[hist-analytic] sticks, circles and the contingent a priori

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Tue Jun 1 08:52:53 EDT 2010


Nice to hear from you! You say: 

"Of course, we will not know how long (in inches or feet) that length is unless we have knowledge of what stick the term refers to and are able to measure it (in inches or feet). But we can nevertheless" 

Inches and feet simply raise the problem in a different form: what is one 'foot' or 
what is 'one inch'? And is my knowledge of them, a priori as well. 
A new standard has to be introduced in each case and the same problems arise. 

So it is a case of the left hand giving the right hand money to say: "Well, we know the 
length in inches, a posteriori, but we know the length in meters a priori!" Bruce misses the main point : the difference between the status of 'this angle is one degree' and 'this stick is one meter'. The notion of a degree is 'fixed'; the notion of a meter becomes fixed by stipulation; it is a variable notion in a way 'degree' certainly is not. My knowledge of the reference of 'degree' is, therefore, different from that of our "knowledge" that a stick is a 'meter'. 

Anscomber and Wittgenstein made the claim that where you can't go wrong you can't talk about "knowledge." "Knowledge" implies the possibility of error. This does not necessarily rule out a priori knowledge but it does rule out describing our belief that this stick is one meter as *knowledge*, where it is the standard meter stick. The latter (the 'meter' case) is simply stipulation; not so in the case of 'degree'. This stipulative character introduces the property of being a posteriori. In the context of this "language game" I cannot, as Wittgenstein rightly asserts, ask for the length of this stick without begging the question or speaking nonsense. One cannot rely on inches and feet as Bruce and Kripke do, simply because length requires a metric that is not determined by the laws of arithmetic as is the degree of an angle. And here I am emphasizing the asymmetry of the two cases. 

An admittedly somewhat perverse analogy may shed some light: my mother didn't know my name was 'Steven' before she named me. She did not come to know my name as a result of dubbing; nor do we come to know the length of that stick in Paris by dubbing it's length 'one meter'. Now we're back to the inches, feet approach which as I noted is question begging. 

In the book, the objection to Kripke is largely a matter of his equivocation in explaining what Wittgenstein and others were saying. Moreover, neo-Kantians such as Reichenbach anticipated the central claim: a contingent a priori without the mistakes that accrue to a misuse of the theory of rigid designation. 



----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Bruce Aune" <aune at philos.umass.edu> 
To: Baynesr at comcast.net 
Cc: hist-analytic at simplelists.com 
Sent: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 5:49:44 AM GMT -06:00 US/Canada Central 
Subject: Re: sticks, circles and the contingent a priori 

Steve says, " It is not a priori that the meter stick is the length it is." But he is trivially wrong about this, and the considerations he offers do not support this claim. If the claim is meaningful, "the meter stick" has a referent, a certain stick, and that stick has the length it possesses. It might have had a different length, all right, but this only means that its having the particular length it has is a contingent matter. But assuming the meaningfulness of Steve's claim (and the fact that "the meter stick" refers to a certain stick) we can know a priori that that stick has the length it has, whatever that length may be. Of course, we will not know how long (in inches or feet) that length is unless we have knowledge of what stick the term refers to and are able to measure it (in inches or feet). But we can nevertheless know a priori that the length in meters of the meter stick = 1, as Kripke claimed. The point is a little subtle, but its sound as a dollar (as people used to say). 

Bruce Aune 
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