Notes for PHIL 251: Intro to Philosophy

Epistemology: Kant and Theories of Truth

I. The debate between empiricists and rationalists prompts Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) to highlight differences between the kinds of statements, judgments, or propositions that guide the discussion.

For Kant, the distinctions between analytic and synthetic and a priori and a posteriori judgments must be kept separate, because it is possible for some judgments to be synthetic and a priori at the same time. What Kant proposes is this: Surely all a posteriori judgments are synthetic judgments, since any judgment based solely on experience cannot be derived merely by understanding the meaning of the subject. But this does not mean that all synthetic judgments are a posteriori judgments, since in mathematical and geometrical judgments, the predicate is not contained in the subject (e.g., the concept 12 is not contained either in 7, 5, +, =, or even in their combination; nor does the concept "shortest distance between two points" contain the idea of a straight line). Such propositions are universal and necessary (and thus a priori ) even though they could not have been known from experience; and they would be synthetic a priori judgments.

If there are such judgments, then how are they possible? Kant's answer: the rationalists are right in saying that we can know about things in the world with certainty; and the empiricists are right in saying that such knowledge cannot be limited merely to truths by definition nor can it be provided by experience. Instead, we know about the world insofar as we experience it according to the unchanging and universally shared structure of mind. All rational beings think the world in terms of space, time, and categories such as cause and effect, substance, unity, plurality, necessity, possibility, and reality. That is, whenever we think about anything, we have to think about it in certain ways (for example, as having causes, as existing or not existing, as being one thing or many things, as being real or imaginary, as being something that has to exist or doesn't have to exist), not because that is the way the world is, but rather because that is the way that our minds order experience. There can be no knowledge without sensation, but sense data cannot alone provide knowledge either.

We can be said to know things about the world, then, not because we somehow step outside of our minds to compare what we experience with some reality outside of it, but rather because the world we know is always already organized according to a certain fixed (innate) pattern that is the mind. Knowledge is possible because it is about how things appear to us, not about how things are in themselves. Reason provides the structure or form of what we know, the senses provide the content.

Objections to Kant:

II. Maybe the search for indubitable foundations (innate ideas, sense data) is itself flawed. Perhaps there is nothing about knowledge that is ultimate, but rather a web of interlocking beliefs. According to Rorty, knowing is not like seeing: justification does not relate a belief to some object, but rather it relates a belief to arguments supporting it. Justification is thus a social, historical phenomenon. The fault of epistemology is that it has tried to eternalize normal discourse (i.e., discourse with agreed-upon criteria for reaching consensus). Abnormal discourse lacks such criteria. Periods of social change are characterized by struggles between normal and abnormal discourse.

III. The second objection above to Kant raises the question: What does it mean to say that a proposition is true? There are three main theories of truth:

IV. Perhaps the problem is with the idea of truth itself. Perhaps we should give up the pursuit of Truth (with a capital T) and begin thinking that truth is really a way we have of speaking of what we agree on and what we find persuasive. In this way we should focus on truths (with a small t).