The analytic and the synthetic. The Duhemian argument and some contemporary philosophers

Philosophy of Science 26 (2):104-113 (1959)
This article is devoted to the question: does the Duhemian argument support the position taken by those contemporary philosophers who--like W. V. O. Quine and M. White--reject the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements? The term "Duhemian argument" is used to refer to the following statement: it is impossible to put to the test one isolated empirical statement; testing empirical statements involves testing a whole group of hypotheses. An analysis of the logical structure of reductive reasoning leads to the conclusion that the Duhemian argument is valid and that it entails the following statements: (1)--experience alone cannot compel us absolutely to the acceptance of any isolated empirical statement whatsoever, independently of our acceptance or rejection of some other statements, and (2)--no isolated empirical statement can be conclusively falsified by experience, independently of our acceptance or rejection of some other statements. The Duhemian argument seems then to establish conclusively the cogency of the claim that, in principle, it is possible to reject or to maintain any particular empirical statement, provided we make appropriate changes in the system of hypotheses which is put to test. The philosophers who reject the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements--in particular Quine--claim that the same line of reasoning supports their contention. It is alleged that: (1)--the Duhemian argument makes impossible a definition of statement synonymy and, consequently, a definition of analyticity in terms of synonymy, and (2)--that the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science or the total science, and (3)--that it is a folly to seek a boundary between synthetic and analytic statements, because all our statements are equally open to revision. The article tries to show that these conclusions do not follow from the Duhemian argument. In particular it is shown: (1)--that the Duhemian argument does not exclude the definition of statement synonymy, (2)--that this argument does not support the contention that the enigmatic entity called "the whole of science" or the "total science" is involved in each and every testing procedure, (3)--that the principle of fundamental revisability of every statement does not change the fact that in scientific practice the situation is never so hopeless as the Duhemian argument seems to imply, because even inconclusive arguments may differ in their adequacy, and (4)--that the term "revision" is ambiguous and only this ambiguity lends an air of plausibility to Quine's formulations. The conclusion is that the Duhemian line of reasoning does not support the contention of philosophers who reject the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements
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DOI 10.1086/287655
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