–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Course Notes: W.V.O Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951)

by | Feb 19, 2024

“Two Dogmas” is widely thought to have dealt a 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 [a] trivially true or false – the so-called “analytic a priori” statements, like “Bachelors are unmarried men” – or [b] true or false by virtue of some empirically verifiable state of affairs – the so-called “synthetic a posteriori” statements, like “Bachelors live in New Jersey.” 

These ideas become Quine’s targets in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” Specifically, he maintains that:

[1]  We can give no clear, non-question-begging account of analytic statements.  

[2]  Individual statements do not enjoy their own, individual verification conditions.

Quine’s arguments regarding analyticity go something like this: 

The concept of a logical truth – “No unmarried man is married” – is clearly defined, so we might define an analytic statement as those statements we can turn into logical truths by substituting synonymous expressions. Thus, we can turn “Bachelors are unmarried men” into “Unmarried men are unmarried men,” 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, such 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 nine – 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 planets in our solar system is less than ten, it is not a necessary truth, as there could have been more planets had things gone differently. This shows that ‘nine’ and ‘the number of planets in the solar system’, while co-referential, are not synonymous. However, one can substitute ‘three times three’ for ‘nine’ and preserve the truth value of the sentence, which demonstrates that only synonymous expressions will be substitutable in and out of a “Necessarily” sentence. Perhaps, then, we can define synonymy as “substitutability in statements of necessary truths/falsehoods, without a change of truth value.” Having thus defined synonymy, we can then define analyticity, in terms of logical truth, as we did before.

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 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 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.