The usual examples of synthetic a priori statements are – it seems at least since Kant:

  • "Nothing can be simultaneously red and green all over"

  • 7 + 5 = 12 (or any other basic arithmetic statements).

Are there more complex examples than those two? Or at least a more diverse list of examples?

I'm just baffled by the extreme sparsity of examples here, especially since "synthetic a priori" is a difficult concept to grasp (ok, for analytic a priori the "bachelor" example gets recycled since hundreds of years, too. But at least the concept of analytic a priori is easy to understand).

Are there philosophers who study examples of synthetic a priori more seriously?

  • I'm pretty certain somone, somewhere, must have argued that God is synthetic apriori. – Alexander S King Nov 15 '16 at 2:28
  • This is absolutely and clearly a wrong answer and evinces zero understanding of Kant. There's nothing a priori at all about Blue + Yellow = Green. It's a posteriori, not a priori. It's true that "green" is not included in either "yellow" or "blue" but this only means the proposition is synthetic. There is not a purely (a priori) rational principle that gives the answer "green." You have to try (experience!) the mixture, which means it's a posteriori. 5 + 7 = 12 is completely different because I don't need to experience 5 anythings added to 7 anythings to "synthesize" them to 12 – DBeach Oct 29 '18 at 7:40
  • 1
    @DBeach I think you meant to comment on the answer below, but accidentally commented on the question itself instead. Since your comment is important—mind copy it below to the answer? – Yatharth Agarwal Dec 22 '18 at 11:53
  • @conifold- Look into Robert Hanna's work on Academia.edu. He is a leading Kant scholar and has almost 300 papers and 30 books. You can access many of them and download them. – user37981 Oct 11 '19 at 18:58

The notion of a priori changed a lot since Kant, see Did Kant consider Newtonian mechanics a priori? Today they are seen as potentially fallible, even if not empirical.

The Austrian school, including Brentano’s pupils Stumpf, Husserl and Reinach, and more recently "Manchester three" Mulligan, Simons, and Barry Smith, focused on more immediate and elementary a priori. The idea is that they are a priori because when we try to conceive of a counterexample not only can we not, but we "see" that it is impossible. Barry Smith wrote an interesting essay In Defense of Extreme (Fallibilistic) Apriorism arguing that attempts to do without such a priori invariably end up relying on them in a guise. Polish philosopher Wojciech Zelaniec catalogued a list of prototypical examples of Austrian a priori (see below).

As for more "serious" a priori, the conception was developed by some neo-Kantians (Cassirer, recently Friedman) and logical positivists (Reichenbach, Carnap). These are also fallible and revisable, but they are by no means obvious, and their discovery may require a lot of work and thought. Although they may be established in empirical sciences it does not make sense to call them empirical, because they need to be assumed to enable empirical measurements and their theoretical interpretation to begin with. Friedman classifies them into "coordination principles" connecting theoretical parts of scientific theories to observations (e.g. the law of inertia in classical mechanics, or the equivalence principle in general relativity), and "philosophical meta-principles", that act as extra-empirical selection rules (like locality, causality, gauge invariance, general covariance, etc., in physics). See his Einstein, Kant, and the Relativized A Priori and Dynamics of Reason.

Stjernfelt's Diagrammatology (2007) has a nicely written review chapter on synthetic a priori. Zelaniec's list is quoted from there, names in parantheses are philosophers that discussed the example.

Examples of Austrian a priori

  1. every color is extended (Kant, Berkeley, Hume, Husserl, Stumpf)
  2. for every two events, if one of them is later than the other, the other is not later than the first one (Pap)
  3. if something is beautiful and real, then it is good (Roth)
  4. everything red is colored (Chisholm)
  5. every three tones are ordered linearly with regard to their pitch (Roth, Husserl, Stumpf)
  6. the pleasant is preferable to the unpleasant (Scheler)
  7. no surface, if it is red all over, is at the same time green all over (Schlick, Wittgenstein, Russell, Ayer, Pap, (Aristotle))
  8. everything that is square has a shape (Chisholm)
  9. only good actions can be the object of a duty (Scheler)
  10. man acts (Hoppe, von Mises, (Aristotle))
  11. if any tone-quality is eliminated, a tone-intensity will also be eliminated (Husserl)
  12. every promise gives rise to – mutually correlated – claim and obligation (Reinach, Lipps)
  13. pink is more like red than black (Austin, similar examples in Locke, Hume, Reinach, Hering)
  14. every judgment comprises a presentation within itself (Stegmüller, (Brentano))
  • still a bit heavy on the color examples ;-) – viuser Sep 25 '16 at 7:57
  • 2
    and a quite a few controversial examples, like "if something is beautiful and real, then it is good" – viuser Sep 25 '16 at 7:58

"Blue + Yellow = Green."

It's basically a reformulation of 7+5=12, but it helps get the point across for beginners. There's by definition nothing "green" about "blue," nor anything by definition "green" about "yellow," so there's no way to logically deduce this (i.e., it's not a tautology). However, when you add them together you get green, and you get it just as universally as 7+5=12.

And while this may seem rather a posteriori, it doesn't seem any more a posteriori than Austin's example "pink is more like red than black." Furthermore, it also seems to me just as a posteriori as 7+5=12, since one would indeed need to synthesize 7 things with 5 things to get 12, at least once, precisely because the property 12 isn't suggested in either 7 or 5. Were this not the case, 7+5=12 would seem to me just as analytic as "A triangle has three-sides."

  • You get green because of the physiology of human vision. Had we different types of cone cells in our retinas, that might not hold. – David Thornley Oct 29 '18 at 17:08
  • Yeah, this is an a posteriori statement. This is obvious because it applies to paint and not to light. The definition of '+' is in terms of one set of physical facts and not another to which the statement should equally apply were it not observational. – user9166 Aug 10 '19 at 11:57

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.