• Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #4: Analytic-synthetic distinction

    So having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions were. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

    This is the third post after

    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    This post is about a distinction in philosophy about truths, namely the analytic or synthetic distinction, and whether such categorisation is coherent. There is a clearer majority for this question than we have seen in previous posts:

    Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?

    Accept or lean toward: yes 604 / 931 (64.9%)
    Accept or lean toward: no 252 / 931 (27.1%)
    Other 75 / 931 (8.1%)

    But it is still not a runaway victory for proponents of the distinction. The distinction is rooted in the analysis of propositions (often particular types of statements known as affirmative subject-predicate judgements).

    An analytic proposition is one where the predicate concept is contained within the subject concept. In other words, it is true by virtue of its meaning regardless of the way the world is. For example, the classic one is “all bachelors are unmarried” such that the concept of the subject (bachelors) is contained within the predicate (unmarried). Other examples:

    The circle is not a square

    The vixen is female

    A synthetic proposition is one where the predicate concept is not contained within the subject concept. They are true because of the way the world is. An example would be “All bachelors are unhappy”, or:

    All children are naughty

    All creatures with hearts have kidneys

    So far so good? Nice. Some of you who read or know about the a priori / a posteriori debate (linked above) will notice a similarity. Analytic propositions look very much like a priori judgements and synthetic propositions look much like a posteriori judgements. Immanuel Kant thought that there could be four types of proposition as a result (courtesy of wiki):

    Examples of a priori propositions include:

    • “All bachelors are unmarried.”
    • “7 + 5 = 12.”

    The justification of these propositions does not depend upon experience: One need not consult experience to determine whether all bachelors are unmarried, nor whether 7 + 5 = 12. (Of course, as Kant would grant, experience is required to understand the concepts “bachelor,” “unmarried,” “7”, “+” and so forth. However, the a priori/a posteriori distinction as employed here by Kant refers not to the origins of the concepts but to the justification of the propositions. Once we have the concepts, experience is no longer necessary.)

    Examples of a posteriori propositions include:

    • “All bachelors are unhappy.”
    • “Tables exist.”

    Both of these propositions are a posteriori: Any justification of them would require one’s experience.

    The analytic/synthetic distinction and the a priori/a posteriori distinction together yield four types of propositions:

    1. analytic a priori
    2. synthetic a priori
    3. analytic a posteriori
    4. synthetic a posteriori

    Kant says the third type is self-contradictory, so he discusses only the remaining three types as components of his epistemological framework.

    Mathematically, and possibly due to the confinement of logic at the time, Kant believed mathematical claims like 7 + 5 = 12 to be synthetic because he felt 12 is not contained in the concept of 5, 7 or +. There would have to be some synthesis of thought to arrive at this. This fell into the synthetic a priori camp for him.

    Frege and others came along and refined Kant’s thinking. But why bother with all this semantic and linguistic musing? As the SEP states:

    Why should philosophy be interested in what would seem to be a purely linguistic notion? Because, especially in the first half of the Twentieth Century, many philosophers thought it could perform crucial epistemological work, providing an account, first, of our apparently a priori knowledge of mathematics, and then—with a little help from British empiricism—of our understanding of claims about the spatio-temporal world as well. Indeed, “conceptual analysis” soon came to constitute the very way particularly Anglophone philosophers characterized their work. Many additionally thought it would perform the metaphysical work of explaining the truth and necessity of mathematics, showing not only how it is we could know about these topics independently of experience, but how they could be true in all possible worlds.

    This slight change was a move brought on by the Logical Positivists:

    The logical positivists agreed with Kant that we have knowledge of mathematical truths, and further that mathematical propositions are a priori. However, they did not believe that any complex metaphysics, such as the type Kant supplied, are necessary to explain our knowledge of mathematical truths. Instead, the logical positivists maintained that our knowledge of judgments like “all bachelors are unmarried” and our knowledge of mathematics (and logic) are in the basic sense the same: all proceeded from our knowledge of the meanings of terms or the conventions of language.

    Such that definitions could be various:

    1. analytic proposition: a proposition whose truth depends solely on the meaning of its terms

    2. analytic proposition: a proposition that is true (or false) by definition

    3. analytic proposition: a proposition that is made true (or false) solely by the conventions of language

    So why all the fuss? Well, it underpins truth values and that pretty much covers everything. It can get really bloody complex. I would refer to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you are that bothered. The most famous philosopher who has called the distinction into question is the great W.V. Quine who stated:

    It is obvious that truth in general depends on both language and extralinguistic fact. …Thus one is tempted to suppose in general that the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a linguistic component and a factual component. Given this supposition, it next seems reasonable that in some statements the factual component should be null; and these are the analytic statements. But, for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between analytic and synthetic statements simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith.

    —Willard v. O. Quine, Two dogmas of empiricism, p. 64

    What he states is that analytic (think tautology) statements, being grounded in meaning, are independent of facts, but being synonymous, they inevitably lead to matters of fact, which is the realm, supposedly, or the more empirical synthetic philosophy. The problem, though, is that it all gets rather circular, such that:

    All necessary (and all a priori) truths are analytic

    Analyticity is needed to explain and legitimate necessity.

    Robert Hanna (“The Return of the Analytic-Synthetic Distinction”) claims that the distinction is vital to allow much of the rest of philosophy to work and be grounded in semantics and reasonable explanation:

    …no one has yet explained how analytic philosophy itself can really be possible without adequate theories of
    (i) conceptual analysis,
    (ii) analyticity,
    (iii) an intelligible and defensible distinction between (a) logical, conceptual, or analytically necessary truths(i.e., truths about the kind of necessity that flows from the nature of concepts or intensions), and (b) non-logical, non-conceptual,substantive, or  synthetically necessary truths (i.e., truths about the kind of necessity that flows from the  nature of things in the world),
    (iv) a priori knowledge of logical truths and conceptual truths,
    and finally
    (v) a priori knowledge of non-logical, substantive, or synthetically necessary truths, especially including mathematical truths.

    Equally without a doubt, the second greatest urban legend of contemporary philosophy is that the A-S distinction does not matter anyway. To most contemporary philosophers, it seems technical, tedious, and trivial. But on the contrary, if the A-S distinction were either unintelligible or indefensible, then the very idea of a semantic content would go down, and correspondingly the very ideas of logical understanding, logical reasoning, conceptual understanding, conceptual reasoning, intensionality, intentionality, thinking, belief, cognition, and knowledge would all go down too,since all these inherently involve semantic content. For example, how could there be an intelligible and defensible notion of belief, without the correlative notion of belief content? Then the very idea of human rationality would also collapse, and “it’s the end of the world as we know it.”

    Hanna’s rather feisty defence of the distinction continues later with a list of valid reasons why such a distinction steers us away from “postmodernist anti-rational nihilism”:

    First, if the A-S distinction is intelligible and defensible, then an adequate theory of it provides an explanation of
    (1) necessary truth and a priori knowledge,
    (2) contingent truth and a posteriori knowledge.

    This is just the beginning of his long list. But you get the idea. Personally, I do find it a little dry. Horses for courses, though.


    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    #4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

    #5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    #6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

    #7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

    #8 – Belief in God: theism or atheism?

    Category: EpistemologyPhilosophyUncategorized


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce