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Philosophy Research Archives

Volume 14, 1988/1989

Ash Gobar
Pages 343-358

Erklärung and Begründung in Kantian Epistemology
A Reading of Synthetic Propositions A Priori

This essay attempts a re-reading of the meaning and import of “synthetic propositions a priori” in the light of two other background concepts in Kantian epistemology: Erklärung and Begründung. The significance of this pair of concepts lies in the fact that they represent the “philosophical motive” of Kant---leading him, inevitably, to take the “transcendental turn”. (And, on this point, I believe that some commentators have reversed the dialectic of Kant’s thinking: they make him take the “transcendental turn” first, and then envision the Erklärung and the Begründung.) And the distinction between the “sensible world” and the “intelligible world” was the consequence. Did this distinction also provide the ontological matrix for the epistemological distinction between “analytic propositions” and “synthetic propositions”? I take that to be evident. What is less evident is that Kant was more interested in the relation between the two worlds than in these worlds in isolation. He was concerned with demonstrating the possibility (i.e., the “transcendental possibility” and not merely the “logical possibility”) of the sensible in the light of the intelligible. This he sought to do by elucidating (with the help of “transcendental arguments”) the a priori conditions of possible experience. This was the hidden dialectic of the transformation of the image of mind, from the Lockean “mirror” to the Kantian “prism”. The synthetic propositions a priori (I argue) articulate the relation of the a priori conditions of experience to the possible objects of experience. (That is why Kant takes the metaquestion, “How are synthetic propositions a priori possible?”, to be the main problem of the Kritik der reinen Vemunft.) The significance of the work of Kant for what we moderns call the “philosophy of science” is noted in the conclusion.