Article

Analytic/Synthetic Distinction

Gillian Russell

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online November 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0044
Analytic/Synthetic Distinction

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“The analytic/synthetic distinction” refers to a distinction between two kinds of truth. Synthetic truths are true both because of what they mean and because of the way the world is, whereas analytic truths are true in virtue of meaning alone. “Snow is white,” for example, is synthetic, because it is true partly because of what it means and partly because snow has a certain color. “All bachelors are unmarried,” by contrast, is often claimed to be true regardless of the way the world is; it is “true in virtue of meaning,” or analytic. The existence of analytic truths is controversial. Philosophers who have thought they exist include Immanuel Kant, Gottlob Frege, and Rudolf Carnap. The philosopher most famous for thinking that they do not is W. V.  V. O. Quine. Skeptics have sometimes argued that the idea of an analytic truth is incoherent, and they sometimes express this by denying the existence of the distinction. A related view is that there is a distinction but that it is trivial, since the class of analytic sentences is empty. A third kind of skeptic about analyticity questions its usefulness. It can be tempting to think that to defend analyticity one need only specify some paradigm cases and maintain that the analytic sentences are the ones like those. The use skeptic points out that analyticity is of interest only because it is thought to entail certain other features. One can define as many conceptions of analyticity as one likes, but none of them will do the work that analyticity has traditionally been expected to do. An analogy (due to Gilbert Harman) is with debates over the existence of witches. Someone might defend the claim that witches exist by pointing to the people who are taken to be paradigm cases of witches in their linguistic community (say, the people who have already been burned at the stake), claiming that “witch” properly applies to anyone who is like that. But a skeptic can argue that while one can define “witch” any way one likes, people have been burned at the stake because witches were thought to have certain salient features, such as having magical powers. The skeptic’s main point is that there is no person with those features—the features that justify the practice. Similarly, the skeptic about analyticity may allow that one can define some notions of analyticity while maintaining that there are no truths that will be useful to philosophers in the way analytic truths were supposed to be.

Article.  7766 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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