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Denial of the Synthetic A Priori1

  • Oliver A. Johnson (a1)

In his essay “Logical Empiricism”, in the anthology Twentieth Century Philosophy, Professor Feigl writes: “All forms of empiricism agree in repudiating the existence of synthetic a priori knowledge.” 2 Schlick makes the same point even more forcibly: “The empiricism which I represent believes itself to be clear on the point that, as a matter of principle, all propositions are either synthetic a posteriori or tautologous; synthetic a priori propositions seem to it to be a logical impossibility.”3 The denial of synthetic a prioris is a major thesis of the logical empiricist position, being found in the writings of most of the leaders of the movement.4 The reason for its importance is fairly clear. It provides a formula on which the empiricists can base their critique of traditional philosophy. To use Ayer's phrase, denial of the synthetic a priori results in “the elimination of metaphysics”. The philosophical tradition to which the empiricists are opposed and whose “metaphysics” they wish to eliminate can be called, somewhat loosely, rationalism.

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page 255 note 2 Feigl H., “Logical Empiricism’, in Twentieth Century Philosophy, ed. Runes D. D. (New York, 1947), p. 387.

page 255 note 3 Schlick M., ‘Is There a Factual A Priori?” in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, eds. Feigl H. and Sellars W. (New York, 1949), p. 281.

page 255 note 4 Cf., for example, Ayer A. J., Language, Truth and Logic, 2d. ed. (London, 1948), pp. 38, 72, 86–7;Carnap R., Philosophy and Logical Syntax (London, 1935), P. 75;Reichenbach H., The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1951), pp. 38–9.

page 255 note 5 For the remainder of the paper I shall use the term “empiricist” to refer to one who denies synthetic a prioris and “rationalist” to refer to one who affirms them. This usage is, I think, compatible with the traditional meanings of these terms.

page 257 note 1 Cf., for example, Langford C. H., “A Proof that Synthetic A Priori Propositions Exist”, The Journal of Philosophy, 46 (1949), 20–4 and Ewing A. C.The Linguistic Theory of a priori Propositions”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series XL (1939–1940), 239 ff.

page 260 note 1 To the objection that I have begged the question by assuming propositions rather than sentences, I should reply that the argument applies as well to sentences as types (which are abstract) in contrast to concrete tokens.

1 This paper was read before the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association at the University of Oregon on December 30, 1958. I wish to thank Paul Bredenberg and David Harrah for their very helpful criticisms of the manuscript.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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