By Daniel A. Kaufman
On tap this week is one of the most influential philosophy papers of the last century, Willard Van Orman Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” which initially appeared in the Philosophical Review in 1951 and was later reprinted in his book, From a Logical Point of View, first published in 1953.
The paper is widely believed to have dealt a severe, perhaps even fatal blow to Logical Empiricism, a 20th Century version of the classical Empiricism of the Enlightenment. At the heart of Logical Empiricism is the idea that all the well-formed statements of a language are either trivially true or false – these are the so-called “analytic a priori” statements, like “No bachelor is unmarried” – or true or false by virtue of some empirically verifiable state of affairs – the so-called “synthetic a posteriori” statements, like “No bachelor lives in New Jersey.”
These ideas become Quine’s targets in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” Specifically, he maintains that:
- We can give no clear, non-question-begging account of analytic statements.
- Individual statements do not enjoy their own, individual verification conditions.
Quine’s arguments regarding analyticity go something like this.
Given that the concept of a logical truth – “No unmarried man is married” – is well-defined, we might define analytic statements as those statements that can be turned into logical truths, by substituting synonymous expressions. Thus, we can turn “No bachelor is unmarried” into “No unmarried man is unmarried,” by substituting the terms ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried man’, which are synonymous.
This, of course, requires that we have some account of synonymy. It is tempting to simply say that two terms are synonymous if they have the same meaning, but this presupposes that we have an appropriate notion of meaning to work with. Indeed, analyticity belongs to a tight-knit family of concepts – analyticity, synonymy, meaning – all of which need explaining, so it does us no good simply to explain one in terms of the other.
The way to define synonymy, Quine says, is by way of substitutability. Two expressions are synonymous if they are substitutable, in and out of sentences, without changing the truth value of those sentences. But this may not be sufficient. After all, in ordinary semantic contexts, substitutability is merely a test for co-referentiality, not synonymy. For example, the word ‘nine’ in the sentence ‘nine is less than ten’ can be substituted with the expression ‘the number of planets in the solar system’, without changing the truth value of the sentence. And while they certainly are co-referential – the two expressions both refer to the number 9 – they are not synonymous.
If, however, we consider semantic contexts beyond the ordinary, such as modal contexts – say a sentence of the form “Necessarily, X is F,” then substitutability does seem to be a test for synonymy. We can see, for example, that we cannot substitute ‘nine’ in the sentence “Necessarily, nine is less than ten,” with ‘the number of planets’, without a change in truth value. After all, while it is true that the number of solar system in our planets is less than ten, it is not a necessary truth. This shows, then, that ‘nine’ and ‘the number of planets in the solar system’, while co-referential, are not synonymous and that only synonymous expressions will be substitutable in and out of a “Necessarily” sentence.
So, perhaps we could define synonymy as “substitutability everywhere, including sentences stating necessary truths and falsehoods.” Having thus defined synonymy, we can then define analyticity, in terms of logical truth.
It is at this point that Quine pulls his last and most clever trick. The account we have just given is circular or at least, effectively circular. For the only necessary truths are the analytic ones, which means that to define synonymy in terms of substitutability and necessary truth is to presuppose that we already have an account of analyticity, which is what we were looking for, in the first place.
In response to the second Empiricist idea – that individual statements have their own verification conditions – Quine introduces what will become the very well-known and much-discussed “Web of Belief”; the idea that the various statements we assent to are, in the immediate sense, dependent upon one another for confirmation, much like the strands of a spider’s web are all connected and mutually-supporting, and only are confirmed by experience as a group, at the web’s boundaries, where it connects to the world. Thus, ultimately, all substantive statements – even the statements of mathematics – are confirmed empirically, although it may take disconfirmation across a wide span of the web to reveal the falsity of such statements, which lie near its center.
This paper, along with his book, Word and Object (1960), set much of the agenda for analytic philosophy, after the Second World War and is one of the most widely cited philosophy papers of the 20th century.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Quine’s arguments and what follows from them!
Daniel A. Kaufman is Professor of Philosophy at Missouri State University, and his main areas of interest are aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language.