Against the a priori knowledge of non-trivial truths

Dissertation, University of Kwazulu-Natal (2016)
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This is a thesis in support of the conceptual yoking of analytic truth to a priori knowledge. My approach is a semantic one; the primary subject matter throughout the thesis is linguistic objects, such as propositions or sentences. I evaluate arguments, and also forward my own, about how such linguistic objects’ truth is determined, how their meaning is fixed and how we, respectively, know the conditions under which their truth and meaning are obtained. The strategy is to make explicit what is distinctive about analytic truths. The objective is to show that truths, known a priori, are trivial in a highly circumscribed way. My arguments are premised on a language-relative account of analytic truth. The language relative account which underwrites much of what I do has two central tenets: 1. Conventionalism about truth and, 2. Non-factualism about meaning. I argue that one decisive way of establishing conventionalism and non-factualism is to prioritise epistemological questions. Once it is established that some truths are not known empirically an account of truth must follow which precludes factual truths being known non-empirically. The function of Part 1 is, chiefly, to render Carnap’s language-relative account of analytic truth. I do not offer arguments in support of Carnap at this stage, but throughout Parts 2 and 3, by looking at more current literature on a priori knowledge and analytic truth, it becomes quickly evident that I take Carnap to be correct, and why. In order to illustrate the extent to which Carnap’s account is conventionalist and non-factualist I pose his arguments against those of his predecessors, Kant and Frege. Part 1 is a lightly retrospective background to the concepts of ‘analytic’ and ‘a priori’. The strategy therein is more mercenary than exegetical: I select the parts from Kant and Frege most relevant to Carnap’s eventual reaction to them. Hereby I give the reasons why Carnap foregoes a factual and objective basis for logical truth. The upshot of this is an account of analytic truth (i.e. logical truth, to him) which ensures its trivial nature. In opposition to accounts of a priori knowledge, which describe it as knowledge gained from rational apprehension, I argue that it is either knowledge from logical deduction or knowledge of stipulations. I therefore reject, in Part 2, three epistemologies for knowing linguistic conventions (e.g. implicit definitions): 1. intuition, 2. inferential a priori knowledge and, 3. a posteriori knowledge. At base, all three epistemologies are rejected because they are incompatible with conventionalism and non-factualism. I argue this point by signalling that such accounts of knowledge yield unsubstantiated second-order claims and/or they render the relevant linguistic conventions epistemically arrogant. For a convention to be arrogant it must be stipulated to be true. The stipulation is then considered arrogant when its meaning cannot be fixed, and its truth cannot be determined without empirical ‘work’. Once a working explication of ‘a priori’ has been given, partially in Part 1 (as inferential) and then in Part 2 (as non-inferential) I look, in Part 3, at an apriorist account of analytic truth, which, I argue, renders analytic truth non-trivial. The particular subject matter here is the implicit definitions of logical terms. The opposition’s argument holds that logical truths are known a priori (this is part of their identification criteria) and that their meaning is factually based. From here it follows that analytic truth, being determined by factually based meaning, is also factual. I oppose these arguments by exposing the internal inconsistencies; that implicit definition is premised on the arbitrary stipulation of truth which is inconsistent with saying that there are facts which determine the same truth. In doing so, I endorse the standard irrealist position about implicit definition and analytic truth (along with the “early friends of implicit definition” such as Wittgenstein and Carnap). What is it that I am trying to get at by doing all of the abovementioned? Here is a very abstracted explanation. The unmitigated realism of the rationalists of old, e.g. Plato, Descartes, Kant, have stoically borne the brunt of the allegation of yielding ‘synthetic a priori’ claims. The anti-rationalist phase of this accusation I am most interested in is that forwarded by the semantically driven empiricism of the early 20th century. It is here that the charge of the ‘synthetic a priori’ really takes hold. Since then new methods and accusatory terms are employed by, chiefly, non-realist positions. I plan to give these proper attention in due course. However, it seems to me that the reframing of the debate in these new terms has also created the illusion that current philosophical realism, whether naturalistic realism, realism in science, realism in logic and mathematics, is somehow not guilty of the same epistemological and semantic charges levelled against Plato, Descartes and Kant. It is of interest to me that in, particularly, current analytic philosophy1 (given its rationale) realism in many areas seems to escape the accusation of yielding synthetic priori claims. Yet yielding synthetic a priori claims is something which realism so easily falls prey to. Perhaps this is a function of the fact that the phrase, ‘synthetic a priori’, used as an allegation, is now outmoded. This thesis is nothing other than an indictment of metaphysics, or speculative philosophy (this being the crime), brought against a specific selection of realist arguments. I, therefore, ask of my reader to see my explicit, and perhaps outmoded, charge of the ‘synthetic a priori’ levelled against respective theorists as an attempt to draw a direct comparison with the speculative metaphysics so many analytic philosophers now love to hate. I think the phrase ‘synthetic a priori’ still does a lot of work in this regard, precisely because so many current theorists wrongly think they are immune to this charge. Consequently, I shall say much about what is not permitted. Such is, I suppose, the nature of arguing ‘against’ something. I’ll argue that it is not permitted to be a factualist about logical principles and say that they are known a priori. I’ll argue that it is not permitted to say linguistic conventions are a posteriori, when there is a complete failure in locating such a posteriori conventions. Both such philosophical claims are candidates for the synthetic a priori, for unmitigated rationalism. But on the positive side, we now have these two assets: Firstly, I do not ask us to abandon any of the linguistic practises discussed; merely to adopt the correct attitude towards them. For instance, where we use the laws of logic, let us remember that there are no known/knowable facts about logic. These laws are therefore, to the best of our knowledge, conventions not dissimilar to the rules of a game. And, secondly, once we pass sentence on knowing, a priori, anything but trivial truths we shall have at our disposal the sharpest of philosophical tools. A tool which can only proffer a better brand of empiricism.

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