Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Look at Peikoff’s Essay, “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy”

Leonard Peikoff’s essay, “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff; Page 88-121), cannot be taken seriously because it is too polemical and full of false assertions. The essay begins with the appalling claim that the tenets of “the analytic-synthetic dichotomy” are penetrating our “intellectual atmosphere like  the germs of an epistemological black plague” which spreads “subjectivism and conceptual devastation in its wake.” Peikoff goes on to suggest that “it is deadly.” But what black plague is he talking about? What conceptual devastation? How is it deadly?

People who are not the devotees of Ayn Rand, if they spare some time to read this bombastic essay, will feel appalled by Peikoff's messianic language. In this short essay of 33-pages, he rails against several philosophers of the last 3000 years: Pythagoras, Plato, Hobbes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and Heidegger. He does not examine the actual sayings of these philosopher—he simply asserts that they are responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the world. And then he lavishes Ayn Rand with a surfeit of praise for coming up with ideas that he thinks will save the world. This essay is an example of "boy scout" philosophy.

Bulk of Peikoff's criticism is focused on the philosopher that Ayn Rand regarded as the greatest monster in the history of mankind—Immanuel Kant. Rand never read Kant, she had no interest in Kantian ideas, and she never made any effort to understand Kant, but she made it her business to hurl one or two line accusations against him every now and then. Peikoff claims that the analytic-synthetic dichotomy has originated in the Platonic theory of universals (theory of forms) and has been endorsed in some form or other by every past philosophical tradition, and that the writings of Kant were responsible for enhancing the pernicious powers of the dichotomy.

He writes, “The moderns represent a logical, consistent development from Kant’s premises. They represent Kant plus choice—a voluntaristic Kantianism, a whim-worshipping Kantianism. Kant marked the cards and made reason an agent of distortion. The moderns are playing with the same deck; their contribution is to play it deuces wild, besides.” These are ridiculous claims. Peikoff is accusing Kant of things that have nothing to do with Kant. In the final sentence of his essay, Peikoff asserts that the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is a death carrier. But who has died by it? What is Peikoff’s essay about: a philosophical idea or a ninja assassin?

The truth is that Kant has never talked about any analytic-synthetic dichotomy in his first Critique. (I don't know of any philosopher who has called it a dichotomy—they use the word “distinction”; only the devotees of Rand call it dichotomy). It is not Kant’s concern to provide a serious and positive account of the analytic statements. His interest is only in the “synthetic statements,” and his argument is that even the most elementary examples, like the mathematical analytic statements, can be proved to be synthetic. For instance, consider the equation, 2 + 3 = 5—Kant says that this equation can be seen as synthetic because the concept “5” is not contained in the concepts “2” and “3”.

Kant was reacting to Hume’s statement that no “synthetic” propositions can be known to be true a priori, only “analytic” ones—Hume believed that synthetic propositions can be proved to be true only through experience. Kant’s objective is to show that Hume’s contention regarding synthetic propositions is incorrect, because synthetic propositions can also be a priori. He refutes Hume by using his theory of pure intuitions and pure categories of experience (which I discussed in my yesterday’s post). Here’s a short account of Kant’s arguments for refuting Hume:

Kant begins by noting that all our experiences are within the intuited framework of space and time. Then he notes that the claims of our knowledge have to match with the pure categories of experience (quality, quantity, etc.). But this means that every empirical statement that we make must have some properties that can be established a priori. This leads us to the conclusion that we can make synthetic statements whose truth is known a priori; for instance, “All our experiences take place in space and time.” Kant was not after creating a dichotomy between the analytic and synthetic statements—he is trying to develop a unity between them.

Peikoff’s claim that Kant was the originator of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is without any basis.


MrCropper said...

"It is clear that Kant is not after creating a dichotomy between the analytic and synthetic statements—he is trying to develop a unity between them."

His attempt to unify something that was never broken is the whole problem, Anoop.

Anoop Verma said...

MrCropper: No one, not a single good Kant scholar, says that Immanuel Kant was always right. In fact, they refute much of what he has preached. The Kantian ideas got refuted in Kant's own lifetime, his favorite students wrote books to refute his ideas.

In Kant, the answers that he gives are NOT important. The important thing is the questions that he raises. Philosophers after him have worked on these questions and they are still trying to find all the answers. His contribution in the domain of aesthetics is most important.

Before Kant, aesthetics did not exist as an independent disciple in philosophy. Art was treated like a craft, and artists were treated like craftsmen. But Kant changed that made aesthetics a part of philosophy with his Critique of Judgement.

Now coming to the question of Peikoff's article -- I am not saying that Peikoff should not criticize Kant. I am saying that he should not criticize Kant for the WRONG reasons. Kant did NOT create the analytic synthetic dichotomy and neither did Hume and neither did Plato.