Now that summer is over, it is quite past time to return to blogging. It feels right to start up again with a continuation of my series on philosophical definitions, The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go.
The past several entries into The Philosopher’s Lexicon have all been double entries, focused not on one single vocabulary word per post, but on words that come in pairs, special distinctions in how we view and describe reality, thought, and knowledge. The comments on these posts have been fascinating and engaging, and I’d like to take a few weeks to pause and look at how these distinctions can and do interact with each other to form different philosophical viewpoints.
As such, the next five entries will not be new, but will offer a recapitulation in terms of how we can and cannot mix our terms consistently. The terms to be covered in this series are as follows, with an entry to be devoted to each:
- De Dicto/De Re Distinction
- Ontology and Epistemology
- Logical and Causal Possibility
- Analytic and Synthetic Reasoning
- A Priori and A Posteriori Knowledge
While some repetition is inevitable, I will attempt to work systematically, contextualizing each distinction against the others.
Let’s start Part One with what these distinctions mean in terms of propositions taken de dicto and de re.
In terms of ontology and epistemology:
To take a proposition de dicto is to take meaning from the words themselves, rather than using the words to indicate some extra-literal meaning outside the proposition. While it is easy to see how de dicto meaning can be epistemologically significant, it can also – and often is also – taken ontologically. For many the language of an idea is the idea, and that the power of the idea comes in its formulation. Epistemologically, the right formulation of an idea (the right equation, the eloquent phrasing, the poignant image, etc.) is what renders the idea useful, inspiring, and even more glorious, but for some the power is literally, ontologically, in the name. That’s why memorization is such a huge part of our education, why people believe there is “new math”, and why the names of God are taken to be so historically, culturally, and religiously important. For others, though, de dicto propositions are merely linguistic tools, and thus do not carry the ontological status of the reality they signify.
Propositions de re are necessarily intended to speak ontologically, but for philosophers who align the epistemological with the ontological (Plato, for example), the de re is epistemologically self-revelatory.
In terms of logical and causal possibility:
In this case, a proposition taken de dicto may yet again be either. Logically, the formulation of the propositions carries inherent meaning, forging connections and equations that must resolve in specific ways, rendering de dicto thinking itself logically necessary for crafting logical lines of argumentation. Because all causal reasoning must also be logically possible, the significance of de dicto focus is often the same in contemporary scientific practice. However, that which is casually possible is often observable in ways that require no specifically logical predetermination, post-experiential explanation need not conform to specific logical precepts, either by prompting a rethinking of existing standards (quantum physics, religious experience, artistic expression, etc.) or in the case of human error, wherein the idea is true, but the explanation is poorly constructed.
For many, de re propositions must be logically possible. For others, while this is a handy way to simplify the process of learning and true most of the time, it is ultimately too limited. In this view, it seems that things may be true de re even if our de dicto logic is inadequate to the task, either because our logic needs refining (as when we revise our logical language to include greater possibility, or because de re truth is transcendent in someway (either religiously or spiritually, as in the case of the Catholic Trinity), or because our logic, as a construct of our minds, is inferior to the task of explaining things comprehensively (as in the case of Godel’s incompleteness theorem).
In terms of analytic and synthetic reasoning:
Similarly, de dicto propositions can be easily taken analytically, since analysis often happens by examining the relationships between signs and symbols and the construction of order. There need not necessarily be truth de re, analytically. However, analytical reasons as it is applied to logic need not be taken explicitly de dicto, since this would be a meta-logical movement out of the existing rational system, potentially into another system (such as in the creation of new equations, logical languages, etc.). Causally, the meaning of de dicto propositions is second always to the de re realities they describe and which condition their predictions.
In terms of a priori and a posteriori knowledge:
Simply put, all de dicto understand must be a posteriori. Even if you believe that logic is known a priori, the language of logic must be learned or created from signs and symbols. The determination of de re truth, however, may be either innately held a priori, learned only through a posteriori experience, or come from a complex combination of the two, depending upon who you ask.
Tune in next week for Part Two of the Map of Distinctions.