "very intuitive" and very
obviously true. It is also, for many people, more readily seen to be true, even if
perhapsnot in the end more intuitivethan,the propositionthatif therenever have
been any siblings then there never have been any first cousins.


As these examples suggest, mediately self-evident propositionsneed not be

(psychologically) compelling:they need not producebelief the moment they are
understood,nor,even afterreflectionon them,in everyonewho understandsthem.l9
The may be persons of a special sort, say perfectly comprehending,perfectly
rationalones, for whom any self-evident proposition is compelling and perhaps
also obvious at least on adequatereflection;but such ideal cases are not my main
A propositionthatis not compelling may be withholdable, even if it is in fact
so plausible that apartfrom, say, brainmanipulationno normalperson would fail
to believe it upon consideringit with adequateunderstanding.But withholdabil-
ity does not entail disbelievability.It appearsthat some self-evident propositions
are so simple and luminous that we would be warranted(and correct) in taking
any sincere avowal of theirfalsity not as indicatingdisbelief but as manifestinga
lack of adequateunderstanding.20 This deficiency mightbe in understandingsome
sentence expressing them, since it is hard to see how one could get such a
proposition-say thatif no dogs are cats, then no cats are dogs before the mind
at all and fail to understandit. But my account of self-evidence does not rule out
disbelievability for self-evident propositions in general; and for the mediately
self-evident ones, we should perhaps expect disbelievability, at least where a
person has apparentlyoverwhelming objections, as some people might to some
of W. D. Ross's purportedlyself-evident principles of duty.

Theself-evident,the intuitive,andtheaxiomatic

Once we distinguishbetweenthe immediatelyandthe mediatelyself-evident,

and appreciatethat a self-evident propositionneed not be obvious or even com-
pelling, we can see something important about the relation between the self-
evident and the intuitive. Surely not every self-evident proposition need be
"intuitive,"just as not every propositionbelieved on the basis of intuitionneed be
self-evident. If there are substantiveself-evident truths,such as the moral prop-
ositions claimed to be self-evident by some philosophical rationalists,the sense
thatone has graspedsuch a truthcan be illusory, and the majorityof these truths
are apparentlyin the mediate category.
Much the same holds for most philosophical theses: if they are self-evident,
it is likely to be only mediately.Considerthe thesis thatif one knows thatp, then

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one believes p. This has been taken to be a priori, but also denied. It has not in
generalbeen claimed to be self-evident, in partbecause it does not seem obvious
and is indeed not even intuitive to many people initially approachingthe subject.
It must be arguedfor (in part) by marshallingintuitions about individual cases.
On my account, it can be self-evident, and hence a priori, even if it is compre-
hendingly denied. There is no need for it to be obvious; and contraryto the com-
mon view thatit should need no argumentif it is self-evident, my account allows
thatit may, for any of several reasons, need argument,and thatone may arguefor
it either from instances that enhance understandingor even from premises. The
latterpossibility has been denied and needs explanation.
Once again, Ross is a fruitful source of common views about the self-
evident. Like the other major contributorsto the study of the self-evident, he
neglected the distinctionbetween the immediatelyandthe mediately self-evident.
By likening his candidate basic moral truthsto the (elementary)truths of logic
andmathematics,he wrongly implied thatthe formerareof the first kind. Indeed,
when he went on to say thatprovingthemis impossible, he createdthe impression
that he would place them in a yet narrowercategory,that of the stronglyaxiom-
atic:p is strongly axiomatic provided it is not only (a) immediately self-evident
(which is often takento be roughly equivalentto simple axiomatic status),but (b)
also unprovablefromanythingepistemicallyprior.Suchunprovabilityis, roughly,
the impossibility of being proved from one or more premises that can be known
orjustifiedly believed without alreadyknowing orjustifiedly believing the prop-
osition in question.2lBut this statusis not entailedby self-evidence: from a propo-
sition's being knowable on the basis of understandingit, it does not follow that it
cannot be known on the basis of premises.
One might think, as Ross may have, that provabilityentails appropriateness
of demandinga proof as a condition for the acceptability,or at least for knowl-
edge, of the propositionin question. This is surely a dialectical mistake, though
one that is easily made underthe influence of skeptical objections.
One might also think that if there is a deeper foundationfor p, thenp episte-
mically depends on it; thus, since a self-evident proposition does not epistemi-
cally depend on premises, it cannot be proved. This view is surely a mistake. A
belief (or its propositionalobject), like an architecturalstructure,can have two or
more independentsets of foundations,and it might be firmly upheld even if only
one set bears weight. Moreover, a building may rest on two adequate sets of
pillarsthatareanchoredin differentmasses of bedrock,one deeperthanthe other.
We can also add or replace foundations even after they are laid, and a single
structure-or belief-can receive supportfrom two very differentkinds of foun-
dational materials.Just as a building that rests directly on bedrock can be addi-
tionally supportedby stays attachedto its sides or by pillars beneathit anchored
in yet deeper rock, a belief may epistemically rest on the non-inferentialground
of adequateunderstandingbut admit of epistemic supportfrom "below."
Anotherway to express the difference between self-evidence and strong ax-
iomaticity is this. A self-evident proposition can function as an epistemic un-

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Self-Evidence/ 217

moved mover: it can be known, and can provide supportfor other propositions,
withoutitself being seen to have (andperhapswithoutthereeven existing) a basis
in something constitutingevidence for it. But, unlike a strongly axiomatic prop-
osition, it need not be an unmovablemover. This would be one such that there
cannotbe furtherevidence for it, since the existence of thatevidence would move
it upwardsfrom the lowest possible foundationallevel.22Philosophershave long
wanted unmovable movers, and the concept has a certain appeal:these proposi-
tions would be good candidatesfor foundationsthatareobvious, compelling, and
unshakable.But such foundations are not requiredin philosophical theorizing.
Good foundationsmay not be visibly good, if readily visible at all; they can in
many cases be rationallydenied; and they can be strengthenedfrom below.

III. Direct Justification, Certainty, and Defeasibility

If the kind of justification central for understandingself-evidence does not

precludea self-evident proposition'sbeing known inferentially,it may seem that
for at least some self-evident propositions, the basic kind of knowledge of them
is not, after all, non-inferential.This conclusion will seem plausible in at least
two unfortunatecases, which I take in turn.
First, one can easily conflate the epistemic "level" of a propositionwith the
degree to which knowledge of it can be basic, and hence suppose thatknowing a
propositionthroughknowing a more basic one entails knowing it in a more basic
way than non-inferentially.But a way of knowing a propositionmay be consid-
ered basic providedknowing in thatway does not requirea groundingin knowing
something in anotherway; and this allows that a proposition known in a basic
way can also be known in some other way.
Second, 'knowledgeof self-evidentpropositions'may be takento meanknowl-
edge of their properties, especially of their self-evident status. The latter con-
structionis easily put on the phrase if one considers knowledge of self-evident
propositionsto be, or to entail, believing them to be necessary.But knowledge of
their status is second-order.This kind of knowledge is plausibly thought to be
normallyinferential;but if it must be, that implies nothing about whether first-
orderknowledge of them is inferential.It would be a mistake to think it must be
inferential:that a self-evident proposition can be known or justifiedly believed
inferentiallydoes not entail that it cannot be known or justifiedly believed non-
inferentially,as where one believes it in the basic way appropriateto knowledge
of, andjustification for, the self-evident: on the basis of understandingit.23
There is, however, a role that inference can play even in this basic kind of
justification.Achieving the kind of understandingof a self-evident proposition
that yields justification for believing it may involve drawing inferences. Recall
the apparentlyself-evident propositionthatknowing thatp entails believing that
p. To understandthis, one might have to infer that what we know we tend to
affirm in much the way we affirm what we believe, and that what we do not
believe we tend to deny knowing if someone tells us we know it. But the role of

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such inferences here is limited largely to clarifying what the propositionin ques-
tion says: as self-evidence is normally understood,a self-evident proposition is
knowable without relying on inferentialgroundsfor it. One may requiretime to
get it in clear focus, but need not reach it by an inferentialpath.
To see one kind of role inference can have in yielding understandingof the
self-evident, consider the propositionthat if p entails q, and q entails r, and yet r
is false, thenp is false. One may instantlysee the truthof this; but even if one must
first infer thatp entails r, this propositionis not a groundfor believing the whole
conditionalproposition.It is an implicate of a partof it thathelps one to see how
the whole conditional is true. Call the inference here an internalinference.Even
if such an inferenceis requiredto know the truthof a proposition,thatproposition
may still be mediately self-evident. Internalinferences may also be purely clar-
ificatory,say semantically.We might say, then, that knowledge of a self-evident
proposition(andjustification for believing it) can dependinternallyon inference,
above all where inference is needed for understandingthe proposition,but cannot
dependexternallyon inference, where this is a matterof epistemic dependenceon
one or more premises. The former kind is a comprehensionaldependence, the
latter a premise-dependence.The basic kind of knowledge of the self-evident
rules out only the latterkind of dependence.
There are different sorts of internal inferences. Recall the proposition that
the existence of great grandchildrenentails that of four generations of people.
One might see the truthof this by noting thatby definition greatgrandchildrenare
three generationalremoves from their great grandparentsand that this requires
the existence of one additional generation, hence four. Here the partly defini-
tional propositionnoted is a potentialgroundfor believing the self-evident prop-
osition, but the inference can still be considered internalbecause this ground is
accessible by simple conceptualunderstandingof the original proposition.Even
if one were so constitutedthat one had to see the original truththrough such an
inference, the propositionremains independently justifiable. It has, then, the im-
portantpropertyof epistemic self-sufficiency, which may belong to an a priorias
well as to an empiricalproposition and to a necessary as well as to a contingent
one. But unlike some epistemically self-sufficient propositions, any inferential
dependencea self-evidentpropositionhas is comprehensional:the inferenceserves
to bring out the content of the original proposition, a content that, to someone
who comprehendinglyconsidersthe proposition,is directlybefore the mind with-
out any need to draw inferences.
Given how much reflection, with or without inference, can be requiredto
understanda self-evident proposition, it should be no surprise that I do not
think a belief based on such understandingmust be psychologically certain,
even when it constitutes knowledge.24Perhaps, however, self-evident proposi-
tions by their very nature are epistemicallycertain: perhaps where p is self-
evident, it is certainthat p. This certainty is an objective status not easily
analyzed, but I take it to imply above all both thatp is true and that there is an
accessible way of ascertaining that p, where reflection on the content of p is a
paradigmof an accessible way.

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Self-Evidence/ 219

I do not takeeitherthe self-evidence or the certaintyof a propositionto entail

thatthe justification for it one has from an adequateunderstandingof it is inde-
feasible. There is probably a Cartesianuse of 'certain knowledge' in which in-
defeasible justification is implied, but not all knowledge of the self-evident is
certainin this sense. It is truethat adequateunderstandingof a self-evident prop-
for know-
osition,p, entailsjustification for believing it and is of a kindsufficient
ingit providedone believes it on the basis of thatunderstanding;but this does not
entail that the justification producedby the understandingis indefeasible. Justi-
fication of that general kind may be defeated when, although S knows thatp, S
thenencountersargumentsagainstp sufficient to warrantS's ceasing to believe it.
At least threecases should be distinguished:defeatbyobfuscation,which is
defeat of the justification of one's belief by renderingone's understandingof p
inadequate,defeatby overriding,which is (chiefly) defeat by a strongerjustifi-
cation's arising for an obviously incompatibleproposition, and defeatby under-
mining,which occurswhen one acquiressuitablystrongjustificationfor doubting
thatone hasjustification forp. It is truethatif the defeating factordoes not unseat
one's adequate understandingof p, then some high degree of justification for
believing it remains. But defeat need not be obliteration.Just as one can have a
good reason for an action, say for keeping a promise, even when a strongercon-
siderationprevails and one must do something else, one can have a good reason
or ground for believing p even when one has better reason or ground for with-
holding or even disbelievingp. If one understandsa self-evident propositionwell
enough to believe it, surely one has therein a high degree of justification for it.
These points about defeat have an intriguing consequence. If overriding or
underminingis compatible with retaining, at the same time, an adequateunder-
standingof p (something I think is not quite obvious), then, on my characteriza-
tion of self-evidence, if one believes it on the basis of that understanding,one
knows it. This would have to be a case of a prioriknowledge without undefeated
justification, something one might consider at best odd. It would not, to be sure,
be knowledge without a ratherhigh degree of justification; surely, for a self-
evidentproposition,a high degree of justification is implied in adequatelyunder-
standingit, even when one also has even strongergroundsfor doubting it or for
doubtingone's justification (or understanding)of it. (Since I think that knowl-
edge is possible withoutjustification, however,25I would in any case make con-
ceptual room for knowledge that p to survive defeat of one's justification for
believing p.)
One might think that there is no need to appeal to the possibility of knowl-
edge withoutundefeatedjustification. Perhapsdefeat of the justification in ques-
tion occurs only at the time one is focusing on the defeater(s), and when one
returnsto the (adequately)comprehendingfocus on p, or perhapssimply ceases
to focus on the defeater(s), one thenis undefeatedlyjustified in believing it. On
any plausible theory of justification, it is relative to time and may depend on the
contents of consciousness. We can grant this relativity, however, without con-
cluding that focusing on the defeater(s) of justification either rendersS's under-
standinginsufficientto serve as a basis of knowledge or obliteratesS'sjustification

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for p. If one retains an adequateunderstandingof p and believes it on that firm

basis, one has a high degree of justification for believing it and also knows it.
It should be granted,however, that beliefs of self-evident propositionsmay
seem indefeasiblyjustified after all, provided we consider only a timeat which
one has such a propositionin focus andis, as it were, face to face with an adequate
groundfor believing it. Still, even at this time they are not indefeasiblyjustified.
We must distinguish between a ground's being indefeasiblya justifierof belief
and a belief's being indefeasiblyjustified.Adequate understandingof a self-
evidentproposition,unlike, say, testimony,is indefeasibly ajustifier,in thatnoth-
ing can preventits conferringsome degree of justification;but one could believe
a proposition it justifies, yet have an inadequateunderstandingof that proposi-
tion, in which case one's belief could fail to be justified in the appropriateway
(roughly,the way appropriateto knowing the propositionin question providedit
is true and there is no Gettier problem). Moreover, even if one has an adequate
understandingof it, one could believe it on some other,inadequatebasis (such as
unreliabletestimony), in which case one could fail to know it. Whetherone has a
justified belief or one constitutingknowledge is in parta matterof the basis of the
belief, not just the grounds one has for it.26
Concerningdispositionaljustification for self-evident propositions, there is
a further question. Suppose that I dispositionally believe p on the basis of an
adequateunderstandingof it, that I have p storedin memory, as well as its basis,
and that I then acquire a justification for belief of a (non-obfuscating)defeater,
for instance the propositionthatp entails a contradiction.Grantingthat I have a
justification for p, is my (dispositional) beliefthatp so connected with this jus-
tificatory basis that the belief is still justified? I think my belief is justified if its
basis remains my adequateunderstanding.But how to determineits basis is not
easy. One indication (but only an indication) is whether, if I should consider
whetherp is true,I would focus on p in the light of my understandingor, instead,
shift attentionto the defeater, in which case, at that time my belief (assuming I
retainedit) could fail to rest on this understanding.In the latter case, one might
say (or perhapsstipulate)thatI am so constitutedthatmy dispositionalbelief that
p is not suitablybased on my understanding.Comparea case in which one's food
is suddenlypoisoned, but one has an antidote.If one would not eat it without the
antidote, one is safe; if one would, one is not. Dispositional justification of a
belief is like such safety in this: if activation of the belief, for instance by enter-
tainingp, would (other things equal) put it on the basis of the relevant adequate
understanding,there is reason to say that the would-be defeater has failed; if
activationwould (otherthings equal) either destroy thatbasis or put the belief on
an inadequateone, there is reason to say the would-be defeaterhas succeeded.
The clearest kinds of defeaters are justified beliefs or an acquisition of
justification for beliefs of what seem to be self-evident propositionsincompat-
ible withp, say thatit entails a contradictionand is (therefore)false. But nothing
I have said about the self-evident precludes defeat of knowledge of it or of jus-
tification for believing it on an at least largely empirical basis. Consider, for

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Self-Evidence/ 221

instance, a case in which one takesp to be a mathematicalaxiom, but gets much

credible testimony thatit is false. To be sure, it may be thatone would need some
a priori grounds for believing the testimony to be justified, for example by cor-
relatingit (or some of the person'stestimony) with resultsof one's own reflection
that yields a priorijustification. But this would only show that its defeating ca-
pacity is not entirely an empiricalmatter.Certainly one would need justification
for believing the empirical proposition that (say) the attester disbelieves p, if
one's justification is to be defeated. If p is self-evident, this may requirea con-
siderable amountof evidence.27

IV. The Self-Evident as the Base of the A Priori

I have alreadyindicatedthe plausibilityof takingself-evident propositionsto

be a priori.It would also seem that the immediately self-evident propositionsare
paradigmsof the a priori:they are clear cases of what we think of as (a priori)
axioms or at least axiomatic truths.28I now want to go further.
I suggest that the self-evident may be plausibly viewed as the base of the a
priori:a prioripropositions are those that are either (a) self-evident, in the sense
specified above call these directlyself-evidentor a prioriin thenarrowsense-
or, (b) though not self-evident, self-evidently entailed by at least one proposition
that is call these indirectlyself-evident,or (c) neither directly nor indirectly
self-evident, but provable by self-evident steps from a proposition that is self-
evident call these ultimately a priori.29 We might call cases of (b) or (c) a priori
in thebroadsense.A common general notion of an a prioriproposition, clearly
applicable to the first two cases, is roughly the notion of a truththat either is a
self-evident proposition or is self-evidently entailed by one.30 (A related notion,
to be describedshortly,applies to the thirdkind.) Knowledge of propositionsthat
are a priori in the broad sense, however, unlike knowledge of those that are a
prioriin the narrowsense, depends on knowledge of some self-evident proposi-
tion as a ground.But neitherkind of knowledge depends in this way on knowl-
edge of any empiricalproposition,and in that sense both kinds are "independent
of experience."
It may seem that case (c) collapses into case (b), on the groundthat if there
is a wholly self-evident demonstrativechain from a self-evident proposition to
some otherproposition,then the second propositionis self-evidently entailed by
the first. This is doubtful.It is self-evident thatthe second is entailedby the first;
but this is not to say that self-evident entailment (as opposed to entailment in
general)is transitive,and apparentlyit is not. Entailmentis a self-evidently tran-
sitive relation; but not every entailment relation self-evidently holds. Imagine
that a self-evident axiom, A, self-evidently entails a theorem, t, which in turn
self-evidently entails a second theorem, t '. Surely A can self-evidently entail t
and t can self-evidently entail t ', withoutA's self-evidently entailing t '. For in
some such cases one could understandthe conditional propositionthat if A, then
t', quite adequately without thereby having justification for believing it. One

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might need the intermediatestep, t, to achieve thatjustification, andthis step need

not be discernedsimply throughadequatelyunderstandingthe conditional itself.
There is an interestinganalogy to the philosophy of science here:just as for
scientific hypotheses we have no logic of discovery but at best one of validation,
so for a prioripropositions(in the broadsense) we have no logic of discovery but
at best one of proof. That there is a proof from self-evident premises as there
must be for an ultimately a prioriproposition does not imply that we will ever
find it even upon contemplatingthe propositionwith adequateunderstanding,or
thatthereis an algorithmfor finding it, just as the existence of an explanationfor
a phenomenon does not imply that we will ever discover it, or that there is a
methodguaranteedto lead to its discovery.But given a proof, we can establishthe
truthof a theoremthatis its conclusion; and given adequateconfirmingevidence
of a true hypothesis, we can (in principle) establish it.
Despite the limitations that the non-transitivityof self-evident entailment
imposes on a priorijustification and a prioriknowledge, there still can be a kind
of understandingof the correspondingconditional of any proof by self-evident
steps from a self-evident set of axioms, andof relatedconcepts, in virtue of which
thatconditionalproposition,say thatif A, then t ', can be seen to be true. Perhaps
a perfectly omniscient being has such an understanding.This shows that there is
a related notion self-evidencefor a particularperson (or mind) that must be
distinguishedfrom self-evidence in its basic, non-relativizedform, in which there
is implicit reference only to understandingon the part of anyone at all. Roughly,
to say thatp is self-evident for S is to say that it is self-evident and S can ade-
quately understandit. Still, even if what is self-evident for God might not be
self-evident for us, some propositions are unqualifiedly self-evident.
If it is agreed that p need not be self-evidently entailed by a self-evident
propositioneven whenp follows from it by self-evident steps, some may hesitate
to call such a proposition a priori at all. There is, however, a purely a priori,
self-evidently secure path to it from a self-evident beginning. Some such paths
can even be traversed"at once" without dependence on memory (and all can by
a suitablyinfinite mind). It is plausible to say thatpurely a priorijustification and
knowledge cannot depend essentially on memory, but that is a different point.
They do not so depend if they are in principleknowable without reliance on it.3l
It may add clarity to this outline of an account of a priori propositions to
comparethe relevantnotion of the a prioriwith that of the analytic, construedin
(one) Kantianfashion. Because a prioripropositionsareunderstoodin relationto
the groundsof justification for believing them and to how they can be known, the
notion of the a prioriis commonly consideredepistemological. The notion of the
analytic,by contrast,is more often takento be of a differentkind, say conceptual,
since analytic truthsare commonly conceived as groundedin a simple contain-
ment relation of concepts.32It should perhaps not be surprising,then, that the
categories of the analyticandthe a prioriarenot identical.Thatnothing is red and
green all over seems a priori and self-evident, but is apparentlynot analytic.33
There is more plausibility in maintainingthat every analytic proposition is
self-evident. Perhaps the paradigms are. But suppose p is provable by self-

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Self-Evidence/ 223

evident, formallyvalid steps from an analyticproposition.It will be true"onpain

of contradiction"and would be commonly considered analytic on one standard
account of analyticity;but it may fail to be self-evident even in the indirectsense
if, as I have just arguedto be possible, it is not self-evidently entailed by a self-
evident proposition.The most one can hold here is thatp is ultimately a priori.
For propositionsanalyticby the containmentstandard(by virtue of the pred-
icate concept's being containedin the subject concept, as with All bachelorsare
male),one can perhapssay more:thatthey are self-evident providedthey are as
one might expect if they hold in virtue of a conceptual containmentrelation-
non-inferentiallyknowable by anyone who adequatelyunderstandsthem.34Ad-
equately understandingthem would seem to require seeing what they contain,
ratherin the way that, given a suitable perspective, one can see at a glance that a
set of six chairs arounda table contains six; and in virtue of that comprehensive
understanding,one has both justification for believing these propositions and a
groundfor knowing them.


On my account, self-evident propositionsare roughly those truthsfor which

an adequateunderstandingis a sufficient basis of both justification and knowl-
edge. Specifically, they are truths such that in virtue of having an adequateun-
derstandingof them one is justified in believing them, andif one believes them on
the basisof thatunderstanding,then one knows them.The notion of self-evidence,
then, embodies both of the broadest central concepts of epistemology and, as I
conceive it, satisfies the internaland external requirementsappropriateto each.
There are several sorts of self-evidence, notably the mediate and the imme-
diate. Contraryto some common conceptions, self-evident propositionsneed be
neither obvious nor incapable of being evidenced by something else, such as a
more comprehensive set of propositions. Moreover, a self-evident proposition,
whethermediately or immediately self-evident, can not only be defended by dis-
pelling misunderstandingsbut (in some cases) even argued for from premises.
There is no reason, then, for appeals to such a proposition to be dogmatic. But,
since premises are not needed as a ground for justified belief of a self-evident
proposition, there is also no basis for demanding an independent argumentin
every case where there is an appeal to the self-evident. Whether an argumentis
needed may be a dialectical question concerning the desirability of additional
groundsfor conviction and of clarificatoryconnections with other propositions,
ratherthan a question of whetherthere is justification for believing the proposi-
tion at issue.
The implications of these results are far-reaching.The account helps us in
understandingthe a priori and can, to some degree, categorize it. Substantive
propositions like Ross's principles of prima facie duty can be candidates for a
priorijustification and even (as he claimed) self-evident. The same holds for at
least many philosophical theses, such as epistemic and metaphysicalprinciples.
Philosophy,like logic and pure mathematics,may be construed as autonomous

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not only sociologically but also in a strong sense implying a distinctive a priori
method.This does not, however, license dogmatismor free us fromdefending our
substantiveclaims, nor does it renderscientific findings or theories irrelevantto
philosophy. Self-evidence need not wear its name on its sleeve; it is liable to
counterfeit;andourjustification for believing self-evident propositionsis subject
to defeat from empirical as well as from a priori sources. There are, however,
ways to identify the genuine article.The notion of the self-evident turnsout, then,
to be importantin understandingknowledge and justification, central for one
kind of plausible account of the a priori,andhighly useful in building philosoph-
ical theories.35


1. Propositions may even be said to present themselves as self-evident: in specifying

criteriafor accepting propositions "as self-evident," Henry Sidgwick maintainsthat
"a collision [between two formulae supposed to be genuine intuitions] is absolute
proofthatat least one of the formulaeneeds qualification:andsuggests a doubtwhether
the correctly qualified proposition will present itself with the same self-evidence as
the simpler but inadequate one ...". See The Methods of Ethics 7th ed. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1962 [originally published in 1907]), p. 341. Here and
elsewhere Sidgwick suggests thatself-evident propositionspresentthemselves as such
(thougheven false propositionsmay also do so), and in a numberof places he appears
to think that such a presentationis at least a major element in an intuitive grasp of
them. Cf. LaurenceBonJour:"Do directchallenges to serious a priori claims even in
fact occur?Is a claim thatseems rationallyself-evident ever flatly andunambiguously
contradictedby experience?"See In Defense of Pure Reason (Cambridgeand New
York:CambridgeUniversityPress, 1997), p. 122. It appearsthathe regardsat least the
very clearcases of a prioripropositionsas seeming ("rationally")self-evident, whether
or not he takes their so seeming to be crucial for a priorijustification regardingthem,
as the kindrednotion of grasp of necessity has been taken to be.
2. Two qualifications will help. First, if the belief is based on anything other than un-
derstandingthe proposition, that understandingmust still be a sufficient basis (in a
sense I cannot explicate now). Second, I take the relevantbasis relation to preclude a
wayward causal chain: the understandingmust not produce the belief in certain ab-
normalways. (I assume the belief in question constitutes knowledge, but there is no
need to build this assumptioninto the account.)
3. I explicate structuraljustification in a paper of that title in my The Structureof Jus-
tification (Cambridgeand New York:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1993).
4. In ch. 8 of Epistemology the notion of virtual knowledge is described in a way that
lends itself to playing this role.
5. If believing Goldbach'sconjecture(thatevery even numberis the sum of two primes)
is justifiable on the basis of understandingit and not (as seems more likely) only on
the inferentialbasis of inferringit from (say) the apparentlyrepresentativecharacter
of instances one considers,then it might be an example of a truepropositionfor which
the justification condition in my account of self-evidence does not entail the knowl-
edge condition.Forsurelythis is not the kind of propositionthatcan be known(wholly)
on the basis of adequatelyunderstandingit as opposed to, say, proof.

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Self-Evidence/ 225

6. One could stipulatethatthe kind of adequateunderstandingneeded is non-inferential,

but this might not deal with all the cases to be covered if the knowledge condition is
to be eliminated;and as I will indicate below there is one way in which the relevant
kind of understandingcan be inferential (internallyinferential, in the terminology I
7. Epistemological coherentists may, partly for this reason, deny that there are self-
evident propositions.I am here supposingthere are, but have arguedat length against
such a strong version of coherentismin ch. 4 of TheStructure of Justification.
8. See, e.g., BonJour,op. cit., esp. ch. 4. Cf. Panayot Butchvarov's view that what is
crucial forjustification for propositionsof the kind we are considering is the unthink-
ability of mistake. See esp. TheConceptof Knowledge (Evanston:NorthwesternUni-
versity Press, 1970), 76-88. J.A. Brooke goes so far as to hold that "Forhim [Kant],
necessity is the prior notion, and he uses it to construct a criterion, in fact the only
criterionhe offers in the Introduction,of a prioricity 'if we have a propositionwhich
in being thought is thought as necessary,it is an a priorijudgment ...' (B 3)." See
"Kant'sA Priori Methods for Recognizing A Priori Truths,"in Philip Hanson and
Bruce Hunter,eds., Returnof theA Priori,CanadianJournalof Philosophy,supple-
mentary volume 22 (1992), 220. Kantianpassages like this may have been highly
influential in later characterizationsof the a priori and the self-evident, perhaps in-
cluding Butchvarov'sand BonJour's.
9. See, e.g., Saul Kripke'sdiscussion of the standardmeterbar,in NamingandNecessity,
in Donald Davidson and GilbertHarman,eds., Semanticsof NaturalLanguage(Dor-
drecht:D. Reidel, 1972), p. 275. BonJour,op. cit. (12-13) provides a valuable short
discussion of the case.
10. I leave open the possibility of a preconceptual,de re kind of grasp of necessity, but
even if this possibility obtains (andI see no compelling reasonto deny that)we should
addressthe idea thatto see the truthof a self-evident propositionrequiresgrasping(in
a conceptually comprehendingway) its necessity. The overall position of this paper
tends to underminethat idea as well, but does not explicitly bear on it.
11. It is not easy to specify the relevant relations, but we must rule out such relations as
beinginstantiated bythreethings;this is the kind of relationthat, e.g., the propertyof
weighing exactly a trillion tons would have to the (say) three items with this weight,
and it can vary within a world over time or across worlds.
12. Cf. BonJour's view that "such an apparentrational insight [the kind that "seems to
provide an entirely adequate epistemic justification for believing or accepting the
proposition in question"] purportsto be nothing less than a direct insight into the
necessary characterof reality ... What, after all, could be a better reason for thinking
that a particularproposition is true than that one sees ... that it reflects a necessary
featurethatrealitycould not fail to possess?" (op. cit., p. 107). The view is apparently
that a de regrasp of a necessary featureis priorto seeing that a propositionis a priori
and that seeing this may be cited as a reason for believing the proposition.Elsewhere
BonJourspeaks as if to believe an a prioripropositionis to believe it cannot fail to be
true:"considerthe propositionthatthere are no roundsquares,thatis, that no surface
of demarcatedpart of a surface that is round can also be square"(p. 103, emphasis
added). The shift from 'are' to 'can be' leads one to wonder whether the a priori
propositionin question is or is not modal. Despite otherpassages that raise a similar
doubt,I take the consideredview to be that a graspof necessity is a non-propositional
groundof a priorijustification but does not imply modal content in all a prioriprop-

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226 / RobertAudi

ositions (or perhapseven in the basic cases a furthermatterthat BonJour'sdiscus-

sion also leaves unsettled).
13. I bypass the issue of whetherthe sense in which I believe that I exist can be the same
as thatin which someone else believes thatI exist; andI grantthatthereis a relativized
and loose sense of 'self-evident' in which it can be self-evident to one that one exists.
Nothing majorturnson these mattershere.A majorissue thatarises here is how to deal
with sentences containing other indexicals or proper names, such as 'Hesperus is
Phosphorous'.For a helpful discussion of this issue and an account of how to explain
the epistemic difference between this and the identity sentence 'Hesperus is Hespe-
rus', see Heimir Geirsson, "Justificationand Relative Apriority,"forthcoming in Ra-
tio. I believe the conception of self-evidence developed here can accommodatethe
relevantdatain such cases, but doing so requiresconsiderableanalysis and cannot be
14. Paul Benacerraf's "MathematicalTruth,"Journalof Philosophy70 (1973), comes to
mind here as a leading statementof the causal requirement.Cf. JamesRobertBrown's
ascriptionto "contemporaryempiricism"of the view that"knowledge ofX is basedon
sensoryexperiencefor whichthereis an underlying
tweentheknowerandX; thereare no othersourcesof knowledge." See "EPRAs A
Priori Science," in Hanson and Hunter,op. cit., p. 253.
15. Plantingasuggests thatif indeed thereareno causal relationsof the relevantkind, still,
any plausible causal requirementon knowledge does not rule out a prioriknowledge.
See Warrant andProperFunction(Oxford and New York:Oxford University Press,
1993), 113-17.
16. This may need qualificationfor certain cases of self-reference, e.g. knowing that all
one's knowledge is partly constitutedby psychological properties,but thatwould not
affect my mainpoint, which concernsknowledge of the otherkinds (virtuallyall of it).
17. These entities arepresumablynot even mind-dependentunless, as some philosophers
hold, they dependon the mind of God in which case they could be as externalas any
other object of humanknowledge.
18. Two clarifications. (1) Assuming one cannot reflect in the relevant way on the con-
cepts in question without somekind of understandingof them, I take it that there is a
level of understandingof mediately self-evident propositions, or at least of parts of
them, not by itself sufficient for justification but capable of leading to that as the
understandingdevelops by reflection and reaches adequacy. (2) The term 'normal
adults'is vague, but thatbegs no questions here;the problem is largely eliminable by
relativizing, making the basic notion mediate self-evidence for adults with a certain
level of conceptual sophistication.
19. The suggested characterizationof an immediately self-evident proposition does not
entailthatsuch a propositionis compelling;but it would at least be truethatfor normal
persons in normalcircumstancesit would be compelling. None of this rules out there
being a notion of self-evidence for a person;but the concept we need is that of a
self-evident proposition, and that is my focus. That concept has implicit referenceto
persons,or at least minds;but this does not make it relativeto persons, in the sense that
we cannot call a proposition self-evident except to some particularset of persons.
20. Cf. Thomas Nagel's contention that, for "the most basic and simple forms of reason-
ing ... we cannot conceive of a being capable of understandingthem who did not also
find them self-evidently valid: Nothing would permit us to attributeto anyone a dis-
belief in modus ponens, or in the proposition that 2 = 2 = 4." See TheLast Word
(Oxford and New York:Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 77.

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Self-Evidence/ 227

21. Threecommentsare in order.First,while prioritymay suggest the Aristoteliannotion

of being "moreeasily known,"that elusive notion is not the one characterizedin the
text. Second, I am takingthe provabilityrelationto be, unlike mere logical derivabil-
ity, asymmetrical,so that the relevantpremise is not provable from the propositionit
can be used prove, and is in that way prior to the latter).Third, some theorists might
requirestrongaxiomaticstatusas a condition for being an axiom at all, but notice that
a propositioncan systematize a body of theorems even if derivable from some prior
proposition,and even without being immediately self-evident. That it might itself be
a theoremrelative to somethingelse does not change this, though it does suggest that
an elegant system would put in place of the proposition a prior, strongly axiomatic
one. Warrantfor calling something an axiom does not, in my view, entail warrantfor
considering it unprovable.
22. In PosteriorAnalytics 72b, where Aristotle introducedhis famous epistemic regress
argument,he seems to imply that the appropriatefoundations for knowledge must
be strongly axiomatic. But even what cannot be moved higher in the epistemic
hierarchyof a person might perhapsbe moved out of it: indefeasibility (the impos-
sibility of one's justification's being defeated) is perhapsnot entailed even by strong
23. CompareE. D. Klemke,who, explicatingMoore on the self-evident, quoteshim as say-
ing, "Theexpressionself-evidentmeansthatthe propositionso-called is evident or true
by itself alone; thatit is not an inference from some propositionotherthanitself," and
then immediately adds: "Wecannot, then, prove self-evident statements"(emphasis
added). Klemke presumablytakes 'not an inference' to entail something like 'not in-
ferentially knowable or justifiable by some otherproposition' (a plausible reading in
the context). Moore apparentlydid consider the self-evident unprovable,as he sug-
gested in Principia Ethica (London:CambridgeUniversity Press,1903, e.g. on p. x.);
buthe apparentlyhadno argumentfor this, perhapsin partbecause he took it thatprop-
erly graspinga self-evident propositionimplies seeing its necessity, a point on which
Klemke again quotes him: "I do not know exactly how to go about arguingthat they
[self-evidentpropositions]areself-evident.The chief thingto be done is, I think,to con-
sider them as carefully and distinctly as possible, and then to see whetherit does not
seem as if they must be true ..." See E. D. Klemke, Studies in the Philosophy of G. E.
Moore(New York:QuadranglePress,1969), pp.25-26. If I amcorrectin thinkingthere
can be justificatory premises for some self-evident propositions, then there could be
overdeterminationwhere one has non-inferentialjustificationfor it and knows a sound
proof (or other good ground)for the proposition;but this may be set aside here.
24. Cf. Carl Ginet's valuable discussion of the a priori in Knowledge, Perception, and
Memory (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1975), for a view that builds confidence into the
analysis of knowledge (but is in many other respects supportive of my account of
self-evidence and the a priori). See esp. pp. 54-8. Detailed discussion of the relation
between knowledge and certainty is provided in ch. 8 of my Epistemology (London
and New York:Routledge, 1998).
25. As I have arguedin ch.8 of Epistemology.I might addthatone should not assume that
just anyjustified second-orderbelief thatone is unjustifiedin believingp (or thatthere
is betterjustification for a contrary)defeats one's first-orderjustification.
26. I have arguedin detail for this view in chs. 7 and 14 of The Structureof Justification.
27. For detaileddiscussion of the question of the deniabilityof propositionsof a kind that
concernsus, see JamesVanCleve, "Analyticity,Undeniability,andTruth,"in Hanson
and Hunter,op. cit., pp. 89-111.

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28. Not in Roderick's Chisholm's sense of 'axiom', in which "h is an axiom =Df h is
necessarily such that (1) it is true and (2) for every S, if S accepts h, then h is certain
for S,"but thatis a technical one yielding a strongnotion with limited uses outside his
epistemology. See Theory of Knowledge, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall,
1989), p. 28.
29. In EpistemologyI used 'ultimatelyself-evident' to emphasizethe connection, by self-
evident steps, with self-evident propositions, but I now think it better to avoid the
possible suggestion thatin one understooda propositionof this thirdkind well enough,
understandingit would suffice for justification and knowledge in the way it does for
the self-evident.
30. In a broaderusage, a falsehood can be called an a prioripropositionprovided it is an
a priori truththat it is false. This less common usage raises no special problems but
presents a terminological complication I ignore in the text.
31. An interestingquestion that arises here is whetherthe notions of an a prioriproposi-
tion and of a priorijustification apply to cases in which computerproof is essential.
For valuable discussion of this issue and an associated conception of the a priori
different from (and perhapsmore permissive than) the one indicated here, see Tyler
Burge, "ComputerProof, AprioriKnowledge, and OtherMinds,"Philosophical Per-
spectives 12 (1998), 1-37.
32. There is much difference in judgment about how to classify the analytic. It might be
considereda semanticconcept by those who think of it as truthby virtue of the mean-
ings of the relevantterms.It mightbe regardedas conceptualby those who take it to be
groundedin relations of concepts. It might be conceived as ontological by those who
think such trutharebasic to the structureof reality.For epistemology, the notion of the
a prioriis the more importantof the two. For W. V. Quine's case that neithernotion is
clear,see his "TwoDogmas of Empiricism,"in his Froma Logical Point of View(Cam-
bridge, Mass: HarvardUniversity Press,1953). Among the widely noted replies is H.
P.GriceandP.F. Strawson,"InDefenseofaDogma,"PhilosophicalReview55 (1956).
For a contrastbetween the "old"and"new"Quineanpositions anda criticaldiscussion
of Quine's commitmentsconcerning analyticity,see Van Cleve, op. cit.
33. I arguefor this in some detail in ch. 4 of Epistemology.
34. Suppose, however, that an analytic propositioncould be so "long"that although one
can adequatelyunderstandit throughoutone's readingof a formulation,one musttrust
one's memory if one forms a belief of it. Perhapshere one has a justification for the
belief, yetjustifiedly believing it or knowing it requiresa cognitive state whose object
can be presentedonly throughthe use of memory.Arguably,if one can understandit
one must be able to hold it before one's mind at once, as opposed to rememberingthe
first part well enough to have the requisite understandingas one reads the last. If so,
the problemis solved; if not (and I suspect not, given the ordinarynotion of sentence
understanding),then not only are some propositionsanalyticby the containmentstan-
dardnot self-evident; we also have a case in which it seems clear that the knowledge
condition of my account of self-evidence is not redundant.
35. An earlier statement of my concept of self-evidence is given in my "Intuitionism,
Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics," in Walter Sinnott-Armstrongand Mark
Timmons,Moral Knowledge(OxfordandNew York:OxfordUniversity Press,1996),
and ch.4 of my Epistemology (1998) is the source of my classification of the a priori
in terms of self-evidence as the base. For helpful discussion of this paper I thank
Albert Casullo, Elizabeth Fricker,Kenneth Lucey, Joseph Mendola, Thomas Nagel,
Lex Newman, Markvan Roojen, and, especially, Bruce Russell.

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