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Some Thoughts on Quine

By tdberg

In Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Quine critiques several attempts of defining
the analyticity of synonnimity, definition, and semantical rules. His first observation is that the notion of synonnimity is in just as much need of definition as the concept of analyticity itself. Additionally, if we are to choose the concept of truth by definition, or the substitution of logical truths with the terms they define, we will run into the problem of a presupposition of synonymy. To illustrate this, Quine uses the example of the two statements (1) No unmarried man is married, and (2) No bachelor is married. If we make an appeal to the semantics, we understand that they are the same since an unmarried man is a bachelor. If we examine the syntactics, however, we realize that the second statement lacks characterization. Why? Because we have to lean on synonnimity to define what a bachelor is when we reduce the second proposition into the first. As Quine states, “Who defined it thus, and when?”. If we are to appeal to a dictionary, are we not consulting a book of known synonyms? Clearly if we are to rely on this interchangeability we will eventually run into a pattern of circularity as well. It is for this reason that Quine argues against state-descriptions, which is contained in Carnap’s explanation of analyticity. For this explanation to actually be the case, all statements would have to be mutually independent, and clearly this is impossible in the case of synonyms. Furthermore, it is not the case that the truth-values of the synonyms will hold in all worlds. To illustrate this using the previous example we can state, “Unmarried man is two words”. If we substitute bachelor for unmarried man in this example, we will arrive at falsity. Or, if we use Quine’s illustration, “’Bachelor’ has less than ten letters” and substitute the synonym unmarried man for bachelor, we will arrive at a counterexample. To further his argument, Quine next disputes our comfort in the reassurance of a definition, whether that definition is logical or mathematical. This is because our comfort lies in a concept of definition that has a prior relationship to synonymy, which is as of yet still unexplained.

Quine also rejects the concept that there is a distinction made between the analytic and synthetic, a belief which is held to be unyielding by most empiricists. He claims that this distinction is dubious and naive because it fails to realize the impossibility of translating statements term by term, thus bridging the gap between the theoretical and observable in a non-intuitive maner. In order to explain this improbability, Quine notes that analytic statements must be confirmed no matter what. This is important because it highlights the difficulty contained in the verification theory of meaning. Clearly this type of confirmation is vacuous at best, because it is done ipso facto. Secondly, he insists that the truth of a statement does indeed depend on linguistic fact. What Quine refers to as the dogma of reductionism is scrupulously connected to this. It is not possible, he argues, to reduce every statement into a statement of experience. In particular, he critiques Carnap’s method of direct report in which all unobservable terms can be translated into observable ones. Why? Because the concept of the analytic being true by virtue of meaning alone, is incoherent. As such, Quine rejects the concept that the individual statements that form a scientific theory can be confirmed or disconfirmed as individual units, and that, as such “the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.” In other words, if a scientific theory is taken as a whole, it is less problematic in its explanations of empirical meaning, definition, and coherence.

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