Self-evidence

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In epistemology (theory of knowledge), a self-evident proposition is one that is known to be true by understanding its meaning without proof[citation needed].

Some epistemologists deny that any proposition can be self-evident. For most others, the belief that oneself is conscious is offered as an example of self-evidence. However, one's belief that someone else is conscious is not epistemically self-evident.

The following proposition is often said to be self-evident:

  • A finite whole is greater than, or equal to, any of its parts

A logical argument for a self-evident conclusion would demonstrate only an ignorance of the purpose of persuasively arguing for the conclusion based on one or more premises that differ from it (see ignoratio elenchi and begging the question).

Analytic propositions[edit]

It is sometimes said that a self-evident proposition is one whose denial is self-contradictory. It is also sometimes said that an analytic proposition is one whose denial is self-contradictory. But the concepts do mean different things.

Provided that one understands a self-evident proposition, one believes it, and self-evident propositions are not in need of proof. Likewise, that their denial is self-contradictory does not have to be proven. It is in this sense that the self-contradictions at work in self-evident and analytic propositions are different.

Not all analytic propositions are self-evident, and it is sometimes claimed that not all self-evident propositions are analytic: e.g. my knowledge that I am conscious.

Other uses[edit]

Claims of self-evidence also exist outside of epistemology.

Informal speech[edit]

In informal speech, self-evident often merely means obvious, but the epistemological definition is more strict.

Moral propositions[edit]

Moral propositions can also be said to be self-evident. For example, Alexander Hamilton cited the following moral propositions as self-evident in the Federalist No. 37:

  • The means ought to be proportioned to the end.
  • Every power ought to be commensurate with its object.
  • There ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose which is itself incapable of limitation.

A famous claim of the self-evidence of a moral truth is in the United States Declaration of Independence, which states, "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."; philosophically, these propositions' self-evidence is debatable.

See also[edit]