Adler On

Analytic and Synthetic Judgments

Modern philosophy is suffering from the mistake that Immanuel Kant made in his distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. According to Kant, analytical judgment is a verbal tautology. It is uninstructive. We learn nothing from it, for the predicate is contained in the meaning of the subject. To assert that lead does not conduct electricity merely asserts that it is true that lead is classified as nonconductive metal.

In contrast to all such verbal tautologies or noninstructive propositions are judgments of the mind that are based on empirical evidence. Here, according to our experience, we affirm a proposition in which the predicate is independent of its subject. An example of a synthetic judgment is that hot bodies cool off by radiating their heat to the environment.

To assert that all judgments are either analytic or synthetic is to deny that there are any judgment that are neither analytic not synthetic in Kant's sense of the term. These are judgments in which both the subject and the predicate are indefinable terms, such as "whole" and "part".

You cannot say what a whole is without mentioning parts, nor can you say what a part is without mentioning wholes. The foregoing statement introduces us to the meaning of self-evident propositions.

A self-evident proposition is one in which the opposite is unthinkable. We cannot think that the whole is less than any one of its parts or that a part is greater than the whole to which it belongs. The proposition that the whole is greater than any of its parts is certainly instructive as well as being self-evidently true.

There are not many proposition that are self-evidently true. Among self-evident truths, the most important is the law on contradiction: nothing can have an attribute and not have it at one and the same time.

The philosophical and scientific thought of Western civilization is governed by this rule of noncontradiction, a rule that instructs us that we ought never to affirm two proposition that cannot both be true. If truth is the agreement of the mind with reality -- with the way things are -- then the logical rule prohibiting contradiction reflects the self-evident, ontological principle that contradictions do not exist in reality.

Mystics, Western as well as Eastern, may embrace contradictions and even think that the ultimate nature of reality is replete with contradictions. The Zen Buddhist Master teaches his disciples how to give contradictory answers to the question he asks. But if the Zen Master is flying from Tokyo to Kyoto he will be willing to fly only in a plane whose aeronautical engineering is based on physical science that is governed by the principle of noncontradiction.

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary

Revised 29 December 2000