Monday, March 2, 2009

Review of "Two Dogmas"

(Gasp, who could have imagined I'd ever do something that approximates real philosophy on this blog?)

Quine's paper on the analytic/synthetic divide, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", has always bugged me--chiefly because it feels very important to me, yet I have a bloody devil of a time understanding it. And it certainly is a seminal work for the twentieth century, so it can't hurt to improve my understanding of it a little.

To that end, I'm making a rough outline for what I understand Quine to be doing in the darned piece. That is, I'm going to peruse "Two Dogmas" on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis and try to give a feel for how the pieces fit together in his overall argument. It seems to me that the hardest parts of this essay are keeping track of where you are and identifying how his specific strategies function, so I'll endeavor to make that clear. Critiquing may also occur at a few points.

Anyway, tally ho! Onward!

Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"

Quine formally divides his paper into six sections, but I think of the big picture as dividing into three larger "macro sections": first, the preface where Quine gives context and explains what he means by analyticity (intro remarks and §1); second, the parts where he considers methods for understanding analytic statements but rejects them as inadequate (§§2, 3, and 4); and finally, the remaining parts where he studies the ramifications for empiricism (§§5 and 6). For my purposes, I'm most interested in §§1-4 (the first two "macro sections"), and I'm going to completely ignore the remainder.

1. Background for Analyticity
Here, Quine paints a basic backdrop for the concept "analytic" and "synthetic": Kant's characterization, the Humean and Aristotelian precursors, intension/extension, Carnap's take on analyticity, blah blah blah. As I see it, a lot of this may be dismissed as irrelevant to his actual argument except insofar as it makes sure we're all on the same page when he uses these terms. (Much like the beginning of any other philosophical paper). Quine considers a few different interpretations or conceptions of these things I don't care to describe, then rejects a few for reasons I don't care to get into. The important points to take away from this section are
  1. Analytic statements are true either by virtue of their being simple logical truths or by virtue of their using synonyms. (Example of logical truth: "All unmarried men are unmarried"; example of synonymous truth: "All bachelors are unmarried").
  2. Logical analytic truths are unproblematic; Quine's got no beef with them. This "synonymy" business, however, needs further explication.
  3. Synonymy cannot be explained away by referring to analogous logically true analytic statements, because any such account presupposes the notion of synonymy itself.
A further note on point 1: the key way to recognize logically true analytic statements, as opposed to synonymously true ones, is that the former may be directly formulated as tautologies which truth relies on their syntactic form, while the latter may not. To wit, "All unmarried men are unmarried" may be translated to ∀x:(Ux & Mx)->Ux, where U means "is unmarried" and M means "is a man"; this proposition is tautologically true no matter what we substitute for U, M, or x. However, to formulate "All bachelors are unmarried", we would have to write ∀x:Bx->Ux, where B means "is a bachelor", which is not a tautological truth. (Quine does not state this in precisely the same manner, but this is my construal of "a statement which is true and remains true under all reinterpretations of its components other than the logical particles" (pp.22-23)).

An obvious reply might be, "What if we add a premise which states that "Bx <-> (Ux & Mx)"? Quine seems to think that this move presupposes synonymy itself, and thus we cannot use it. I'm a bit skeptical about that response, and I wish he would give more argument against it, but we'll see what he says in later sections.

Anyway, Quine's basic strategy from now 'till §5 is to investigate possible explanations for synonymy, but then to reject each, more or less because they always rely on an unclear or circular definition.

§§2, 3, AND 4 TO COME LATER. ...Possibly in separate posts.


Quine, W.V.O. 1961. "Two dogmas of empiricism". In From A Logical Point of View, 20-46. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

(Also available online for free.)