This was an essay I wrote in my junior year of high-school for my philosophy class. It outlines a basic explanation of Kantian Epistemology, including a-priori and a-posteriori statements, and presents a theoretical critique on it, as shown in Jorge Luis Borges's short story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". It's INCREDIBLY amateur and both my writing and philosophy skills have improved since then, but I think it's still an interesting case and don't see the harm of putting it here. Enjoy


Kantian Epistemology and a Tlönic Critique

Kant’s main contribution to the field of philosophy is the synthesis of empiricist and rationalist schools of thought, and making what he calls his own “Copernican Revolution”, saying that his synthesis of the two very different schools of thought is as big to the field of philosophy as Copernican’s re-imagining of the heavens. With his “Copernican Revolution”, Kant contributed massively to western philosophy and the rise of German Idealism.

What Kant basically says is that we can gain knowledge from experience (like the empiricists say) but we can also deduce and gain more knowledge from the knowledge we just gained from experience. For example, you reading this paper right now can correctly deduce that I, Turner Land, wrote this paper without directly experiencing me writing it. Kant would call this deduction a priori, which is knowledge gained independent of experience. Another good example of a priori is the phrase “All bachelors are unmarried.” which by knowing the definition of a bachelor, you can independently figure out they are all unmarried. Most of mathematics and other logical concepts are of a priori. When ideas can only be gained through experience though, they are called a posteriori. I can only know that McDonalds was founded in 1955 by experience, not through deducing anything.

Kant also made categories on how we gain the knowledge for each term, analytical and synthetic. Analytical propositions are those which are self contained in the proposition itself. The statement “All squares have 4 sides” is an analytical proposition because it is true all squares have 4 sides. It wouldn’t be a square if it didn’t. Synthetic propositions are those that’s truth isn’t self contained. You must go out and search the truth yourself to find out if it is true. You could say “I have the largest USB in the world”, but the truth isn’t specified in the statement. Are you referring to how much data can the USB hold, or the physical size of it? Before Kant, synthetic a priori propositions were thought not to exist. David Hume was very skeptical of Kant’s claims that they do exist. Kant believed he could show how they could exist. Synthetic a priori propositions are shown in something like “6 + 5 = 11” or any other basic arithmetic statement. Nothing about “6” or “5” tells us about “11”, but “6 + 5 = 11” is still a universal truth that will not change wherever you go. A posteriori statements can only fit in the synthetic category. An analytical a posteriori statement is paradoxical because analytical judgements contain the predicate is contained in the subject, but an analytical a posteriori statement would need to be justifiable on the basis of experience. Only synthetic a posteriori propositions can exist, such as “All soldiers are men.”. In my experience, I have seen all soldiers as men, but the truth is not universal as someone else could have met a female soldier.

You may think that analytical a prioris such as “All bachelors are unmarried” start to fall apart when you consider that you need experience to know what a bachelor is and the concept of marriage, but Kant’s ideas still hold up as instead of Kant referring to the interpretation of such statements, he is referring to the validation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what the words mean, all that matters is that the statement itself is true.

I do appreciate Kant’s efforts and attempts to organize how we perceive and think of the world into categories and such, but what I see him doing more aligns him into the field of semantics. Don’t get me wrong, semantics is a very interesting field to me, with how he try and organize how we communicate to each other, but I think something like “All bachelors are unmarried” is more of a semantical problem and not a metaphysical. It all depends on how we define words such as bachelor and unmarried and how our language works. I am reminded of the world of Tlön, a fictional world by the author Jorge Luis Borges, where one of it’s language families does not have any nouns. Both of Kant’s a priori and a posteriori statements become impossible here. In a language with no nouns, there can be no “things”, or words we can assign to objects. You may think it is impossible to communicate in this universe, but it is possible. Borges says the english statement “The moon rose above the water” becomes the Tlönic “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned”. Now with no nouns, you cannot state propositions, and thus you cannot deduce anything, which is a priori. In this noun-less world, its residents think that when you observe the same object at different times, it is not the same object. For example, if I look at a pen on my desk and then look at it again 5 minutes later, it is, in a Tlönic perspective, not the same pen because I don’t see this as a “thing”. With this, history itself becomes impossible, as everything is an independent act no way connected to each other. With no experiences to base anything on, a posteriori reasoning becomes impossible. Thus, Kant’s ideas only work in our own world, and may not be universal.

I am still slightly skeptical on some of Kant’s other points, like synthetic a priori propositions. I would argue that in the case of “6 + 5 = 11”, 6 and 5 do tell us about 11. It is the combination of them that gives us 11, but only in that particular statement. 6 and 5 on their own do not tell us anything about 11, but 6 and 5 in that statement change the meaning of 6 and 5 with the introduction of the plus sign. The plus sign fundamentally changes the meaning of 6 and 5 to us, having them not being their own separate entities but 2 pieces of the larger puzzle that is 11. You are intrinsically linking each 6 and 5 to create a larger number, which is 11. This can be true to any arithmetical statement. Numbers on their own are only self contained entities, but in an equation you are joining them and linking them to create something else, and thus making it an a priori statement where it tells us about itself.

I do kind of agree with Kant in synthetic a posterioris though. Synthetic a posterioris are based on experience, but are always true to the one whos experience lines up with the statement. But I also think that something like “The cat is on the windowsill” should be its own category. The cat is on the windowsill, no doubt about it. It is synthetic and it relies on experience, and everyone I show that the cat is on the windowsill should reasonably say the same. But with a statement like “All passports are blue” is entirely based on my own experience. Someone may come up to me and claim they have seen a green passport, and we may argue on the validity of that statement because according to my experience, it is not true. But there are green passports out there, so doesn’t it make my “All passports are blue” statement true in my own view, but a lesser truth in the grand scheme of things? Should my personal truths even be considered “true” if they aren’t to someone else?

All in all, I think Kant’s propositions and contributions really only work on Earth in our society and language, thus making them not universal. It is operating on some basic principles on how we see our world, and those principles can be different not only for an alien race, but if society and language was to have a radical change here. Kant made us better understand how we as humans communicate and see the world around us, but not anything fundamental and universal.