[hist-analytic] Frrom AUNE: Analytic and A Priori

Danny Frederick danny.frederick at tiscali.co.uk
Thu Mar 19 11:43:11 EDT 2009

Hi Bruce and Steve,

I think I understood your point. My point was that what is relevant to the a
priori/a posteriori distinction is whether our knowledge of the truth of a
proposition depends upon experience; and that for the rationalists and Kant,
pure thinking was not an experience because, for them, 'experience' referred
to sense-experiences, which thinking is not. There are differences here
between the rationalists and Kant because, for the latter, any thinking
which occurs in time belongs to inner sense and is thus empirical. But the
rationalists, I think, were quite happy with the notion of non-empirical
thinking about instances of thinking. Thus on the rationalist view 'I think'
would be a priori even though contingent; and construed transcendentally, it
is a priori also on Kant's view (though Kant seems to want to regard it as
analytic - that, at least, is how he labels the 'synthetic unity of

I need to produce some quotations to defend what I am saying here. That
would be a bit of a job. I have made a scrappy start of it, but what I have
turned up so far is by no means clear-cut.

For Descartes, a priori truths, which he calls 'innate,' are laid down in
our minds and can be discovered by us if we direct our attention to them, or
conduct our thinking properly: 

'The mathematical truths which you call eternal have been laid down by
God___There is no single one that we cannot understand if our mind turns to
consider it. They are all INBORN IN OUR MINDS' (Letter to Mersenne, 15 April
1630, in 'Philosophical Letters,' translated by Anthony Kenny, p.11).

Thus, a priori knowledge is discoverable by (temporal) thinking which is
independent of sense-impressions. So far you would not object (I presume).
But since for Descartes, 'I think' is the (or one of the) foundations of all
a priori knowledge, it SEEMS it should be a priori too.

The following, from Kant's First Critique, seems to translate my reading of
(some of) the rationalists into Kant's own terms:

'The RATIONAL [non-empirical] doctrine of the soul___professes to be a
science built upon a single proposition 'I THINK' ___The reader must not
object that this proposition, which expresses the perception of the self,
contains an inner experience, and that the rational doctrine of the soul
founded upon it is never pure and is therefore to that extent based upon an
empirical principle. For this inner perception is nothing more than a mere
apperception 'I THINK,' by which even transcendental concepts are made
possible___The least object of perception (for example, even pleasure or
displeasure), if added to the universal representation of
self-consciousness, would at once transform rational psychology into
empirical psychology' (A342-343, Kemp Smith translation).

Leibniz seems to want it both ways, with 'I exist' being both innate
(Leibniz's word for a priori) and based on experience:

'the proposition I EXIST is evident in the highest degree___[but] it is a
proposition of fact, founded on immediate experience___But if you take
axioms, in a more general manner, to be immediate or non-provable truths,
then the proposition I AM can be called an axiom___it may never have
occurred to a man to form this proposition explicitly, even though it is
innate in him' ('New Essays,' 411, Remnant and Bennett translation).

My conclusion is that the situation is unclear, so it is no wonder we



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