I don't quite understand the explanation given on Wikipedia for Pre-theoretic belief.

It is often assumed, rightly or wrongly, that language depends on mental concepts, and that certain concepts are innate. These innate concepts provide sources of very basic linguistic competency, available to any natural language speaker that enables more complex forms of language use, including philosophical, scientific, or other types of technical language. These basic concepts, in combination, may form basic propositional attitudes about things and events. Often “pre-theoretical belief” refers to these basic propositional attitudes.

I could interpret this in multiple ways. It could be a reference to the innate language faculties hypothesized by generative linguists that allow humans to generate and judge syntactic structures. On the other hand, the Semantics of Logic page appears to refer to logical entailment as a "pre-theoretic notion," which seems to imply that the idea of pre-theoreticity encompasses the basic logical relationships between propositions.

Alternatively, Wiktionary defines pre-theoretical as "arising before any theoretical considerations." I'm not sure how to interpret this either. In what sense do pre-theoretical ideas take precedence over theoretical ideas?

How does the the pre-theoretical differ from the theoretical? And how does this apply to the elementary notions of logic?

  • 1
    They're just basic innate concepts upon which natural language or any formal theory can be built. For example across all natural languages of different region and culture, there seem common belief about the basic concept of subject and predicate/verb which are actually reflected in almost all natural languages we know of. Similarly, almost all formal deductive logic systems have the basic concept of entailment... Commented Oct 10, 2022 at 1:50
  • 2
    The Wiktionary definition is the traditional definition. I would not confuse it with the first definition. Traditionally, pre-theoretic meant eg bare empiricism. marcuse.org/herbert/publications/1960s/…
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 10, 2022 at 11:39

3 Answers 3


Pre-theoretic is not a reference to language structure but to concepts. For example, a pre-theoretic concept of birds might classify bats as birds because they are small flying creatures, just like most birds we encounter are. Then you investigate more deeply and you come up with a theory that what is most significant is not the behavior that strikes us at first, but the anatomical characteristics that we find from investigation.

Our concept changes with investigation and analysis. Now we no longer thinks of bats and birds as the same sorts of things; bats should be categorized with squirrels and dogs and even humans. This would be a post-theoretical concept, in contrast to the original view that bats and birds should be categorized together, which is a pre-theoretical concept.

Pre-theoretical concepts are just the concepts that normal humans, going through normal life are likely to make use of both in communication and in reasoning.

  • So do you mean that pre-theoretic and post-theoretic are simply relative terms with respect to a particular theory that describe a temporal relationship with respect to the history of science?
    – Luca
    Commented Oct 9, 2022 at 17:17
  • @Luca, not with respect to a particular theory; with respect to any non-folk theory. A folk theory is a set of propositions that people tend believe prior to rigorous investigation and analysis. It's sort of the same idea as a pre-theoretic concept. It is an attempt to distinguish between what you believe when you seriously investigate and analyze vs. what you believe after you have done so. It doesn't necessarily mean that what you thought before was wrong, just that it was less precise and less general. Commented Oct 9, 2022 at 23:51
  • +1 For a strong appeal to false homology.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 18:34

The term "pre-theoretic" is generally interpreted to mean "before the development of a formal theory". For instance, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace put forth with great effort language that forms the basis of the theory of evolution, perhaps one of the most significant scientific theories ever produced by scientific thinking. But the great edifice of theory and observation that evolution today didn't actually begin with Darwin. In fact, pre-theoretic thinking in the West about evolutionary theory started with the biological intuitions of some the Ancient Greeks. From WP:

Proposals that one type of animal, even humans, could descend from other types of animals, are known to go back to the first pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610 – c. 546 BC) proposed that the first animals lived in water, during a wet phase of the Earth's past, and that the first land-dwelling ancestors of mankind must have been born in water, and only spent part of their life on land. He also argued that the first human of the form known today must have been the child of a different type of animal (probably a fish), because man needs prolonged nursing to live.[5][6][4] In the late nineteenth century, Anaximander was hailed as the "first Darwinist", but this characterization is no longer commonly agreed.[7] Anaximander's hypothesis could be considered "evolution" in a sense, although not a Darwinian one.[7]

So, it's nice to draw a line between the Ancient Greek thought on common descent with 21-st theory at Darwin and Wallace.

In regards to logic being pre-theoretic, it's possible to see that in the Ancient Greek writing, a great deal of logical thought was had, but back then, the notion of logic might have been constrained to simple sentential formalisms, perhaps the infamous Aristotelian syllogism. This was pre-theoretic by modern standards because it didn't account for most of what modern logicians take for granted such as Frege's symbolism, semantics of existential and universal quantification, modality, predication, and the weakening of intuitive principles of logic like the Law of the Excluded Middle, Double Negation, the Principle of Bivalence, and others. In other words, the description of the systems of reason have become much more powerful, particularly observing the practice of distinguishing meta and object languages as done by Tarski.

There are two approaches to justification of thought. On the one hand, we have intuitions; we conclude intuitively, presume, speak, and reason without much formalism. This is what the Presocratics are famous for. But there is also more rigrous approaches to reason starting with the Scholastics and then the Fregean habit of symbolizing logic that today is used in natural language processing and other computer applications. The latter are much more formal and much more theoretic because of how rigorously grammars surrounding the process of reasoning have become.


Perhaps a pragmatic interpretation of the term 'pre-theoretic' might be instinctive, or at face value. Take day and night, for example- a pre-theoretic notion of day and night would be one the did not consider how the daily cycle came about, but just accepted it for what it is. Likewise there are other common notions that strike us as immediately apparent without triggering any inclination to understand them at a deeper level, such as the notion of bigger v smaller, of sad v happy, of safe v dangerous, of self and other, and so on. You could imagine those as being propensities of a human who lived entirely in the moment without ever exercising their powers of reflection and cogitation. Indeed, if you had been the clichéd abandoned small child on a desert island, pre-theoretic notions might be the main building blocks of your thoughts.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .