Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mea culpa, mea methodologica culpa

In my post the other day, I made an interesting slip (if that's how you want to think of it): I suggested that Putnam's claim that analyticity and a priority come apart (so that the first four sections of "Two Dogmas" can be detached from the last two) might be of some use to defenders of analyticity. They might want to argue, I thought, that if your target (qua "metaphysics") is really the a priori/a posteriori distinction, then it might be better not to identify it with the analytic/synthetic one (and get rid of them at the same time), but to distinguish the two, so that we might not simply keep around the presumably now unoffensive (qua non-metaphysical, once so distinguished) notion of analyticity, but also employ it (for the project of linguistic analysis) to combat more metaphysical notions (like the a priori).

But (as I noted in a subsequent comment) that just assumes that the defenders of analyticity might see the a priori as unacceptably metaphysical where analyticity is not. As it turns out, Hacker at least does not. I'll get to all that in a minute. Let me first give a quick and dirty characterization of four similar concepts, not worrying for the moment about whether any one of them can be collapsed into any of the others, or whether there really are any such things.

1. Tautologies are "truths of logic": P or not-P (in classical logic).

2. Analytic sentences are "truths (by virtue) of meaning": That bachelor over there is unmarried.

3. Truths are known a priori when we don't have to go out and look, but can confirm them from the proverbial armchair.

4. Truths are necessary when it is impossible for them to be false (they're "true in all possible worlds").

If you like these concepts, you can supply your own examples for the last two. (The SEP article on "A Priori Justification and Knowledge" has as an example of a necessary proposition this one: "all brothers are male," which is not one I would have chosen if I were trying to distinguish necessity from analyticity). Anyways, my point is that however the categories do or do not overlap, the characterization of each has its own typical angle: tautologies have to do with logic, analyticity with meaning, a priority with knowledge (and justification), necessity with ontology (or modality, or in any case metaphysics).

A lot of us want, in some sense or other, to rule out "metaphysics" as nonsense, e.g. a) Ryle, Hacker, etc.; b) Wittgenstein (early and late, on most interpretations); and c) some but not all naturalists. So necessity (or, redundantly, "metaphysical necessity") looks fishy to us. But (as I started to talk about before) in order to combat metaphysics (including but not limited to "necessity"), some of us think we need to hold on to analyticity – a concept which deals, the thought goes, not with the world (i.e., on the other side, qua the object of a "metaphysical" statement, of the "bounds of sense"), but with meaning (which is safely on "this" side). Or so I read Grice & Strawson (I'm trying not to make a straw man here!). For G & S, then, analyticity is both unobjectionable and necessary uh, required for the project of finally exorcising our metaphysical demons. (I assume, if perhaps I shouldn't, that no one has a problem with (the very idea of) tautologies.)

Where does that leave the a priori? If we assimilate it to necessity (on the one side), then it's a metaphysical notion, worthy of dismissal; and if analyticity is the "least metaphysical" of the three (on this quick and dirty characterization), then if Quine's attack on analyticity goes through, it seems that a fortiori (so to speak) the others go as well. But for "analysis" to be possible, G & S believe, there need to be such things as "analytic" truths. So again, my off-the-cuff suggestion was that if we drew the line between analyticity (needed for the method of "analysis") and the a priori, we could use the former to dismiss the latter (along with the more overtly metaphysical notion of necessity).

But Hacker at least is clear that he does not want to do this. For Hacker, the a priori is the central concept he wants to defend: not as a possibly unacceptably metaphysical subject (i.e. object) of philosophical speculation, but as its constitutive method. It is this and this alone which distinguishes philosophy from empirical inquiry. I should have realized this, as the notion is (as in the SEP article) characteristically applied to the manner in which knowledge is acquired rather than its (semantic) form or (ontological) object, and the main contention of the "conceptual analysis" folks is that, again, philosophy is a matter of the clarification of our concepts as specifically opposed to empirical inquiry; so of course they want to defend the a priori as well as analyticity. (My excuse is that I didn't want to assume the naturalist characterization of the a priori (i.e. as hopelessly unempirical) from the beginning, even, or perhaps especially, because I too am not too keen on the notion, if for somewhat different reasons.)

For a interesting account of Hacker's attitude toward Quine, I recommend his paper "Passing By the Naturalistic Turn: On Quine's Cul-de-sac" (available on his website). The main target is Quine's "naturalized epistemology" (so some of what Hacker says is perfectly congenial), and in attacking it Hacker commits himself hook, line, and sinker wholeheartedly to a full-on Manichean dualism of pure a priori conceptual analysis, on the one hand, and not-at-all-philosophical empirical inquiry on the other. Picking up Quine's gauntlet, he begins:
There has been a naturalistic turn away from the a priori methods of traditional philosophy to a conception of philosophy as continuous with natural science.
and ends:
This imaginary science [naturalized epistemology] is no substitute for epistemology – it is a philosophical cul-de-sac. It could shed no light on the nature of knowledge, its possible extent, its categorially distinct kinds, its relation to belief and justification, and its forms of certainty. [...] For philosophy is neither continuous with existing science, nor continuous with an imaginary future science. Whatever the post-Quinean status of analyticity may be, the status of philosophy as an a priori conceptual discipline concerned with the elucidation of our conceptual scheme and the resolution of conceptual confusions is in no way affected by Quine's philosophy.
Snap! That last sentence answers our (my) question about priorities (no pun intended) pretty clearly, I'd say. Let's come back to this article; it's got a nice mix of right and wrong, uh, agreement and disagreement between Hacker and me (and Quine with both of us).


N. N. said...

I've just given Hacker's article a quick read. Aside from a possible disagreement over how best to characterize grammatical 'propositions' (i.e., are they analytic), I am (tentatively) in general agreement with Hacker's position. I'll give it a closer read after reading your comments.

Where does that leave the a priori? If we assimilate it to necessity (on the one side), then it's a metaphysical notion, worthy of dismissal....

Why must necessity be metaphysical? Couldn't we say something like "The only necessity that exists is logical necessity"? (TLP 6.37) Or, the only necessity is grammatical necessity?

For me, the principal notion is that of tautology (i.e., logical truth). For analyticity is tautology in virtue of synonymy. And whatever necessity and a priority there is, is derivative of logical truth.

Duck said...

Sure, you can (re-)define the term that way. In fact it's probably a good strategy if that's how you're talking about analyticity and the a priori as well. I don't suppose you know how Strawson feels about this...

N. N. said...

I don't suppose you know how Strawson feels about this...

No, I don't know. I've only read parts of Individuals, and nothing I read dealt with necessity. I did read a review of his book on Kant (which the reviewer claims is simply Strawson in Kant's clothing) that has the following comment on necessity:

"To begin with the similarity of aims, both Kant and Strawson share the old philosophical passion of turning what happens to be the case into what must be the case. Both aim at showing that the universe of our experience is necessarily temporal and (quasi) spatial. This similarity, however, can hardly be used as a defence of the austere interpretation since Kant and Strawson's conceptions of what sort of necessity philosophy should pursue are entirely different. Kant's transcendental necessity is a conception full of tensions between monadological, epistemological and logical constituents. Over and against this complex concept of transcendental necessity, there stands simply and respectably the logical necessity in the relation between concepts, which is Strawson's necessity. The necessity of the universe being temporal and quasi-spatial is nothing but the logical "involvement" connecting "our" concept of experience through various intermediaries with the concepts of time and quasi-space." (Walter Cerf, "Critical Notice [of Strawson's Bounds of Sense and Reason]," Mind, 1972)

(When I read this review, I was taking a course on the first Critique. It scared me away from Strawson's book.)

Anonymous said...

Ever hear of, uh, empiricism? (not only Quine's take on empiricism) Rationalists need to do more than just argue why the "a priori" is important, necessary, sublime, but what it izz, and how it is needed for what they take to be epistemology. Here, some help:

A priori = __________

It's located in the _____________ .

(Hint: has something to do with "cognitive processes", which philosophasters don't know much about. Plus the A.P. has theological applications for the monotheist of whatever flavor, regardless if provable or not)

Daniel Lindquist said...

"(I assume, if perhaps I shouldn't, that no one has a problem with (the very idea of) tautologies.)"

I actually feel an urge to start quibbling here; perhaps this is just a symptom of a corrupt will, but I shall indulge it anyways, since N.N. may want to build more off of tautologies than I think possible.

I do not have a problem with "the very idea of tautologies". "P, P-conditional-Q, |- Q" ought to hold for anything which is supposed to pass for a conditional, for instance. Anything that doesn't is ill-suited to our purposes when devising a conditional for a logic. (I suspect that fans of logics without modus ponens may have some way to argue against this, but I don't know of any -- I faintly recall a remark that "no one actually reasons according to modus ponens" in a discussion of the conditional somewhere online, though, and I suspect this was tied to some argument against the need for it. So as in the rest of logic, I don't want to say that the subject is a priori or necessary or analytic or not -- these strike me as useless things to say. Logic is subject to revision and can very well be argued about; folk who call it a priori or necessary or analytic seem prone to denying this, which I don't want to do. Even if Dummett, Priest, and every other non-classical logician is wrong, I don't think it's obvious that they are wrong. And it sounds odd that denying something necessary, a priori, and analytic might not be wrong obviously.)

If we are given a particular logic, then there are tautologies in that logic. For some logics, there are no "logical truths" (e.g. K3 or any relevant logic), but it is still clear enough how to make sense of what statements are or are not tautologies in that logic: certain arguments are valid, others not. Abstracting from all logics, it's not clear to me that we can make good sense of "tautology". And so I start to worry when it looks like something is trying to be built on a foundation of "what tautologies are".

(Even with this abstraction, we can still speak of "tautologies" in the sense of trivial truths, or remarks we regard as not worth mentioning, or facts which ought to be obvious to our hearer. But I take these to be distinguishable from tautologies in the sense of "P or not-P (in classical logic)". As a very general comment, I think talk of analyticity, a priority, necessity, and tautologousness can all be made harmless by using them in this benign sort of way; I take this to be related to what Brandom (quoting Sellars) was talking about when he claimed that "the language of modality is a transposed language of norms". That sort of modal-talk does not strike me as liable to erupt into a torrent of "metaphysical" necessities. It's just the everyday "might" and "shan't". Which I don't want to argue against using, because I doubt I should be consistent if I tried to stop using them.)

An aside: As soon as Priest introduces K3 in "Introduction to Non-Classical Logic", he notes that the law of identity (P>P) is not a theorem of it, and introduces another logic which has this as a theorem, L3. (This is arrived at by changing a value on the truth-table for the conditional of the logic from N to 1.) At this point in the book, it occurred to me that I have no idea what importance the law of identity is supposed to have -- I've never seen it used for anything at all. (Outside of Fichte -- and it seems plain that Fichte's "I=I" is exceptional; he called it a "thetic judgement" to note its peculiarity, and argued that it was neither analytic nor synthetic.) What is supposed to be special about "P material conditional P"? Have I just not gotten around to reading the locus classicus of a productive use of the "law of identity"?

Duck said...

I don't know anything about non-classical logics, but I can agree with a few things here.

I do think that it is often too easily assumed that "logic" is not subject to revision in the relevant sense. What is true is that given (say) classical logic, I cannot see myself as revising "Joe's a fisherman, and since fishermen are unmarried, then Joe must be unmarried" except by giving up the premises (at least one of which in this case is indeed false), and this because of its "logical" form (i.e. as an instance of MP). We can indeed use logics that give MP up; but it seems that if such a logic is to be acceptable, I should still be able to infer, given those premises, to that conclusion, even if I can't use MP to do so. But that doesn't mean that "logic isn't subject to revision."

And it sounds odd that denying something necessary, a priori, and analytic might not be wrong obviously.

I can't speak for N.N., but I imagine that if you're confused, such that what you need is a semantic/elucidatory poke in the ribs, the result of your confusion might very well be a failure to realize that s.t. was true a priori.

Abstracting from all logics, it's not clear to me that we can make good sense of "tautology". And so I start to worry when it looks like something is trying to be built on a foundation of "what tautologies are".

Fine with me; but again, we are only anticipating here.

I don't know if this is relevant, but when I was learning logic (some time ago), I think I remember using P--> P in deductions. When you wanted to prove some conditional, sometimes you assumed the antecedent and cranked out the consequent; but sometimes it was easier, if you had P, to make it into P--> P and then sub something else in for one of the P's. (But if you could do that, then wouldn't you have the target conditional already?) I forget exactly how it went, but anyway, I remember using it.

I am agnostic on the corruptness or otherwise of your will.

Anonymous said...

Let them eat the a priori!

Hobbes had already smashed up all this bogus scholastic garbage in 1650, and yet still has a use for logic (as a tool, not as crypto-theology). Herr Professor Hacker works for the King.