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. As such, last week I started to offer a recapitulation in terms of how we can and cannot mix our terms consistently. Last week, we covered the De Dicto/De Re Distinction. While some repetition is inevitable, I will attempt to work systematically, contextualizing each distinction against the others. This week, we’re moving onto part two, covering Ontology and Epistemology in terms of Logical and Causal Possibility, Analytic and Synthetic Reasoning, and A Priori and A Posteriori Knowledge.
Without further ado, Part Two deals with what these distinctions mean in terms of propositions taken ontologically and epistemology.
In terms of De Dicto/De Re, see Part One of the Map of Distinctions.
In terms of Logical and Causal Possibility:
Simply put, “ontology” is the study of being and existence. When philosophers speak of a thing’s “ontological status”, they’re speaking about how “real” that thing is. This means that when we’re dealing with possibility, whether or not we mean that possibility to be logical or causal, we’re not dealing with ontology per se, but only with – you guessed it – ontological possibility. If you’re a strict materialist, then ontological possibility will be based in both logical and causal possibility. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a strictly theoretical rationalist, there are plenty of philosophers and scientists who find that logical and causal possibility themselves have ontological status, albeit in a different way than that which is verifiable. There are even some philosophers and scientists who need only logical possibility to ontologically ground their theories, as in the case of ontological proofs for God’s existence, and in some versions of the Multiverse theory.
More generally, there also are likely many things that exist ontologically that don’t fit within the confines of either logical or causal possibility such as we know them.
Epistemologically, logical and causal possibility are extremely useful tools for helping us learn and understand the world. Epistemology is the study of what we can know, and so determining how our minds work (logical possibility) and how the outside world works (causal possibility) is self-evidently significant. While it is contestable that the laws of logic and the laws of nature govern in an ontological sense, it is indisputable that they represent what we “know”, and how we think.
In terms of Analytic and Synthetic Reasoning:
For a materialist, ontologically, all analytic reasoning is a language game, while all true reasoning must be grounded synthetically. For a rationalist, however, the axioms required for analytically reasoning are ontologically true, and ground the reality of synthetic notions. And of course, there are many thinkers that fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
Epistemologically, both categories are useful ways of describing methods of verification. In order to know or understand the world, we need to be at least analytically cogent (math, religion, theoretical physics, logic, etc.). To actually do something with this knowledge, this analysis ought also be synthetically supported (social science, medicine, experimental physics, military strategy). And for some things, the synthetic support is all we have, and there’s work yet to be done analytically before can truly say we understand it, if ever (any newly discovered or understudied phenomena, poetry, art, mystic religion).
In terms of a priori and a posteriori knowledge:
Since these terms refer to knowledge, ontologically, the options here are as open and varied as possible. There are some who believe that only a priori knowledge has any connection to ontological reality, as in many strains of Platonic, idealist, and Abrahamic religious philosophy, wherein a posteriori knowledge is merely an illusion. There are some who believe that there is no such thing as a priori knowledge. There are even some who think that no knowledge, prior or posterior has any ontological status, and some who think both are equally real. Nearly any combination can be argued, though of course, some arguments are better than others.
And both are self-evidently epistemological in nature, as they refer to types of knowledge. It is however possible to argue that only one or the other represents “true” knowledge, and that there is no knowledge and thus no need to quantify when it is received.
Tune in next time for Part Three of the Map of Distinctions.