The "Dim View of Meaning" in Two Dogmas

Merrill Ring


Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (hereafter simply ‘Two Dogmas’), rather than sliding quietly into the category of ‘classic’ and eliciting only disputes about interpretation, retains the power to produce philosophical disputes.  Even what begin as interpretive problems are likely to end in philosophical disagreements.  While I shall resist that temptation here, it is hoped that this exegetical project will enable substantial future philosophical discussion.

Specifically, this essay is an attempt to puzzle out the argument Quine employs in his famous ‘Two Dogmas’ criticism of meaning, the argument producing what Gilbert Harman has called ‘The Death of Meaning’.1  There are those who may ask what point there is to setting out Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas’ criticism on that matter.  There are several versions of that objection. 

It might be claimed that Quine’s texts are all too slippery and that every serious attempt at their exegesis will come to naught in textual ambiguities.  Without denying the aspects of  Quine’s style which make for extensive ambiguities, one can only reply that such problems should not prevent the effort.  As will be seen in what follows, the textual uncertainties in ‘Two Dogmas’ lead directly into interesting philosophical matters.

A second version of this objection is that the discussion of meaning in ‘Two Dogmas’ has been superceded in Quine’s later writings, that he continued to return to the theme and thesis and introduced substantially different lines of argument against the notion of meaning as his views developed.  It is undeniable that those developments took place.  If one wishes to track Quine’s continuing criticism of meaning, see an essay by William Alston and Quine’s reply thereto.2  However, since ‘Two Dogmas’ is the paper which philosophers continue to read and since Quine does not significantly repudiate the moves made therein, it is important to attend to the details of that text.

A final version of the objection to my entire enterprise is that surely it has already been accomplished:  surely there is by now an adequate description of the line of argument against meaning in ‘Two Dogmas’.

I will not allege that what the many commentators on the text have said has no bearing whatsoever on the argumentative structure of the material.  It would be very odd if that were so.  What I do claim is that no one has taken the matter as a textual problem, has gone at the material in the relevant paragraphs of ‘Two Dogmas’ with a view toward puzzling out the text in order to determine the argument there.

However, I shall not attempt to establish that that is so, that Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas’ argument against meaning has not been appropriately displayed.  There are many writers who have something or the other to say about the matter.  A project of setting out their maneuvers and adding criticism of them would bend the discussion here in a different direction and make it much longer.  Rather, I shall go ahead with my account and should anyone wish to compare the results here with other descriptions of those paragraphs of ‘Two Dogmas’, I shall pursue some of the comparisons in notes.3

Failure by commentators to confront indetail Quine’s objections to the post-Kantian definition of analyticity is surprising.  For his historical point is surely correct: the major explanation of necessity confronting him when he came to purge empiricism (and philosophy generally) of its corruptions was that embodied in ‘A statement is analytic when it is true in virtue of the meanings of its constituent words and independently of fact.’  The rejection, by the empiricist tradition, of the type of necessity which Kant called ‘synthetic a priori’ left them no type of necessity other than the analytic.  And in attempting to conceive how there could be, on their principles, necessary truths, say analytic propositions, they were deeply pleased to think that analyticity can be explained in terms of the meanings of words.  By accounting for analyticity in that way, empiricists could (it seemed) maintain both their principle concerning the origin of knowledge (‘All knowledge is derived from experience’) and also their sense that there are necessary truths.  Quine, seeking purity of principle (all knowledge really does come from experience) and holding that there is no necessity to be found in what we experience, will look to reject the possibility of analytic propositions.  What stood in the way of accomplishing that was the orthodox definition of analyticity, the idea that analyticity is a function of meaning.

On the other hand, one must have considerable sympathy with the failure by subsequent writers to investigate Quine’s criticism of the canonical account of analyticity.  The chief reason for that ‘oversight’ is not difficult to discern. It is extremely difficult to see what the argument is, even to see that there is an argument located in those paragraphs of ‘Two Dogmas’.  One matter in which this essay departs from its predecessors is that it takes it that there is an argument in those five paragraphs of Section 1, an argument which concludes with a rejection of the concept of meaning.  My purpose is to work out what that argument is.

To specify precisely what the interpretive problem is requires a description of the relevant parts of the text.

After announcing in an introductory paragraph that he will argue that the dogma of analyticity is “ill-founded”, Quine begins Section 1 of ‘Two Dogmas’ with a brief historical review of the development of the notion of analyticity from Hume and Leibniz through Kant.  That historical review concludes with the words “But Kant’s intent, evident more from the use he makes of the notion of analyticity than from his definition of it, can be stated thus: a statement is analytic when it is true by virtue of meanings and independently of fact.”4    Quine’s next words are a shift from stating the post-Kantian view to initiating criticism of it: “Pursuing this line, let us examine the concept of meaning which is presupposed.”  He proceeds with that examination for five paragraphs and begins the sixth with “The problem of analyticity then confronts us anew.”5           

It is quite obvious that in those five paragraphs following the historical review Quine has rejected the initial (post-Kantian) definition of analyticity - namely that “a statement is analytic when it is true in virtue of meaning...” - and has done so by finding some flaw in the concept of meaning.  At the beginning of the paragraph following those five, he prepares to search for another definition (“The problem of analyticity confronts us anew.”)  That successor account will be couched in terms of synonymy - a concept he will also find wanting.  In consequence the problem of analyticity will remain for further inquiry, an inquiry which in ‘Two Dogmas’, as elsewhere in Quine, will arrive at a negative conclusion.

The structure of the text, the way the discussion in Section 1 is constructed, makes it clear that the concept of meaning, and consequently the initial definition of analyticity, is dispatched prior to the introduction of the notion of synonymy.  Later in ‘Two Dogmas’ Quine twice gives exactly that account of the structure of the proceedings.  Recapitulating at the beginning of Section 4 he says “Analyticity at first seemed most naturally definable by appeal to a realm of meanings.  On refinement, the appeal to meanings gave way to an appeal to synonymy or definition.”6 Section 5 also begins with a recapitulation which repeats that understanding of how the argument is organized:  “In the course of these somber reflections we have taken a dim view first of the notion of meaning, then of the notion of cognitive synonymy, and finally of the notion of analyticity.”7   Consequently, given that structure of the text, the argument about meaning, the one in which a “dim view” of the concept is developed, is to be found in those five paragraphs of Section 1 which fall between the words “Pursuing this line, let us examine the concept of meaning which is presupposed” and “The problem of analyticity then confronts us anew.”

The interpretive problem can now be stated.  Exactly what is the argument in those five paragraphs which de-legitimizes the concept of meaning and with it the standard post-Kantian definition of analyticity? 

What is Quine’s argumentative strategy there?  Having stated the favored post-Kantian definition of analyticity, Quine says “Pursuing this line, let us examine the concept of meaning which is presupposed.”  The aim of that examination, which is made explicit only in Quine’s recapitulation at the beginning of Section 5, is to show that accounts of analyticity in terms of meaning fail because the concept of meaning is somehow illegitimate.  Unfortunately, that vague phrase ‘somehow illegitimate’ (or something like it) is initially necessary in spelling out Quine’s aim because his own terminology of “taking a dim view” is so unhelpful.  In some fashion he is condemning the concept of meaning though the precise charge is never explicitly leveled.

The problem is to determine how what he says in those five paragraphs of Section 1, which may well look to be only genial jottings about meaning and sundry matters, constitute taking a “dim view” of the concept of meaning, how they show the concept to be unacceptable.  The first step in determining the nature of his criticism will require examining with some care the entire five paragraphs - argument fragments will be found scattered throughout them. 

Of those five, the first three are, and were intended to be, a brief review and development of what seemed to Quine the most advanced ideas about the nature of meaning.  The fourth paragraph, which is crucial in spirit, although not in detail, to understanding Quine, concerns the source of talk about meaning. The final paragraph looks at first glance to be the core of the matter

The opening three paragraphs, which present and extend some thoughts about meaning inherited from Frege, are not to be treated as of discursive interest only, although that is the overwhelming impression they give. The initial premise of Quine’s argument is to be found there, although it is not introduced as such.8 The important move occurs in the first sentence of those three paragraphs.  He has ordered up an examination of the concept of meaning and commences that thusly: “Meaning, let us remember, is not to be identified with naming.  Frege’s example of ‘Evening Star’ and ‘Morning Star’, and Russell’s of ‘Scott’ and ‘the author of Waverley’, illustrate that terms can name the same thing but differ in meaning.  The distinction between meaning and naming is no less important at the level of abstract terms.”9   That is, when Quine turns to an inquiry into the concept of meaning, to thinking about what meaning is, he immediately calls to mind that distinction between meaning and naming (Sinn and Bedeutung) which had been drawn on the basis of examples supplied by Frege and Russell.10

The remainder of these three opening paragraphs consists of an application by Quine of that distinction between meaning and naming to other kinds of terms than those originally intended.  He moves from such “concrete” terms as ‘Scott’, etc. to “abstract singular terms” such as ‘9’ and ‘the number of the planets’ and then on to general terms.  “Now paralleling the contrast between the meaning of a singular term and the entity named, we must distinguish equally between the meaning of a general term and its extension.”11    I think it decently clear that none of the details of his extension of the distinction beyond the Fregean and Russellian cases are relevant to my project, the elucidation of his objection to the notion of meaning.  Though not relevant, the amount of space Quine devotes to his extension of the classic cases helps produce the impression that there is nothing argumentatively important in the entire three paragraphs.12

There follows in the text a longish paragraph, the fourth in the investigation of meaning, which discusses Aristotelian essentialism and its connection with meaning.  Although at first sight that material seems to have no connection with an impending “dim view” of meaning and so receives no mention from any commentator I am aware of, nonetheless it is absolutely, though obscurely, central to his criticism.  Yet, rather than working out now the point of what Quine says there, it is best to press on and leave that paragraph for later exploration.  For only then can one appreciate what his intent was in bringing in the topic of Aristotelian essentialism.

There remains the final paragraph of the five.  It must be quoted in full. “For the theory of meaning a conspicuous question is the nature of its objects: What sort of things are meanings?  A felt need for meant entities may derive from an earlier failure to appreciate that meaning and reference are distinct. Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing as the primary business of the theory of meaning simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements; meanings themselves as obscure intermediary entities may well be abandoned.”13 

As his very next sentence is “The problem of analyticity then confronts us anew”, it is clear that Quine thinks he has, in the lines just quoted, shown the impossibility of defining analyticity in terms of meaning by having established the failure of the concept of meaning.   Yet it is surely wholly unclear how, taken as presented, those words could show that the concept of meaning is illegitimate.  We shall have to re-examine those sentences, one by one.

(S1)  “For the theory of meaning a conspicuous question is the nature of its objects: what sort of things are meanings?”  That seems a perfectly fair part of an inquiry into the concept of meaning, though as stated it is freighted with several typical Quinean assumptions.  For surely it is perfectly legitimate to have a philosophical worry about the nature of meaning, to ask ‘What is the meaning of a word, a sentence?’  The concept of meaning is important and what is wanted philosophically by way of an answer is some account which tells us what sort of thing meanings are.  That Quine rightly sees.  So in this sentence, Quine seems correct: talk of meaning inevitably leads to a significant question about what meanings are.

Of course in putting the matter in those terms, I have stripped away some notions crucial to Quine and his manner of conceiving an inquiry into meaning, namely the idea that meanings are “objects” which are embedded in a “theory”.   These notions shall resurface later as central to a critical understanding of Quine’s argument. 

(S2) “A felt need for meant entities may derive from an earlier failure to appreciate that meaning and reference are distinct.”  This second sentence of the trio is not quite as happy as the first, but then it is not impossible either.

Let us remember that a prime candidate for answering the question ‘What is the meaning of a word?’ is that meanings are the objects to which words (or sentences) refer, which words name, etc.  Historically a very prominent response to the question about meaning has been the idea that meanings are the named entities.  When we remember that fact, it becomes clear what Quine is doing in the sentence under examination.  He is offering an explanation of why philosophers have held that view of meaning, have held that meanings are the entities named.  Moreover, from what he says by way of explanation, we can also see he thinks that answer to be quite wrong.

The sentence thus says this: it has been thought, mistakenly, that meanings are the objects named by words (and sentences); the reason philosophers have made that mistake is that they have failed to distinguish meaning and naming (referring), Sinn and Bedeutung

His preliminary discussion of meaning and naming, i.e. the first three paragraphs of these five, are now made relevant.  In the criticism here, he relies upon having previously established (or reminded us) that meaning and naming are different.

Any problem we have with this second of the sentences does not arise because of what Quine says in it.  Philosophers who have talked of meanings as the things which words stand for, denote, have been wrong and they have been led to such a view by, among other things, assimilating meanings of expressions to the bearers of names.  Yet we must not let the fact that Quine got nearly all that correct obscure the difficulties surrounding this sentence.  The serious problem is that from an argumentative standpoint it is not at all clear why Quine makes this remark, even if it is true, at this point.  In the preceding sentence he said that the nature of meaning is an important problem.  Now he explains why philosophers have been led to a mistaken view about that issue.  The transition from the one sentence to the next is lacking in logical rigor, especially when we are trying to discover an argument, which, it seems, must be there.  From the point of view of attempting to reconstruct Quine’s objection to the concept of meaning, we so far seem to have accomplished nothing.  A heavy burden thus seems to hang upon the final sentence of the section.

(S3)  “Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing as the primary business of the theory of meaning simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements; meanings themselves as obscure intermediary entities may well be abandoned.”  On the one hand, this seems no more helpful in grasping the argument than what we have so far looked at.  For it is quite obvious upon inspection that what is said here is a version of the ultimate conclusion, the thesis that the concept of meaning can be dispensed with on the grounds that it is illegitimate.  The trouble is that we have not yet identified the premises producing that conclusion and that is what we are after.

Nonetheless, the clue is in this final sentence (as all commentators have realized).  For what he says there is, in effect, that once meaning and naming are distinguished, the notion of meaning can be abandoned.  And that is precisely how the entire set of five paragraphs is managed: he begins with a reminder that Frege and Russell (well, Frege at any rate) have shown there to be such a distinction, and finishes by saying that the concept of meaning is not acceptable.  Thus, the premise is the very first sentence of that group of paragraphs we are interested in and the conclusion is in the final sentence of the set.

I must emphasize that I did not say that it was the final sentence.  The conclusion, for now, must be regarded as only  ‘meanings themselves may well be abandoned.’  For I have omitted some words which must, later, be considered, namely the claim that meanings are “obscure intermediary entities”.  While those words have attracted considerable attention, they are misplaced if they are included in the first specification of Quine’s objections to meaning.

There then is only one way to initially represent Quine’s argument in that first section of ‘Two Dogmas’, namely:

P1 Meaning and naming (referring) are distinct
C Hence the concept of meaning is illegitimate

Put so baldly, one can see another reason, over and above Quine’s failure to state it clearly himself, why commentators have had trouble discovering the argument: on its face what Quine presents seems a most unpromising a line to take.  So many philosophers have come to accept the premise that meaning and reference are not the same that it is quite surprising that they, Quine apart, have not seen that they are thereby committed to a conclusion abolishing meaning.  It is thus with considerable interest that we turn to look for the missing premise which would legitimize what seems to be a very large transition from the given premise to the conclusion.  It appears that the next task must be to ransack those paragraphs of ‘Two Dogmas’ once again in order to discover whether Quine proposed anything to close the gap.  And now the paragraph on Aristotelian essence seems the reasonable place to look since it is the as yet unexplored bit of text and also falls roughly mid-way between the discovered premise and the conclusion.

Nonetheless, I am going to assert that the missing premise will not be found in that material.  To be sure that discussion is highly relevant to the missing premise, but it will turn out that the relevance amounts to an account of why Quine believes the missing premise to be true.  (That, of course, remains to be established when I do in fact examine the material on essence in more detail.)  In short, there is no place in the text where the missing premise is stated: the argument as given is genuinely an enthymeme.

  We are then left with the argument as I sketched it above and thus with the question ‘What premise is necessary in order to make it valid?’  Only one candidate suggests itself:

                  P1         Meaning and naming (referring) are distinct.

                  P2         Meaning could not be distinct from naming.

                  C         Hence meaning is an illegitimate concept.

Quine quite clearly supposes that he has argued that talk of meaning is unacceptable - and as the only matter of substance cited in the appropriate paragraphs which could be a premise is the claim that meaning and naming are distinct, we are left with no choice but to take it that he assumes that meaning could not be a concept distinct from that of naming.14

With the enthymeme now filled out, it is now possible to see what the illegitimacy of the concept of meaning amounts to.  Since meaning and naming are distinct and yet could not be, we can say that the upshot of the argument is that meaning is a self-contradictory concept.

That characterization of the status of the concept is not, however, open to Quine.  For ‘self-contradictoriness’ is one of the terms which ‘Two Dogmas’ finds unacceptable.  “[F]or the notion of self-contradictoriness, in the quite broad sense needed for this definition of analyticity, stands in exactly the same need of clarification as does the notion of analyticity itself.  The two notions are the two sides of a single dubious coin.”15   The result is that Quine has no critical terminology to characterize the status of the concept of meaning in light of his argument and so has to resort to vague talk such as ‘taking a dim view’.  For us, however, we can say that Quine concludes that the concept of meaning is self-contradictory.  

In order to understand better the rejection of meaning in ‘Two Dogmas’, there remain further projects.  The best way of seeing the issues is as follows. I phrased Quine’s explicitly stated premise as a natural variant of his way of putting it: I turned his “Meaning, let us remember, is not to be identified with naming” into ‘Meaning and naming are distinct.’  To then make the argument perspicuous I set out the unstated premise as ‘Meaning and naming could not be distinct.’  However, Quine could as easily have said that the Fregean and Russell counter-examples show, as they do, that ‘The meaning of a word is not what it stands for, denotes, refers to….’    So putting the given premise, what is missing in the text would be ‘The meaning of a word is what it stands for’.

Now the difficulty becomes clear:  there is no place in Quine’s writings where he explicitly subscribes to the thesis represented in P2.  Therefore, isn’t it seriously mistaken to attribute it to him as an unexpressed doctrine in the text being examined?

Before leaping quite so far ahead, we must inquire into what Quine understood by the thesis that meaning and naming/referring could not be different, that the meaning of a word is what it refers to.  For it is not obvious that meaning and naming could not be different - most of us today think that they are not to be identified.  To discover why Quine would make implicit use of that view, we must return to the text of ‘Two Dogmas’, to the as yet unexamined penultimate paragraph of his analysis of meaning, to the unaccounted for material on Aristotelian essentialism. 

Most of what that paragraph contains is mere detail generated by assumptions which are exhibited in the crucial lines of the paragraph.  The sentences that set out those assumptions are the first and the last of the paragraph.  “The Aristotelian notion of essence was the forerunner, no doubt, of the modern notion of intension or meaning....  Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.”

Before beginning an account of what Quine means by those words, I want to block one interpretation which is likely to arise because it has the virtue of truth.  It is, no doubt, true that moderns account for necessity in ways very different from the ancients.  We, on the whole, attempt to do so, rightly or wrongly, in terms of meaning.  Prior to such accounts, philosophers were more likely to say that necessity derived from the essence of things.  In that respect, namely in being offered in philosophical accounts of what it is for a truth to be necessary, the notion of essence was the forerunner of the notion of meaning. 

So much is historically true.  Let us now take up Quine’s claims above.  His idea is that the concept of meaning is a historical invention (construct) that philosophers created to replace the concept of essence.  Talk of meaning came into being when and because philosophers gave up talking about essence.  We philosophers invented the concept of meaning and began attributing to words something, namely meanings, the analogs of which, namely essences, we had previously attributed to objects.  (Recall his words: “Things had essences for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings.  Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.”)

There is implied in Quine’s thesis not just a bare claim that philosophers invented the notion of meaning but a more ramified story.  He talks in ‘Two Dogmas’ of  “the theory of meaning”, “the doctrine of meaning”.  Quine thinks that something we can call “the theory of meaning” came into existence not too very long ago, though it is left completely unspecified when that was.  This theory was a successor to a previously held theory, the theory of essence.  For some reason or the other, philosophers no longer found it plausible or satisfying to talk of essences and so began to think that there were no such things.  However, essence theory did perform some philosophically valuable functions, e.g. it gave a means of accounting for necessity.  Because we thought we needed such offices filled, a replacement theory was devised which could perform those functions without the drawbacks of the theory of essence (whatever those flaws were.)  Instead of talking of “essences”, the new theory postulated “meanings”.  These, however, were not embedded in objects but were rather connected to words.

In short, Quine thinks that talk of meaning is a consequence of a philosophical theory that makes reference to such things and hence requires their existence.  Meanings are theoretical in just the same way as, e.g., atoms are.  Well - perhaps that is too misleading.  For Quine goes on to reject meanings while he shows no inclination to reject atoms.  Rather, for Quine, the theory of meaning is in much the same situation as phlogiston theory (an analogy which long antedates my use of it here).  That theory required there to be a stuff, phlogiston, which performed various explanatory functions in chemistry.  Later it was learned that the concept of phlogiston was a logical mess and so chemists had to work out how one could do chemistry without phlogiston.  The stuff and the theory that made reference to it both went away.

Quine thinks meanings are quite like phlogiston, caloric, or the ether, or witches.16  They are theoretical entities called into being by a theory, in this case philosophical not scientific.

I undertook this venture into Quine’s asserted historical connection between essence and meaning to answer a particular question.  What is the nature of Quine’s commitment tothe idea that meanings are the objects words stand for?  The answer is that he thinks it obvious that the theory which postulated meanings identified them with what they name. 

Does that then mean that Quine, in ‘Two Dogmas’, subscribes to thesis what a word means is what it names?  The answer is ‘Yes and No.’  On the ‘No’ side of the ledger we have to enter that he does not and would not present himself as a defender of the view.  On the other hand, he could not be listed among those who deny the thesis, who argue its falsity. His view, rather, is that the concept of meaning, as a piece of public intellectual property, does identify what is meant and what is named.  So he does and does not hold the thesis.

Moreover, Quine thinks that time and thought have revealed a flaw in the concept and therefore in the theory which introduced it.  It turns out that, given the counter-examples, meanings cannot be the objects which are named by words.  Just as in the history of phlogiston, it turned up that that stuff had negative weight and thus it is impossible that there is such a stuff, so too meanings, as has been learned from Frege and Russell, cannot be what they were brought into being to be and thus must be dispensed with.  The concept of meaning is thus illegitimate, (for us) self-contradictory.   


Unfortunately, the story of how to interpret the puzzling paragraphs of ‘Two Dogmas’ is not yet finished.  For there is a second group of thoughts about meaning which intersect with what I have so far set out as the dominant line. 

To see that, recall that I have not yet said anything of one phrase in Quine’s final sentence of these paragraphs, probably the most noticeable words of the lot.  When he finishes the opening inquiry of ‘Two Dogmas’ by saying “Meanings themselves ... may well be abandoned” he inserts into its midst the phrase “as obscure intermediary entities”.  It is clear that Quine is there reaching the conclusion that meanings are not henceforth to be countenanced.  But what has not been noticed hitherto is that the phrase he inserts into that abandonment is not of a piece with his line of thought which began with “Meaning, it must be remembered, is not to be identified with naming.” 

Suppose one does identify meaning and naming and thus treats the planet Venus as the meaning of the terms ‘the Morning Star’ and ‘the Evening Star’.  Abandoning the concept of meaning for reasons so far elicited from the text does not mean abandoning an “obscure intermediary object”.  For Venus is neither (philosophically) obscure nor an intermediary - moreover Quine is clearly not abandoning Venus, only a meaning.    So the exegetical problem is to see from whence the words “as obscure intermediary entities” emerged to burst into Quine’s discussion at its end.

The only reasonable hypothesis is that they derived from Quine’s thoughts about what he usually refers to as ‘intensional objects’. 

One case is this.  It is often said that two people, each of whom says the same thing, say ‘Venus is lovely tonight’, will be expressing the same proposition.  And what is a proposition?  Well, what the two people said means the same thing and since it would be a violation of Ockham’s razor to think that the sentence has two things in common, namely a proposition and its meaning, then the proposition must be the same as the meaning of the sentence.  Hence propositions become intensional, become meanings.  And with reification running rampant, they become intensional objects, entities.

Consider a source more likely to have been in the immediate background of the ‘Two Dogmas’ passage, namely Frege.  In giving an account of the Sinn of an expression, Frege realized that the phrase ‘the Sinn of the expression E’ must be, in light of his own views, the name of an object.    Quine in using the terms ‘meaning’ and ‘naming’ where Frege used ‘Sinn’ and ‘Bedeutung’, would understand that view to be the thesis that the phrase ‘the meaning of the word “goose”’ must itself stand for something.  However, on this account of the matter, ‘the meaning of the word  “goose”’ does not stand for geese, as  ‘goose’ does on the ‘Fido’-Fido account of meaning, but for some further entity.  It is these additional entities (of the third realm), propositions (Thoughts for Frege, the Sinn of an assertoric sentence) and objects referred to by the phrase ‘the meaning of x’, which Quine, rightly, sees as obscure entities.  And as they fall between the linguistic entities (words, phrases, sentences) and the objects named by those entities, they are intermediary.  In consequence of their obscurity and strangely mediating status, they are, in Quine’s view, to be abandoned.

Nothing in the preceding text of ‘Two Dogmas’ is a preparation for the introduction and immediate surrender of those intensional objects.  The line of thought concerning these intermediary objects is quite different from that previously traced out here.  I have already pointed out that Venus, for example, is not being abandoned as obscure and intermediary.  There are other matters which should be noticed in connection with the realization that there are two different views of meaning which Quine has conflated. 

Frege’s idea that the phrase ‘the Sinn of the expression “goose”’ functions just like, say, ‘the  Morning Star’ or ‘the desk on the left’, as a quasi-name, does not follow from that distinction which plays a central role in Quine’s objection to meaning in ‘Two Dogmas’, the distinction between meaning and naming.  Many philosophers have accepted the one while rejecting the other, including Quine himself.  Only if you draw the distinction, then go on to ask ‘And what is a Sinn?’ and think that ‘the Sinn of e’ must be a name will you end up with the second doctrine. 

This second theme about meaning, because not sorted out from the other, may have had some influence on Quine’s idea that the concept of meaning arose in historical times: for Frege’s ‘third realm’ was of recent invention.  However, that idea of Frege’s had no connection with Aristotle or essentialism and thus Quine’s thought that meaning arose to replace essence cannot be connected with Frege.

There are at least some who have read Quine’s two phrases, “meant entities” and “obscure intermediary entities” as part of a single view being criticized by Quine.17   That cannot be so.  In any ordinary reading of ‘meant entities’ those are entities which we mean, refer to, in our talk:  when one says ‘Aristotle taught in Athens’ the entity meant is Aristotle, not say Hume.  A Fregean Sinn, however, is not what is meant when we say ‘Aristotle taught in Athens’:  what we mean is Aristotle and the problem is that the entity which is the Sinn of the word ‘Aristotle’ somehow stands between our words and the entity which is meant, namely Aristotle.  Further, Quine claims, as we have seen, that the thought that entities are meant, that our words mean some object, arises from the failure to distinguish meaning and naming, Sinn and Bedeutung.  But the obscure entities precisely do not arise from failure to notice that distinction but rather from having made it in the first place (with a little help from other philosophical friends.) 

It is one of the features, and difficulties, of ‘Two Dogmas’ that two significantly different lines of thought having to do with the concept of meaning cross each other in Quine’s arriving at the conclusion that the concept is illegitimate and should be abandoned.  The fundamental one, the one which holds the five relevant paragraphs together, concerns the referential theory of meaning conceived of as a quasi-scientific theory.  The bit derived from Frege about the referential status of ‘the Sinn of e’ is a late arrival upon Quine’s critical scene, entering at the end roughly as one radio station can interfere with another.18

Thus ends the project here – to work out how Quine in‘Two Dogmas’ argues against the concept of meaning, how he in his now classic paper attempts to accomplish ‘The Death of Meaning’.  The next step, not to be taken at this time, would be to take up criticism of the argument.  And, as the interpretation shows, there is much of importance to criticize.  On the success of the argument which rejects the concept of meaning rests Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas’ attempt to polish off the central explanation of what analyticity is and in so doing the very idea of an analytic statement.

Obviously what is most questionable is his view that the concept of meaning is introduced into human thought and practice by a philosophical theory.  Behind that is the assumption that philosophical thought is simply a high level species of scientific theorizing.19

Quine, in his introductory paragraph, holds that one consequence, “effect”, of abandoning the two dogmas (especially, I would think, this first one) is a “blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science.”  That blurring, so characteristic of Quine’s thought, is not however a consequence of the rejection of the dogma.  He presumes just such a blurring when he treats meanings as theoretical objects similar to phlogiston or witches.  In short, the “effect’ of Quine’s views in ‘Two Dogmas’, the rise of a scientific philosophy, is not effect but presupposition. 



1.  Gilbert Harman, ‘Quine on Meaning and Existence:  I. The Death of Meaning’ (The Review of Metaphysics, vol. XXI, No 1, September 1967).

2.  I am not here interested in arguments elsewhere in Quine’s writings which are aimed at showing meaning to be a misguided concept.  The most important essay which attempts to survey, and comment upon, the entire range of those arguments is William Alston, ’Quine on Meaning’, The Philosophy of W.V. Quine, ed. E.L. Hahn and P.A. Schilpp (The Open Court, 1986).  That book also contains Quine’s reply to Alston.

3.  There are commentators who, while dealing with the issues, make no effort to set out the argument in the passages of interest here.  See Roger Gibson, The Philosophy of W.V. Quine: An Expository Essay (University Presses of Florida, 1982); the material on pp. 96-97 is presented as an exposition of the relevant paragraphs in ‘Two Dogmas’, but Gibson there leaps from Quine’s preliminary discussion of Kant to the problem with substituting ‘bachelor’ for ‘unmarried man’ without a mention of the objections to the concept of meaning falling in between.  Thee same omission is to be found in his later Enlightened Empiricism (University Presses of Florida, 1988); see the expository leap on p. 86.  Similarly in the very recent On Quine by Lynn Hankinson Nelson and Jack Nelson (Wadsworth, 2000) the Kantian definition is set out and the very next words are “Quine finds meanings to be ‘obscure intermediary entities’ that are ‘well abandoned’ in favor of an investigation of ‘the synonymy of linguistic forms’.” (p. 23) How Quine “finds” that, i.e. what his argument might be, is never mentioned, although the anti-synonymy  considerations are presented in detail.

4.  W.V. Quine, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, From A Logical Point of View, 2nd ed. rev (Harper & Row, 1962), p. 21.  It should be noted that all commentators use this 1961 revision of the version of ‘Two Dogmas’ found in the 1953 edition of FLPV.  That earlier ‘Two Dogmas’ differs from the now orthodox version in the relevant paragraphs.

5. ibid., p. 22.

6.  ibid., p. 32.

7.  ibid., p. 37.

8 Among the commentators, only Alex Orenstein in Willard Van Orman Quine (Twayne, 1977) appreciates the significant of this starting place for Quine’s inquiry into meaning.  That is because he, more than any other commentator, is treating the material as containing an argument.

9.  Quine, op. cit., p. 21.

10.  Notice that Quine gives a Fregean reading of the point of ‘the author of Waverley’ case.  Russell did not conclude that it shows a distinction between meaning and naming.

11.  loc. cit.

12.  A.C. Grayling in An Introduction to Philosophical Logic (The Harvester Press, 1982) presents a thorough exegesis of Quine’s development of the classic cases – but after that, his account of Quine’s argument fades into generalities.  See pp. 48-49.

13.  Quine, op. cit., p. 22

14.  Bill Hyde has pointed out to me that there is an interesting benefit to setting the argument out in its full text-book glory.  Doing so we obtain:

         P1  Meaning and naming are distinct.

         P2  Meaning and naming could not be distinct.

         C1 Hence either meaning or naming must be an illegitimate concept.

         P3  Naming is not an illegitimate concept.

         C2  hence meaning is an illegitimate concept.

         The benefit, of course, is that that version shows that Quine assumes that the problem he has identified resides in the concept of meaning and not in that of naming, reference, standing for, etc. etc.

15. Quine, op. cit., p. 20.

16.  Harman, in the paper referred to earlier, extensively uses analogies to phlogiston, witches, ether, to bring out the nature of Quine’s objections to meaning.  The phlogiston case turns out to be an excellent parallel to what Quine alleges about meaning, for phlogiston turned out to be a self-contradictory concept it being a substance which weighed less than zero.

17.  See Grayling’s discussion, op. cit., p. 49.

18.  Over and above the phrase “obscure intermediary entities” in Section 1, there may be other signs in the text of the second, Fregean, doctrine.  The phrase “a realm of meaning” which occurs in the recapitulatory opening of Section 4 may be an echo of Frege’s ‘third realm’.

19.  Spinoza saw God everywhere and was labeled a pantheist.  Quine sees theory everywhere – a pantheorist.

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