Sunday, 18 May 2014

Quine's 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism'

Quine's First Dogma of Empiricism 
i) Analyticity 
ii) Meaning 
iii) Meaning and Essence 
iv) Definitions 
v) What is Analyticity? 
vi) Semantic Rules

Quine’s First Dogma of Empiricism


The problem of analyticity goes back at least as far as Leibniz. It then become the victim of a series of “sign substitutions” (to use Derridas term).

The essential distinction we can make is between synthetic and analytic statements (to opt, essentially, for Immanuel Kant’s terms). David Hume, for one, made the following distinction between

relations of ideas


matters of fact

The former is essentially a question of what goes on in the mind (the “play of ideas”), regardless of what goes on in the outside world. Hume would have given as an example of this the statement “1+1=2”. That is, we don't need to look out of the window (or anywhere else) to determine the truth of that statement.

Matters of fact” are of course matters of the external world. A statement like “Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister” will fit the bill nicely. I can't determine the truth of this statement simply by analysing the contents of my own mind (unless an experience of Boris Johnson being the Prime Minister is part of the content of my own mind).

Instead of talking about “relations of ideas”, Leibniz, before Hume, talked about “truths of reason”. According to Leibniz, truths of reason are true at all possible worlds. Hume’s matters of fact, on the other hand, may be true at only one possible world (perhaps our own).

According to both Leibniz and Hume, all statements fall into these two categories. Hume went further and said that all the statements that didn’t fall into these two categories should be “assigned to the flames” as nonsense (e.g., those of Scholastic metaphysics).

Kant is known not for making this distinction: he's known for clarifying what he deemed to be an analytic statement. He said that analytic statements attribute to their subjects nothing more than is already conceptually contained in the subjects. An example of this would be:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a politician.

To use Kant’s terms here: the attribute “is a politician” is already conceptually contained in the subject, “Prime Minister Boris Johnson”. (In contemporary speak, the second phrase “is a politician” would be classed as the “predicate” rather than the “attribute”.) To gloss on the Boris Johnson example, we can say that if the subject is true (that Johnson is Prime Minister), then the attribute must be true (that he's a politician).

To generalise: an analytic statement is true “by virtue of meanings [alone] and independently of fact”. So if the subject-term is true, then the predication must be true. The meaning of “Prime Minister Boris Johnson” makes the meaning of “is a politician” true. That is, it can be deemed true without recourse to experience, providing we accept the truth of the subject-term.


Quine then moves away from analyticity itself and has something to say about meaning.

His first point is that extensions, references or denotata can't determine the meaning of a word or phrase. He gives the examples of the term “9” and the phrase “the number of planets”. Both the term and the phrase designate the same abstract entity, namely, the number 9. However, we can't say that the term “9” and the phrase “the number of planets” have the same meaning. There is a possible world where the number of planets isn't nine; whereas in every possible world “9” will designate the number 9.

Quine points out that astronomical observation was required to determine the number of planets in our world; though astronomy isn’t needed to determine the referent of “9”. This means that we need to distinguish the meanings of general terms (rather than particular terms) from their extensions.

Quine gives the examples of “creature with a kidney” and “creature with a heart” as having the same extension. This means the collection of objects that are the extension of the former are also the extension of the latter. But, again, the meanings of these two examples are clearly not the same. So extensions alone don't provide us with the meanings of terms. Saying something has a heart is clearly not the same as saying that something has a kidney.

Essence and Meaning

Quine then goes in for a bit of historical exegesis. According to him, the concept [essence] is historically related to the concept [meaning]. More precisely, “essence was the forerunner…of the modern notion of intension or meaning”.

Quine rejects the whole notion of essence. He says that

it makes no sense to say of the actual individual, who, is at once a man and a biped, that his rationality is essential and his two-leggedness accidental or vice versa”.

(The class of men and the class of bipeds both include the same extension.)

Quine doesn’t see why this distinction between essential and contingent properties is made. It appears in essence to be entirely arbitrary and seems to serve no real purpose. Why is rationality essential and two-leggedness contingent (or vice versa)? Is an irrational man not, well, a man? And if an elephant were rational, would it be a man? And so on.

What's the connection Quine is making between essence and meaning?

Traditionally, according to Quine, only things had essences. And, of course, only linguistic forms have meanings. But, somewhere along the line, essences became meanings. As Quine puts it:

Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.”

The essence of a thing is passed onto the essential meanings of the word that refers to that thing. We now look for the essence in the meaning of a word. Essence “is divorced from the object” and then it's found again by being “wedded to the word”. But, to stress, the word (or the linguistic expression) isn't the essence: it is the meaning prior to or “behind” the word. Meanings provide us with essences. So the old show carries on under a series of sign substitutions. Formerly we had the essences of things and their contingent properties. (For example, rationality as the essence of man and two-leggedness as a contingent property.). Then we had the essences of words and their contingent properties. (That is, the meaning of a word is its essence, and the linguistic expression or notation of it - i.e. the word - is merely a contingent property.)

Quine wants to jettison this traditional view of meanings (as mental or abstract entities behind or prior to their expression). All he now wants from meaning is “simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements”. This means that when someone asks for the meaning of a statement, we don't refer to abstract mental entities or even mention them; we simply offer a synonym of that statement.

As for the analyticity of statements: the subject and predicate of an analytic statement are not synonyms because they both contain the same meanings; but because they're both mutually inter-translatable. Meanings “as obscure intermediary entities may well be abandoned”.

Quine shows us what he means by giving us an example of a “logically true” statement. Take the following:

No unmarried man is married.

This statement is logically true. Why? Because “under any and all reinterpretations of ‘man’ and ‘married’ it remains true". That is, the logical particles “no”, “un-“, “not”, “if”, “then” and “and”, would remain the same in all reinterpretations even if we substitute “bloke” for “man” or “heterosexual” and “gay” for “unmarried” and “married”, as in:

No heterosexual bloke is gay.

Despite what's been said, the above isn't a logical truth: it's an analytic truth. And an analytic truth, by virtue of being an analytic truth, can be turned into a logical truth “by putting synonyms for synonyms”. So the above can be turned into this:

No non-gay is gay.

(It could be said, strictly speaking, that non-gay isn't a synonym of heterosexual if a non-gay isn't, again strictly speaking, heterosexual either.) A less contentious substitution would be Quine’s own example, in which

No bachelor is married.


No unmarried man is married.

Because of the similarity of terms, Quine’s substitution seems clearer than my own.

Not we begin to see why Quine believes that analytic statements aren't fully distinguishable - or distinguishable at all - from synthetic statements. Take

No heterosexual is gay.

again. Can we really know this to be true independently of experience (or Humean matters of fact)? It's indeed true that “bachelor” is defined as “unmarried man”. Though how do we find this out? We could look at a dictionary. But, according to Quine, the lexicographer “is an empirical scientist”. That means that he's found out certain matters of fact. Namely, that among English speakers “unmarried man” is deemed the definition of “bachelor”. More correctly and relevantly, “unmarried man” isn't the meaning of “bachelor”: it's a synonym of that word. Again, there's no need to advert to entities called “meanings”. So not only does

No bachelor is married.

not depend on meanings for its truth: it may not be truly analytic either. Why is that? Because we depend on the “general or preferred usage” of the terms involved in the statement. And they exist prior to our own articulation of it.


Quine goes into more detail about the exact nature of definitions.

His first point is that the relation of synonymy (say, between “bachelor” and “unmarried man”) is stipulated or created “by fiat” - to use Quine’s own term - between the definiendum (“bachelor”) and the definiens (“an unmarried man”). This relation of synonymy, according to Quine, “did not hold before”. That’s why it is stipulated or created by fiat. The

definiendum becomes synonymous with the definiens simply because it's been created expressly for the purpose of being synonymous with the definiens”.

This seems to be Quine’s way of saying that these synonyms are the result of convention (or human will); rather than the matching up of both terms with pre-existing mental or Platonic entities (i.e., meanings). We decide that “bachelor” and “unmarried man” are synonyms. They aren’t made so by prior meanings. The synonymy “is created by definition”, not by abstract meanings.

What makes two linguistic forms synonymous? According to Quine, it's because both synonymous terms are interchangeable “in all contexts without change of truth value”. That is, they are interchangeable salva veritate. What does that mean? It means that

All bachelors are unmarried.

can have its terms substituted for

All unmarried men are unmarried.

without a change in truth-value. We can also substitute, in this context, “men without wives” for “bachelors” salva veritate. These stipulative synonyms could be almost indefinite.

Quine then goes into greater detail about the nature of synonymy. He talks about two forms of synonymy between words or statements.

Firstly, there is cognitive synonymy. That is a “complete identity in psychological associations or poetic quality” between words or statements. This kind of synonymy doesn't concern Quine here. The kind of synonymy he's concerned with he calls “cognitive synonymy”. What is cognitive synonymy? This is a synonymy that can be created by turning an analytic statement into a logical truth by putting synonyms for synonyms.

So, again, we turn

No bachelor is married.

into Quine’s

All and only bachelors are unmarried men.

What is Analyticity?

Quine still has a problem. And that problem is: What is “analytic”? (Rather than: “What does ‘analytic’ mean?”) Quine explains his problem. To say

Necessarily all and only bachelors are unmarried men.

is true” is to say that

All and only bachelors are unmarried men.

is analytic”. So we're back with the term “analytic”. That is, we're saying that “bachelor” and “unmarried man” are cognitively synonymous (or analytic). We class that which is synonymous by saying that it's analytic; and that which is analytic by saying that it's that which is synonymous. We're arguing in a circle. Again, what is “analytic”?

Here Quine recaps on the notion of extensionality. He says that two predicates are extensional when they are true of the same object. From there we can move to synonymy or analyticity. That is, the two predicates just mentioned can be interchanged salva veritate (i.e., while retaining truth). So the two predicates used within the same statement will guarantee synonymy and therefore analyticity. Though Quine says that in an “extensional language…interchangeability salva veritate is no assurance of cognitive synonymy”. What’s Quine’s problem? Well, to be cognitively synonymous is to say that a statement must be a logical truth, not an analytic truth. A logical truth is

No unmarried man is married.

whereas an analytic truth is

All and only bachelors are unmarried men.

They clearly aren’t identical. To guarantee an analytic truth’s independence from syntheticity (or Humean matters of fact) would require it to be, well, a logical rather than an analytical truth. Quine goes on and says that “’bachelor’ and ‘unmarried man’ are interchangeable salva veritate in an extensional language assures us” of this. That

All and only bachelors are unmarried men.

is true.

We're back to analyticity, which hasn’t been adequately explained. Though there's a synthetic, rather than an analytic, component to the statement above. There's no

assurance here that the extensional agreement of ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried man’ rests on meaning [analyticity] rather than merely on accidental matters of fact”.

If “creature with a heart” and “creature with kidneys” have extensional agreement without sameness of meaning, then “bachelor” and “unmarried man” may have extensional agreement without sameness of meaning. So let's forget about sameness of meaning altogether. Or, more completely, let’s forget about meaning simpliciter! Let’s just concern ourselves with extensional agreement or sameness. According to Quine, “extensional agreement is the nearest approximation to synonymy we need care about”.

Analyticity appears to be a mere will-o’-the-wisp. Quine went through a whole series of stages to try and find analyticity. Firstly:

Analyticity…seemed most naturally definable by appeal to a realm of meanings.”


On refinement, the appeal to meanings gave way to an appeal to synonymy or definition.”

And finally:

“…definition turned out to be a will-o’-the-wisp, and synonymy turned out to be best understood only by dint of a prior appeal to analyticity itself.”

As Quine put it, “we are back at the problem of analyticity”. We have delineated a circle of terms which are all mutually interdependent and inter-definable.

Quine changes his tune a little by forgetting about bachelors and unmarried men to focus on what is a famous example of an analytically true statement:

Everything green is extended.

Is that statement analytic? Intuitively it seems to be analytically true (or simply analytic). How can anything be green and not be extended? Greenness needs something to be green: it doesn’t just float in the air (what about rainbows?). And if the colour green needs an object to be green, it can’t exist apart from an object, then everything green must be extended.

What’s Quine’s problem with the analyticity of “Everything green is extended”? He doesn’t have a problem with the meanings of “green” and “extended”. He knows what “green” and “extended” mean. No, the trouble is with that term again – “analytic”. He may accept that everything green is extended; though he doesn’t accept that “Everything green is extended” is an analytic statement. What does analyticity add to the truth of that statement? More precisely, again, what is analyticity? Is there something over and above that statement being true? Where is it and what is it?

Semantic Rules

Rudolf Carnap offered another take on analyticity. He said that analyticity is a question of meanings; though he also said that the analyticity is generated by semantic rules. Quine goes into detail about Carnap’s alternative; though he rejects this too.

Carnap said that we firstly formulate an artificial language. Call it Lo. The semantical rules of Lo tell us which statements of the language are analytic.

After this account of Quine’s position on analyticity, we should be able to guess his problem with this approach. I wrote earlier that Lo tells us which statements should be taken as analytic. Yes; but we don’t understand the word “analytic” in the first place. So how do the stipulations of Lo solve our problems with analyticity? To use Quine’s own words, we “understand what expressions the rules attribute analyticity to, but we do not understand what the rules attribute to those expressions”. That is, Lo tells us what statements are analytic; though it doesn't tell us what “analytic” means. So we're back to analyticity again. Quine thinks that Carnap would have been forced back to uninterpreted analyticity thus:

A statement S is analytic for language Lo, if and only if…” (it's analytic)

More to the point, by “saying what statements are analytic for Lo, we explain ‘analytic-for-L’ but not ‘analytic’” but analytic for…

So instead of explaining the word “analytic”, we can explain “semantical rule” instead. Now Quine makes a holist point about this and the other explications of analyticity. (Quine was very big on holisms of various descriptions). He would say: Yes, of course analytic can be accepted or defined within a system or a system of terms. (We mentioned the analyticity circle earlier one.) In terms of what postulates are, he says:

Relative to a given set of postulates, it is easy to say what a postulate is: it is a member of the set [the set of postulates].”

And the same is true of semantic rules:

Relative to a given set of semantical rules, it is equally easy to say what a semantical rule is.”

It's a member of the set. So why not fill in the blanks here? What is an analytic statement? Relative to a given set of analytic statements, it's easy to say what an analytic statement is: it's a member of the set. But, you guessed it, we're told which statements are analytic, but not what analyticity is!

To get back to semantic rules.

Quine said that semantic rules are

determining the analytic statements of an artificial language are of interest only in so far as we already understand the notion of analyticity; they are of no help in gaining that understanding”.

Why spend so much time on the notion of analyticity? Well, for a start, the belief that

in general…the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a linguistic component and a factual component”

was what Quine was arguing against. This is, in fact, the first dogma of empiricism. If you take the linguistic/factual dualism to be true, then one will believe that a statement in which there is no factual element, then that statement will be analytic. But Quine has argued that no such division can be made. The so-called “analytic” statements he analysed contained both a factual and a linguistic element. As he concludes:

“…a boundary between analytic and synthetic statements simply has not been drawn.”

Such a belief in analytic statements is an “unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith”.

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