Fallibilist a priori. Thought of the Day 127.0


Kant’s ‘transcendental subject’ is pragmatized in this notion in Peirce, transcending any delimitation of reason to the human mind: the ‘anybody’ is operational and refers to anything which is able to undertake reasoning’s formal procedures. In the same way, Kant’s synthetic a priori notion is pragmatized in Peirce’s account:

Kant declares that the question of his great work is ‘How are synthetical judgments a priori possible?’ By a priori he means universal; by synthetical, experiential (i.e., relating to experience, not necessarily derived wholly from experience). The true question for him should have been, ‘How are universal propositions relating to experience to be justified?’ But let me not be understood to speak with anything less than profound and almost unparalleled admiration for that wonderful achievement, that indispensable stepping-stone of philosophy. (The Essential Peirce Selected Philosophical Writings)

Synthetic a priori is interpreted as experiential and universal, or, to put it another way, observational and general – thus Peirce’s rationalism in demanding rational relations is connected to his scholastic realism posing the existence of real universals.

But we do not make a diagram simply to represent the relation of killer to killed, though it would not be impossible to represent this relation in a Graph-Instance; and the reason why we do not is that there is little or nothing in that relation that is rationally comprehensible. It is known as a fact, and that is all. I believe I may venture to affirm that an intelligible relation, that is, a relation of thought, is created only by the act of representing it. I do not mean to say that if we should some day find out the metaphysical nature of the relation of killing, that intelligible relation would thereby be created. [ ] No, for the intelligible relation has been signified, though not read by man, since the first killing was done, if not long before. (The New Elements of Mathematics)

Peirce’s pragmatizing Kant enables him to escape the threatening subjectivism: rational relations are inherent in the universe and are not our inventions, but we must know (some of) them in order to think. The relation of killer to killed, is not, however, given our present knowledge, one of those rational relations, even if we might later become able to produce a rational diagram of aspects of it. Yet, such a relation is, as Peirce says, a mere fact. On the other hand, rational relations are – even if inherent in the universe – not only facts. Their extension is rather that of mathematics as such, which can be seen from the fact that the rational relations are what make necessary reasoning possible – at the same time as Peirce subscribes to his father’s mathematics definition: Mathematics is the science that draws necessary conclusions – with Peirce’s addendum that these conclusions are always hypothetical. This conforms to Kant’s idea that the result of synthetic a priori judgments comprised mathematics as well as the sciences built on applied mathematics. Thus, in constructing diagrams, we have all the possible relations in mathematics (which is inexhaustible, following Gödel’s 1931 incompleteness theorem) at our disposal. Moreover, the idea that we might later learn about the rational relations involved in killing entails a historical, fallibilist rendering of the a priori notion. Unlike the case in Kant, the a priori is thus removed from a privileged connection to the knowing subject and its transcendental faculties. Thus, Peirce rather anticipates a fallibilist notion of the a priori.

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