Welcome back to 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.
As I mentioned last week, 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. But these pairs don’t neatly align with each other, and as such, some cross-over explanation is needed. They way philosophers pick and choose from these distinctions is often key to their view of reality and knowledge.
Last week, we covered the ways we can think in terms of logical and causal possibility. This week, we’ll move on to analytic and synthetic reasoning. While some repetition is inevitable, I will attempt to work systematically, contextualizing each distinction against the others, and as such each part of this series will be shorter than the last. Since this is the final part of the map, it will be the shortest of all.
Without further ado, Part Four deals with what these distinctions mean in terms of propositions of analytic and synthetic reasoning.
In terms of a priori and a posteriori knowledge:
Here there are at least three possibilities I can conceive. The first relies on the weak sense of a priori knowledge; if all we mean by a priori knowledge is knowledge that we hold prior to a particular moment of exploration, as in, knowledge that we learned before the moment we begin to seek new information, then this leaves us with a clear sense of analysis, wherein analytic reasoning need only be a way of organizing existing information. Synthesis is then, self-evidently, a posteriori, as it requires the collection of new data or information.
If we are to take the stronger versions of a priori and a posteriori knowledge, wherein the terms refer to inherent knowledge and learned knowledge, respectively, the relationship to analysis and synthesis is a bit different. In this case, a priori knowledge would be inherently analytical, and vice verse. No synthetic information from the senses would be required, as it would all be learned a posteriori. Knowledge would not merely be known a priori, but it could be analytically productive of meaningful truths. An example of this would be the ontological argument of Anselm.
However, if what we mean by a priori knowledge is not a substantive content, but rather an organizing structure, then analysis would require a posteriori synthesis to fill in the variables, else we find ourselves playing around with nothing more than empty axioms and self-referential syllogisms. All meaningful thought would then require a combination of the two: there would be need to be analytical abilities a priori, wherein we plug a posteriori information to create new, synthetic truths. In other words, we would be said to be born with the ability to organize, and then find what needs organizing through experience. In other words still, you could say that we encounter a messy world of data that we have to organize according to our own interior understanding of simplicity. Neither the a priori nor the a posteriori would be meaningful on its own, and analysis and synthesis would be similarly reciprocally intertwined.
And there it is, the end of the Map of Distinctions. It’s been more fun than I thought it would be. I must confess I thought retreading ground I’d already covered would be a little tedious, but I now imagine I could probably go over all of these terms again in a different way and see new possibilities I’ve overlooked here.
For now, though, I’m going to return the lexicon back to normal, exploring one just vocabulary word at a time. Tune in next week to see where the lexicon goes next.