Quine is famous for saying that there is actually no difference between ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ statements. The difference had first been recognized by Hume (or by even earlier empiricists) but only so named by Kant. It had, since then, become gospel in Philosophy.
The example of analytic statement that everyone gives is ‘All bachelors are unmarried’, which is inevitably and necessarily 100% true because of the definition of the word ‘bachelors’. (You don’t have to be a philosopher to see that, or to see that analytic statements don’t say anything new that isn’t already in the meaning, i.e. in the definitions, of the words used.)
(From here and here🙂 But Quine put forward the amazing argument that the definitions of words are based on our experience of facts in the world! He thought that we must look at the world to see if in fact ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried man’ refer to the same thing. So, as this analytic statement is in fact a synthetic one (or ’empirical’ or ‘a posteriori‘) it can only be probably true! (How, ask I, can ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ be only probably true?!)
This site has more to say on Quine: That his 1951 article Two Dogmas Of Empiricism argued that even logic and maths are open to revision by experience, i.e. their truths are synthetic and empirical This exceeded even the extreme empiricism of the logical positivists.
There is a lot more of Quine that I can’t get my mind into, more so than in any other philosopher I have tried. Trying harder is of no avail because I just haven’t got that kind of mind. For me it is wisdom by and for the boffin, the egghead, the nerd. Again I am sorry to use such words but they are the closest I can come. I have put below what I do understand; and I also mention some things that seem important in Quine’s thinking but that I don’t understand.
He lived from 1908 to 2000, and arrived in Philosophy shortly after Russell and Wittgenstein.
He has here been called the philosopher’s philosopher, he quintessential model of an analytic philosopher.
An analytic philosopher, after Russell (here) and especially Wittgenstein ( here), is someone who believes in not getting into the mistakes of language that philosophers had always done and thereby created pseudo-problems for themselves to solve.
So, one would have thought that a great deal of what had been Philosophy for two and half thousand years would have been laid to rest, never to re-awaken, but no, Quine continued to do a tremendous amount of philosophizing in the form of analytic philosophy and from the same old mentality of logic, of mathematics, and of valuing science as being knowledge.
Like all philosophers, to my mind, he lacked the human intelligence, the human sensibility to human life, to its wholeness and to its irreducibility to intellectualistic abstractions. In these abstractions, one loses human life entirely. (These are second-hand words I have largely taken from Leavis and embellished them, as I’ve already said here. They are the best I can presently do. Leavis wasn’t himself anti-philosophy. For me, wisdom comes from creators of human life like Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.)
But philosophers (as for instance here) have described Quine as a philosopher whose revolutionary ideas challenged the accepted way we look at ourselves (!) and our universe! He revolutionized developments in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language and philosophy of maths.
Here are some observations on Quine’s early years that, for an ill-disposed anti-philosopher like me, gives an inkling of his kind of mind: (These observations may also not be first-hand ones by people who knew him personally.)
From here: He was a stamp collector and cartographer in his teens, and became quite entrepreneurial (what exactly does that mean?) He did some hitch-hiking and riding of freight-trains, and sleeping rough and in jails (Is that what ‘entrepreneurial’ means). He was interested in foreign languages and in grammar. He could speak and lecture in several foreign languages. He loved Dixieland and played the banjo in jazz groups, as well as the piano. (All of that makes me warm to him.)
From here: Late in high-school, he compulsively read William James’s Pragmatism.
From here: He majored in mathematics, mathematical philosophy and logic at his local university, and for his PhD at Harvard he wrote a shortened and simplified version of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.
From here: Most of Quine’s early publications were in formal logic.
From here: He was pre-eminently a philosopher of logic.
The following two excerpts are examples of Quine’s logicking mind. They are to-me incomprehensible:
From here; ‘In the New Foundations approach to set theory pioneered by Quine, the axiom of comprehension for a given predicate takes the unrestricted form, but the predicates that may be used in the schema are themselves restricted. The predicate (C is not in C) is forbidden, because the same symbol C appears on both sides of the membership symbol; thus, Russell’s paradox is avoided. However, by taking P(C) to be (C = C), which is allowed, we can form a set of all sets.’
From here: ‘While his contributions to logic include elegant expositions and a number of technical results, it is in set theory that Quine was most innovative. His set theory, (New Foundations) (NF) and that of Set Theory and Its Logic, admit a universal class, but since they are free of any hierarchy of types, they have no need for a distinct universal class at each type level. Without going into technical detail, these theories are driven by a desire to minimize posits; each innovation is pushed as far as it can be pushed before further innovations are introduced. Quine always maintained that mathematics required set theory and that set theory was quite distinct from logic. He flirted with Nelson Goodman’s nominalism for a while, but backed away when he failed to find a nominalist grounding of mathematics.’ (I probably didn’t edit this paragraph.)
From here comes another example of what interested Quine, which astonishes me as to the kind of things that interest not only Quine but philosophers in general! I have edited it as follows: Quine was interested in the statement ‘this statement is false’. It represents ‘the liar paradox’ which had already interested Bertrand Russell in set theory in mathematics. It brought Quine into the general problem of statements that refer to themselves, and of putting quotations from other authors into one’s work!. Those are the kind of ‘problems’ of thought that occupy analytical philosophers today! The rest of the site is occupied by what looks like symbolic logic looking like maths. A ‘Quine’ today is some kind of computer program.
And finally from here is a very telling excerpt on Quine’s kind of mind: Quine said ‘I have been accused of denying consciousness, but I am not conscious of having done so.’ However, says this same site, ‘…his 1985 autobiography The Time Of My Life is little more than a travel itinerary, so devoid of emotion and internality as almost to suggest not only that he had neither, but hardly even knew what they might be.‘ Phew!
(From here🙂 He was of course an empiricist (in thinking that knowledge comes from our sensations of things in the world), in favour of science, and against metaphysics. He was also against the Logical Positivists, but perhaps only in his denial of the analytic/synthetic distinction. He was a behaviourist in his thinking about Mind (which means I presume that he discounted ‘mind’ and recognized only externally visible behaviour occasioned by external stimuli — which for me is almost unbelievable that anyone to be taken seriously could believe.)
Quine’s explanation for denying analyticity was that the apparent certainty of definition is in fact due to a circularity in thinking. From here: His argument for circularity has to do with the concepts of synonymity and of logical equivalence, which are presently beyond me because I haven’t got a philosopher’s mind. If I had, I would be able to understand what is in here and in other articles on the same website.
No, this site here advances my understanding somewhat: Quine’s chief objection to analyticity is that the second term is simply a synonym for the first term. For example, a synonym for ‘bachelors’ is ‘unmarried men’. Perhaps that is the ‘circularity’ that Quine was talking about. (OK!)
And, from here, seems to be another angle on this issue: The objection to synonymy hinges on the problem of ‘collateral information’ (which seems to mean our knowledge of facts in the empirical world). Although we intuitively feel a distinction between ‘All unmarried men are bachelors’ and ‘There have been black dogs’, we immediately and similarly assent to even the second sentence because of the overwhelming collateral information (i.e. knowledge of facts in the world) that we have on black dogs. Quine maintains that there is no distinction between such knowledge of facts in the world, and conceptual or analytic truths!
Yet Quine’s philosophy doesn’t explain why we intuitively do feel there is a difference between statements traditionally regarded as analytic, and those as synthetic. (To me, this difference is self-evidently obvious and true: Quine may argue that the definitions of terms were long ago arrived at from experience, but today they are the definitions, and this makes them ‘analytic‘.)