What's the matter?

Analysis on the meaning of the analytic/synthetic distinction

by John Meador

In this essay, I intend to take a very close look at what has often been called the analytic/synthetic distinction. Probably the most famous philosopher, who is well known for his analysis of this distinction was Kant. His work has been critiqued and reformed by many great minds since. In this paper, I, like Kant and the many others follwing his lead, will try to present a meaningful distinction between the two types of propositions. Then, I will develop a considerable analysis of the conceptual foundations of this distinction. Through this analysis I will consider concepts such as composition and substance as they relate to the analytic/synthetic distinction. I will determine the relevence of the relation between substance and composition, and follow by explaining their possible corelations. And so, having given a brief introduction, I would like to begin with the analysis of propositions.

Presumably, in the english language and many others, for a series of words to constitute a proposition, they must be arranged in such an order by which there can be demonstrated both a subject and a predicate. The subject and predicate are to be arranged in such an order as to have meaning. The meaning in a proposition is determined by its elements or words, their arrangement, and the context in which they are used. Philosophers throughout history have attempted to divide the types of propositions into two major categories: Analytic and Synthetic.

The analytic proposition is usually said to be of the sort which is a tautology. This means that the subject and predicate essentially mean the same thing or, that the predicate contains the subject within it. Quine, in his paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", considered this quite thoroughly including the different possible types of relations between the subject and predicate of an analytical proposition. He considered synonymy, and attempted to arrive at a meaning for it in terms of concepts such as definition, interchangeability, and semantical rules. Arriving at no meaning for synonymy, which under close analysis could be found to be independent of the concept itself, he then turns other models for meaning such as; the verification principle and reductionism. Seeing that these too, by fault of their own well known fallacies, fall short of describing the meaning of analyticity, he suggests that perhaps the apparent distinction between analytic and synthetic is just that, apparent. I agree with Quine on this level, however I do feel there is a greater explanation for this translation in meaning than that which he gives. With that in mind, I will now move on to the case for synthetic propositions.

The synthetic proposition is a sort of composite. The empiricists claimed that it is ultimately a composite of sense experiences. On the other hand, the rationalists claimed that it is ultimately a composite of ideas. Regardless of whether or not there are such things as a priori synthetic propositions, the two groups seem to agree upon one thing specifically; that synthetic propositions are composites which may be analyzed to their constituent parts. It is this concept, that of composites and their elements, and the relation between which I will consider in the remaining parts of this essay. 

When we say that something is synthetic we are saying, at least in some sense, that it is a composite. But this leads one to ask, "Composite of what?". Well, for something to be composite it must be divisible into two or more distinct parts. If these parts themselves are indivisible, then they are the substance, or 'atoms' of which the composite is constructed. Realists, claim that the substance is sense data, whereas the idealists argue that it is thought. If however, these parts are in turn divisible, we say that they are 'sub-composites' or, composites of composites. A composite is always dependent on its constituent parts. This dependency we call contingency. A substance is non-contingent, or independent. This means that it depends on nothing for its existence, it is one of the fundamental building blocks of reality. According to this mode of thought, substances determine the composition of the world. If there were no substances, only an infinite regression of composites, the world would have 'no ground to stand on'. What I mean is that it would be chaotic, and void of any pre-determined forms. 

Most people prefer to believe that an infinite regression is not possible and that every composite must have some grounding substance which is itself, indivisible. In consideration of this frequently occurring mental disposition, I would like to consider in depth a possible origin of this belief, and a reasonable explanation as to why we tend to deny infinite regressions any reality. 

This phenomenon (denial of infinite regression) seems to have occurred as far back as the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. With the exception of Heraclitus and followers of him, who were more akin to process philosophy, the ground for this belief seems to me to subsist in the philosophers' common presumptions of concepts such as perfection, absolutes, and immutability; all of which have an implicit denial of the infinite regression. Infinite regression then, like perfection, absolutes, and immutability, all have one particular attribute in common; they are all qualities which are unchanging. The denial of infinite regression then, is actually a denial of change. 

Change is a manifestation of finitude, and finitude means terminal existence. Things which have a terminal existence tend to decay into nothingness, and nothingness is meaningless. A phenomenon common to all people is that we require essence to have meaning. We (primarily existentialists) say that existence without essence is meaningless, and that essence without existence is absurd. We claim that the two are inseparable, and are therefore necessary conditions of reality. 

The feeling associated with the relation of existence and essence is desire. Existence desires essence in order that it may have meaning, and therefore deny the feelings of empty existence, or angst, as is commonly felt by all people at some time in their lives. This feeling of angst then, seems to be the underlying motivator for our denial of finitude. 

Since we have this desire for a changeless world' where change is an apparent reality and substance is the actual reality, it becomes necessary for us to deny the possibility of an infinite regression. As we began to interpret and define the world in its 'true' sense, we developed concepts such as perfection, immutability and absolutes. Here is where this duality of the changing and the changeless, the perfect and imperfect, analytic and synthetic arises. From here, we developed laws of logic and science so that we may support our desire for meaning in a seemingly changing world, full of imperfections and uncertainty. 

Laws such as the law of conservation of energy and matter, and the law of identity, implicitly deny the possibility of infinite regression. They do this by claiming that while things apparently change, the substance(s) from which all composites are determined is independent, and therefore unaffected by apparent changes in the composite. So essentially what we have determined here is that either there is an infinite regression of composites, or there isn't. If in fact there is such an infinite regression, this doesn't mean that we need to lose any concept attached to the presupposition of substances, for these presuppositions have their use. In calculus and physics for instance, the concept of a limit where there is none, is used to determine things such as instantaneous velocities, moment of force, etc.... The concept of substance, limits, absolutes, has enabled humanity to extend its reach far beyond what it could have obtained had we not adapted such concepts. However, is it possible to extend our reach even further and embrace the power of infinite regression? I think it is already being done! Imagine if you will, a cube, with a finite volume, but an infinite surface area! This is just one example of a model set out by mathematicians for the shape of space. Concepts such as 3-dimensional manifolds, where space is a cube with no walls are permeating the realms of science and math and they are all based on a set of infinite series. So perhaps there is some truth to the concept of infinite regression, what then of substance? 

From a pragmatic perspective, as I think people such as Quine and Wittgenstein would agree, both concepts seem to work in their own ways, so both, at least to some extent must be true. Does this mean that there is only an apparent contradiction between substance and infinite regression? Perhaps, it does. Let us consider it. 

In the case of concepts such as composites and substances, they seem to be correlative in that they depend on each other for meaning. This would suggest that without the one, the other would necessarily be meaningless. If this were the case, then by denying one we should also have to deny the other. And so, as obviously insane as it seems, if we at some point where to conclude that there are no substances, we should also have to conclude that there are no composites! On the other hand, it may be the case that the two (composites and substance) are not at all correlative. In which case we could throw out the one, and preserve the other, or preserve both in a sort of compromising synthesis. And so, whatever it turns out for the case to  be, upon deciding the truth of the matter (pun intended), we should probably have to rethink our entire world-view, including our concept of analyticity. At present, it is commonly held by a great deal of people with an educated background, that everything physical is subject to change. There are no physical substances. Even down to the level of particle physics, substance has yet to be found. I think perhaps the error can be found in the manner in which we go about searching for substance. Particle physicists search by division. They try to divide matter into its smallest dividends which are indivisible. Occasionally they believed they had reached this point, only to later, as technology made it possible, discover that their so-called substances are yet divisible. How do we know when we have reached the limit of matter and not just a limit in technology? The attempt to divide composites into substances is completely in vain. The distinction between composites and substances is not quantitative, but qualitative. 

Composites belong to the quantifiable physical realm of change, while substances belong to the qualitative non-physical realm of ideals. Now here it may appear that I am taking sort of a platonic point of view, and perhaps so. There is a very real problem of mind and body in that, a connection of correspondence has yet to be established. But the difference between the two, so far, remains to be qualitative; and so far, all attempts at quantifying the difference have not proved to be sufficient enough to be considered viable. Such a category mistake, as I think Ryle might call it, is the very root of our problem. 

Reality it seems, is weaved into existence by a number of threads. If I may speak metaphorically, some strands are red, others blue, and still others are green. There are a number of threads in this web, but there are also qualitative differences between them. There are several routes which I might take to get to school on any given day, but depending on circumstances the route I choose on any given day may vary from the one I chose the day before. Quine called this holistic view, "The web of beliefs". The path we choose to take at any given moment depends on the perspective we stand in, and the circumstances, intentions, and desires which motivate us. In some areas composition is obvious and necessary; while in other areas, substance is the necessary mode of reality. It seems that everything is inter-connected in some miraculous way that makes boundaries appear fuzzy when examined too closely. The copula of this connection is always the same though. It is always a person who notices it, and writes it down as evidence of meaning. As for the driving force behind this desire for meaning? This need for distinctions and similarities in a world which would, perhaps, be chaotic without them is very simply a will. As some would call it "The will to life", and others would call it "The will to power", it is an unmistakable reality that this 'will' is the very ground of all that we say, and do, and believe in.