June 27, 2017


BY David F. Effiong and Innocent Nwaka


Willard Van Orman Quine was born in June 25, 1908 and died in December 25, 2000 was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as “one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century.”Quine is the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not conceptual analysis but the abstract branch of the empirical sciences. His major writings include “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), which attacked the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions and advocated a form of semantic holism, and Word and Object (1960), which further developed these positions and introduced Quine’s famous indeterminacy of translation thesis, advocating a behaviorist theory of meaning. 
In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions with Rudolf Carnap, Nelson Goodman and Alfred Tarski, among others, led Quine to doubt the tenability of the distinction between “analytic” statements those true, simply by the meanings of their words, such as “All bachelors are unmarried” and “synthetic” statements, those true or false by virtue of facts about the world, such as “There is a cat on the mat.” This distinction was central to logical positivism. Like other Analytic philosophers before him, Quine accepted the definition of “analytic” as “true in virtue of meaning alone”. Unlike them, however, he concluded that ultimately the definition was circular. In other words, Quine accepted that analytic statements are those that are true by definition, then argued that the notion of truth by definition was unsatisfactory. 

In this term paper therefore, we shall journey with W.V. Quine’s philosophical exposition(s) towards his rejection of the two dogmas of empiricism.

Two Dogmas of Empiricism” is a paper by analytic philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine published in 1951. According to Peter Godfrey-Smith, (a professor of philosophy in City University of New York), this “paper is sometimes regarded as the most important in all of twentieth-century philosophy”. (Godfrey-Smith, 30-33). The paper is an attack on two central aspects of the logical positivists’ philosophy. One is the analytic-synthetic distinction between analytic truths and synthetic truths, explained by Quine as truths grounded only in meanings and independent of facts, and truths grounded in facts. The other is reductionism, the theory that each meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms that refers exclusively to immediate experience.

“Two Dogmas” is divided into six sections. The first four sections are focused on analyticity, the last two sections on reductionism. There, Quine turns the focus to the logical positivists’ theory of meaning. 

Most of Quine’s argument against analyticity in the first four sections is focused on showing that different explanations of analyticity are circular. The main purpose is to show that no satisfactory explanation of analyticity has been given. Quine begins by making a distinction between two different classes of analytic statements. The first one is called logically true and has the form:

(1) No unmarried man is married

A sentence with that form is true independent of the interpretation of “man” and “married”, so long as the logical particles “no”, “un-” and “is” have their ordinary English meaning.

The statements in the second class have the form:

(2) No bachelor is married.

A statement with this form can be turned into a statement with form (1) by exchanging synonyms with synonyms, in this case “bachelor” with “unmarried man”. It is the second class of statements that lack characterization according to Quine. The notion of the second form of analyticity leans on the notion of synonymy, which Quine believes is in as much need of clarification as analyticity. Most of Quine’s following arguments are focused on showing how explanations of synonymy end up being dependent on the notions of analyticity, necessity, or even synonymy itself.
How do we reduce sentences from the second class to a sentence of class (1)? Some might propose definitions. “No bachelor is married” can be turned into “No unmarried man is married” because “bachelor” is defined as “unmarried man”. But, Quine asks: how do we find out that “bachelor” is defined as “unmarried man”? Clearly, a dictionary would not solve the problem, as a dictionary is a report of already known synonyms, and thus is dependent on the notion of synonymy, which Quine holds as unexplained.

A second suggestion Quine considers is an explanation of synonymy in terms of interchangeability. Two linguistic forms are (according to this view) synonymous if they are interchangeable in all contexts without changing the truth-value. But consider the following example:

(3) “Bachelor” has fewer than ten letters.

Obviously “bachelor” and “unmarried man” are not interchangeable in that sentence. To exclude that example and some other obvious counterexamples, such as poetic quality, Quine introduces the notion of cognitive synonymy. But does interchangeability hold as an explanation of cognitive synonymy – Suppose we have a language without modal adverbs like “necessarily?” Such a language would be extensional, in the way that two predicates which are true about the same objects are interchangeable again without altering the truth-value. Thus, there is no assurance that two terms that are interchangeable without the truth-value changing are interchangeable because of meaning, and not because of chance. For example, “creature with a heart” and “creature with kidneys” share extension.

In a language with the modal adverb “necessarily” the problem is solved, as salva veritate holds in the following case:

(4) Necessarily all and only bachelors are unmarried men

While it does not hold for

(5) Necessarily all and only creatures with a heart are creatures with kidneys.

Presuming that ‘creature with a heart’ and ‘creature with kidneys’ have the same extension, they will be interchangeable salva veritate. But this interchangeability rests upon both empirical features of the language itself and the degree to which extension is empirically found to be identical for the two concepts and not upon the sought for principle of cognitive synonymy.

It seems that the only way to assert the synonymy is by supposing that the terms ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried man’ are synonymous and that the sentence “All and only all bachelors are unmarried men” is analytic. But for salva veritate to hold as a definition of something more than extensional agreement, i.e., cognitive synonymy, we need a notion of necessity and thus of analyticity.

So, from the above example, it can be seen that in order for us to distinguish between analytic and synthetic we must appeal to synonymy; at the same time, we should also understand synonymy with interchangeability salva veritate. However, such a condition to understand synonymy is not enough so we not only argue that the terms should be interchangeable, but necessarily so. And to explain this logical necessity we must appeal to analyticity once again.

Analyticity would be acceptable if we allowed for the verification theory of meaning: an analytic statement would be one synonymous with a logical truth, which would be an extreme case of meaning where empirical verification is not needed, because it is “confirmed no matter what”. “So, if the verification theory can be accepted as an adequate account of statement synonymy, the notion of analyticity is saved after all.”

The problem that naturally follows is how statements are to be verified. An empiricist would say that it can only be done using empirical evidence. So, some form of reductionism (the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience) must be assumed in order for an empiricist to ‘save’ the notion of analyticity. Such reductionism, says Quine, presents just as intractable a problem as did analyticity.

In order to prove that all meaningful statements can be translated into a sense-datum language, a reductionist would surely have to confront “the task of specifying a sense-datum language and showing how to translate the rest of significant discourse, statement by statement, into it.” To illustrate the difficulty of doing so, Quine describes Rudolf Carnap’s attempt in his book Der logische Aufbau der Welt. Quine first observes that Carnap’s starting point was not the strictest possible, as his “sense-datum language” included not only sense-events but also “the notations of logic, up through higher set theory… Empiricists there are who would boggle at such prodigality.” Nonetheless, says Quine, Carnap showed great ingenuity in defining sensory concepts “which, but for his constructions, one would not have dreamed were definable on so slender a basis.” However, even such admirable efforts left Carnap, by his own admission, far short of completing the whole project.
Finally, Quine objects in principle to Carnap’s proposed translation of statements like “quality q is at point-instant x;y;z;t” into his sense-datum language, because he does not define the connective “is at”. Without statements of this kind, it is difficult to see, even in principle, how Carnap’s project could have been completed. The difficulty that Carnap encountered shows that reductionism is, at best, unproven and very difficult to prove. Until a reductionist can produce an acceptable proof, Quine maintains that reductionism is another “metaphysical article of faith”.
However, Quine concluded his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” as follows:

As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer . . . For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits (Quine,43).

Rudolf Carnap

Rudolf Carnap prepared a reply entitled “Quine on Analyticity”, but this was not published until 1990. Addressing Quine’s concern over the status of the sentence “Everything green is extended”, Carnap wrote “the difficulty here lies in the unclarity of the word ‘green’, namely in an indecision over whether one should use the word for something unextended, i.e., for a single space-time point. In daily life it is never so used, and one scarcely ever speaks of space-time points.” Carnap then puts forward that an exact artificial language ought to clarify the problem by defining ‘green’ (or its synonym) as something that is either necessarily or contingently not applied to space-time points. He wrote that once that decision is made, the difficulty is resolved. Carnap also answers Quine’s argument on the use of sets of formal sentences to explain analyticity by arguing that this method is an explication of a poorly understood notion (Carnap, 427-432).
Paul Grice and P. F. Strawson

Paul Grice and P. F. Strawson criticized “Two Dogmas” in their 1956 article “In Defense of a Dogma”. Among other things, they argue that Quine’s skepticism about synonyms leads to a skepticism about meaning. If statements can have meanings, then it would make sense to ask “What does it mean?” If it makes sense to ask “What does it mean?”, then synonymy can be defined as follows: Two sentences are synonymous if and only if the true answer of the question “What does it mean?” asked of one of them is the true answer to the same question asked of the other. They also draw the conclusion that discussion about correct or incorrect translations would be impossible given Quine’s argument.
Hilary Putnam

In “‘Two Dogmas’ revisited”, Hilary Putnam argues that Quine is attacking two different notions. Analytic truth defined as a true statement derivable from a tautology by putting synonyms for synonyms are near Kant’s account of analytic truth as a truth whose negation is a contradiction. Analytic truth defined as a truth confirmed no matter what however, is closer to one of the traditional accounts of a priori. While the first four sections of Quine’s paper concern analyticity, the last two concerns reductionism. Putnam considers the argument in the two last sections as independent of the first four, and at the same time criticizes Quine as mentioned above (Hilary, 202-23).

Quine’s technical work places great emphasis on precision, clarity and simplicity, sometimes to the exclusion of other factors which some have thought important. The idea that one theory should be reformulated so as to maximize theoretical virtues of this kind also plays a major role in his philosophical work. At the heart of Quine’s system is his naturalism, his rejection of any form of knowledge other than our ordinary knowledge manifested in common sense and in science. Taken broadly, as the claim that the method and techniques of natural science are the sources of knowledge about the world, naturalism is widely accepted. But what is the status of the naturalistic claim itself? Quine insists that it too must be based on science.
Quines’s rejection of a philosophically useful distinction between the analytic and the synthetic is also connected with his attitude towards meaning and the uses that philosophers have made of that idea. His rejection of the distinction between the a priori and the a posteriori is not to say ipso facto that he cannot accept any distinction of all among the various things that we take ourselves to know (Hylon,9).

Quine’s concern is with the theoretical or cognitive aspects of our lives. For him, philosophy, should aspire to something like the standards of clarity and ‘explanatoriness’ found in the most successful science. He rejects the idea that familiar ways of describing things, just because they are in general use, must be accepted as clear enough to use for “philosophical and scientific” purposes (Hylton,11).

Quine, W.V.O. (1951), “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” The Philosophical Review 60: p. 20–43. Reprinted in his 1953 From a Logical Point of View. Harvard University Press.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality, 2003, University of Chicago, p. 30-33 (section 2.4 “Problems and Changes”)

Quine, W.V. and Rudolf Carnap (1990). Dear Carnap, Dear Van: The Quine-Carnap Correspondence and Related Work. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 427–432.

Putnam, Hilary, “‘Two dogmas’ revisited.” In Gilbert Ryle, Contemporary Aspects of Philosophy. Stocksfield: Oriel Press, 1976, p. 202–213.

Peter Hylton,Quine: Arguments of the philosophers. NY: Routledge Published, 2007.

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