Some Thoughts on the Analytic vs. Synthetic Distinction

 In Building Knowledge, Words and Meanings

Today I want to offer some thoughts on the analytic/synthetic distinction.  I see this as one of the foundational epistemic dimensions, which means that every principled way of knowing or believing something would have to be either analytic or synthetic.  Here are the most basic and non-controversial way of defining these terms (that I’m aware of): when one one uses their reasoning capacity to come to conclusions that are logically entailed by other knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions, we can call the process that produced them analytic.  Analytic knowledge is that which is logically derived from existing knowledge without having any new information come into consideration, either externally or internally, except through deduction or any processes that can be reduced to deduction.  All forms of philosophical logic and all types of mathematics are analytic epistemes.  This contrasts with synthetic, which includes all processes for deriving new knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions that comes from some means other than logical entailment, which requires that one synthesize some sort of meaning out of the bits and pieces of information that they perceive, think, or feel.

In some philosophical contexts, the term synthetic is understood to also include that which is innate to the mind.  However, since epistemes are processes for coming to know things, this would exclude anything innate to the mind.  There are likely aspects of consciousness that include innate capabilities and thought processes and that could perhaps even include innate beliefs, but these would not fall under the umbrella of the term episteme since there are not ways that one would come to know them other than to simply develop into a functional human being.  The processes of mental development from infancy through childhood and into adulthood and beyond are certainly interesting and relevant and should not be overlooked, but that is just not the focus of this section.  Instead, we’re focused on experiential and thinking processes that are not genetically determined.

One’s genes might predetermine their mind to be able to tell a sweet smell from a rotten smell and that heights can be dangerous.  We might have DNA that constrains and determines the parameters of our thinking processes.  These are examples of innate knowledge and they are not produced through anything we can call an episteme.  Obviously, most of what we know and what we believe is not innate to the mind, and these are produced through some sort of episteme.  Nobody has DNA that tells them how to soundly apply syllogistic logic nor how to solve a quadratic equation, both of which are analytic.  And your DNA isn’t going to tell you what the ocean looks like nor what it feels like to ride a bicycle, both of which are synthetic.  Thus, for our purposes, the term synthetic does not include anything innate to the mind and instead refers to the cognitive functions that can synthesize new ideas, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and other experiences that can be remembered and recalled and perhaps revised at a later time.

The analytic process always starts with things that are given such as axioms, postulates, and firsthand experiences, which are all synthetic.  Even though you end up with nothing more than tautologies and logical identities, the process of analysis is important as an episteme.  Indeed, from an objective standpoint, both the premise and the conclusions are semantically equivalent, so this distinction can be seen as dubious from that perspective.  But from an internal mental perspective, this distinction is important since it highlights the process of knowledge development.

Analytic epistemes can be formalized, meaning that there is a system of symbols through which the answer can be deduced, and entailments derived.  Synthetic epistemes cannot be fully formalized.  Analytic knowledge can be proven, which means that there is a clear and objective process for developing mutual understanding and wherein absolute consensus should be reached if everyone understands the premises and the rules for deriving conclusions.  You can show someone the answer to a problem with analytic epistemes, and you can be confident that the conclusion is accurate so long as it is based on sound reasoning.  If you were to explain examples of sound reasoning to someone and this person does not understand or if they don’t agree with the conclusion then it is not that they have an equally valid perspective – it is that they don’t understand the logic.

It is possible that utter certainty can apply to some synthetic knowledge as well.  One form of synthetic knowledge is that which is clearly and directly apprehended, and this can in some circumstances come with the highest possible level of certainty, but life is rarely so clear and unambiguous.  Most of the time, synthetic knowledge can at best be conjectured, but not fully proven, and these conclusions would come with probabilities of certainty and a certain degree of doubt.

Formalized proofs are the most reliable knowledge that there could possibly be, but they don’t cover much of reality.  Logical entailment and formal proofs are one process through which we can develop epistemic justification and a high level of certainty.  However, in the complex world in which we live, this option is not often available, which means that we usually have to settle for other means of developing justification that come with degrees of uncertainty.  This also means that mutual understanding is usually more difficult for synthetic epistemes and consensus-building takes extra effort and might be limited in some cases by people’s individual perspectives.

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