A Posteriori vs. A Priori

When I was 22 years old, I decided I would go back to graduate school and get a useless masters degree in Philosophy.

I ended up with a useless masters degree in German instead, but I did learn one very important lesson before switching departments:

The difference between A Posteriori and A Priori reasoning as it pertains to justification and understanding. Both are Latin terms that most people associate with the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, but in reality they go back to Ancient Greece.

A Priori reasoning takes into account what we know independent of our experience. Our reasoning starts with what we factually know about something and it progresses from there.

A Posteriori reasoning, on the other hand, begins with our experience and then deduces from that point on.

I’ve always approached the appreciation of film, music, art, and booze using the latter of the two. I start by identifying what I like, and then I work backwards to better understand why I like it. I use A Posteriori reasoning to justify my opinions about quality, beginning with my initial sensory experiences before advancing to further investigation.

That being said, having worked in the wine and spirits industry for over a decade I’ve found that a large number of people work the other way around: using A Priori reasoning. They start by asking questions about production (Is it organic? Is it mass-produced? Is it distilled on a pot still? Etc.) and begin to form their opinions about quality based on factual specifics before tasting for actual flavor.

In order to illustrate why this is a problem, I’ll use a rock and roll analogy.

In 1991, when Nirvana broke on to the music scene and the grunge revolution began, people attempted to use A Posteriori reasoning in order to deduce what made the Seattle musicians so successful (they rejected popular culture, they sang about depression, they wore tattered clothing, etc). As a result, a number of terrible bands put those deductions into A Priori reasoning, assuming they could find success with the same formula. The result was a plethora of lackluster copycats, thinking that a wallet chain, a few power chords, and a trendy heroin habit would add up to a similar quality, but unfortunately they didn’t have anything interesting to say. It turns out one couldn’t recreate the brilliance of Nirvana by mimicking factual characteristics alone.

In an attempt to sell quality wine and spirits to the masses, the drinks industry is falling into the same trap. Rather than fetishizing quality first and foremost, we’re fetishizing rules. We falsely assume that adherence to organic and biodynamic farming will automatically equate to a superior wine, just like we incorrectly believe more time in the barrel will always create a superior whiskey. Today, an entire generation of producers is using A Priori reasoning to create a new market of craft wine and spirits that express little beyond an adherence to doctrine. It turns out one also can’t capture the brilliance of a great wine or whiskey in a few key bullet points.

The other problem with A Priori thinking when it comes to wine and spirits is that it requires drinkers of different interest levels to listen to the same spiel from beginning to end—from vine to bottle, or grain to glass—without taking into consideration whether they actually care or not. That’s where our industry gets a bad rap. We lecture consumers, rather than listen to them.

Using A Posteriori reasoning, however, you start with the most important aspect of drinking: do you like it? Is it good?

It is? Great. Do you want to know more? Fantastic. Then you work backwards from there, always taking into consideration the interest level of the audience.

The goal of this blog is to showcase products that I think exhibit quality, and then present them in a way that allows people to understand them to the limits of their own interest. I think knowing more about why something tastes the way it does is fascinating, especially if it’s not easy to make. Not everyone feels that way, however; and that’s fine.

Passion begins by understanding what you like and what you care about. You discover what you’re willing to pay for and why. And then you go from there.

-David Driscoll