Refining My Philosophy: Accepting Synthetic Judgments


I have long thought Empiricism to be the sole method available for acquiring new knowledge.  I felt that any alternative method, if employed, was merely the regurgitation of previously experienced concepts, which ultimately offers nothing new, and was generally trivial.  I didn’t adopt this attitude irresponsibly, however.  I became a proponent of empiricist epistemology through Locke and Hume.  Their works provided a consistent foundation that affirmed my own cogitations.  Moreover, I read the opposing rationalist views, such as Descartes and Leibniz, but remained unconvinced of a priori knowledge.  That is not to say that I opposed their philosophies altogether; I simply could not accept certain portions therein.  Ironically, my rejection of Descartes’ epistemology – with respect to eternal truths – emerged from adopting the first of his four precepts of logic from Discourse on Method:

“… accept nothing as true which I [do] not clearly recognize to be so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.”

So, by following Descartes’ advice, I dismissed Descartes’ arguments.  I have repeatedly practiced this – adopting and rejecting arguments from the same philosopher – and have come to find it’s rather common; everyone does this, consciously or not.  Furthermore, philosophers become well known because they present new arguments; or old arguments from a fresh perspective.  For this reason, philosophy is anything but static.  I remind myself of this as I develop my own philosophy; for newly acquired knowledge has the potential to impact the principles one currently holds; and the implementation of this maxim is at the centermost point of this discourse.

Starting Anew

            Over the course of my education, I have repeatedly come across examples of a priori knowledge that momentarily made since; but upon further examination I usually came to the same conclusion: the example used would not be possible if it originated outside of experience.  Because these examples continued to arise, and because contemporary philosophers now largely agree that a priori knowledge is possible, I thought it was necessary to reconsider my position. Appropriately, the same man that caused me to reject his philosophy, caused me to reconsider it:

“… first of all employ much time in preparing myself for the work by eradicating from my mind all the wrong opinions that I had up to this time accepted, and accumulating a variety of experiences fitted later on to afford matter for my reasonings, and by ever exercising myself in the Method I had prescribed, in order more and more to fortify myself in the power of using it.”

In order to abide by this maxim, it became necessary to extirpate my previous judgments and start anew.  In doing so, I naturally revisited past conclusions, but I tried to remain more malleable throughout the process.

First, my position on innate principles largely remained unchanged.  To imagine that a child contains ideas that are imprinted on its brain, yet are inaccessible until a reasonable age, seems unintelligible.  How can one argue that propositions exist on the brain that remain unknown?  To be sure, one could cite memory lapses that provide instances when ideas that were previously acquired proved temporarily inaccessible; but these instances only occur when using the faculty of recollection.  In order to use such a faculty, one must first be aware of the idea, then recall it to use.  This would be impossible for innate principles under the “age of reason” argument based on the second Law of Thought: Nothing can both be and not be.  In other words, I cannot recollect something I am unaware of because that would imply that I am both aware and unaware simultaneously.  Moreover, if the information merely becomes apprehended after one reaches the “age of reason”, then how do we explain principles that are attained prior to the use thereof?  In this scenario, the faculty of reason becomes nothing more than the discovery of pre-existing concepts.  This leads to cognitive determinism, which limits the scope of humanity’s knowledge.  Therefore, it is reasonable to affirm – as Locke did – that the capacity is innate, while knowledge is acquired.

After establishing, at least, that knowledge is initially derived a posteriori, I was then able to turn my sights on the following question: After acquiring a degree of knowledge, is it possible to arrive at additional truths outside of experience?  Various arguments have been put forward, which I revisited with the same conclusions as before.  But then it occurred to me that I had not revisited Kant since I first began my philosophical studies.  Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was one of the first philosophy books I read, which meant I likely misunderstood it.  I was not ignorant of this; in fact, I already had plans to read it again.  However, while reading Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, Russell referenced multiple a priori examples from Kant’s work that I could find no fault in.  So, Critique of Pure Reason moved directly to the top of my priority list.

Not surprisingly – owing to Russell’s synopsis – Kant’s first few sentences were altogether compatible with my deliberations.  He said, “That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt… But, though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience.”

Kant established a harmony between Empiricism and Rationalism by dividing a priori knowledge into two classifications: analytic and synthetic judgments.  In simple terms, a judgment is analytic if the predicate concept is contained within the subject.  In contrast, a judgment is synthetic if the predicate concept is absent in the subject.  For instance, “all triangles have three sides” is an analytic judgment; it is necessary by definition for a triangle to have three sides. Moreover, the proposition provides no additional knowledge, and although grounded in experience – one must comprehend the nature of a triangle to gather that it has three sides – it does not require experience to verify.  By comparison, the proposition “7 + 5 = 12” is a synthetic judgment; the concepts of “7” and “5”, and the idea of adding them, are not found within the subject concept of “12”.

Of these judgments, the synthetic allows for knowledge to arise outside of experience, which I will address below.  Before I do so, however, one must assent to the counterintuitive truth that a priori knowledge is the only form by which certainties can be obtained.  Simply stated, a posteriori is limited in scope, and therefore can only supply probabilities because we can never hope to experience every variation of a given proposition.  For instance, we expect the laws of motion to continue as they always have because experience has yet to provide converse examples.  The verification of our expectations are therefore limited because we cannot project with certainty into the future.  This is the Principle of Induction as stated by Russell.

“(a) When a thing of a certain sort A has been found to be associated with a thing of a certain sort B, and has never been found dissociated from a thing of the sort B, the greater the number of cases in which A and B have been associated, the greater is the probability that they will be associated in a fresh case in which one of them is known to be present;

(b) Under the same circumstances, a sufficient number of cases of association will make the probability of a fresh association nearly a certainty, and will make it approach certainty without limit.”

This principle is well known in all fields of science.  Any scientist will explain that when dealing with empirical evidence, uncertainty is the only certainty; thus the agent of antagonism towards the scientific community manifests itself.  For this reason, Empiricism is often mistaken as an inadequate method for understanding nature; and perhaps to a degree, this is true.  Yet, advocates of this ethos are engaging in a fundamental misapprehension.   That is, if a proposition has been demonstrated as probable by applying the induction principle, it does not necessarily follow that the argument is deficient.  On the contrary, it remains valid until conflicting evidence comes into being.

In comparison, a priori knowledge can be verified with certainty for two reasons.  First, all a priori knowledge applies to the relation between general ideas, such as numbers.  Conversely, all a posteriori knowledge applies to the relation between particular experiences, such as migratory patterns.  With migratory patterns, the probability of future patterns can be induced through past experiences; but by nature contain potential inconsistencies.  In the case of numbers, the concept of “7” is general and consistent.  Numbers are consistent by nature, just as other general ideas such as triangles – a triangle by nature consists of three sides.  These attributes are described as necessary – they are necessary in all possible scenarios.  Whereas a particular concept, such as mortality, may not be necessary in scenarios yet to be experienced.  This attribute – necessity – is the second reason a priori knowledge can be verified with certainty.

Thus, by way of a priori, new knowledge can be acquired.  This, as discussed, is possible due to the nature of general ideas and the resulting relation thereof.  The recognition of this is truly inspiring; for it suggests that man can exceed the limitations of his own experiences.  What’s more, it remains entirely compatible with Empiricism by virtue of its origins – all knowledge originates in experience.  It has become apparent that I reviewed these principles rapidly, and without a solid foundation.  Let it be a lesson for all future considerations.

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17 replies

  1. More people have probably summited Everest than written a piece like this. Well done. For me i look at priori and posteriori from the position of juggling. Literally, juggling balls. Years ago i knew it was possible, i could observe others doing it, but i couldn’t. I tried, and i tried, and i tried, but no matter how long i stayed at it i just couldn’t get the rhythm. It wasn’t an obsession, but i’m a stubborn bastard so i stuck at it. Then one day, without warning or indeed any advanced knowledge that i was getting in any way better (and closer to my objective) i landed it… i started juggling. Three balls went up and a rhythm was found. In that instant i could juggle. Not well, but i could. There was no turning back. I could juggle. I remember the moment quite clearly. One minute i couldn’t, and the next minute i could. The JZ of minute 2 was not the JZ of minute 1. If i understand it correctly (and i’m not entirely sure i do) i see it as priori and posteriori notions in action.

    • Mr. Zande, you are much too kind. I agree – this particular topic is one that takes some getting used to. I think I should elaborate on a couple points, which I will probably do this weekend. But overall, this was a rewarding paper and I’m quite happy with it.

      It’s funny that you used juggling as an analogy. I learned to juggle years ago, but recently saw a documentary which presented evidence that juggling helps create new white matter in the brain. The creation of which, among other things, allows for quicker responses between functional areas of the brain; resulting in increased cognitive skills. In addition to this documentary, I saw a TED talk where juggling was used as a tool to clear the mind. Seeing these, I decided to buy a set of juggling balls and dedicate 10 minutes a day to this exercise. It’s still too early to be sure, but I think it actually helps. As I write, I usually hit a wall which forces me to take a break. However, when writing this paper, each time I hit the “wall”, I took a break and juggled for five minutes. It cleared my brain and allowed me to return to writing! I know it’s a bit off topic, but you’re comment reminded me. :)

      • Ok, here’s another one for you. Don’t think it’ll increase your brain capacity, but Brazilians don’t click their fingers, they crack their index finger on the middle finger. It looks like they’re clicking, but they’re not, and it makes a hell of a snap. Press your thumb and middle finger together (top cushions only) and snap your wrist like you’d do to crack a whip… the objective is to smack the index finger on the side of the middle finger. Sounds easy, right? It drove me CRAZY! Seriously, it took me three years before my tight Australian fingers loosened up and i nailed it.

  2. Since I intended to read Descartes and Kant at some point in the future, I will start with Bertrand Russell and with this summary you have provided move forward. Though I still have a difficulty seeing how it is possible to have a a priori knowledge of something sans experience? Don’t all our knowledge arise from the environment and that would constitute our experience?

    • I think starting with Russell is the best way. I started with earlier philosophers, and they’re logic wasn’t sound; hence my confusion.

      I actually meant to elaborate on the proposition “7+5=12″, which I think will answer both of your questions. It’s a bit convoluted, so I’ll let you know when the edit is complete.

  3. I remember banging on one day about how a large part of what Kant said in his Critique was wrong. After I finished my less than convincing philippic, my friend said, after a short pause, “How many times have you read Kant?” I replied, “Once or twice. Why?” He smiled and said, “You don’t know Kant, yet.” And he was right lol.

    Just out of curiosity, have you read much about the problem of induction? Hume and Popper and others have some good stuff on it. You may find it helpful.

    Very enjoyable post.

    • There is a reason philosophers eventually settle down in one area (i.e. metaphysics, ethics, etc.): they have to read everything more than once, generally. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Locke, but I’m certain I need to do it again. The same can be said for all the other great philosophical writings.

      I am familiar with Hume’s problems of induction, but far from familiar enough. Never read Popper though. Thank you for the recommendation; I’ll be adding them both to my “Need to Read” list.

  4. I think I may be in over my head here.

    Everything, it seems, depends upon how one defines things. Where does “experience” leave off and “pure reason” begin?

    I’ve not read Kant, Descartes or Russell. When it comes to “philosophy”, I guess I’ve made mine up as I go along.

    For this reason, I’ve never really given any thought to the concepts of a priori as opposed to a posteriori knowledge. I’m simply ravenous for knowledge regardless of how I come by it.

    I’ve always been leery of paying too much attention to “experts” before I’ve come up with a theory or formed a conclusion more of less independently. Then I go forth in search of information that either supports or refutes my hypothesis and weigh the pros and cons.

    If I find the opposition to be more credible than my own conclusions, I feel compelled to adjust my position accordingly.

    So now, curse you R.L.! You’ve put this blasted burr under my saddle and I won’t be able to stop bucking and kicking until I’ve found a way to remove it! ;)

    Which means, on top of all the reading I want to but never will be able to get done, now I’ve got to go searching for more!

  5. Well, I’ve just downloaded a pdf version of Critique of Pure Reason.

    It’s nearly 600 bloody pages!

    I’ll get you for this R.L.! :)

    • Very true, Richard! How we define experience and reason are fundamental to these arguments.

      I think we all, to a degree, act similarly to what you described above. That is to say, we are quick to choose a position. This has unfortunate consequences for the weak of mind (obviously not you). Many people come to a decision with little forethought, and without sound judgement. The longer one maintains that position, the stronger his compassion for said position becomes; which makes it all the more difficult to reconsider when faced with opposing information. Discerning between truth, authority and confirmation bias muddles this further.

      It is unfortunate that more people (like many I have found on WordPress) are not willing to alter their convictions when faced with sound reason.

      My apologies for igniting an interest in a fascinating topic, Richard (sarcasm)! Believe me, I’m in the same boat – there are more things I want to learn about than I have time for. I know that Kant’s Critique is long, and at some points tedious (although, less tedious than Russell’s can be), but I think you will truly enjoy it. :)

      Good luck! Let me know how it goes!

  6. watching weather, and data becoming information becoming knowledge, the erratic map-firing of neuronal contacts in the brain, and the inventions of creative scientists…i’m a firm believer in synthetic or syncretist knowledge-becoming. Left and right hands clasped together. Well done, as usual (and thanks for that).

  7. I see a connection with my post on which you commented. I don’t have the time now, but I am sure we will have an interesting discussion here and there.

  8. Great article. I enjoy learning news ideas and I had to look up a few concepts from this article. Thanks for expanding my knowledge. Also, you write really well.

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