Definition in a Quinean World

  • William G. Lycan
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 216)


It has been nearly forty years since the publication of ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism.’1 Despite some vigorous rebuttals during that interval,2 Quine’s rejection of analyticity still prevails — in that philosophers en masse have either joined Quine in repudiating the “analytic”/“synthetic” distinction or remained (however mutinously) silent and made no claims of analyticity.


Logical Truth Logical Constant English Sentence Simple Account Lexical Meaning 
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  1. 1.
    W. V. Quine, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism,’ Philosophical Review 60 (1951), 20–43, hereafter just ‘Two Dogmas.’ Reprinted in From a Logical Point of View, Second Edition (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961); all page references are to the latter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gustav Bergmann, ‘Two Cornerstones of Empiricism,’ Synthese 8 (1953), 435–452; H. P. Grice and P. F. Strawson, ‘In Defense of a Dogma,’ Philosophical Review 65 (1956), 141–158; Jonathan Bennett, ‘Analytic-Synthetic,’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59 (1959), 163–188; Jerrold J. Katz,’ some Remarks on Quine on Analyticity,’ Journal of Philosophy 64 (1967), 36–52, ‘Where Things Now Stand with the Analytic-Synthetic Distinction,’ Synthese 28 (1974) 283–319, and elsewhere; and of course many others.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960), hereafter W&O; ‘Ontological Relativity,’ Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968), 185–212; ‘Reply to Chomsky’ and ‘Reply to Hintikka,’ in D. Davidson and J. Hintikka (eds.), Words and Objections: Essays on the Work of W.V. Quine (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969); ‘On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation,’ Journal of Philosophy 67 (1970), 178–183; ‘Indeterminacy of Translation Again,’ Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987), 5-10.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Howard Callaway has also championed meaning without analyticity; see his’ semantic Theory and Language: A Perspective,’ Philosophical Topics Supplementary Volume (1980), 61–70, and ‘Meaning without Analyticity,’ Logique et Analyse 28 (1984), 41–60. Cf. also sec. 2 of the Introduction to Georges Rey’s Mind without Consciousness, forthcoming.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Harman, ‘Quine on Meaning and Existence, I,’ Review of Metaphysics 31 (1967–68), 124–151, on the present point pp. 135-137. This splendid work (here-after just “Harman”) is the classic exposition of Quine’s views on meaning; my own understanding of analyticity derives very largely from it.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See W&O, p. 65, n. 3.I conjecture that all the charges of circularity and emptiness of characterization were really meant to defame the idea that behind philosophers’ “intuitions” of analyticity lies a substantive and good theory of meaning that supports the intuitions and has explanatory merit of some sort. I agree with Quine that that idea is false, even though unlike him I believe there is a substantive and good theory of meaning.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    W&O, Ch. 6; ‘Prepositional Objects,’ in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    ‘Could Propositions Explain Anything?’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 3 (1974), 427-434.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Convention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 174–177 — a book on lingusitic convention addressed in part to the analyticity question, in which, ironically, Lewis repudiates the understanding of analyticity as truth by convention. Though what proposition an English sentence expresses is (obviously) a conventional matter, Lewis insists that the truth at every world of the proposition expressed is not conventional at all but is a mind-and cognition-independent modal fact about the universe (p. 207).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    N.B., Lewis does not himself claim that there are any analytic sentences. Also, a response can be hazarded on his behalf. Suppose (waiving cardinality problems) that there is a set of all possible worlds. Any set of worlds is a proposition, and so the set of all worlds is a proposition, the Null or necessary one. But a proposition corresponding to a neatly delineated set of worlds is surely expressible in English, even if there are some sets of worlds that are just too heterogeneous to match single English sentences (which I doubt). Thus, some English sentences express the Null Proposition. Which ones? The standard philosophical examples of trivial verbal truths are the obvious candidates; therefore probably they are analytic. My objections to this argument are (i) that it does nothing to show what it is about the trivial verbal truths that makes them express the Null Proposition, and (ii) that in the face of Quinean skepticism we have no reason to think that there are multiple possible worlds distinguished from each other only by “logical” or “conceptual” possibilities that are not nomological possibilities.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Graham Nerlich has recently pointed out that Leibnizian verificationist-cum-imaginability arguments against absolute space simply though tacitly assume geometrical theses that hold only for Euclidean space — e.g., that a given figure has similar figures of any size! (‘How the Simplest World Can Be Puzzling,’ presented to the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, April 20, 1989.)Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    D.M. Armstrong, in The Nature of Mind and Other Essays (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), especially essays 5 and 6.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    The original objection was stated most fully on pp. 85-98 of ‘Truth by Convention,’ in The Ways of Paradox (New York: Random House, 1966); the recantation occurred in Quine’s Foreword to Lewis’ book.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    So far as natural languages can themselves be formalized, a Carnapian structure can be imposed; a formal “semantics for” a natural language such as English might contain a box of “meaning postulates” or “nonlogical axioms” intended to exhibit facts of lexical meaning. On the surprisingly complex issue that ensues, see my ‘Logical Constants and the Glory of Truth-Conditional Semantics,’ Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 30 (1989), 390-400.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See ‘Two Dogmas,’ pp. 35-36; ‘Carnap and Logical Truth,’ in P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1963), p. 392; and elsewhere.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Patterns of Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), pp. 99ff.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    See the papers collected in Mind, Language and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), especially ‘The Analytic and the Synthetic,’ ‘Is Semantics Possible?,’ ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’ (pp. 254-257), and ‘Dreaming and “Depth Grammar”’ (pp. 310-315).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    I think, incidentally, that this rejoinder is what Quine has in mind when he makes a somewhat misleading remark on p. 37 of ‘Two Dogmas,’ calling the analytic/synthetic distinction a “metaphysical article of faith.” He means, not that the distinction is a prediction that may or may not come true, but that it is something that is dogmatically believed come what may in the absence of any convincing evidence at all. Pp. 122-127 of ‘Carnap and Logical Truth’ bear a similar interpretation.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    See M. J. Cresswell, ‘Adverbs and Events,’ Synthese 28 (1974), 455–481 (on the present point p. 470), and my ‘Logical Constants and the Glory of Truth-Conditional Semantics,’ loc. cit.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    I think he would also want to add exactly what he later says about “explication” generally in Secs. 53 and 54 of W&O: that theoretical “definition” is a replacement or substitution, not an analysis or uncovering of a pre-existing conceptual meaning.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    See also Harman, pp. 140-141; Quine’s remarks (‘Carnap and Logical Truth,’ p. 113) on the rapidity with which stipulative definitions “fade away”; and again Putnam’s many examples (op. cit.).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Cf. pp. 71-72 of ‘Truth by Convention.’Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    An earlier stab was made by David Schwayder, in The Stratification of Behavior (New York: Humanities Press, 1965).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    E.g., Dale Jamieson, ‘David Lewis on Convention,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5 (1975), 73-81; Margaret Gilbert, ‘Game Theory and Convention,’ Synthese 46 (1981), 41-94.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    It is worth noting in the spirit of Putnam (op. cit.) that even if stipulative definition does yield some analytic truths, they certainly are not the ones that are useful to philosophers, being absurdly trivial. No sentence that has ever been put forward as a necessary truth by a philosopher seriously philosophizing is the product of a stipulative definition. Even when philosophers construct elaborate systems of stipulative definitions (Goodman comes to mind here), our interest is not in the definitions themselves, which can have no nontrivial consequences, but rather in the way in which the system connects up to the real world. And this latter way cannot be stipulative.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • William G. Lycan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of North CarolinaUSA

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