PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday November 6, 2012



[7.] Willard Van Orman Quine.[1]


·         The most influential and best-known analytic philosopher of the latter half of the 20th century.

·         Born 1908 in Akron, Ohio.

·         Received a BA in mathematics from Oberlin College in 1930.

·         Studied with A.N. Whitehead at Harvard [the same Whitehead who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Russell] and received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1932.

·         During the 1932-33 academic year, he went to Europe on a fellowship; he spent five months in Vienna and attended meetings of the Vienna Circle; he also visited Prague, where he had conversations with Carnap.

·         He became close friends with Carnap and helped bring him to the US in the 1930s.

·         He became an instructor at Harvard in 1936 and continued to teach there until he retired in 1978 (except during WWII, during which he served in the Navy); he held the Edgar Pierce Chair in Philosophy from 1956 until 2000.

·         He was the uncle of Robert Quine, rock guitarist and a founding member of the Voidoids (#80 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time!)

·         He died on Christmas day 2000, in Boston, at age 92; he remained a prolific writer into his 90s.



[7.] Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951).[2]



[7.1.] Background: Carnap and Logical Positivism.


Recall that the Logical Positivists (a.k.a. Logical Empiricists), including A.J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap, held that there are only two sorts of cognitively meaningful statement:


cognitively meaningful statements

logical meaning:



(the analytic a priori)

empirical meaning:


historical statements

common-sense empirical


(the synthetic a posteriori)




And recall that the criterion of empirical meaning is given by:


The Verification Principle (df.): A sentence S is empirically meaningful if and only if S is verifiable by experience, i.e., S can shown to be true or false by means of the senses.


Carnap, as well as other Logical Positivists, eventually came to think that any empirically meaningful statement could be “reduced” or “analyzed into” a statement that refers to nothing but sense impressions. For example, “There is an apple on the table” can in principle be reduced to a very complicated statement which refers to nothing but the speaker’s own sense impressions.


This sort of reductionism is closely associated with the Verification Principle, which ties the empirical meaning of a statement to the sense experiences needed to verify it.


As we have seen, an important consequence that is supposed to follow from all this is that metaphysical statements are meaningless (because the pseudo-statements of metaphysics are neither logically meaningful nor empirically meaningful). The Logical Positivists held that philosophers should give it up and concentrate on clarifying scientific and mathematical concepts.


In “Two Dogmas,” Quine sets out to destroy this way of thinking about meaning, metaphysics and philosophy.


He argues against two ideas:

1.      the analytic/synthetic distinction: the idea that there is a real distinction between analytic statements and synthetic statements.

2.      reductionism: the idea that a given meaningful statement can be reduced to, or analyzed into, terms that refer to “immediate experience.”


And he seeks to show how the rejection of these two ideas has two effects:

1.      “a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science” (518);

2.      “a shift toward pragmatism” (518). We’ll see soon what Quine means by “pragmatism.”





[7.2.] Rejecting Dogma #1: The Analytic/Synthetic Distinction.



[7.2.1.] Replacing Kant’s Version of the Distinction.


Quine begins by rejecting Kant’s way of describing the distinction (518):


analytic (Kant’s df.): an analytic judgment contains nothing in the concept of the predicate not already thought in the concept of the subject.


synthetic (Kant’s df): a synthetic judgment is one that is not analytic.


He gives two reasons for rejecting it:

(a)    it is too narrow, since it limits the distinction to statements of subject-predicate form [and thus excludes conditionals, conjunctions, disjunctions, and other statements that are not of subject-predicate form]; and

(b)   it relies on a metaphor of containment that Kant never explains.


He says that from the way Kant actually used the distinction, it is clear that he meant something like this:


analytic (Quine’s provisional df.): an analytic statement “is true [or false] in virtue of meanings [i.e., the meanings of the terms that it contains] and independently of fact.” (518)


Presumably, Quine would define synthetic statements as follows:


synthetic (Quine’s provisional df.): a synthetic statement is one that is true or false in virtue of both facts and the meanings of the terms that it contains.


Once the definitions of “analytic” and “synthetic” have been reformulated in this way, a central question comes into view: what is meaning? “Pursuing this line, let us examine the concept of meaning which is presupposed [by these definitions of ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’].” (518)



[7.2.2.] Meaning is Not Reference.


Following Frege, Quine recognizes that “meaning is not to be identified with naming, or reference.” (518) He illustrates this point with three kinds of referring term:



Names of concrete objects


Recall that Frege had used the example of the Morning Star and the Evening Star to argue that a term’s meaning cannot be limited to the thing in the world that the expression represents. Frege distinguished between a term’s reference (the thing or object to which it refers) and its sense (given by a definite description):





“the Morning Star”

the planet Venus

conveyed by the definite description “the last star to disappear in the morning”

“the Evening Star”

the planet Venus

conveyed by the definite description “the first star to appear at night”


Quine agrees with Frege’s reasoning on this point:


Understood not merely as a recurrent evening apparition but as a body, the Evening Star is the planet Venus, and the Morning Star is the same. The two singular terms name the same thing. But the meanings must be treated as distinct, since the identity 'Evening Star = Morning Star' is a statement of fact established by astronomical observation. If 'Evening Star' and 'Morning Star' were alike in meaning, the identity 'Evening Star = Morning Star' would be analytic. (518-519)


He then cites Russell’s example of “Scott” and “the author of Waverly” to make the same point:


Again there is Russell's example of 'Scott' and 'the author of Waverly.' Analysis of the meanings of words was by no means sufficient to reveal to George IV that the person named by these two singular terms was one and the same. (519)


The point is that the meaning of a term like “the Evening Star,” “the Morning Star,” “Scott” or “the author of Waverley” cannot be the entity that the term refers to, since in that case, the statements


“The Morning Star is the Evening Star”




“Scott is the author of Waverley


would be true in virtue of nothing but the meanings of their words; i.e., they would be analytic.



Names of abstract objects


Quine says that the same point applies, not just to names, but to singular abstract terms, like:


The distinction between meaning and naming is no less important at the level of abstract terms. The terms '9' and 'the number of planets' name one and the same abstract entity but presumably must be regarded as unlike in meaning; for astronomical observation was needed, and not mere reflection on meanings, to determine the sameness of the entity in question. (519)


The expressions “nine” and “the number of planets” refer to “the same abstract entity,” namely, the number nine, but they must have different meanings; otherwise “Nine is the number of planets” would be analytic.



General terms / predicates


General terms or predicates do not have references, but they do have extensions:


extension (df.): the extension of a general term is the class of all things to which that term applies.


With general terms, or predicates, the situation is somewhat different but parallel. Whereas a singular term purports to name an entity, abstract or concrete, a general term does not; but a general term is true of an entity, or of each of many, or of none. The class of all entities of which a general term is true is called the extension of the term. Now paralleling the contrast between the meaning of a singular term and the entity named, we must distinguish equally between the meaning of a general term and its extension. The general terms 'creature with a heart' and 'creature with a kidney,' e.g., are perhaps alike in extension but unlike in meaning. (519)


The example Quine employs here is: “Any creature with a heart is a creature with a kidney.”


This is true, but (says Quine) not analytic. Thus “creature with a heart” and “creature with a kidney” have the same extension, but do not have the same meaning. So the meaning of a general term is not one and the same thing as its extension.



[7.2.3] Meanings Aren’t Entities.


So if the meaning of a term isn’t its reference, is it some other entity (a thing or item that exists)? Quine answers: no. In the next two paragraphs, he underscores the mystery and obscurity surrounding the view that the meaning of a term is an entity other than the term’s reference.


For the theory of meaning the most conspicuous question is as to the nature of its objects: what sort of things are meanings? They are evidently intended to be ideas, somehow—mental ideas for some semanticists, Platonic ideas for others [e.g., Frege]. Objects of either sort are so elusive, not to say debatable, that there seems little hope of erecting a fruitful science about them. It is not even clear, granted meanings, when we have two and when we have one; it is not clear when linguistic forms should be regarded as synonymous, or alike in meaning, and when they should not. If a standard of synonymy should be arrived at, we may reasonably expect that the appeal to meanings as entities will not have played a very useful part in the enterprise.

A felt need for meant entities may derive from an earlier failure to appreciate that meaning and reference are distinct. Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing as the business of the theory of meaning simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements; meanings themselves, as obscure intermediary entities, may well be abandoned.

The description of analyticity as truth by virtue of meanings started us off in pursuit of a concept of meaning. But now we have abandoned the thought of any special realm of entities called meanings. So the problem of analyticity confronts us anew. (519)


Since the very notion of meaning is so problematic, it cannot be used to formulate the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. If that distinction is to be explained satisfactorily, we will have to explain it without relying on the concept of meaning.



Stopping point for Tuesday November 5. For next time, finish reading “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” pp.526-531 (sections 5 and 6).




[1] A massive web site on Quine is < >. Another valuable Quine resource is < >. And try this site for an interactive quiz about “On What There Is”: < >.


[2] See for online version of this article -- this document notes the differences between the original version and a later version. It’s also searchable with the search function of your web browser.


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