Philosophy Faculty Publications

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Source

Disputatio: Philosophical Research Bulletin


In his 1985 The Structure of Empirical Knowledge, Laurence BonJour presented a compelling and articulate defense of a coherence theory of knowledge. Following what he called a “dialectical” strategy, he began by indicating the central issue at stake: the justification of empirical knowledge claims. He then argued that no available foundationalist or coherentist account could provide that justification, and that all such attempts either end in sheer dogmatism, or succumb to skepticism. After a lengthy critical discussion, he turned to developing a argument for his own view, combining a correspondence theory of truth with a coherence theory of justification. He further suggested that such a view, to be adequate, must include a commitment to the a priori — indeed, the synthetic a priori — while recognizing that this could not be described as a pure coherence theory. However, this suggestion was relegated to an appendix, and put forward rather gingerly by claiming only that skepticism about the synthetic a priori was “by no means as intellectually mandatory as it is often thought to be” (SEK: 211).

In a subsequent series of papers, which form the basis of his recent In Defense of Pure Reason, BonJour has pursued this aspect of his argument much further. Again following a “dialectical” approach, he criticizes at length both moderate (represented by Hume and Kant, among others) and radical (chiefly Quine) empiricists, and then defends a view he calls “moderate rationalism,” which includes as an essential component a commitment to the a priori, thus offering a defense for the rational, albeit fallible, insight into necessity that the other approaches cannot provide.

The epistemic stakes are quite high here, and BonJour concludes that any epistemological view that fails to include the synthetic a priori cannot succeed, generating skepticism of greater or lesser virulence, and risking “intellectual suicide” (5; 99), the loss of “cognitive sanity” (128), “irrationality and intellectual chaos” (138), and “giving up rational thought altogether” (152). Any discussion of the synthetic a priori must include an examination of the views of Kant, who was not only the first to claim that synthetic judgments could be a priori, but took the questions of whether such judgments could occur, and if so how, to be central to his revolutionary approach to metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason. BonJour recognizes this need to take Kant’s account into consideration, and devotes a section of the first chapter of In Defense of Pure Reason to Kant’s views; furthermore, no philosopher is mentioned in the text more than Kant, with the (possible) exception of Quine.

Unfortunately, BonJour so badly misunderstands Kant’s philosophical view that his critique of it cannot be accepted. What makes this something more than a relatively idle exercise in the history of philosophy is that his rejection of Kant’s theoretical philosophy forces BonJour to abandon his most powerful ally in defending the very views he puts forth. Elsewhere, I have argued that 1) BonJour and Kant largely agree on what an adequate epistemology must look like in its outlines, namely, the combination of a correspondence theory of truth, a coherence theory of justification, and a commitment to the synthetic a priori; 2) BonJour’s dialectical strategy fails to persuade because of a lack of positive arguments for his own position; and 3) for sound epistemological reasons, BonJour should find the kind of argumentative strategies Kant deploys considerably more attractive than he does. Here I want to focus on the specifics of BonJour’s reading of Kant’s views — particularly those found in the Critique of Pure Reason — in order both to document the inaccuracies and ambiguities of that reading, and to provide further evidence for the claim that, on the basis of a misguided interpretation of Kant’s text, BonJour fails to embrace precisely the strategic option that would best support his own argument where it is at its weakest.

Inclusive pages




Document Version

Published Version


This article appeared in the open-access journal Disputatio. Permission documentation is on file.

Link to the journal archive.



Peer Reviewed