Two Dogmas of Empiricism: A Reply To Quine

Brian Holtz  2002-03-18

In "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" Quine argues there is no clear distinction among statements according to whether their truth-value depends on their empirical or extra-linguistic or factual content.  While he's right that some synthetic statements are more synthetic than others, and that the vagueness of definitions can make it hard to tell whether a given statement is analytic, he's wrong to think that these two points imply that "a boundary between analytic and synthetic statement simply has not been drawn".

Quine writes:

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.
Not necessarily. The "sharpness" of the "separation" between meaning and reference is relative. Meaning is the context-sensitive connotation ultimately established by relevant denotation and use. Other than calling it "a short step", Quine here gives us utterly no reason to agree with him that it must be the case that either a) meaning is reference or b) the notion of meaning "may well be abandoned".
Certainly the "definition" which is the lexicographer's report of an observed synonymy cannot be taken as the ground of the synonymy.
The ground of a proposed synonymy is not the lexicographer's report of the observed synonymy, but the observable synonymous usage itself. The trivial observation that lexicographers are not the exclusive assigners of meaning by fiat does not change the fact that language users as a community are indeed the exclusive assigners of meaning by fiat. When 'dumb' came to mean not just mute but rather stupid, it was not because of some change in or discovery about the natural world (e.g. such as finding out that the morning star and the evening star are the same object). Rather, it was because language users intentionally (though perhaps gradually) started using 'dumb' to connote stupidity. That any such usage event may not be entirely stipulative (i.e. usage-defining rather than usage-following) does not imply that definitions are not ultimately grounded in stipulation. By the same token, all possible facts about the current meaning of a term are in principle determinable by interviewing and experimenting on all the members of the relevant linguistic community. Quine seems to believe, by contrast, that changes in meanings (connotations) just sweep through a linguistic community in the same way as might a pathogen, without anyone having any relevant intentions or making any relevant decisions.
definition -- except in the extreme case of the explicitly conventional introduction of new notation -- hinges on prior relationships of synonymy. Recognizing then that the notation of definition does not hold the key to synonymy [..]
Quine here either a) begs the question by labeling as "extreme" all cases in which new senses or meanings are created or reinforced, or b) simply ignores all such cases that aren't an explicit introduction of "new notation".
A natural suggestion, deserving close examination, is that the synonymy of two linguistic forms consists simply in their interchangeability in all contexts without change of truth value
An even more natural suggestion is that synonymy consists in similarity of meaning, defined as the context-sensitive connotation ultimately established by relevant denotation and use. But Quine earlier ignored without argument the possibility of any such suggestion.
I do not know whether the statement 'Everything green is extended' is analytic. Now does my indecision over this example really betray an incomplete understanding, an incomplete grasp of the "meanings," of 'green' and 'extended'?
Yes, either Quine has an incomplete grasp of the meanings, or the meanings are equivocal and the statement needs to be made more precise. One might justifiably assert that the common-usage understanding of green-ness simply does not imply extension. (One could even argue that a line could be green while consisting only of unextended points, or that a pointlike unextended object could still emit or reflect (capture and re-emit) green photons.) But one need not recur to such arguments to affirm that this statement is synthetic.
It is obvious that truth in general depends on both language and extra-linguistic fact. The statement 'Brutus killed Caesar' would be false if the world had been different in certain ways, but it would also be false if the word 'killed' happened rather to have the sense of 'begat.' Hence the temptation to suppose in general that the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a linguistic component and a factual component. Given this supposition, it next seems reasonable that in some statements the factual component should be null; and these are the analytic statements. But, for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between analytic and synthetic statement simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith.
The boundary has indeed been drawn. There may not be a rigorous demonstration that the boundary sharply divides all possible cases, but Quine admits that believing such a boundary is possible is "a priori reasonable", and his argument against the belief is flawed. Calling such a belief "dogma" or "faith" is thus just an empty perjorative.
if the verification theory can be accepted as an adequate account of statement synonymy, the notion of analyticity is saved after all. [..] The dogma of reductionism survives in the supposition that each statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, can admit of confirmation or infirmation at all. My countersuggestion [..] is that our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body. [..] The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.
This countersuggestion is either a) an uninteresting consequence of the fact that truth consists partly in consistency with other truth, or b) the false claim that our statements are either all true or all false.
Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision. Revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin Aristotle?
The latter shifts make falsifiable claims about the empirical world. The former shift would just change the rules by which we count some statements as true or not.
our natural tendency to disturb the total system as little as possible would lead us to focus our revisions upon these specific statements concerning brick houses or centaurs. These statements are felt, therefore, to have a sharper empirical reference than highly theoretical statements of physics or logic or ontology.
Physics is nevertheless subject to empirical verification and falsification; logic and ontology nevertheless are not.
I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.
The respective notions of physical object and Homeric god have indeed both been used as instances of the class one might call "explanations", but it's simply confused or misleading to therefore call them both "myths" or "cultural posits". Replacing these two phrases with the term "explanation" makes Quine's statements quite uninteresting. His alternative phraseology seems designed simply to strike a more-skeptical-than-thou pose that does not seem to be founded on any well-motivated difference with whomever he thinks he is disagreeing with.

Ironically, his ideosyncratic use of 'myth' here to mean explanation, if widely adopted in coming decades by other speakers of English, could then in retrospect be seen as precisely the sort of non-lexicographic instance of synonymizing/defining that he earlier in his paper tries to imply is so mysterious and unavailable for epistemological scrutiny.