I'm trying to understand this paper. Seems to me like it all stems from a rejection of "meaning"... ie: Quine is saying statements don't mean anything. And this is what leads to the rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction. But if meanings do exist, then there's a simple distinction between analytic and synthetic... analytic statements are true in virtue of the meanings of the words... Synthetic statements are not.

So if we don't agree with Quine's rejection of meaning, then we can't accept the rest of the paper. Is that right?

Here's a link to the paper:


  • I have not read the paper (a link would be nice), however from what you stated, I would suggest the following. Meaning is something that we choose to assign to words, symbols and statements. Without that assignment, they are just those things with no meaning. I do not believe it's intent is to self-propagate rejection, however if that is the meaning you give, then that is what it is. If you subtract 'meaning' and look at the letters and statements on the paper for what they are, you will find that communication breaks down, and you will also understand why there is no meaning. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 4:09
  • @SanuelJackson, I've included a link. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 4:14
  • @SanuelJackson, I agree with you. Which is why the paper confuses me. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 4:18
  • Reading it now. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 5:53
  • 1
    I think that's Quine's point, one learns to judge synonymy or analyticity in familiar languages just like one learns to recognize flowers or animals, but if we want a theory of analyticity (flowers, animals) then saying that we will know it when we see it isn't much help. Positivists, against whom Two Dogmas were written, talked of analyticity not in natural languages but in arbitrary formal languages that can potentially be used in science, and relied on the distinction to separate "empirical" from "theoretical". Quine showed that they literally could not explain what they were talking about.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 3:04

4 Answers 4


He is not rejecting meaning; what he says is:

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.

Thus, if we deny that:

the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a linguistic component and a factual component.

we have to reject the possibility of identifying a class of statements whose truth relies only on the "linguistic component", i.e. the class of analytic statements.

  • 1
    Ok. Then I'm missing something basic. Why can't I say, "a bachelor is an unmarried man." is an analytic statement because 'bachelor' means the same thing as 'unmarried man'. By virtue of meanings the statement is analytic. Why would Quine have a problem with this? Quine talks about how they come to mean the same thing... but I think this is irrelevant... somehow the two labels come to refer to the same meaning, and it is by virtue of this that we get that "a bachelor is an unmarried man." is analytic. That's to me the common-sensical view when one has meanings. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 12:23
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    @AmeetSharma - see The Analytic/Synthetic Distinction: the issue is clearly not conclusively settled... as usual in philosophy. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 13:11
  • It is not a linguistic component and a factual component so much as it is a purely semantic component expressed using language and a component expressed using language that cannot be verified as true without sense data from the sense organs. If it can be verified as true without sense data from the sense organs then it is analytic.
    – polcott
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 19:29
  • @polcott The kind of epistemological foundationalism you are suggesting there is philosophically dead since the 1960s at the latest. It had been killed by Quine, Sellars, Davidson, and Putnam, so repeatedly and in different ways. Semantic expressions are more than mere correlates to physical states. Also, the comment misses the point of the answer, which correctly states Quine's reasoning. Since the question is about Quine, your discussions are moot and misplaced here.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 20:54
  • @PhilipKlöcking You are probably correct that my answer does not focus on directly what Quine is saying. I have found that it is sometimes enormously more effective to find the simplest possible reasoning the refutes the conclusion than it is to go tit-for-tat, point-by-point through overly convoluted reasoning. Quine is basically concluding that there is no sharp line of demarcation between analytic and synthetic sufficient to determine that analytic separately exists. By simply drawing this line sharply such that the result matches conventional understandings Quine is refuted,
    – polcott
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 21:10

Quine doesn't hold that statements don't mean anything (that indeed would be quite an extreme form of skepticism), but rather that the meaningfulness of statements should be considered not in isolation but only as a part of a broader theory or language. This is of course of Quine's holism. You can read more here.


Quine is a complete empiricist, unlike rationalist such as Leibniz, Kant, Chomsky, here in Two Dogmas essentially he claims there are no "analytic" truths, but all truths involve an empirical aspect. Any possible meaning eventually comes from some sensory experience. If we haven't lived this life so far, how can we know bachelor is just a synonymy of unmarried? Accepting analyticity for Quine really means accepting rationalism which instead accepts meaning can be acquired from reason alone, no need for any experience. Even for the normal analytic tautology such as x=x is synthetic for Quine, since if you don't have some life experience how can you be sure a thing always equals itself even at a same time instant? How can you even know what equality (=) means without any sensory experience? How can you even know what simultaneity means without sense experience? (remember Special Relativity hinted most people didn't really understand the subtle motion-dependent relative nature of simultaneity)

So Quine want to discard the two unempirical dogmas left in logical empiricism to favor his more thorough pragmatism:

Carnap, Lewis, and others take a pragmatic stand on the question of choosing between language forms, scientific frameworks; but their pragmatism leaves off at the imagined boundary between the analytic and the synthetic. In repudiating such a boundary I espouse a more thorough pragmatism. 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.

Of course, later Saul Kripke proposed his famous rigid designators to try to preserve some analyticity (rationality)...

  • That would be consistent, but Quine has no problem with the proposition, "No unmarried man is married." ie: he's ok with logical modifiers. Only when using synonyms does he have an issue. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Dogmas_of_Empiricism Personally, I don't get this exception he makes, because without life experience how are you going to know "un" means negation etc. Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 22:44
  • @AmeetSharma Sounds a good thoughtful question... Here the degree is much different: for "un" has a logical negation meaning one doesn't need much experience, a new born baby probably can know happy and unhappy once a toy is thrown from her hand. But to know "bachelor" and "unmarried" one needs way more experience... So they only differ in degree, not in kind, you're still not completely lost... Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 22:53

Quine is only criticizing the current definition of of analytic versus synthetic distinction not that no such distinction can ever be made.

I am sure that he would realize that the sentence written on paper: "Quine had a Boston cream pie smashed into his face" is not identical to the first hand direct experience of {Quine had a Boston cream pie smashed into his face}. The difference between these words on paper and the actual physical event proves that there is some distinction between analytic and synthetic.

We might divide this distinction this way: whatever aspect of meaning that can be expressed using words is its analytic component and whatever aspect of meaning that cannot be expressed using words and can only be directly experienced as first hand physical sensations from the sense organs is its synthetic component.

Unanswered: Are there any sentences that are impossibly false?
This sentence is comprised of words.

  • Carnap once thought similarly about empirical truths, he believed something like any empirical truth has a semantic scientific substantial part, and a remaining syntactic mathematical formal part. But later Godel incompleteness theorems strongly refuted this philosophy as math has its own semantic content, ie, model theory, not just proof theory believed by many before... Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 23:55
  • Because it is possible that five minutes ago never existed all empirical knowledge could possibly be false: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… "This sentence is comprised of words." is the only kind of knowledge (analytical) that is perfectly certain.
    – polcott
    Commented Apr 24, 2021 at 0:15

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