PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday November 13, 2012



[7.3.] Rejecting Dogma #2: Reductionism.[1]


In section 5 of “Two Dogmas,” Quine argues against the second dogma of empiricism: “reductionism.” But he will also argue that “[t]he two dogmas are, indeed, at root identical.” (528)



[7.3.1.] Can the Verification Principle Save Analyticity?


The attack on reduction begins with Quine considering one final strategy for saving the analytic/synthetic distinction, one last-ditch effort to explain analyticity in a satisfactory way. The strategy takes its cue from the Verification Principle in that it relies on empirical verification:


First, explain synonymy in terms of empirical verification: “statements are synonymous if and only if they are alike in point of method of empirical confirmation or infirmation.” (526) I.e., two statements are synonymous iff the exact same sensory observations would show them to be true or show them to be false.


Then explain analyticity in terms of synonymy: an analytic statement is one that “is synonymous with a logically true statement.” (526)


And finally, explain logical truth as follows: a logically true statement is one that “is true and remains true under all reinterpretations of its components other than the logical particles.” (520)


·         By “logical particulars,” Quine means words and parts of words like “no,” “un-,” “not” “if … then …,” “and” and “or”.


·         So on this account, “No unmarried man is married” is a logical truth.


·         Since “No bachelor is unmarried” has the same method of empirical confirmation as “No unmarried man is married,” they are synonymous sentences, and thus “No bachelor is unmarried” is analytic.


Now you might be thinking, “No bachelor is married” and “No unmarried man is married” would not be disconfirmed by any observation whatsoever. Or to put the point a different way, those statements would be empirically confirmed by any observation whatsoever—either one of them is “vacuously confirmed … come what may.” (528)


But, says Quine, not so fast…


Statement synonymy is said to be likeness of method of empirical confirmation or infirmation. Just what are these methods which are to be compared for likeness? What, in other words, is the nature of the relationship between a statement and the experiences which contribute to or detract from its confirmation? (562)


And this is what brings us to the second dogma…



[7.3.2.] Carnap’s Radical Reductionism.


One view (Quine says it’s the most naïve) of the relationship between a statement and the experiences that help to confirm or disconfirm it is:


radical reductionism (df.): every empirically meaningful statement is translatable into a statement about immediate experience.


As Quine indicates, this way of connecting meaningfulness to what is immediately given in experience goes back much farther than the Logical Positivists and their Verification Principle. It is something that unites the members of the philosophical tradition known as empiricism, according to which experience (as opposed to reason) is the only, or at least the most important, source of knowledge.



[7.3.3.] Interlude: a Brief History of Empiricism.


One common belief of empiricism is that concepts have meaning only if derived from experience. Two members of this tradition mentioned by Quine are:


John Locke (1632-1704, English): Essay Concerning Human Understanding[2]

·         All ideas (anything in the mind, be it sensual or intellectual) result either from sensation or from reflection. In sensation, external objects affect the senses, which convey ideas into the mind (e.g., of yellow, hard, cold).  Reflection is the inner sense which monitors our own mental operations (thinking, doubting, believing, willing, etc.) like an inner camera.

·         Ideas are either simple (atomistic) or complex (built up from a combination of simple ideas)

·         A word used by a given speaker is meaningful if and only if it refers to an idea in that speaker’s own mind.


David Hume (1711-1776, Scottish): Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding[3]

·         Any perception (anything in the mind) is either an impression (a more lively perception) or an idea (a less lively perception).

·         Ideas are copies of impressions, so we can have no ideas without first having a corresponding impression

·         A word that does not correspond to a genuine idea (an idea that is a copy of an impression) is meaningless, “jargon.”


Rudolf Carnap: The Logical Structure of the World

·         His book is popularly referred to as “the Aufbau” (in German the title is: Die Logische Aufbau die Welt).

·         Carnap developed a system in which (he hoped) any empirically meaningful statement could be reduced to a logical construction consisting of statements about sense experience. He wanted not just to assert that synthetic statements could be reduced to statements about immediate sensory experience, but to actually show how this could be done.

·         An important change: Locke and Hume were occupied with the meanings of individual words, Carnap is concerned to explain the meaning of individual statements.[4]


So Carnap, as a representative of Logical Positivism (a.k.a. Logical Empiricism), is the prime example of a reductionist—or as Quine says, of a radical reductionist.



[7.3.4.] Against “Moderate” Reductionism.


Carnap later took this project to have been a failure and abandoned radical reductionism.


But still, says Quine, reductionism is still hanging around in a less explicit, subtler form:


The notion lingers that to each statement, or each synthetic [non-analytic] statement, there is associated a unique range of possible sensory events such that the occurrence of any of them would add to the likelihood of truth of the statement, and that there is associated also another unique range of possible sensory events whose occurrence would detract from that likelihood. This notion is of course implicit in the verification theory of meaning. (527)


In other words... despite the failure of Carnap’s radical reductionism, philosophers still accept:


moderate reductionism: for each synthetic (empirically meaningful) statement S, there corresponds some possible sense experience(s) which, were it (they) to occur, would increase the likelihood that S is true. [“moderate reductionism” is my phrase, not Quine’s -- I mean for it to contrast with his phrase “radical reductionism”; Quine himself describes this form of reductionism as “attenuated.”]


(This should remind you of Ayer’s Verification Principle after Ayer specified that it involves weak verification rather than strong verification: what’s required by the Principle is not that there be possible sense experiences that would conclusively prove that a statement is true or false, but only that there be possible sense experiences that are relevant to showing that a statement is true or false.)


Moderate reductionism implies that a solitary statement, considered by itself and apart from any other statement, can be supported (shown to be more likely to be true) or undermined (shown to be more likely to be false) by sense experience.


E.g. “There is an apple under this paper towel”—the empirical meaning of this one statement is a possible sense experience, perhaps the visual experience I would have were the napkin lifted—I would have the experience of a red (or green), roundish-object in space. The idea is that some possible sense experience would serve to confirm this single statement


Quine says that individual statements cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by themselves: “our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body.” (527)[5]


This is Quine’s so-called confirmation holism:


confirmation holism (df.): the view that entire theories, not individual statements, are confirmed (or disconfirmed) as a whole; single statements themselves cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed separately.[6]


Here’s an example to illustrate Quine’s confirmation holism:[7]


·         Suppose that scientists come across a strange physical substance.

·         They conjecture that the substance has a specific chemical composition, say XYZ.

·         They already believe that anything that has composition XYZ will turn green when heated to 200º.

·         So they set out to test whether the new substance is XYZ by heating it to 200º; they heat it and observe the results.

·         Suppose that it doesn’t turn green... What have they confirmed?




It might seem that they have confirmed that the substance is not XYZ…


But this is NOT the case:

·         their belief that every instance of XYZ turns green when heated may be false -- this may be an instance of XYZ that does not turn green when raised to 200º or...

·         their belief that they have heated this instance of XYZ to 200º may be false (it is possible that their thermometer is broken and they only heated it to 150º )

·         their belief that their own eyes are functioning properly may be false (it is possible that the substance was in fact heated to 200º and did in fact turn green, but they simply are not seeing that it has changed to that color!)

·         most radically, their belief in the principle of excluded middle (either p or not-p, or either S is P or S is not P) could even turn out to be false! (it is possible that the substance is neither XYZ nor not XYZ!)




So an assumption of Carnap’s radical reductionism and of a more moderate reductionism turns out to be false: the assumption that for any (synthetic) statement, there is one or more sense experiences that count as the sense experience(s) that would show that statement to be true or false.



[7.3.5.] The Connection Between the Two Dogmas.


Moderate reductionism supports the view that there is a clear distinction between analytic statements and synthetic ones:


as long as it is taken to be significant in general to speak of the confirmation and information of a statement [as opposed to an entire theory or set of statements], it seems significant to speak also of a limiting kind of statement which is vacuously confirmed, ipso facto, come what may; and such a statement is analytic. (528)


In other words …


If we accept


moderate reductionism

according to which we can confirm or disconfirm statements

by way of sense experience

one at a time, in isolation from other statements


then it makes sense to think that


there are statements that will be confirmed

come what may, no matter what

sense experiences we have, i.e., that

there are analytic statements.



Eventually Quine concludes that the two dogmas are really one:


The two dogmas are, indeed, at root identical. We lately reflected that in general the truth of statements does obviously depend both upon language and upon extra-linguistic fact; and we noted that this obvious circumstance carries in its train, not logically but all too naturally, a feeling that the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a linguistic component and a factual component. The factual component must, if we are empiricists, boil down to a range of confirmatory experiences. In the extreme case where the linguistic component is all that matters, a true statement is analytic. But I hope we are now impressed with how stubbornly the distinction between analytic and synthetic has resisted any straightforward drawing. I am impressed also, apart from prefabricated examples of black and white balls in an urn, with how baffling the problem has always been of arriving at any explicit theory of the empirical confirmation of a synthetic statement. My present suggestion is that it is nonsense, and the root of much nonsense, to speak of a linguistic component and a factual component in the truth of any individual statement. Taken collectively, science has its double dependence upon language and experience; but this duality is not significantly traceable into the statements of science taken one by one.

The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science. (528)


In summary:

·         All of our scientific knowledge (which previous philosophers have characterized as “synthetic”) depends on both language and experience.

·         But this does not mean, nor is it true, that in a true statement, there is a linguistic component and a factual component that can be isolated from one another and that somehow work together to make the statement true.

·         An individual statement, considered in isolation from every other statement, does not mean anything, and neither does an individual word considered apart from the rest of our language. The smallest unit of meaningful language is the whole of science itself.[8]



[7.3.6] Quine’s Pragmatism.


Quine maintains that any belief whatsoever could be held to be true in the light of any experiences whatsoever, if we are willing to make the needed changes elsewhere in our system of beliefs.


As we have already seen, in the above example, we could continue to believe that the substance is XYZ even if it doesn’t turn green by maintaining that our eyes are malfunctioning, or that we are hallucinating.


If any number of beliefs can be “adjusted” (accepted as true or rejected as false) to accommodate experiences, how should we decide which one(s) to adjust? Quine suggests an answer at the end of “Two Dogmas”:


Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic. (530)


He suggests two pragmatic considerations that we use for determining how to adjust our collection of beliefs to accommodate new experiences:

1.      “conservatism”: change your beliefs only as much as absolutely necessary to accommodate the new experience; conserve as many of our existing beliefs as possible;

2.      “simplicity”: keep your beliefs (including your scientific theories) as simple as possible (this is a reflection of Quine’s commitment to Ockham’s Razor—we will talk more about this when we discuss “On What There Is.”).


This is why Quine says at the beginning of the article that an effect of rejecting the two dogmas is “a shift toward pragmatism.” (518)[9]



[7.3.7.] The Continuity of Science and Philosophy.


Another consequence of Quine’s rejection of the two “dogmas” is that there is no longer a deep division between science and other areas of inquiry, including common-sense inquiry and disciplines like history, psychology and philosophy. “One effect of abandoning [the two dogmas] is … a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science.” (518)


In particular, Quine mentions “ontology”: “Ontological questions, under this view, are on a par with questions of natural science.” (530)


This is in harmony with his rejection of reductionism: if beliefs don’t get confirmed (or disconfirmed) one at a time, but rather constitute a “web of belief” that faces “the tribunal of experience” all at once, then any part of the web could be adjusted to accommodate a given experience -- including any of the philosophical (ontological, metaphysical, epistemological, etc.) beliefs.



Stopping point for Tuesday November 13. For next time, begin reading Quine, “On What There Is,” pp.143-147 (to the end of the first full paragraph on 147).


Here are some questions to help guide you through this article:

1.      What is the problem that Quine calls “Plato’s beard”?

2.      How does McX solve that problem, and why does Quine think that he is mistaken?

3.      How does Wyman solve that problem, and why does Quine think that he is mistaken, as well?

4.      How does Quine think we should solve the problem?



[1] Quine foreshadowed his “Two Dogmas” (1951) criticism of reductionism in our next reading, “On What There Is” (1948):


                The physical conceptual scheme simplifies our account of experience because of the way myriad scattered sense events come to be associated with single so-called objects; still there is no likelihood that each sentence about physical objects can actually be translated, however deviously and complexly, into the phenomenalistic language. (151)



[2] For more on Locke, see William Uzgalis, “John Locke,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[3] For more on Hume, see William Edward Morris, “David Hume,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[4] In a later article, “Naturalized Epistemology” (1969), Quine says that this shift from taking words as the basic unit of meaning to taking entire statements as the basic unit of meaning occurred before Carnap, in the work of Jeremy Bentham. See p.242 of your textbook.

[5] A tribunal is something or someone that has the power of determining or judging, such as a court of law.


[6] Ned Block uses the phrase “confirmation holism” to describe Quine’s position, in “Holism, Mental and Semantic,” an article in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL= <>. I don’t know who coined this phrase. The idea is also sometimes called the Quine-Duhem thesis; Quine refers to Pierre Duhem in this regard in footnote 9 of “Two Dogmas.”


[7] Adapted from Melchert, The Great Conversation, 4th ed., p.727.


[8] By 1969’s “Epistemology Naturalized,” Quine’s view seems to have softened a bit. He has come to acknowledge that there are “observation sentences” that are “minimal verifiable aggregate” of language. See p.249 of your textbook.

[9] There is a longer story here than we have time for. Very briefly, Quine is hinting that his view of confirmation places him in a tradition called pragmatism, which originated with the work of the American philosophers Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910). Quine mentions Peirce as someone who accepted a form of “the verification theory of meaning” (526). It is debatable, though, whether Peirce should really be viewed as a partisan of verificationism, and it is also debatable how accurate it is to view Quine as a member of the tradition of pragmatism. That tradition is the subject of PHIL 3120, American Philosophy, which is being taught in spring 2013.

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