Archive for October 25th, 2021

October 25, 2021

Are analytic sentences tautologies?

by Neil Rickert

An analytic sentence is one which can be seen to be true by virtue of the meanings of its terms. An example that is often given is:

  • A bachelor is an unmarried man.

A widely held view, among academic philosophers, is that analytic sentences are tautologies. I disagree with that assessment. I am not saying that the philosophers are wrong. I am just expressing my disagreement. Maybe we don’t have the same idea as to what “tautology” means.

It is widely agreed that language is conventional. That is to say, there are social conventions that underlay language. That different societies have different languages points to this conventionality.

Among the various conventions, there can be syntactic conventions which set how words should be arranged in sentences. There can also be semantic conventions, which set the meanings of words. And, of course, there can be mixed convention that combine both syntactic and semantic aspects.

To my way of thinking, a tautology is a sentence that is true by virtue of syntactic conventions. But once we bring in dependency on semantic conventions, I don’t think we should use the term “tautology.”

Iowa and Illinois

Here’s an example.

Apparently there is an agreement between the states of Iowa and Illinois, setting the boundary between the two states as the Mississippi river (the center of the Mississippi river). According to that agreement, we can say “Iowa is to the west of the Mississippi.” From my perspective, that sentence looks analytic but I would not consider it to be a tautology.

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