Synthetic A Priori

I’ve been reading Scott Soames’s 20th Century history books, and I’ve been surprised by a few things. Here’s one little New Years Eve puzzle for you that arises out of some things in the book: did Kripke show that there are synthetic a priori propositions?

At various places Soames seems to take this to be important. It’s a mistake, he seems to say, to identify the analytic and the a priori. Not as big a mistake as identifying the necessary with either of these, but still a mistake. (At least he seems to say this is a mistake in the discussion of Wittgenstein – I’d be happy to have it shown I’ve misinterpreted him here.) But we never get a conclusive example of a synthetic a priori proposition.

I’ve argued previously that propositions like I’m not a brain in a vat are knowable a priori, though they are pretty clearly synthetic. And I’m disposed to think that mathematical truths are synthetic a priori, as are some metaphysical principles like There is no metaphysical vagueness and Any two objects have a fusion. So I’m happy the analytic and the a priori are separate. But Soames doesn’t discuss these, and nor does Kripke, so they don’t show that Kripke showed the two concepts are distinct. (I’m bracketing here discussion of whether Kripke couldn’t have shown the two are distinct because showing in this sense implies novelty, and Kant beat him to it.)

Soames does discuss examples like The metre stick is a metre long and argues, convincingly in my view, that these are not contingent a priori. He also argues, again I think convincingly, that propositions like Snow is white iff snow is actually white are contingent a priori. Is that enough?

Well, that depends on how we view the case. Two options arise. First, we might say that all contingent propositions are synthetic, and hence this is an example of the synthetic a priori. But there’s another option, which is to say Snow is white iff snow is actually white is an example of the contingent analytic. Why should we believe that? Well, one reason is that the argument Soames gives for it being a priori knowable (and hence true) seems only to rest on premises about the meanings of terms involved, especially of the actually operator. So it looks to be analytic. That would suggest there are no Kripkean examples of the synthetic a priori.

Now that I’ve written all this it strikes me that there must be literature on this question somewhere. But I’ll leave the lit search to the new year.

Happy and safe New Year everyone!

13 Replies to “Synthetic A Priori”

  1. Happy New Year, to you and all the bloggers!
    Let me try a simple story. Assume (a) that if a proposition is not analytic then it is synthetic. Assume (b) that Kripke HAS shown that
    1) I am here now
    is contingent a priori.
    Then one might argue that (1) is not analytic, neither on Kant’s nor on Frege’s criterion. Not on Kant’s since the concepts “I” does not involve in itself any (mention of) time or position.
    Not on Frege’s, one might say, for the following reason. Suppose we unpack “I” along the lines of “speaker-thinker in context”, “now” the time of utterance, and so on. Then in order to derive (1) from mere definitions and logic, as Frege would have it, we need additional info about the time of utterance (or thinking), or at least, given the context, the info that I am thinking (or speaking) now. And that introduces a non-analytic element.
    Of course, if one argues that “I am here now” has a propositional content independent of any such info, some sort of A-intension, then one also has to reject assumption (b), and we are back at square one.
    Or is this too simple-minded?

  2. Mathematical truths are not known a priori for the simple reason that the term “mathematics” has no singular referent in the physical world. This is simply shorthand for a myriad of various kinds of “quantification systems,” each of which proceeds on a DIFFERENT SET of axiomatic rules (presuppositions).

    Are truths of boolean algebra known a priori? Then why have classes to teach people such skills? — likewise “mathematical truths” of base 10 math. These are conventionally-defined, and thus, not properly objects of a priori knowledge.

    To visit our quite unsafe “Church and State 101” blog, see

    Best Fishes

  3. Professor Weatherson makes a good point. Soames’s argument for the claim that ‘Princeton University has a philosophy department iff actually, Princeton University has a philosophy department’is knowable apriori does turn on the properties/meaning of the ‘actually’ operator. So this (putative) example of the contingent apriori is a (putative) example of the contingent analytic. The contingent analytic? That seems weird to me.

  4. The contingent analytic? That seems weird to me.

    I think it’s worth reading some of the smaller journals from around the time Kripke’s ideas were first coming out to get a sense of how weird they were viewed as being at the time by people not in NY-area circles. Obviously many people accepted Kripke’s arguments, but many did not. I don’t think to those people the contingent analytic would have looked any weirder than the other things that were in the air at the time.

  5. “Obviously many people accepted Kripke’s arguments, but many did not. I don’t think to those people the contingent analytic would have looked any weirder than the other things that were in the air at the time.”

    If Soames’s examples work, then the contingent analytic would vindicate Kripke’s idea of the contingent apriori. So it seems that those who didn’t accept Kripke’s arguments probably wouldn’t have accepted the contingent analytic either – that is, if they were all together skeptical of the notion of the contingent apriori. Kripke wanted to establish the separability of the notions of necessity and apriority. Did/does he have any views on analyticity?

  6. The “contingent analytic” is not some sort of new idea Soames has come up with, that we should now goggle at as “weird.” Kaplan argued long ago that “I am here now” is contingent analytic. Soames’s example involving “actually” is and old one of Kaplan’s as well. It’s also of the same sort as “I am here now” (if you accept an indexical account of actuality, anyway).

  7. Thank you for the Kaplan reference. I should have noticed the reference in the footnote attached to this sentence from Soames’s discussion of Quine in volume 1: “As for analyticity, opinions vary; many now assume that when sentence contatining indexical expressions (e.g., I, now, here, actually) are excluded, the analytic truths are a subset of the truths that are both necessary and apriori (pg.361).”

  8. Thanks to Michael and Ali for those references. I was going to plead that it was hard to remember everything being 10000 miles from my books, but I should remember what’s in Kaplan I’m afraid.

    On Ali’s question about Kripke, I don’t know what Kripke says, if anything, about analyticity as such. That would be an interesting historical question – or a contemporary one if anyone at CUNY wants to ask him directly 🙂

  9. Reply to Brian Weatherson at January 5, 2005 06:40 PM
    I don’t have my copy of Naming and Necessity on me either, but I remember Kripke defining an analytic truth as a necessary & apriori one somewhere in NN. Check pp. 34-39 or 122.

  10. Brian, is Soames’ two volumes the most recent and latest discussion of the history and significance of the analytic/synthetic distinction on the contemporary scene? If not, could you point me to literature that i might read on the matters you brought up in your post. I work mostly in continental philosophy, but am interested in analytical philosophy as well. Thanks.

  11. Edward,

    Pg. 122 indeed. “An analytic truth is one which depends on meanings in the strict sense and therefore is necessary.” But Kripke also notes a not-so-strict sense of meaning (one which is given by an expression’s reference-fixing description), on which some analytic truths are contingent. See Kripke’s meter-stick example. Of course, Soames doesn’t think that is a genuine example of the contingent a priori.

  12. Sorry, I left out part of the quote. Pg. 122, footnote 63: “An analytic truth is one which depends on meanings in the strict sense and therefore is necessary as well as a priori.”

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