What Is the Significance of the Synthetic a Priori Judgement?

What Is the Significance of the Synthetic a Priori Judgement?

What is the significance of the synthetic a priori judgement?

That the question of the synthetic a priori judgement is an important one is made clear in the B Introduction to the Critique, where Kant wrote: ‘The real problem of pure reason is now contained in the question: How are synthetic judgements a priori possible? That metaphysics has until now remained in such a vacillating state of uncertainty and contradictions is to be ascribed solely to the cause that no one has previously thought of this problem….On the solution of this problem…metaphysics now stands or falls.’[1] So, this is a question that is of crucial importance to metaphysics which supposedly involves synthetic a priori cognition. This essay will first outline Kant’s argument for the synthetic a priori judgment and then, in order to assess its significance, consider it against a brief outline of the main issues in the philosophical debates of Kant’s time which he attempted to counter in the Critique.

Kant was writing during the period of the Enlightenment, when there was a move to replace ‘the premodern acceptance of unjustified authority with the modern demand for rational justification’.[2] In keeping with the times, Kant accordingly ‘promised to supplant inherited dogmatism with a truly modern philosophy that would establish and secure the limits of rational cognition and action’.[3]   In the Critique Kant formulated the concept of the synthetic a priori judgment whichplayed a crucial part in fulfilling this promise. It led to a new school of thought that moved away from the view of the sources of knowledge shared by rationalism and empiricism as embodied in the work of Leibniz and Hume;[4] and in the Critique Kant showed how metaphysics was possible.[5] This is where his concept of the synthetic a priori judgement came into play.

Kant acknowledges in the preface of the Critique that ‘the peculiar instability of metaphysics stands in stark contrast to the security of mathematics and natural sciences.’[6] Kant’s solution to the problem was by means of what he called his Copernican Revolution. His Copernican Revolution was about reversing the externalist conception of truth,[7] according to which, ‘truth consists in the conformity of concepts with objects, in the correspondence of our representations with things that exist independent of them’.[8] This conception of truth ‘aids scepticism because it is impossible to get outside our representations to see if they conform to an object in itself.’[9] Kant’s proposal is that objects must conform to our concepts because the structure of experience is determined by our perceptions conforming with certain universal and necessary concepts which are held prior to experience.[10]

Kant, in the Critique, is trying to prove that not all insights rely on sense experiences, and he is also trying to identify what metaphysics is and how it can be possible. Kant starts by affirming, in agreement with empiricism, that ‘all our knowledge begins with experience,’[11] but states that ‘though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience’.[12] Therefore, knowledge which does not arise from experience must be a priori. In doing this, Kant clarifies the distinction between a priori knowledge, and empirical knowledge which is a posteriori knowledge. Kant makes this distinction by explaining that a priori knowledge is ‘independent of all experience, and even of all impressions of the senses’,[13] and conversely, that a posteriori knowledge finds its sources in experience.[14] In doing this, Kant has made a distinction between knowledge ‘that occur[s] absolutely independently of all experience,’[15] and that which derives from experience. This is not a distinction that is made about the acquisition of cognitions but is one that determines ‘their validity status,’[16] i.e. ‘whether the cognitions in questions are valid on empirical grounds or valid on other, non-empirical grounds that are yet to be specified’.[17]

In order ‘to determine whether we have a priori knowledge, Kant proposes two criteria: a judgement is a priori if it is necessary, or if it has what he calls ‘strict universality’.[18] What is meant by strict universality in terms of a judgement is that it has no exception to what it predicates of its objects.[19] Necessity is important for a priority as this is not a criterion for experience, in that Kant claims that experience can show that a ‘thing is so and so, but not that it cannot be otherwise.’[20] So, if something is necessary and strictly universal, it cannot be otherwise. Two areas of knowledge which can be shown to be a priori areas of knowledge are mathematics and logic.[21] This can be proved by our concepts of numbers. When trying to count, we do not collect samples of things which are then used to draw a tentative empirical conclusion.[22] Instead, we seem to have a concept of numbers which is independent of all experience[23], which therefore must be a priori knowledge.

Kant makes a second philosophical distinction between two kinds of judgements, synthetic and analytic judgements. This presents ‘the general problem of metaphysical knowledge’ as not being about ‘the mode of origin but the content of cognitions’.[24] Analytic statements refer to cognitions in which the predicate term contains only what is already contained in the subject term.[25] Synthetic statements refer to cognitions in which the predicate term adds to what is not already contained in the subject term.[26] This distinction is important because Kant determines that ‘judgements are either merely analytic or completely synthetic.[27]

Through the differentiation between a priori and a posteriori judgements and synthetic and analytic judgments, Kant has generated three possible forms of judgements which aim at addressing an array of claims of knowledge.[28] These three possible forms of judgment are analytic a priori judgements, synthetic a posteriori judgements, and synthetic a priori judgements. Analytic judgements can be validated a priori as the predicate is included in the subject, meaning that the predicates partial identity is included in the subject.[29] Synthetic judgements can be validated              a posteriori through experience, or ‘they are a priori and valid – as well as known to be valid – independently of experience.’[30]

Kant states that there are two stems of human cognition, which are sensibility and understanding.[31] When considering the synthetic a priori, sensibility is of optimal importance. This is because, for Kant, ‘sensibility both extends our cognition, allowing us to go beyond mere concepts to synthetic a priori cognition, and constrains our synthetic a priori cognition to objects of possible experience.’[32] The human mind is capable of confusing representations of things and rendering them to be representations of sensibility.[33] Hence why Kant claims that metaphysical disputes can be avoided through keeping the sources of our concepts straight.[34]

In proving that synthetic a priori judgements are possible, Kant has proved how it ‘is possible to have substantive, non-trivial knowledge of the nature of reality independent of experience reality’.[35] Ultimately, then, proving how metaphysics can be possible. The important tie between synthetic a priori judgments and metaphysics, is that ‘metaphysical cognitions can be described as claims to objective reference that find their logical expression in synthetic judgements a priori or judgements that claim to enlarge the cognition of objects independently of experience’.[36]

To fully understand the significance of the synthetic a priori, the philosophical background to Kant’s time must be understood. As previously stated, Kant was writing the Critique during the Enlightenment. There were two main philosophical schools which were in conflict, and these were rationalism and empiricism.[37] Hume, one of the main empiricists of his day, had a huge effect on Kant and a fair part of the Critique is a reaction against Hume’s philosophical scepticism. Hume distinguishes between impressions and ideas. Impressions are ‘the direct results of sensory experience,’[38] whilst ideas are ‘copies of impressions’.[39] Hume further contended that ‘all ideas come from impressions, either directly or as the result of mental activities that manipulate impressions to form new ideas’.[40] Hume then makes a further distinction, that between ideas, and matter of fact, which are truths about the world which we can only know through sensory experience.[41] For Hume, matters of facts and ideas are the only types of possible objects of knowledge.[42] Hume’s insistence that matters of fact must be traced back to impressions makes the concept of God, the self and causality impossible.[43] This was in stark contrast to the rationalist thinkers at the time, who, wary of experience, attempted to use reason alone to understand the truths of the world.[44] In this way, the proving of the synthetic a priori, brings concepts from these two schools of thought together, to further the possibility of human reason and metaphysics.

Allias claims that Kant, by proving how metaphysics can be possible, has also shown how human freedom is possible, in particular, metaphysical human freedom.[45] This is because ‘Kant thinks that the way we think about ourselves as moral agents, and our recognition of moral reasons, requires that we have freedom in a strong sense.’[46] This is revolutionary in terms of philosophical thought, as it is a move away from the cause-effect thinking of empiricism. Freedom is not compatible with the thought process that everything in space and time happens due to a cause and effect of previous states of the universe and ultimately in line with the laws of nature.[47] Kant thinks that this previous way of thinking threatens human freedom.[48] However, Kant does acknowledge that to have knowledge of causal capacity of the world, and in any capacity, is transcendent, and ultimately beyond our realms of experience.[49] But, in saying this, Kant thinks that through metaphysics, and the metaphysics we have to make sense of science, human freedom cannot be completely ruled out.[50] In this way, since it cannot be proved to not be the case, and since humans have such a strong sense of moral freedom, it is a strong enough argument to believe that we do have moral freedom, according to Kant.[51]

In conclusion, the significance of the synthetic a priori judgment is that, whilst proving that metaphysics is possible, it also lays out the limits to what the human mind can know. Metaphysics cannot give us ‘the knowledge of mind-independent reality,’[52] but instead can only give us ‘a limiting structure of human cognition’.[53] This is significant to the world of philosophy, as Kant claims that now we know the limit to our knowledge, we can stop theorising about transcendent metaphysical claims of which we can never know.[54]

 

Bibliography

 

  • Allais, Lucy, ‘Transcendental Idealism’, in The Kantian Catastrophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, ed. by Anthony Morgan, (Newcastle: Bigg Books, 2017)
  • Beiser, Patrick, ‘The Enlightenment and idealism’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism, ed. by Karl Ameriks, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Carson, Emily, ‘Sensibility: space and time, transcendental idealism’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011)
  • Dudley, Will, Understanding German Idealism, (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2007)
  • Dudley, Will and Kristina Engelhard, ‘Introduction,’ in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011)
  • Gardner, Sebastian, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, (London: Routledge, 1999)
  • Heidemann, Dietmar, ‘Understanding: judgements, categories, schemata, principles’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011)
  • Kant, Immanuel, Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. and tr. by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Kemp Smith, Norman, Understanding: judgements, categories, schemata, principles’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011)
  • Kemp Smith, Norman, A Commentary to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., (London and Basingstoke:  The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1923)
  • Zöller, Günter, ‘Critique: knowledge, metaphysics’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011)

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. and tr. by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), B 19. (Henceforth abbreviated CPR).

[2] Will Dudley, Understanding German Idealism, (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2007), p. 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sebastian Gardner, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 51-52.

[5] Lucy Allais, ‘Transcendental Idealism’, in The Kantian Catastrophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, ed. by Anthony Morgan, (Newcastle: Bigg Books, 2017), p. 33.

[6] Sebastian Gardner, p. 1.

[7] CPR Bxvi-xvii.

[8] Patrick Beiser, ‘The Enlightenment and idealism’, in The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism, ed. by Karl Ameriks, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 27.

[9] Ibid., p. 23.

[10] Ibid.

[11] CPR, A 1

[12] CPR, A 1

[13] CPR, B 2

[14] CPR, B 2

[15] CPR B 2-3

[16] Günter Zöller, ‘Critique: knowledge, metaphysics’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011), p. 19.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Sebastian Gardner, p. 53.

[19] Ibid.

[20] CPR, B3, A1.

[21] Lucy Allais, ‘Transcendental Idealism’, in The Kantian Catastrophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, ed. by Anthony Morgan, (Newcaslte: Bigg Books), 2017, p. 35.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Günter Zöller, ‘Critique: knowledge, metaphysics’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited), 2011, p. 19.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Norman Kemp Smith, A Commentary to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., (London and Basingstoke:  The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1923), p. 42.

[28] Günter Zöller, p. 20.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] CPR, A16/B30.

[32] Emily Carson, ‘Sensibility: space and time, transcendental idealism’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011), p. 28

[33] Dietmar Heidemann, ‘Understanding: judgements, categories, schemata, principles’, in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011), p. 46

[34] Emily Carson, p. 28.

[35] Lucy Allais, p. 36.

[36] Günter Zöller, p. 20.

[37] Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, ‘Introduction,’ in Immanuel Kant: Key Concepts, ed. by Will Dudley and Kristina Engelhard, (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2011), p. 2.

[38] Will Dudley, Understanding German Idealism, (Stocksfield: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2007), p. 4.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid. p. 5.

[44] Ibid., p.4.

[45] Lucy Allias, p. 44.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., pp. 44-45.

[49] Ibid, p. 45.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid, p. 46.

[52] Lucy Allais, p. 43.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.


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