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important departure of Quine’s philosophy

Among those philosophers for whom symbolic logic occupied a central position was W.V.O. Quine, who taught at Harvard University from the 1930s to his retirement in 1978. Symbolic logic represented for him, as it did for many earlier analytic philosophers, the framework for the language of science. There were two important themes in his work, however, that represent significant departures from the positions of the logical atomists and the logical positivists. In the first place, Quine rejected the distinction between “analytic” statements, whose truth or falsity depends upon the meaning of the terms involved (e.g., “All bachelors are unmarried”), and “synthetic” statements, whose truth or falsity is a matter of empirical and observable fact (e.g., “It is raining here now”). This distinction, which had played an essential role in logical positivism and was thought by most empiricists to be the basis of the division between the deductive sciences (including philosophy) and the empirical ones, was impossible to draw, according to Quine. In the course of his argument, a similar doubt was cast upon concepts traditional not only to philosophy but also to linguistics—in particular, the concept of synonymy, or sameness of meaning.

The second important departure of Quine’s philosophy was his attempt to show that science can be successfully conducted without reference to what he calls “intensional entities.” Among such entities are many items that analytic philosophers had thought they could talk about without difficulty, such as meanings, propositions, and the properties—attributed to statements—of being necessarily true or possibly true. Because he did not accept the existence of entities that did not need to be referred to in successful scientific theories, Quine concluded that we have no good reason to believe that intensional entities exist. Quine’s work, though by no means widely accepted, has made analytic philosophers at least wary of uncritically accepting certain of their standard distinctions.