Synthesis (from ancient Greek σύνθεσις, σύν (with) and θεσις, placing) is commonly understood to be an integration of two or more pre-existing elements which results in a new creation. The term is found is a wide variety of contexts, but it has had two central roles in philosophy: describing a certain type of resolution to an argumentative conflict, and describing a mental process that combines representations. The latter usage stems primarily from the work of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Synthesis as a resolution of conflicts is often achieved by conscious effort, which involves a change of perspective. Innovative ideas are often born out of efforts to synthesize conflicting perspectives. Synthesis as a mental process, on the other hand, is often an unconscious mechanism of mind. Kant described various mechanisms of synthesis in diverse spheres of human experiences. In empirical cognition, for example, mind synthesizes diverse information coming from the object such as color, smell, textual feelings and, as a result, conceives a unified object. Furthermore, mind synthesizes experiences of the past and anticipatory projection to the future at the present time. This is the synthetic unity of time element in mind. Synthesis is also found in experience of the cognitive subject. In all human activities, experiences are seen as the experience of one cognitive subject, ‘I’ or ‘Self.’ Kant called the structural feature of the mind that gives rise to ‘I’ or ‘Self’ the “transcendental unity of apperception” (see transcendental ego). Synthesis is one of central concepts in Kant's philosophy.
The 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' terminology is often associated with the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, though Hegel himself never employs these terms (their origin is largely in Kant's discussions of 'antinomies'). In his notoriously difficult Science of Logic (1812-1816), Hegel describes a process whereby certain nearly-contradictory claims (the thesis and antithesis) somehow lead towards a more advanced truth that incorporates them both (synthesis). Though it is a matter of great interpretive debate as to what sort of process Hegel is describing (historical, logical, psychological, etc.), his 'dialectical method' was a source of great inspiration for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Outside of Hegel, the same terminology is used in a less radical setting to describe the rhetorical structure of a debate or argument. Schematically, one person might make some statement S, while another asserts some statement incompatible with S. One possibility is that they will simply continue to disagree. Another possibility is that one of the disputants will abandon his claim, and accept the contrary claim. In certain cases, however, the resolution might come from each disputant recognizing something true in the opposing claim, and each then revising his claim say as to avoid any contradiction. The resulting claim or claims can be seen as the synthesis of the original claims.
For instance, one person might assert that cake is good, while another holds that cake is bad. These claims might be synthesized once a way is found to incorporate the truth about each—such as in the claim that cake is good-tasting, but bad for one's health.
As a more philosophical example, we might consider one part of the metaphysics of the great German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Writing around the end of the seventeenth century, Leibniz attempted to develop a philosophical system that would accommodate two competing schools of thought: the Scholastic/Aristotlean view of the universe and the Cartesian/Copernican view. According to the former, the universe was structured according to 'final causes' (or purposes). For instance, the explanation for objects falling towards the earth was that those objects were aiming towards or seeking their proper place, which was in the ground (in contrast to celestial bodies, whose proper place was the heavens). By contrast, the Cartesian view saw the universe as structured by 'efficient causes' (or 'mechanical causes'—a notion close to our present-day notion of causation). The Cartesians attempted to explain falling objects in terms of the communication of motion of small portions of matter.
Leibniz's synthesis of the views rested on a distinction he made between levels of reality. On the most fundamental level, the universe was composed of non-spatial, soul-like substances he called 'monads,' while the spatial universe was merely the way in which monads (such as us) represented each other. Monads, Leibniz claimed, acted in accordance with final causes. The spatial world, however, worked in accordance with efficient causes. In other words, Leibniz synthesized the views by dividing the universe and restricting each claim to only one portion of the universe.
Synthesis is one of central concepts in Kant's philosophy. This concept underlies his thought and his philosophical analyses about synthesis are dispersed in various places in his philosophy. This article illustrates only a part of his analyses of the concept of synthesis.
Before explaining the notion of 'synthesis' in Kant's theory, it will be helpful to have a brief explanation of his nuanced picture of the mind (whose central presentation is the Critique of Pure Reason of 1781). Unlike most of his predecessors (e.g. Descartes, John Locke and Leibniz), Kant held that our mental life is best explained by appeal to two fundamentally different types of mental entities: intuitions and concepts. Intuitions are particular representations that directly result from our interaction with other objects, amounting to something like basic sensory data. Concepts, on the other hand, are general representations that we apply to our intuitions in order to generate determinate thoughts about objects. For instance, when two people see a different animal in a cloud, despite being in similar spatial positions relative to the cloud, Kant would say that their intuitions were the qualitatively identical, but that they were applying different concepts to those intuitions.
Kant defines 'synthesis' as "the action of putting different representations together with each other and comprehending their manifoldness in one cognition" (A77/B103, Guyer/Wood Translation). On Kant's view, our minds are constantly receiving intuitions, but these must be combined in some way before they can play any significant rational role in our cognitive lives. How intuitions are synthesized can vary depending on the rules that guide the synthesis (these rules are contained in our concepts). The resulting 'synthesized' representations can in turn be synthesized in more complex ways.
The above case of clouds is a simple instance of this. As a slightly more complex example, we might have some sets of intuitions that are synthesized into representations of black squares, while others are synthesized into representations of white squares. All these might in turn be synthesized into a representation of a checkerboard.
To illustrate synthesis in cognition, let us take another simpler example. When one is watching a rose, he or she perceives multiple pieces of sensible information such as its color, fragrances, shape, and others. Given the requisite concept, man’s mind synthesizes all diverse information into one single idea, a rose. Furthermore, when one sees a rose, he or she recalls previous experiences of seeing roses in the past. One also anticipates a possibility of future experience of similar cognition. Synthesis is also found in the cognitive subject. The ‘Self’ or ‘I’ is present at all of his or her activities. One experiences all experiences as his or her experience. The ‘Self’ or ‘I’ is present at the center of the unity of all experiences. Kant called the result of synthesis that gives rise to the ‘I’ or the ‘Self’ the “transcendental unity of apperception” (see transcendental ego). Kant argued this synthesis of the self is present at all human experiences.
Sir Peter Strawson, in his influential work on Kant, The Bounds of Sense, claimed that the notion of synthesis was part of an unfortunate aspect of Kant's philosophy which Strawson referred to as "the imaginary subject of transcendental psychology" (Strawson 1966, 32). Strawson believed that the value of Kant's theoretical project lay merely in his philosophical analysis of certain concepts (most importantly, that of experience), but that Kant's descriptions of mental processes and mechanisms were unjustified, uninformative, and best pruned from Kant's analyses. Although Strawson himself was quite clear that his project was more philosophical than interpretive, his view on the matter shaped Kant scholarship in the English-speaking world for several decades.
In more recent years, interpreters of Kant (including Henry Allison and Patricia Kitcher) have shown renewed interest in the more psychological aspects of his project. The general opinion is that notions like 'synthesis' in Kant must be understood if we are to have a clear view of his overall project, and moreover may not be as misguided as Strawson had claimed.
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