Episode 66: Quine on Linguistic Meaning and Science

On W.V.O. Quine's "On What There Is" (1948) and "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951).

What kind of metaphysics is compatible with science? Quine sees science and philosophy as one and the same enterprise, and objects to ontologies that include types of entities that science can't, even in principle, study. In these two highly influential essays, he first tells how to determine what ontological commitments your philosophical theory is making, and he advocates for one that, for instance, doesn't allow talk of the "possible twin sister" that you could have had but didn't. In particular, Quine doesn't want an ontology to have linguistic meanings in it. Sure, sentences can be meaningful, but that doesn't mean that the sentence refers to or makes use of some entity, the meaning, that must exist (as Frege thought) outside of the head of any speaker.

In "Two Dogmas," he takes on a related point: the concept of synonymy, or "same meaning." We think that some sentences are true by definition ("Bachelors are unmarried") or true in virtue of logic alone ("x=x," "2+2=4"), while others ("my dog is on fire") require that we go out and look at the world to determine their truth. Quine challenges this distinction, arguing instead that our truths don't get individually verified by experience, but "face the court of experience as corporate body." So if I have an experience that seems to violate an established scientific law, I have leeway in which part of the "web of belief" can be adjusted to accommodate the new information. The statements we might have thought are analytically true (true by definition or logic) are really just those which most resist change. Quine drives us to this conclusion by allegedly showing that "true by definition" can't be explained without circularity: we always end up referring to some version of "same meaning," like synonymy or analyticity or a priori or necessarily true, and it's this set of terms that we're trying to give an account for.

Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan are joined by Matt Teichman of the Elucidations Podcast. Read more about the topic and get the texts.

End song: "Granted" by Mark Lint (2012).

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Audio versions of the Quine essays, as well as another essay relevant to this topic, "On Denoting," by Bertrand Russell, are available free to PEL Citizens, along with other bonus content, access to Not School discussion groups, text chat office hours with the podcasters, and more. Sign up. You can also get the Russell audio from our shop/donate page. Or, if you enjoy this episode, please consider a donation.


  1. Glen says


    same experience as Wes. When I first read Quine I was sort of angry about it, partly because I resisted analytic philosophy for no apparent reason. I guess I thought they were smug in their own way. I didn’t know enough about philosophy of science or philosophy of language to know what I was talking about when I wrote papers. I reread it about a month ago and it was awesome, particularly because I read in conjunction with Peire Duhem’s paper Physical Theory and Experiment which propounds some similar ideas and predates Quine by a full fifty years (Duhem published his paper in french in 1906).

    One philosopher which travels under the radar quite often is Arthur Fine. His Natural Ontological Attitude is an extremely good read. I bring it up because you guys have never done an episode which tackles the realism-antirealism-nonrealism debate directly. Obviously the issues get mentioned and covered as side issues but it would be great get a whole episode devoted to it. Fine represents the non-realist position and NOA would be the perfect article to read for the nonrealist position.

  2. dmf says

    having no feel for the inner workings of mathematics this is a foreign language/orientation for me but my sense is that such analytic views seem to suffer from the kinds of disconnect/abstractions from actual practices/lives that limited progress in A.I. in ways that Hubert Dreyfus and others have pointed out.
    have you folks covered the debates over the myth of the given or the scheme-content distinction?

  3. Ryan says

    This was the first time I streamed the show from a phone and it worked great. I feel as though I’ve now officially been inducted into the future.

    At some point along the way it was remarked, ‘There has to be something more at stake here than just an aesthetic deficit.’

    I think Quine’s role really will have been to perform a lot of the skeptical work that cleared out a space free of so much prior dogmatism which allowed for the introduction of Carnap’s style of a minimal formal ontology, but more importantly Searle’s demarcation between the manifest image of the world and the scientific image. Through which, all concepts produced by the manifest image conceivably can and should be pushed as a kind of focusing lens by way of the negatively discursive form of natural sciences. The reason we can’t leave it simply as a matter of totalizing affirmative language practices is because you still at least will never circumvent the (material) labor cost of conceptualization. This formal ontological dualism is the basis for any possible monist distinction to be made between that which is and that which is not.

    I’m happy the point about the law of the excluded middle was shortly raised, as a lot of the problems addressed on this episode are symptomatic of beginning from some theoretic presupposition about which kind of logic we are certain to be working within. And in the same sense Quine would attack meaning as not necessarily being any specific kind of particular formal entity in order to be, we must give up on there being only one kind of logic in order for there to be logic at all – and this also possibly for reasons of political emancipation which would have eluded Quine in his time. Philosophy can be a radical project by treating paradoxes, exemplified in our society by what are often presented to be irreconcilable class differences, as being worth addressing as lived problems equally with ‘trivial’ clarificatory problems as it has historically reduced to.

    There can’t be this absolute shared space of common sense in which we set aside all of our other recognized differences and reach a logically identical conclusion about some given things, this is the deception of liberal democracy that all voices are some how atleast being heard for exactly what they had intended to mean. But we know this is less the case today than it has ever been before, given a multitude of different communities, states, languages, and educational/technological barriers, and also the bewildering pace of expansion in the flow of information overall. All of our beliefs are disconnected and segregated, and this kind of divisive state of affairs inherent even at the level of nature is exactly that which necessitates the evolution of conceptualization in the first place.

  4. Michael says

    Thanks to PEL I now know about Matt T.’s own podcast: what a great show! Especially enjoyed the Searle and Ted Cohen episodes.


  5. Johan Hellerstedt says

    This dude is talking 8-bit philosophy, wake up man, Deep Blue kicked Kasparov’s ass; logical correctness is passé. 😉

  6. Adam Mossbottom says

    Excellent podcast, as always. It is very interesting to hear all these ideas volleyed around in your style.

    I found Quine’s analysis of the problem of negative existentials inadequate. There is no need to rid ontology of fictional beings in the way that Russel’s definite description theory does, because the “problem of the being of nonbeing” is not actually paradoxical. When we speak of a fictional character or idea, there is always an existent referent: the sum total of the set of information making up what that fictional concept is (rotund, magical elf living at the North Pole, makes and delivers some of the presents which appear underneath the tree on Christmas morning, wears furry red winterwear, etc…). There is no ontological divide; whether we speak of fictional concepts or nonfictional concepts, we are always referencing groupings of information which exist. In the case of fictional characters, included in the information describing the character is the fact that the character is not someone you could find in the real world. It is understood that the character is the product of a human imagination, which can group any existent ideas into new concepts (e.g. what it would look like if a bird’s powers of flight were given to a full-sized horse), whether those concepts are possibly instantiable in the physical world or not.

    I must say that the way ontology was approached by the 20th century analytic giants makes me a bit impatient, because it seems that the assumption on which their entire project is founded, that linguistic forms are the true lens through which ontology can be understood, is mistaken. This idea overestimates the power of language, as if the way we choose to speak about things could possibly change their ontological status. Anthropocentrizing ontology in this way is a grave error; the Universe existed and exists perfectly independently of how we try to interpret it; it did before we were here, it does now, and it will after we are gone. For this reason, the worry over whether certain linguistic forms make “ontological commitments” completely misses the point.

    It is not the case that having a pristine logical language would give us a perfect understanding of ontology, because the fundamental problem of ontology does not ask “what is the logical structure of things which exist?”, it asks “what does it take for things (or for that matter, everything) to exist?” There is no reason to assume that conducting a perfect analysis of linguistic forms would give us insight into this question, because language is simply a method of describing what we find when we look out into existence. The logical relationships which language communicates exist prior to the slow development of language; in forming a language we are matching concepts to phenomena which already exist. At most, analyzing the logical form of language can give us the logical form of the existent objects and their relationships (which language’s logical forms mimic), but in itself it can never reveal why those relationships constitute the phenomena’s existence. This is not to say that the analytical project is valueless, only that it is ill suited to investigating the fundamental problem of ontology.

    A much more successful approach is to leave aside the analyses of logical forms and approach the question directly: “What must it take for things to exist in the way that they do (obeying physical laws, embodying energy, instantiated in space and time, etc.)?” There is a book which follows this route to frame an understanding of ontology with great success, entitled The Fates Unwind Infinity. I want to give a brief summary of the ideas presented therein, beginning with its final conclusion and showing why it makes for a successful ontology. Forgive me for leaving out most of the arguments in favor of these assertions; what follows is presented much more carefully and methodically in the book.

    Being can be understood in a monistic framework: all that exists is information. Such a statement may appear immediately suspect on first glance (what about matter? Mathematics? Logic? Consciousness?), but if its implications are fleshed out, it becomes clear that an information-based ontology is profoundly successful. Above, it was argued that fictional things are existent solely through embodying the information describing those things, and it is easy enough to see how this could be the case. Though the argument is a bit more nuanced, the same can be shown to be true for nonfictional things as well, that is, all the elements of existence we experience (including the four given above).

    Any physical object we encounter in everyday life, for instance, a coffee cup, is comprised of physical energy bundled in various ways and abiding by the pertinent laws of physics. The information making up its form is encoded in the spatial relations between its constituent molecules, the information making up its spatial position in the Universe is encoded in its molecules’ spatial relationship with all other molecules (and all other possible spatial positions), and the information making up its temporal position is encoded in the chain of causality which brought those molecules from the big bang to the present moment. Its molecules similarly exist by virtue of the information which describes what those molecules are; the ways in which the energy bundled into those (and all) molecules can behave are dictated by the laws of physics. The information making up the property “repelled by equivalent electrical charge”, for instance, is an essential component of that energy’s existence, along with all other physical characteristics possessed by that energy.

    The laws of physics themselves are informational in nature, built up from the logical necessities at the basis for Existence. Logical necessities are informational in nature as well, embodying exactly the content of what truths they represent and those truths’ logical consequences, and nothing else. At the very bottom of this hasty overview of the information-based ontology is the fundamental question, “if all that exists is information, what does it take for information to exist?”

    The short answer is that information must be known in order for it to embody informational content. The triumph of this information-based ontology is that it makes this absolutely fundamental truth clear; the ontological basis for existence is Awareness, that which Knows information. Even with this additional insight, the monism described above holds; the existence of the Knower is entirely comprised of the information Known by the Knower. If there were nothing Known, there would be no Knower.

    The entire Universe has existence solely through the informational content comprising its existence. This includes human consciousness; human (and all biological) awareness is a window through which the Knower looks into subjective, willful being. The fabric of consciousness, like the fabric of all things, is information. The informational modeling undergone by our neurons in response to stimuli (for example, the generation of a visual field from photonic impulses gathered by the retinas) represents a higher-tiered reproduction of the information gathered; the outside world is informationally reconstructed within the brain, and that informational model, like all information, has existence through being Known. We each experience a tiny little bubble of the Knower’s Knowing made up of the informational processing undergone by our neurons.

    This has been an inordinately hasty overview of Chapters 2-5 of The Fates Unwind Infinity. The argument is far more nuanced and convincing in the actual body of the work, so give that a read if you want to better understand the nature of ontology, without slogging through fruitless syntactic analyses or convoluted logical frameworks. The heart of the matter is perfectly simple: to be is to embody information.

  7. Wayne says

    I think the term “vacuously” true is more standard than “trivially” true for the specific case of false antecedents.

  8. Adam Dreaver says

    Amazing content, but I do have one major issue that will change my listening style if it’s not addressed. I can’t stand commercials thrown into the middle of the podcast; it completely disrupts my train of thought and messes up the flow of the podcast. I already heard your commercials in the beginning, I know about PEL study group, donations, audible, etc..

    You don’t need to marble your podcast with commercials, you have a discussion style podcast and layered commercials are awful for this format.

    Take a look at the Joe Rogan podcast, now reaching a million+ listeners semi-weekly, he does a long commercial in the beginning, and then no more commercials for the rest of the podcast. He’s extremely successful and knows the business well.

    You might contrast this commercial style with Smodcast or Sirius/XM’s talk shows where the content is superficial, and there’s lots of fart and dick jokes, so it’s easy to throw a commercial at the audience every 20 minutes without anyone losing their flow.

    For your show, you really need an uninterrupted podcast. Come on guys, you can trust us to not “skip the commercials”, believe me, you have a great and loyal audience. I blog and fill up user generated content sites with with plugs for PEL, and I tell my friends, and I know of several ways to financially support you.

    Please don’t make me have to edit your podcasts and translate all the commercials to the beginning. Thanks for your hardwork boys.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Thanks, Adam, obviously this is a point of ongoing consideration, as we’re new to the whole commercial thing.

      The idea was that it’s two hours of audio, which works well to listen to half way, then take a break, then listen to the rest, meaning there’s space an hour in for commercials (and not marbled in every 20 minutes like a TV show or anything like that).

      If we front-load the whole thing, I do think that new listeners will be turned off, but I have absolutely no evidence of this. I also see evidence that my giving the longer Not School update thing is very obviously getting more people to sign up for that, and given that it’s a vital part of the ongoing study project and not just a way to milk folks for cash, I don’t see a problem with including it, and am loathe to simply bury it in the last 5 minutes of the recording where it will undoubtedly then be tuned out completely by a significant portion of listeners (not to mention making it even less likely that people will listen all the way to my song at the end… I’m fine with people tuning that out, but don’t want to actually dissuade them from getting to it at all.).

      Nonetheless, I’m glad to hear your opinion on this, and will weigh it with any others we receive as we figure out how to go forward with this.



      • Adam Dreaver says

        I appreciate your commercials and effort to support yourselves and this podcast. If you’re worried about plugs and time, maybe consider padding the front and back of the podcast with ads, but not the middle! Maybe consider organically including a break if you do want ads half in the middle, like you guys say, “break time!” and then come back to the discussion, so at least everyone is sync with the breaks.

        My marbling analogy was brutal and comes from a fear of my beloved podcast changing and growing, forgive me! I can’t wait for you guys to get used to commercials and being podcast celebs :)

        Good luck, I’m looking damn forward to the next episode!


  9. bryan says

    To dmf’s point… I need someone to explain to me if and/or how this whole branch of philosophy is consequential to anyone outside of this branch of philosophy. The whole question of “What kind of metaphysics is compatible with science?” seems like a problem a career philosopher would come up with just so he could be the one to heroically solve it and ensure himself legendary status among Professional Philosophers. Call me simple-minded, but regular people have no problems discussing Pegasus… There is no point of contention. It seems like in the past, nit-picky, abstract philosophy was being conducted for the sake of understanding thought, wisdom, and humanity in the current social context… Descartes with the Renaissance, Kant and then Hegel with Enlightenment, Wittgenstein/Heidegger post-Age of Reason, etc. Quine seems to be doing philosophy for the sake of professional philosophy, and meanwhile down-to-earth people read these essays and suspect they must have been some kind of overwrought inside joke between Quine and his buddies. But before I jump to the conclusion that this is all just philosophical masturbation, maybe someone can give me an idea of the consequence Quine has had or might have on anything whatsoever! Thanks…

    • A. Cur says

      I normally try to avoid arguments where the intended conclusion is something like “you should appreciate this!”, but your post seemed to be sincerely inviting discussion. I actually don’t associate your style of objection with philosophers like Quine — look at his Wikipedia instead of his SEP page, for instance, and there is quite a bit about his contribution to computer science and mathematics. (I more readily understand [redacted]’s aversion to one of my personal favorites, David Lewis, than an aversion to Quine.)

      But, why did his work on this “nit-picky” ontological stuff in particular make such a splash?

      The question you wrote, “what kind of metaphysics is compatible with science?”, was not first asked by Quine, and I am sure many people feel that it is left unanswered. Insofar as we can say that fields of inquiry like Philosophy and Science aim to describe the same world, we might find it strange* if they NEVER converged and they continually seemed to be addressing wholly separate domains.

      *Perhaps you don’t find it strange at all? If that is the case, and other people share this inclination, I would hope that there would me more people believing in the Aristotelian Theory of Celestial Bodies or Suhrawadi’s Cosmogony of Light with no regard for more recent developments in physics. Metaphysical pluralism sounds fantastic!

      I thought the podcast described pretty well the issue of negative existentials like Pegasus or Santa Claus. I’ll add that part of the reason Pegasus is often used in these discussions is because the fact that Pegasus is non-actual is [relatively] uncontroversial. “Does Pegasus exist?” may seem like a silly question with an obvious answer to people without philosophical training, but if we were to plug in more contentious items like ’42’, ‘goodness’, ‘god’ and {42, good, god}, which aren’t readily recognizable as material, the stakes all of a sudden get very high.

      Quine’s essays and your concept of philosophy as an attempt to achieve “understanding thought, wisdom, and humanity in the current social context” then become less radically different.

      + What is wrong with philosophical masturbation?

  10. A. Cur says

    Congratulations on 2 million downloads!

    You may have already had this brought to your attention but as for the identity of McX and Wyman in ‘On What There Is’, S. Paskin’s suspicion that they were intended to describe particular figures in philosophy is spot on. McX and Wyman are caricatures of the ontological positions held by the British Idealist John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (JME McTaggart) and the Austrian philosopher (proto-modal realist?) Alexius Meinong, respectively.

    … Of course this info isn’t necessary in order to understand the essay and there may be many people in the history of philosophy who can be labeled crypto-McXs or -Wymans.

    By the time Quine wrote this essay, I think these positions had largely fallen by the wayside (analytic philosophy was a violent response to the dominance of British Idealism and I believe Meinong’s position was idiosyncratic from the start).

    Also, McTaggart was many *very interesting* things, but an “Irish Bastard” (to quote M. Linsenmayer) he was not. I am belaboring this because I hope that one day you guys will do an episode on the philosophy of time. McTaggart’s “The Unreality of Time” is still pretty widely read by people working on contemporary issues in the philosophy of physics. A fair amount of the modern terminology in that field was standardized/developed in that essay — though the issues it raises have since been given a more thorough treatment elsewhere.

    I am sure you have a ton of episode ideas in the pipeline already, but one more can’t hurt… I hope.

  11. Tim says

    Am I the only one who experienced Dylan being cut off at around 10 minutes as some surf rock song plays for a few seconds before returning to Mark in the middle of a sentence? Weird.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Criminy, I think that episode is haunted. For some reason that appears to have happened while converting the WAV to an mp3. I’ve replaced the version on the server with one that is at least clean of that particular glitch. Thanks for letting me know, Tim.


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