Analytic Statements and Organic Concepts

Because of unfortunate associations, analytic statements get a bad rap. But shorn of those associations, there is nothing wrong with analytic statements. Indeed they are the very building blocks of science. But to understand them we also need to appreciate the organic nature of concepts. If we understand both, we come a long way toward understanding how science can obtain the certainty that it does.

Consider these examples: I found out that Chris married Pat. That’s how I know that Pat married Chris. And Chris is a surgeon. So I know she is a physician. Pat is sick, but he has had no contact with the bacteria Vibrio cholerae. So I can be sure that he does not have cholera. For if what he has is not caused by that bacteria, then he doesn’t have cholera.

There is nothing wrong with saying that these conclusions are true by the very definitions of “married,” “surgeon,” and “cholera.” And there is nothing wrong with giving such statements a special name. “Analytic” is good. And “synthetic” is fine for “not analytic.”

Portrait of Immanuel Kant

By [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons

Immanuel Kant assumed there could be no analytic a posteriori truths.

It is often assumed (ever since Immanuel Kant said so) that analytic truths must also be a priori truths (truths that can be known independent of experience) as opposed to a posteriori ones (ones that depend on experience). But the analytic–synthetic dichotomy is different from the a priori–a posteriori dichotomy. Indeed it’s because there can be analytic a posteriori truths that there can be certain and exceptionless scientific laws.

To see what that means and how it all works, we need to appreciate the organic nature of concepts.

Concepts are the cognitive units that correspond to words (or lexemes actually), such as “husband,” “loyalty,” and “ice cream.” Concepts are organic in several ways.

The first is the most literal: Concepts are products of living organisms (of people) and are as particular to individual people as are other organic products. Your liver enzymes are yours; mine are mine. Your concept of a physician is yours; mine is mine. A concept is a mental integration of multiple entities. Each such integration exists in and only in the mind of a person.

If I have some concept but you don’t, and we talk, and you walk away with the concept, the concept never passed through the air between us. I simply taught you to perform some integration you hadn’t performed before.

Photo of professors with thought bubbles of donuts

: ‘Thinking about donuts’

Everyone has his or her own concept of a donut.

Concepts are also organic in that they change over time. The integrations get wider, deeper, and more refined. Sometimes boundaries are moved. As an infant, I integrated bars of soap—the big white ones and the little round ones—into one concept. I later expanded the integration to include liquids that performed the same function. In fact, function rather than shape or color became for me the defining characteristic. But then I learned some chemistry and decided it was better to do what some other people were doing—distinguish soaps from detergents. Now I define soap by chemical composition, and I can distinguish soaps, detergents, cleansers, bleach, surfactants, and solvents.

For soap, I never started over from scratch, but I did make changes. Many Objectivists prefer to say that every time I adjusted the referential boundaries, however slightly, I replaced one concept with another. I don’t see much value in speaking that way. Since I retained so many of my prior integrations, I prefer to simply say I changed my concept.

Now I get to draw the referential boundaries wherever I want. When Robert Koch was researching the cause of cholera, he made a conceptual change before others did. He had discovered the comma bacillus (Vibrio cholerae) but its presence did not correspond exactly with cases identified by others as cases of cholera. Koch got around this straightaway. He changed the boundaries of his concept, so that if the disease was not caused by his newly found bacteria, it was not—as far as he was concerned—really cholera. This might seem like cheating, but he had good reasons to do it and the results were tremendous. Exceptionless and universal statements could thereafter be made about cholera. More and more physicians adopted his taxonomy. A proportionately smaller set of patients were diagnosed as having cholera. But of those that were, physicians knew what caused the problem and what to do about it.

Just because I get to draw the referential boundaries where I want, that doesn’t mean all the choices are equally good. Some groupings help me get on better in life. Some would be cognitive suicide. Koch’s choice for cholera was excellent. Trying to form a concept that integrates instances of loyalty, storms, and hydrogen peroxide would be bad.

Photo of Robert koch

By [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons

Koch’s drawing of cholera bacteria colony

First Cholera Conference, July, 1884: ‘Koch’s cholera drawing’

For Robert Koch’s theory to work, he needed to refine what was meant by “cholera.”

Often, it is good to stabilize the boundaries of a concept. A child hears a few young men referred to as bachelors. They drive convertibles and come and go without children. The child meets more men, also called bachelors, that drive other cars. Some are not young but old. While the integrations get wider and deeper, as more similarities and differences are found, the child refines the concept by adjusting the boundaries. Eventually the child decides it’s best to adopt a hard rule: If this person is not an unmarried man, the person will not be classed as a bachelor.

Concepts with such rules have benefits over less mature concepts. Electrical resistance was at first a hazy concept, in part because electrical voltage and electrical current were also hazy concepts. Boundaries were not distinct. General statements could be made, but very few universal and exceptionless statements could be. We could say that Georg Ohm discovered that resistance is the ratio of voltage to current. Or we could say that he defined a ratio and found it worth naming. Different engineers come to the concept different ways. But now all electrical engineers give “resistance,” “voltage,” and “current” precise mathematical relationships and have used those concepts to invent radios, televisions, computers, cell phones, and CT scanners.

An Aristotelian tradition distinguishes early nominal definitions from mature causal or essential ones. The distinction is useful but can mislead. All definitions are at least somewhat causal.* Early definitions, after all, are not exhaustive descriptions. Instead, properties that account for others get included; derivative properties don’t. Cholera’s early definition included vomiting and diarrhea. Listing the resulting dehydration and blue skin would have been needless and counter-productive. More mature definitions identify more fundamental causes. But a fully essential definition does even more. It places hard and fast rules on what does and what does not qualify as an instance. Eventually a medical researcher says: Not only does this bacteria explain much about this disease, I’ll go further; if I find a case seemingly very similar but where the bacteria is not present, I won’t class that as a case of this disease.

Such mature essentialized definitions are the building blocks of the exact sciences. They make it possible to have truly universal statements, statements that allow no exception. If what you measure doesn’t come out to be the ratio of voltage to current, then what you are measuring is not resistance. Simple. If the angles don’t add up to 180°, then the figure isn’t a planar triangle, because that sum can be derived from the very definition of a planar triangle.

Which brings us to the bad associations analytic statements have. If analytic statements are those that are true by definition of the terms and if you can define things however you want, then, it is said, analytic statements are arbitrary and content-free. They don’t really say anything about the world. They just say how you are using the words.

But you don’t get to just define concepts any way you want. Not all concepts are equally good and not all definitions are equally good. Statements are true by definition only if the constituent concepts have essential definitions. And good definitions cannot be made without reference to things in the world. Many challenging concepts can take centuries to define well. “Tides” was like that. It took countless years to identify the cause of tides. Now, if it’s not caused by gravitational forces, we don’t call it a tide, even if it is a periodic rise and fall of the sea level. But there is nothing arbitrary about that definition. It was the result of extensive research.

Bust of Aristotle

John P. McCaskey: ‘Aristotle’ Sandra Shaw

Portrait of Francis Bacon

National Portrait Gallery: ‘Francis Bacon’ John Vanderbank

Portrait of William Whewell

By [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons

Aristotle, Bacon, and Whewell defended the concept of a posteriori analytic.

As mentioned above, definitions that are formed with reference to things in the world are called a posteriori. (They are posterior to experience.) Those that could be formed without reference to the way the world is would be a priori. (They are prior to experience.) But concepts can’t be formed without reference to the way the world is. If Kant said they could, he was wrong. The idea that all analytic statements are a priori, that there cannot be such a thing as analytic a posteriori should never have gotten off the ground.

In fact, the claim is completely backwards. It has been thought that analytic statements are the purview of deduction and that non-analytic (synthetic) statements are the result of induction. But no. Analytic statements are possible only when essential definitions are possible, and those are possible only as the result of good inductive practices. All valid analytic statements are a posteriori. Analytic statements are both “true by definition” and “true by induction.”

See what I’ve written on induction. Or see Francis Bacon, or William Whewell, or Aristotle’s Topics.**

Here is another bad association. It is sometimes said that analytic statements are true by what is “contained” in the concept. That’s not a good way to speak. Analytic statements are true by the very definition of the concept, but concepts do not contain only their definitions and you can have concepts whose content does not include a definition. It’s better to avoid the “contains” language here. Say analytic statements are true by definition, not true by what is contained in the concept.

Note that not all definitions are essential definitions. And dictionaries don’t explicitly say which are. And how rigid the boundaries are of different people’s concepts can vary. A chemist’s concept of soap or rust may have very rigid boundaries. A stableboy’s might not. Each may serve the concept-holder’s needs just fine. But it’s possible nothing the stableboy says about rust is true by definition and much of what he says about a mare is. Vice versa for the chemist.

Chemists and stableboys, mathematicians and biologists, infants and adults—we each have our own concepts. One person’s concepts are not another’s, any more than one’s liver enzymes are another’s. Of course, much good can come from agreeing with other people about referential boundaries. It makes communicating much easier. Dictionaries help us do that. But communication is the secondary use of concepts. They are primarily for helping you get on in life. Alone on an island, you would still need them.

And to develop universal scientific knowledge, you need a special kind of concept—ones whose definition sets the referential boundaries hard and fast. At first, we integrate the things we observe based on similarities and differences. At first, the boundaries are fuzzy. For many concepts, they stay that way all our lives. We keep the boundaries, fuzzy or not, and refine our definitions as we learn more.

At some point and for some concepts, we flip this around. We use the definitions to state hard and fast rules about what is in and what is out. When we do this, we make it possible for there to be statements that are true by definition. We call those statements “analytic.”

For different reasons in different philosophical circles, analytic statements have come to be disparaged. They shouldn’t be. We should bring them back, strip them of their association with a priori, and build up theories of inductively acquired analytic truths. That would be good.

* I learned this from something I heard Greg Salmieri say, if I understood him correctly.

** For example, see John P. McCaskey, “Induction in the Socratic Tradition,” in Shifting the Paradigm: Alternative Perspectives on Induction, ed. Paolo C. Biondi and Louis Groarke (De Gruyter, 2014), and Laura J. Snyder, “It’s all necessarily so: William Whewell on scientific truth,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 25, October 1994, pp. 785–807.

Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.
On Ohm’s Law

After reading McCaskey’s entries and the comments posted above, I have to conclude that there isn’t anything preventing even a good inductionist scientist from presenting his discoveries in a rationalistic manner – i.e. stating his discovery in terms of other concepts rather than in terms of what he discovered in existence. What Ohm could have said was that after investigating the nature of electrical circuits, I have discovered that there is a quality or property of parts of the circuit that seem to resist the flow of electricity from one part of the circuit to the others, as measured in various ways. This quality or property of resisting electric flow I will refer to as “resistance” and I will use the symbol “R” to designate that property. In an electric circuit, the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance takes on the following form: V=IR or I=V/R or R=V/I.

I’m against the idea that something is true by definition. While one can use that phrase in various contexts, the proper way of identifying something in reality is to refer to the facts that integrated in a specific way leads to a relationship that can be stated in the form of a concept and then its definition. So, while “capitalism” can be defined as “a social / economic system in which all property is privately owned and where individual rights are protected,” this is not true by definition, but rather in terms of what it refers to in existence. The purpose of a definition is to state what the concept refers to in existence and how this concept is differentiated from other concepts; in effect, to state the genus and differentia so that this concept is not to be confused with this other concept (i.e. “socialism” versus “capitalism”). And a definition is not meant to be all-inclusive. For example, under capitalism, a worker will be paid for his efforts, usually with money, that he can then use to further his own life by trading it with others for goods and services they have to offer him. If one were to say “Capitalism” is analytically true based solely on the definition, then one cuts off the concept from its referents and is rationalistic at best.

The same can be said about the rest of the examples given. In all cases a good scientist ought to present his findings in terms of the facts of reality and not attempt to say that it is true by definition. What did he discover and how does this relate to the rest of his knowledge contextually ought to be his top concern once he makes a new discovery.

Greg Salmieri
Also, it’s worth noting that your claim that each person has a different concept of (e.g.) “doughnut.” Is a significant departure from Rand’s view in ITOE. Recall that she holds (and, indeed, stresses) that an infant and a scientist have the same concept “man.”

I’m sure that there are respects in which Rand would agree that my concept doughnut may differ from yours–for example, perhaps mine is a floating abstraction and yours is well concretized. But there’s another respect in which she thinks that if you and I each have the concept at all, then we have the same concept, which means we’re integrating the same objects on the same basis. (I think this is consistent with our formulating this basis with different degrees of explicitness, depth, and precision, and with our having some consequent disagreements about peripheral cases.) I’m not going to argue for Rand’s view here, but I thought I’d note that difference. It’s worth thinking about how this difference relates to the other issues we’ve been discussing, and so more generally how your view of concepts and their role in knowledge relates to the Objectivist position, and (insofar as they differ) which one is correct.

I’ve already indicated that I think your view here is a regression to a more conventional way of thinking about concepts, but that this is motivated by the genuine insight that there is under-explored material of value in the Aristotelian-cum-Baconian tradition. I’ve learned a lot about this tradition–specifically about Bacon–from your work, but I think that this material needs to be re-thought more deeply than you have done in light of Rand’s theory of concepts (and her reasons for it). I haven’t completed that re-thinking myself yet, but I’ve gotten some of the way and I look forward to writing more on this in due course.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Greg Salmieri
I carefully avoided saying that “each person has a different concept of doughnut.” I simply say here that your concept of doughnut is yours and mine is mine, his is his, and hers is hers—just as your liver enzymes, your sensation of red, and your white blood cells are yours and mine are mine. I avoided saying in what ways one person’s concept is the same and in what ways different from another person’s. I do not mean to reject Rand’s position that little Johnny’s concept and Dr. Einstein’s concept “man” are the same. They are—in important ways—and they are also different—in important ways.

Travis Norsen
Perhaps more later, but for now I thought I’d just post a link to the paper that Greg mentioned, in case anybody is interested in seeing it. This was the 2010 version (from the workshop), which I posted to the philsci arxiv.

Greg Salmieri
You raise a big topic–bigger than I have time to discuss at length on a blog. But since you reference me and this is something I’ve thought a lot a bout, I thought I’d make two points that I think I can make fairly briefly.

First, the idea you’re proposing here is essentially what most of the philosophy students in AR’s circle (Peikoff, Gotthelf, Binswanger) held in the very early 1960’s. The way they put it then is that observational knowledge about a group begins as synthetic, but then becomes analytic once we have advanced to the stage when we can derive it from a definition of the group. My view is that this was a mistake: “analytic” vs. “synthetic” has always meant more than derivable vs. not derivable from the definition, and redefining it to mean that sheds no light but creates a lot of confusion. The idea that all the truths about a kind qua kind can be derived from its proper definition far predates this distinction (as you know), and the distinction is part of the progression of thought by which this classical insight was undermined. I say good riddance to the concepts “analytic” and “synthetic.” If we need concepts to play the broad sort of role you’re looking for we’d be much better off using “essential” and “accidental” (which I think are worth saving).

Second, I made the point you cite me for as part of an argument against your thesis. Your view is that there’s a binary distinction between immature concepts with merely nominal definitions and mature ones with essential definitions; in the former case the reference is fluid and in the latter it is fixed. My response was that, if one is preceding properly, there is always an essence which is the causal fundamental within one’s context, and it always marks a fixed dividing line between units and non-units. But no dividing lines can be absolutely fixed such that they will be maintained regardless of what new discoveries are made. If one learns that, despite lacking that essence, the relevant item is more like the units in all the respects that they’re alike than it is like the foil, one may need to admit the new item as a unit and revise one’s definition. The definition is a condensation of what one knows about how the units jointly differ from other things, so the more one knows about the units the more stable the definition will be: if a definition is a condensation of just a little knowledge, even a relatively small discovery may require changing it, but if it is a condensation of a vast body of knowledge, then a momentous discovery or new integration would be required. But such momentous discoveries and interrogations do happen even in very mature sciences.

The best discussion of this I know of is in Travis Norsin’s paper on temperature (the one that was presented at that workshop at Pitt some years ago and then at the ARS session in 2012). Consider what he calls the “Kinetic Stage” in the development of the concept “temperature.” Surely at that stage they had an essential definition rather than merely a “nominal” one. (If they did not, then how could one ever be confident that one has reached an essential definition? One would need to be omniscient first.) Temperature, as they defined it (in Travis’ words) was “a measure of the average translational kinetic energy of [an object’s] constituent molecules.” Now it follows from this that something that isn’t composed of molecules doesn’t have a temperature, and so by definition, no property of anything not composed of molecules–say of an electromagnetic field–could be a temperature. But later (at what Travis calls the “Statistical stage”) more about temperature was discovered and it was possible to “put these pieces together to identify a new, even more fundamental way to define ‘temperature.'” Specifically it was defined in terms of entropy, and according to this definition electromagnetic fields can have a temperature. So what do you say about this sort of case? That we didn’t have an essential definition of “temperature” until Boltzmann and Planck? Or that we had one in the 1860s and Boltzmann and Plank are talking about some new phenomena other then temperature? One of the great strengths of the Objectivist account of essences as contextual is that it enables us to accommodate such cases whereas standard Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian accounts do not do so. What you’re doing here is defending a standard neo-Aristotelian account, and you’re not addressing the arguments given by Objectivists against such accounts.

I think what’s ultimately motivating you here is the idea that there is something right and important in the classical (Aristotelian) conception of scientific knowledge as systematic with many derivative truths demonstrated by reference to the definitions of the terms. I too think that this is right and important and that Objectivist epistemologists have not gleaned everything of value that there is to be gleaned from the Aristotelian tradition. But I think you’re overlooking the problems with this tradition. And I think that Rand’s distinctive epistemological view of essence gives us a way to correct these problems and to develop a better (more powerful and more defensible) Aristotelianism.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Greg Salmieri
I don’t say there is ever a stage where everything to be known about some kind of thing can be derived from the definition, only that some such knowledge can be. I say you can know some things about married couples—universally and without exception—just from the definition of “married,” but you can’t know everything that way.

Yes, “analytic” carries a lot of baggage (like “selfishness” does) but I don’t see a problem with it. It has never implied by itself that “all the truths about a kind qua kind can be derived from its proper definition.” Only that some can be.

That all seems common sense to me. Does Objectivism demand that an epistemological sin is being committed when a 10th-grader writes “by definition of triangle” to justify one step in proving that angles of a triangle sum to 180°? What other evidence would the student need to muster?

Travis’s history of temperature picks up after the concept was first essentialized. After that, the development he describes all seems fine to me. But an account of temperature’s earlier history shows exactly the development I describe. I gave him some material on that early history, but he didn’t really need it for his project. I’ve documented several other cases (…. But I don’t think we need my historical accounts. We have all had the experience of deciding it’s better to marginally alter boundaries of a concept we already held. The benefits were easy enough to see. (Consider adopting Objectivism’s definition of honesty.) And we’ve all had the experience of knowing something to be true just from the definition of the terms.

I don’t say that referential boundaries cannot be changed, only that at any one time, we give some but not all of our definitions controlling authority over those boundaries. Maybe we shouldn’t do that, but I insist some people do. And when they do, they are able to make qualitatively different kinds of statements, statements that can justifiably be said to be “true by definition.”

(Binswanger and Gotthelf have insisted Rand would say I am misreading her, but I don’t see anything in her published works that is necessarily inconsistent with my view.)

Greg Salmieri, reply to John P. McCaskey
John, as I think I made clear in my post, I think it’s quite proper to say “by definition” when making certain claims. So did Rand, who wrote this way on occasion. (For example: “The innovator, by definition, is the man who challenges the established practices of his profession.” [“The Cashing In”]) Also I think it’s the case that as one’s knowledge develops with respect to a particular concept, one will sometimes reclassify certain existents on the margins. For example: one may at first think that whales are fish or that barnacles are mollusks and then, once one comes to know more about the relevant organisms and the respects in which they are similar and different, one comes to see that whales are too different from fish and barnacles from mollusks, to objectively include these units under these concepts. Sometimes when this happens what we discover is that the relevant items do not actually possess what we already regarded as the essential characteristic of the concept but only seemed to possess it. In other cases, we find that they actually did possess the relevant characteristic and we now need to select a new characteristic as essential. I don’t think that any of this is controversial among Objectivist epistemologists, though there may be some minor disagreements as to what we should call a “change.”

The distinctive claims you are making are: (1) that the concepts “analytic” and “synthetic” are valid and should be redeemed, and (2) that there is difference in kind between concepts before and after an essence is discovered. I’m disagreeing with both of these.

Re (1): The fact that we can sometimes redeem confused concepts doesn’t mean that we can or should always do so, and I don’t see any reason whatsoever for redefining “analytic” along the lines you suggest when we already have the concept “essential.” If there’s a concept we should be seeking to redeem, it’s “essential,” and that’s the concept that was ultimately obliterated by the analytic/synthetic distinction.

Re (2): The whole issue is whether there is a point of “first essentialization” that occurs later than the formation of the concept and after which the progress is fundamentally different than it was before–a point at which we “flip” and use our definition to determine what falls under the concept, rather choosing a definition that approximates to a discrimination we are independently making. What is the evidence that there is any such point? I agree that there is a point at which a definition is first made explicit, but this is often before the point that you call essentialization. So what’s different after essentialization? That things can be explained in terms of the definition? But, as you point out in the cholera case, this is true before the stage you call essentialization. That the definition can’t change? But it still can, as in Travis’ case. And when it does change, it’s because we’ve noticed that something included by the definition is too unlike the others to count as a unit or that something not included by the definition is too like them not to be counted as a unit. That there can’t be reclassifications of units on the periphery? Again, this happens in Travis’ case. So I ask again: precisely at what stage in the “temperature” case did the flip you envision occur? At the kenetic stage? Before that at the thermometric stage? Or even prior to that? Prior to that was there even a concept “temperature”?

The alternative view that I’m defending (which is also the standard Objectivist view as I understand it) is that there is no such flip. Rather at all times the units are distinguished from foils by a complex process of differentiation which is summarized by the definition. The process of differentiating usually precedes an explicit definition. At some point, a definition is introduced to summarize the process of differentiation and to make it easier to implement it over time. But at no point does the definition replace the whole complex differentiation that it summarizes, and so there can be cases where, in order to carry forward this process of differentiation in the light of new evidence, we must redefine and reclassify on the periphery. If there really were a “flip,” as you describe, how could this happen? How could, for example, physicists come to recognize that magnetic fields have a temperature, when their having them is ruled out by the earlier definition?

J.S., reply to Greg Salmieri
Greg said: “. If there really were a “flip,” as you describe, how could this happen? How could, for example, physicists come to recognize that magnetic fields have a temperature, when their having them is ruled out by the earlier definition?”

It seems to me that Prof. McCaskey means by “universal” something different than “contextual absolute”. That is, that a true universal is something, once discovered, will be reliably predicated of by virtue of the knowledge of the necessary conditions that satisfy the statement. Its interesting that part of conceptualizing axioms is being able to recognize a misuse of language in the denial of them. A valid definition predicates of the subject in exactly the same way. (“X is one or more of the things which x is”) Unless one actually claims of “x” something in fact, that is not contained in the identity of X, the previous predication is still true in later context where widening occurs. Incidentally the claim about fields relates to Ms. Rands point about taking a concept from one context into another where you “deny it suddenly”. No valid widening of any concept drops the generative context in the name of a more essential characteristic such that the previous definition-context precludes such widening. In fact, that is the very definition of dropping context. Future integrations are constrained by previous context in such a way that, unless the previous definition was invalid, latter widening will never be precluded by previous integrations. Concept formation is normative in this regard and appealing to a special science “instance” of such a denial of previous context is an inversion of hierarchy. In other words philosophers should never say “because physicist said so” about a subject that is the province of philosophy…. (Maybe Ms. Rand should have left “spiritual” where she found it……)

John P. McCaskey, reply to Greg Salmieri
(1) I just don’t see that I’m redefining analytic. I find bad associations, but I don’t see a confused concept per se. I don’t think “analytic” means anything other than “true by definition.” I don’t think “essential” would work here. The word we need should modify “proposition” or “judgment” or “statement” or “truth.” I use “essential” to characterize a definition. I wouldn’t say “This is an essential statement” as I would “This is an analytic statement.” And “This statement is essentially true” is too open to another meaning.

For a statement whose truth can be established by analyzing the definition (not, by the way, the meaning) of terms in the statement, “analytic” seems fine, unconfusing, and conventional. But what we call that isn’t the main issue.

The main issue is (2). I think people do with their definitions what I’ve described. I think I do it. I have presented cases where scientists do it or at least claim to. Maybe we shouldn’t do it, but I see people doing it. That’s my evidence.

What comes with essentialization? We can make universal and not just general statements.

Take a typical symptomatic definition of cholera: “frequent vomiting and purging of a bilious humours, attended with anxiety, gripings, and spasms of the leg.” (1819) With that doctors could make general statement but no universal exceptionless ones. There was no objective measure of “frequent.” Not all of the symptoms need be present. Not even all of the listed symptoms appearing together qualified a case as a case of cholera. A dictionary using that definition went on to describe typical lifecycles of cholera, but admitted exceptions. Treatments were listed, but exceptions admitted. A dozen other suggestive symptoms were listed. There was simply no hard and fast rule about what made a case a case of cholera, how a case would progress, or what could be done to prevent or cure cholera. There were plenty of general statements, but no universal ones.

That’s what changed once there was a hard and fast definition of cholera. Not only could we say “Ps are Q” but “All Ps are Q.” We could qualify the predication with “always,” “without exception,” “every time,” and so on. We couldn’t before that. The quality of the predication changed.

J.S., reply to John P. McCaskey
Prof. McCaskey said: “For a statement whose truth can be established by analyzing the definition (not, by the way, the meaning) of terms in the statement, “analytic” seems fine, unconfusing, and conventional. But what we call that isn’t the main issue.”

A definition is a statement that serves the purpose of identifying the generative context the units-referents being defined were abstracted from. That is, it identifies the “to and “from” of the genus and differentia. The meaning of a concept is the referents they subsume. I don’t see how one can analyze a definition without also its meaning. I don’t mean that definition and referent are synonymous but that one cannot analyze a definition without being pointed to the referents that comprise the meaning by which the truth-correspondence is established.

Greg Salmieri, reply to John P. McCaskey
John, I think the differences between our views are emerging more clearly now.

Re (1): Your use of “analytic,” like the tradition’s use of it, makes it modify the way in which a proposition is true. And I don’t think that the valid difference here is a difference in the manner of truth–i.e. that some propositions are made true by the meaning (or definitions) of their concepts and others by something extrinsic to this meaning. So, again here, I think the concept “analytic” is causing problems.

Re (2): Even early on there were some universal statements that could be made about cholera, they just weren’t as impressive as the universal statements that could be made later. For example: “Cholera is unhealthy,” “Cholera will either kill a patient or he’ll recover from it, but he won’t be able to live with the condition indefinitely (as one can with diseases like gout).” And it wouldn’t be surprising if a few of the seemingly exception-less universal statements that were made about cholera after it was identified as a certain bacterium proved to have exceptions in cases not yet envisioned at the time. For example, when it was first discovered that certain antibiotics could kill that bacterium and so shorten the course of the disease, was the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance already known? If not, then it have been held to be universal that the course of a cholera infection can be shortened by the administration of certain drugs, whereas in fact that turns out to be true in some cases and not others?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Greg Salmieri
Re (1): I don’t here use “true by the meaning of.” I use “true by the definition of.” I don’t equate meaning and definition. Also, when I say “are true by definition,” I don’t mean the propositions are “made true” by definition; I mean they are “known to be true.” (More on that if you want.)

Re (2): Your example is making my case for me, Greg. Think of definitions as including: “characterized universally by U1, U2, U3 and/or generally by G1, G2, G3.” (Cf. Topics V.) Cholera was defined with one U—it’s a kind of disease—and many G’s.

So first: (U1) Physicians were able to say without exception by the definition of any disease that cholera is unhealthy, it’s an illness, it makes people unwell. (G1) Generally, yes, it was acute rather than chronic, but not universally so. Some people were prone to bouts, just as some are prone to bouts of gout. Some were said to suffer from cholera after every meal.

Then: (U1, U2, no more G’s) That cholera could be cured by a particular antibiotic would not be true by definition. More evidence would be required. What you could say is true by definition is that you can’t have the disease without having the bacteria.

I accept that the U’s can accumulate for a while. Propositions based on them can be true by definition. The G’s get dropped once the U’s are sufficient. A full “flip” is complete once the definition contains only universal characteristics and none merely general.

J.S., reply to John P. McCaskey
Prof. McCaskey, I think it is telling that the narrative of temperature here presented seems predicated upon the transition in the scientific community from what you have called “knowledge of formal causes”, to the abandonment of such discussions in physics as the ontology of theoretical objects such as fields, force and “energy”, for a statistical-mathematical formalism that leaves the questions of the epistemology-realism of theoretical objects unanswered, or worse, presumed to be substantival…. It has been a suspicion of mine that the “contextual” aspects of Oism are being strained in order to accommodate special science premises held to be unquestionable-settled. This would be a top down approach that is repudiated by the foundational nature of the science of philosophy. Of course this opens a whole revisionist can of worms in both the special sciences and in epistemology.

I like Greg’s suggestion that essence and accident having been established first and in a more reasonable background, granting more appeal against the historical background context of “analytic”. The question is, if the quibble over symbols-words is relevant enough to make either matter? After all, Ms. Rand saw it useful to rescue “spiritual” from a terrible generative context. Given the establishment of context-intentional reference, does it matter which one is chosen?

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