"Two Dogmas of Empiricism - Quine" Featured Image


Paper and the Author:

Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000) was an influential American philosopher and logician known for his work in logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology. He spent most of his academic career at Harvard University, where he was a key figure in developing 20th-century analytic philosophy.

W.V. Quine was a Philosophy Professor at Harvard University

Here is the full article: “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”

Background and Key Concepts:

Empiricism is fundamentally characterized by the belief that knowledge primarily comes from sensory experience.

Analytic and Synthetic statements: In this paper, analytic statements are true because of their meaning independent of matter of facts(empirical); synthetic statements are true based on matter of facts.

The Aim of the Paper:

The paper aims to promote a more holistic and pragmatic view of knowledge. Quine emphasizes that our understanding of truths and facts is influenced by our entire web of beliefs and experiences rather than isolated statements or experiences. He also challenges certain prevailing assumptions of empiricism at his time and refines empiricism on a more coherent and defensible foundation.

Paper Reconstruction: Two Dogmas

In “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Quine puts forward two theses. First, there is no fundamental distinction between analytic statements, true in virtue of meaning independent of matter of facts, and synthetic statements, true based on matter of facts. In defense of the first thesis, he shows that analyticity in terms of meaning, definition, synonymy, or semantic rule fails to capture what analyticity is to the thinker.

The second thesis is the following: Meaningful statements cannot be reduced (explained in terms of) to terms that refer to immediate experience. Here, I will not discuss Quine’s pragmatism. 

Meaning and reference (e.g., naming) are distinct:

First, Quine discusses distinguishing between meaning and reference. He says two or more names may refer to the same object, but this does not mean that names are identical in meaning. For instance, according to Frege, ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’ refer to Venus, but the two names contain different senses or modes of representation. Therefore, the names ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’ are not an identity of meaning.

After making the distinction, Quine discusses how one may identify meaning. First, he turns to definitions.


Quine argues that analyticity, understood as the definition, is inadequate because it is grounded in contingent, pre-existing language usage. He acknowledges that there are definitions given at the moment of composition that do not rely on pre-existing usage. For instance, when discussing “will,” authors can explicitly describe what they mean by “will.” The synonym of the term “will” would be the description the author provides. Still, he argues that natural language involves practical expressions that sacrifice economy in grammar and vocabulary (pp. 26 – 7). In addition, he claims that definitions in natural languages presuppose pre-existing synonymies, which makes explanation by definition circular and fails to independently refer to the meaning of terms (p. 25).

Next, he considers interchangibility salva veritate.

Interchangeability salva veritate:

Interchangeability salva veritate means that interchanging synonyms preserve the truth value of a sentence (p. 28). For instance, swapping “Unmarried Men” with “Bachelors” in “Bachelors are Men” preserves the truth value. But this is insufficient because synonym swapping must also preserve meaning. He introduces cognitive synonymy to capture the preservation of meaning. Quine objects that cognitive synonymy is insufficient for ‘analyticity’ because it does not necessarily preserve truth value and meaning across every context.

Here is an example of a failure to preserve meaning:

  • “All physicians are licensed to practice medicine.”
  • “All doctors are licensed to practice medicine.”

Physicians and doctors are often interchangeable, but the above example shows this is not always true. This is because not all doctors are physicians; some doctors are philosophers.

Semantic Rule:

What are semantic rules? They refer to a set of conventions and rules linking words to meanings. According to semantic rules, a statement is analytically true because it satisfies the rules. For instance, suppose we postulate definitions (or rules): An odd number is any integer not divisible by two (given that we have already defined integers. Then, “5 is odd” is true because of the definitions (or semantic rules) that we have posited. See “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology” by Carnap for more.

But Quine objects to defining ‘analytic’ as true according to a semantic rule. He argues that semantic rules are similarly meaningless like ‘analytic’ because they are contingent postulates; they fail to capture the ‘necessity’ that seems to be a part of analytic statements (p. 33). Quine sees these rules as not clarifying the concept of analyticity because they presuppose an understanding of the ‘analytic’ they are supposed to explain. He concludes that, as shown in the rejection of analyticity in terms of meaning, synonymy, definition, or semantic rule, the synthetic-analytic distinction is untenable because it must rely on other unclear or circular concepts.

The Second Dogma:

This section says more than the following, but the following is how it relates to the analytic-synthetic distinction:

Quine explains that the verification theory of meaning holds that statements are synonymous if and only if statements are verified using a similar method of empirical confirmation or invalidation. In this view, an analytic statement is defined as one that is confirmable regardless of the empirical conditions (p.35). He criticizes the verification theory and reduction of statements in terms of immediate experience because of their vague and impractical methodology; therefore, one cannot establish the analytic-synthetic distinction through the preceding means either. 

Some Conclusions:
So, how is the discussion of definitions, interchangeability, and semantic rules relevant?

Quine has argued that the synthetic-analytic distinction is untenable because it must rely on other unclear or circular concepts to describe the ‘analytic.’ In other words, definitions, interchangeability, and semantic rules only provide equally vague concepts to capture a similarly ambiguous concept of the ‘analytic.’

If ‘analytic’ is untenable, we are left with only one kind of statement, and these are open to revision. Any statement, belief, or knowledge is open to revision because it lacks the ‘necessity’ the ‘analytic’ purports to have. I will leave everyone to ponder its philosophical implications.

A Critical Note:




  • Quine, W. V. “Main Trends in Recent Philosophy: Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophical Review 60, no. 1 (1951): 20–43.

*Disclaimer: This article is a creative interpretation and synthesis work, drawing inspiration from multiple sources. While efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, readers are encouraged to consult the source material for a comprehensive understanding.

**Please note that I often write the Critical Note (constructive criticism) section after posting the article. If the section is left blank, it is intentional.

I use the term “Critical” in a broad academic sense, encompassing thorough examination, balanced evaluation, and thoughtful interpretation. It is not limited to pointing out flaws or offering negative criticism.

**I reserve the right to edit this page at my convenience.

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