Thursday, October 20, 2011


Kant’s Synthesis 

‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.’

With this thought, Kant attempts to bring together the apparently opposed ideas of empiricism and rationalism. He synthesises their views in the claim that empiricism was right to say that experience, in the form of sensory perception (intuitions to Kant) is essential to knowledge, but the rationalists were right to say that the mind’s ‘rational’ structures make our understanding of those sensory perceptions possible by imposing the (‘pure intuitions’ of time and space and the ‘categories’ of: 

quantity: (unity, plurality and totality); 

quality: (reality, negation, limitation); 

relation: (inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, and repriocity): 
modality: (possibility and impossibility, existence and nonexistence, and necessity and contingency) 

Without these organising structures experience itself would not be possible. We are so built, he thinks, that we have to experience the world outside ourselves as spatial and temporal (flowing through time) not because the outer world is spatial and temporal, but because we impose spatiality and temporality on the 'intuitions' we have of it.

Copernican Turn
It is in this sense that Kant’s philosophy represents a ‘Copernican turn’, rather than the world somehow imposing understanding of itself on our minds, our minds impose our understanding on the world - our minds give the the world the form we perceive it as having.
However, according to Kant, it is not the actual world 'in itself' that we perceive, this is beyond our perception; what we experience is the world of 'phenomena', the underlying reality behind the world we experience the world of 'noumena' is forever hidden to us. 

Kant’s Synthetic a Priori
Kant believed that claims about the world could be both 'synthetic' in that they could tell us something about the world that isn't contained in their own terms, and 'a priori' because they can be known independent of experience of the world. 

This is a response to Hume who had denied such a possibility. 'Hume's fork' (see previous entry) made a strict separation between synthetic propositions, which for him could only be known 'a posteriori' and 'analytic' propositions which could be known a priori, but told us nothing about the world that was not already contained in their terms. 

To understand this we have to look at the way the sentences we use to make propositions and claims about the world work. Sentences consist of subjects (the thing the sentence is about) and predicates (the words that say something about the subject). So, the sentence ‘Some frogs are green’ has ‘Some frogs’ as its subject and ‘are green’ as its predicate. 

Both Kant and Hume thought that 'analytic' statements are those in which the subject contains the predicate and consequently they don't add any information about the world: an example of this would be the sentence ‘green frogs are green’, or to push it a little further, 'kangaroos are animals', because we could claim that the concept of 'kangaroo' contains the concept of 'animal', so if we already have the concept of 'kangaroo' we already have the concept of 'animal' and we know this independent of (further) experience', we know it 'a priori'. 
On the other hand the predicates of 'synthetic' statements are not contained in the subject, so they do give us additional information about the world; for example ‘This frog is green’ or 'this kangaroo has a stamp collection.'
But Kant thought that statements like '7 + 5 = 12' were both 'synthetic' and 'a priori', in fact he thought that 'Mathematical judgments are all, without exception, synthetic.' For Kant, there is nothing contained in the concept of '7' and '5'  that makes the knowledge that adding them together will result in '12' immediately obvious or ineluctable. What he was getting at is perhaps easier to see if we consider larger numbers like for example, 38976 and 45204; their sum 84180 certainly does leap out at me, but I'm v. poor at maths. I think this gives an inkling of what Kant meant, but an awful lot of reading is really required to work your way into his idea. 

Kant also thought that science could come up with synthetic a priori statements. He claimed that the statement, 'In all changes in the physical world the quantity of matter remains unchanged.' was such an example; he said;
Now, in  thinking the concept of matter I do not think its permanence but only its presence in the space that it fills. Thinking that matter is permanent isn’t like thinking that women are female, or that tigers are animals. In judging that matter is permanent, therefore, I go beyond the concept of matter in order to add to it something that I didn’t think in it. So the proposition isn’t analytic but synthetic; yet it is thought a priori. He also claimed that the statement, 'When one body collides with another, action and reaction must always be equal' was synthetic and a priori. 

Again it is not obvious (not to most mortals anyway) exactly what he meant, but if we consider his ideas about the 'categories': how we experience the world in the way we do because time, space and cause and effect are built in to the way our minds are set up to experience the world, then we begin to see how we might know 'a priori' the stuff above about action and reaction, and such 'knowledge' certainly seems to add to our information about the world and is therefore 'synthetic'. Hume, of course denied that ideas about cause and effect, action and reaction etc. were anything other than the product of experience and as such, although synthetic, could only be known 'a posteriori'.
Causation is another example of synthetic a priori knowledge Kant claims that ‘Every event has a cause’ can be known a priori and is synthetic because it tells you something that isn’t contained in the terms: event is not synonymous with cause - depends how you think about it really!?:/ 

So, I hope that's clear, now. Another Saturday afternoon bites the dust of metaphysical speculation. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Descartes Essay Planning Kit!

Here are the bits and pieces I promised you. They are deliberately not a coherent plan, but could be made into one. If you click on them you get a bigger version. I'm trying to encourage independence! :)

Don't forget the podcasts - links on the facebook group, and of course the AQA textbook, the 'Lacewing' and my marvellous post (below) on this very blog.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Descartes v Locke: An Epistemological Wrestling Match

Descartesʼ attempts to ground an epistemology are, for
him, successful as any knowledge that builds on the certainty
of the ʻcogitoʼ can be considered as foundational.
Having established beyond any scepticism the certainty of
his existence as a thinking thing, Descartes can claim epistemological grounds for his subsequent ideas about the nature of the physical world that he perceives through his senses, but knows and understands through his faculty of

However, Descartes claims rest on his ‘innate idea’ of a perfect God, that would not allow him to be deceived all the time; without this God, he can only claim with certainty that he is thinking; he cannot make any claim about the truth or certainty of the content of any of his thoughts unless he can establish the ‘fact’ that he is not being deceived by an evil demon. And he can only do that through his ‘innate’ idea of God. 

So, when John Locke, some 50 years later, rejects the possibility of innate ideas he is clearly attacking Descartesʼ claim that he has ‘grounded’ or proved the validity of his knowledge of the world (his epistemology)  For Locke the mind is a
blank slate - a tabula rasa, and all the ideas, all the knowledge that we come to possess comes to us through our senses.

This dispute sets up a philosophical debate that has, in various forms, rumbled on into contemporary philosophy. The argument can be summed up in basic terms as a dispute about how the kinds of things that seem to go on inside our heads relate to the kinds of things that seem to go on outside our heads. Does our ‘knowledge’ represent the world accurately? Is the world really how we think it is? 

Go here for philosophical hilarity!! :) 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Descartes & the Wax etc.

Below is a revised, redrafted and extended (hurrah! they cry) version of the various notes I have blogged on Descartes and the wax business in the last couple of years. It's got quite long and I possibly repeat myself a little, but it has been useful to me to re-read and re-write it, so I hope it will help you.

Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ are an attempt to find the foundations of objective (certain, unchanging and universal) knowledge. Descartes believes that if he can find an ‘Archimedian point’ - just one thing about which there can be no doubt then he will be able to ‘ground’ all his other ideas. It is an attempt to construct a complete epistemology - a theory of knowledge - by building, piece by piece (brick by brick) on his foundation - his point of certainty the cogito. (I think therefore I am)

Believing he has found his one point of certainty - that he exists as a ‘thinking thing’ Descartes tries to work out the status and validity of the various thoughts and ideas that this ‘thinking thing’ has. In other words, now he's certain that he is thinking thoughts, he needs to know if the thoughts have any meaning or connection to the person he thought he was and the world he thought he lived in, before he started doubting everything! 

His problem is that most of his ideas seem to come through his senses and he has already shown these to be unreliable and deceptive.

He decides that this thinking thing is ‘a thing that doubts, perceives, affirms, denies, wills, does not will, that imagines also and which feels.’ The less these activities of the mind have to do with the physical world the more Descartes thinks he can rely on them. Therefore the imagination, which seems to build its ideas from perceptions of the physical world, is less trustworthy than, for example, the act of doubting, (Remember Descartes prefers geometry to geography for similar reasons.)

In his Second Meditation, having pushed his scepticism, his 'method of doubt', through various arguments concerning illusion and dreams and on to the point of considering that a malignant demon might be feeding him illusions about the world, Descartes, finally arrives at his point of certainty, 'I am, I exist', he claims, and goes on to say that this 'must be true whenever I assert it or think it.To be thinking the thought of one's existence is, in itself, proof of that existence, he says.

Although Descartes is now certain of his existence as a mental entity he is still in doubt about the thoughts and ideas that he has as a thinking thing. (where do they come from? how trustworthy are they? are some more trustworthy than others?) He thinks again about the ideas that seem to come to him through the senses and begins to reconsider the physical world and the way he perceives it in order to understand how it is that he can be certain about his mental existence, but in doubt about the physical world.

In a famous passage he considers the way his senses give him perceptions of a piece of wax, and how those perceptions are utterly different and distinct depending on whether the wax is hard or melted. He concludes that although we normally understand our senses as providing us with understanding - to 'see' something is to understand it - the example of the wax shows Descartes that 'Something that I thought I saw with my eyes ... was really grasped solely by my mind’s faculty of judgment.

Descartes discussion of the wax is central to understanding his notion of what it is to be a human being. It is his ability to conceive of (have a concept of) the wax - grasp its essence - that, for him, demonstrates the power of rational thought. He concludes that because the information given to him by his senses about the wax is insufficient to allow him to know that the wax remains the same thing after it changes all its 'sensible qualities', it must therefore be his 'reason', his faculty of judgement, that gives him knowledge of the wax. It is as if through the power of rational thought the sum of his understanding is greater than the understanding his senses alone could provide. This 'added power' provided by ‘reason’ is the underlying principle of Rationalist philosophy.

Descartes believes that knowledge of the external world is gained through the mind’s understanding (judgement) of the information we receive through the senses. The faculty of judgement is a mental capacity (ability) that brings together the ‘raw’ and potentially incoherent information of the senses and allows us to understand.  This makes him a rationalist as opposed to an empiricist

For Descartes, this wax business confirms his belief that, he can know his internal world - his mental processes - better and more certainly than he can the external physical world. And more than this his 'mind' has a quality that his body does not: he can be certain of its existence, but he cannot be certain of the existence of his body, therefore he concludes that mind and body must be two different kinds of 'substance', namely 'mental' and 'physical'. This idea of the separation and the difference of the two ‘stuffs’ or substance, makes clear his dualism’ - his Cartesian dualism!

Monday, October 3, 2011

I thought I'd better get this going as a kind of 'Samaritans' service for the philosophically desperate. You have had to take on board a lot of very new and very confusing ideas and I don't want anyone to despair on their own.

I have described the first few weeks of the AS Philosophy course as a bit like being handed several bits of a jigsaw puzzle for which you have no picture. (And they're all bits of sky! - if you've never done a jigsaw you'll have no idea what I'm talking about.) But soon, you will see the picture and begin to be able to put the pieces in place! Hurrah, Hurrah you'll cry! :)  You've all done very well so far, in fact it's been a 'very promising' start.