Russell, Gillian. Truth in Virtue of Meaning: A Defence of the Analytic/Synthetic Distinction
Publisher’s Note: The analytic/synthetic distinction looks simple. It is a distinction between two different kinds of sentence. Synthetic sentences are true in part because of the way the world is, and in part because of what they mean. Analytic sentences – like all bachelors are unmarried and triangles have three sides – are different. They are true in virtue of meaning, so no matter what the world is like, as long as the sentence means what it does, it will be true.
This distinction seems powerful because analytic sentences seem to be knowable in a special way. One can know that all bachelors are unmarried, for example, just by thinking about what it means. But many twentieth-century philosophers, with Quine in the lead, argued that there were no analytic sentences, that the idea of analyticity didn’t even make sense, and that the analytic/synthetic distinction was therefore an illusion. Others couldn’t see how there could fail to be a distinction, however ingenious the arguments of Quine and his supporters.
But since the heyday of the debate, things have changed in the philosophy of language. Tools have been refined, confusions cleared up, and most significantly, many philosophers now accept a view of language – semantic externalism – on which it is possible to see how the distinction could fail. One might be tempted to think that ultimately the distinction has fallen for reasons other than those proposed in the original debate.
In Truth in Virtue of Meaning, Gillian Russell argues that it hasn’t. Using the tools of contemporary philosophy of language, she outlines a view of analytic sentences which is compatible with semantic externalism and defends that view against the old Quinean arguments. She then goes on to draw out the surprising epistemological consequences of her approach.
Comment: This can be used as further/secondary reading for a postgraduate course on epistemology or philosophy of language, focusing on Quine and on the analytic/synthetic distinction.
Russell, Gillian. The Analytic/Synthetic Distinction
Abstract: Once a standard tool in the epistemologist’s kit, the analytic/synthetic distinction was challenged by Quine and others in the mid-twentieth century and remains controversial today. But although the work of a lot contemporary philosophers touches on this distinction – in the sense that it either has consequences for it, or it assumes results about it – few have really focussed on it recently. This has the consequence that a lot has happened that should affect our view of the analytic/synthetic distinction, while little has been done to work out exactly what the effects are. All these features together make the topic ideal for either a survey or research seminar at the graduate level: it can provide an organising theme which justifies a spectrum of classic readings from Locke to Williamson, passing though Kant, Frege, Carnap, Quine and Kripke on the way, but it could also provide an excuse for a much more narrowly construed research seminar which studies the consequences of really contemporary philosophy of language and linguistics for the distinction
Comment: This paper can be used as introductory/background reading on the topic of the analytic/synthetic distinction and the famous Quinean critique to it. Suitable for an advance course on philosophy of language or a specialised course on the analytic/synthetic distinction. It can also be used in a course on the history of analytic philosophy.