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.
This week’s entry into the lexicon features yet another epistemological distinction: the difference between analytic and synthetic reasoning. These are common terms you will find in many works and texts books, but for clear and concise explanations of these terms, see Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Nils Ch. Rauhut’s Ultimate Questions and A. C. Grayling’s An Introduction to Philosophical Logic.
Let’s jump right in.
An analytic statement is one where the truth of the statement can be determined by the internal relationships between the words or symbols within the statement. Analytic reasoning looks to the internal consistency of a given set of symbols, statements, or ideas according to a particular theoretical system. Given certain rules, no outside information is needed – all of you have know is how words or symbols relate to each other. For example, take the statement: “A bachelor is an unmarried man.” You don’t have to have any knowledge of the world beyond the definition of the words involved to affirm that within the common sense of our grammar, this statement is true, and more fundamentally, because this statement is a definition, it can be used analytically regardless of whether this definition matches our typical use (though in this case, it does).
Another example of a purely analytic statement comes from Augustine’s Soliloquies. In his attempt to ground an argument for the immortality of truth without the use of any empirical or worldly knowledge save the rules of grammar, he states (in rough paraphrase):
If the world will last forever, then it is true that the world will last.
This is an analytical tautology, or rather, an axiom, because it depends on no outside information to be proven true. It’s truth is self-evident. It doesn’t matter if it were known beyond the shadow of a doubt that the world were to end to tomorrow – this statement would still be true because of it’s conditional form. The relationship between the words in the proposition render it infallible. In fact, Augustine then goes on to claim:
If the world will not last forever, then it is true that world will not last.
From this, Augustine then deduces that whether or not the world lasts forever, truth itself will, meaning that Truth (now with a capital T) is an ontologically independent concept and not just an epistemological construct dependent on our evaluation of reality. It takes a few additional premises and extrapolations, and the validity and use-value of this argument are certainly debatable, but the main focus here is that the causal realities of the world are not relevant to the truth value of either of these statements. All that matters is the maintenance of internal consistency (and I’m deliberately leaving Tarski out of this in the name of simplicity, but feel free to take him up in the comments if you so desire).
In contrast, synthetic reasoning requires that we have additional information from the world in order to determine the truth value of a given statement. Example: “Bill is a bachelor.” In this case, you have to know a little something about Bill himself in order to determine the truth of this statement – particularly, whether or not he is married. One thing to note is that a statement like this cannot be analytically false – while a synthetic need not be an analytical tautology, it cannot contain any logical contradictions either. If we were to say that “Bill is both married and a bachelor,” we would be saying something that could be neither analytically true, nor synthetically verified. since the terms “married” and “bachelor” (in their simplest colloquial interpretations) contradict each other.
Similarly, questions about the long-term existence of the world require rather a grand mixture of analytic and synthetic reasoning. We would need a lot of empirical evidence – synthetically connected information – from the world, but since we would be engaging in a prediction, we would also need to analytic reasoning to help us organize this evidence and find patterns, while also keeping us from speculating too wildly.
But this mixture needs a solid ground in one type of reasoning or the other, and it also requires a lot of awareness. Augustine’s first attempt to prove the immortality of truth in the Soliloquies makes liberal use of analytic statements and empirical observations, but because Augustine doesn’t recognize that he is mixing the two categories, he ends up in a contradiction, leading him to start over with a cleaner, more purely analytic slate. Of course, we can and do mix these types of reasoning successfully all the time, but typically only when we do so intentionally.
As Godel proved, a system can either be axiomatically (internally) consistent, or it can be synthetically comprehensive, but it cannot be both. How we use and mix the analytic and synthetic modes of reasoning really does matter, whether we’re checking on Bill’s marital status or testing the limits of mathematical axioms – and it requires a great deal of self-awareness. Because of this, I would say that this bit of jargon is rather useful.