O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Definitions and Kant’s Analytic-Synthetic Mess

“As an aid to the conceptualizing process, men select from the total content of the concept a few characteristics; they select the ones that best condense and differentiate that content at a given stage of human development. Such a selection in no way shrinks the concept’s content; on the contrary, it presupposes the richness of the concept. It presupposes that the concept is an integration of units, including all their features.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, pages 102-103.
(There is a lot that is wrong in Kant’s conclusion that “There must exist synthetic a priori judgements.”, but the “synthetic” part of it is due to a faulty theory of concepts, one that conflates a concept’s definition with its content.)

I don’t partake of Ayn Rand’s (and Leonard Peikoff’s) animosity toward Kant. Yet his theory makes no sense at all to me.

He wrote his entire Critic of Pure Reason to answer the question “How are synthetical judgements a priori possible?”. The problem is he is the one setting the terms of the problem.

He begins by establishing that there is a priori knowledge, i.e., “independent of all experience”, as against a posteriori, or empirical knowledge. He then agrees with Hume that empirical knowledge is never necessary and universal, but always contingent.

a posteriori = empirical = contingent

a priori = independent of experience = necessary

But now, disagreeing with Hume, he says we don’t just subjectively feel the necessity of, say, cause and effect, because of the “frequent association of what happens with that which precedes, and the habit originating of connecting representations”. Instead, these truths are “the basis of the possibility of experience itself” and, therefore, certain, necessary, universal.

He then distinguishes between analytic and synthetic judgements:

“Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A, as somewhat which is contained (though covertly) in the conception A; or the predicate B lies completely out of the conception A, although it stands in connection with it. In the first instance, I term the judgement analytical, in the second, synthetical.”

In other words, if you say something about an entity that is already contained it its definition, that’s an analytic statement; if it’s not, it’s synthetic. But he also says that “Judgements of experience, as such, are always synthetical.” So, combining the aforementioned, we have:

a posteriori = empirical = contingent = synthetical

a priori = independent of experience = necessary = analytical

The problem (that he creates and then “solves”) is that statements such as “Every thing that happens has a cause” are synthetic, he says, meaning the predicate “has a cause” augments the subject by indicating “something entirely different from ‘that which happens,’ and is consequently not contained in that conception”. BUT (and that’s a huge “but”), he says these statements are also universal and necessary, so they can not be acquired from experience, which only gives us contingency. Therefore, he concludes: There must exist synthetic a priori judgements.

Isn’t it clear that it is he — Kant — who is creating all this controversy? He is not the embodiment of evil like Objectivists preach, though; he is simply — yes, this is coming from an ignorant policeman — WRONG. He thinks convolutely just as he writes (not that I am free from that predicament either).

When he talks about a predicate “not contained in that conception” to establish the statement as synthetic, he is using a faulty theory of concepts. Definitions can’t establish such dichotomy. To quote Peikoff in Chapter 3 of O.P.A.R.:

“A concept is not interchangeable with its definition.”

“A concept designates existents, including all their characteristics, whether definitional or not.”

A 500-word limit is not contained in the definition of a post, yet it is here necessary a priori. Is it possible that Kant is right, then?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s