“Nur daran also, dass diese Begriffe die Verhältnisse der Wahrnemungen in jeder Erfahrung a priori ausdrücken, erkennt man ihre objektive Realität, d.i. ihre transzendentale Wahrheit, und zwar freilich unabhängig von der Erfahrung, aber doch nicht unabhängig von aller Beziehung auf die Form einer Erfahrung überhaupt, und die Synthetische Einheit, in der allein Gegenstände empirisch können erkannt werden.”
Kritik der reinen Vernunft, p. 298-299, I Kant, Reclam, 1966.
[Amateuristic English translation (google will find you a professional one in no time): “Only in this then, that these concepts express a priori the conditions of perception in all of our experiences, can one recognize their objective reality, i.e. their transcendental truth, and this completely independent from experience itself, although not independent from any relationship on the form of an experience as such, and the synthetic unity which is the only way we can recognize things in an empirical way.”]
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 26-08-2009. Pffew, Kant’s synthetic a priori, hope I didn’t put my foot in ;-]
It’s been a while since I felt the urge to get my “Pure Reason” out and look for what is known as the “synthetic a priori”, probably over 2 months ago. I had it next to the bed, but did not open it. Fear, I guess, as well as a bunch of other things that were racing through my head (some of which you find here). Not to mention a family, a job and the many time consuming activities combining both imply.
But enough personalia already: I opened it and I thought it would be somewhere over half way that I’d find it and I didn’t. So I risked looking more or less one fourth into the book to find some quote on telepathy and such and how unfounded it was to assert their existence. However conceivable they were, there was no basis for entertaining any of it. And I was happy (happier still when I bumped into the ‘refutation of idealism’ – but that will be for another time) but not happy enough, so I read the section where my telepathy scepticism found an unexpectedly explicit support.
The quote above is what I settled on and it’s close enough to synthetic a priori (although maybe not a quote that is very quotable by common standards).
Why am I telling you all of these petty personal experiences?
Probably it’s mostly the fear to start expressing my thought as brought on by the quote, but it’s also because I feel like I need to give you [or a future me] this experience of finding such things. Because nobody does this as far as I know: tell the dirty, boring ‘how I found this’. Not telling this increases the mystical feel about these quotes and such a mystical feel is contrary to the clarity of thought that people try to achieve. [It is mental rape of the original which is mostly a bad thing for the rapist as the original is dead].
I hate mysticism. I hate the new scholasticism that has been built around terms such as ‘a priori’ and certainly the ‘synthetic a priori’ (certainly in universities, to limit the amount of creative thinking of graduates or to limit the time spent by a professor in reviewing her student’s work one must suppose).
The idea I always thought was quite simple: empiricism is basically correct, but still, in and of itself, a bit of a non-starter. There are things (not ‘things’ in the sense of particulars but ‘things’ in the sense of bits of knowledge) that are fully unavoidable. Not because they are completely separate from empirical facts but because once we’re having a more or less consistent view of reality that view will, unavoidably, be based on these things (I think, by the way, that this is a very modern thought, something that, against appearances, is quite aligned with Quine’s critique of the very notions of synthetic and analytic).
Let me not talk about triangles. Let me not talk about specific scientific theories, more specifically about my pet subject: Darwinian theory.
As I said before (in one of these very hermetic posts whereof I’m rather ashamed now): I believe that, suitably abstracted, Darwinian theory is inescapable [in a ‘the third law of thermodynamics kind of way]. I believe it is an a priori; things cannot be understood in any other way than this way; things on evolution were even never understood in another way before Darwin (even if, before Darwin, the insights were lacking to phrase it in a productive way). I also believe that it is synthetic; it is based on an examination of empirical facts; it is something that depends on ‘form’ of our experience (it’s therefore perfectly possible to describe things in a way that is non-Darwinian but that’s about as helpful as talking about telekinesis; worse in fact because any such description currently offered can be shown to be incorrect when it’s confronted with the facts).
I said ‘suitably abstracted’ and if I could have avoided qualifiying it, I certainly would have. The reason for the need for the qualifier is not coincidental and it is in fact described by Kant. Such ‘synthetic a priori’ knowledge can’t be about a specific thing (in the sense of state of affairs, facts, or particulars). If it could be like that we would be in the mystical realm of telepathy because, for instance, my writing this (or some such other coincidence) could in principle be such knowledge – which is obviously absurd to anyone with their chakrah’s in order (that’s a joke). In other words, Darwin’s hypothesis on similarity of mountainous plants can be right or wrong but can never be a synthetic a priori (in fact, the more accurate statement would be: this hypothesis can be accurate or inaccurate but that’ll be for another time when I – or somebody else – reminds me of it; say “Kyburg”).
I will not try to do what Darwin did much better: attempt a suitable abstraction for his theory. I’ll offer an example from thermodynamics – ‘In a closed system, the energy remains constant.’ This doesn’t make any definite predictions on this or that specific situation but sets clear limits on any situation.
That I think is the ‘synthetic a priori’ (and: pardon me if I’m not telling you anything new) and I think it’s basically right although I also think that Kant did not realize sufficiently the high standard of ‘suitable abstractions’ in this area (and did not realize so many things that came after him on other fronts, this is not the whole truth after all, just a piece of it; he did not, for instance, grasp how
problematic the analytic/synthetic distinction was to begin with).
So I said I would not attempt the Darwinian abstraction. And I won’t. But still, I don’t think Darwin did all that could be done. His abstraction was biological but, as I already tried to demonstrate elsewhere here, the real abstraction is at the levels of ‘anything evolving’ (see Bergson quote). It’s crucial, I believe, that the knowledge of Darwinian evolution is recognized as unavoidable for language, culture and so on. It is crucial for ethical reasons (but I will undoubtedly have outstayed my welcome so I shall not elaborate on that now).
[I elaborated a lot on that so go look for it and it’s what once I will do definitively on the ‘PI’ page]
Ending note: some of you might be thinking Newton and flatlanders and things done in a dimension that can’t be perceived by us and all that. I tell you: you are gullable and run a risk of being converted into a religion, as you were concerted by scientistic vulgarizing theoretical physicists (Do something about it!). This argument leads to a set of moronic theories in the class of Intelligent Design and is a fallacy. Because of this: either the influence of the ‘unknown dimension’ is regular in the known ones, and then we can perceive ‘it’ (see Kant’s example of magnetic forces) or it’s irregular in which case we can’t perceive it as an ‘it’. In the latter case people might suddenly be disappearing all the time and that would be just a fact of life, not a proof of another dimension because if it were we would be able to perceive it … (not finished but you get the point – and even if you don’t: people aren’t suddenly disappearing and, but for the pockets and power of those making these things up there isn’t even the start of an empirical fact that would lead us to seriously consider entertaining anything of the sort).
[Whilst writing this I was listening to Steve Reich, “Different Trains”, Orchestre National de Lyon & David Robertson.]