- Two words are synonyms when they mean the same. Similarly two phrases or sentences are synonymous when they mean the same. The usual criterion is that meaning is preserved when they are substituted one for the other. Two terms may be cognitively synonymous although associated with a different tone, and the choice of one synonym or another may have implicatures, but these will not be due to a difference of what is actually said. However, the notorious difficulties for translators of finding synonyms across different languages testifies to the delicate problem of quite how much is built into the meaning of terms. Philosophically, synonymy was crucial to the methodology of the analytic tradition, whose goal of laying out the structure of our concepts is only realistic if we know whether what is displayed is in fact the structure of the original, and not some reconstruction or differing concept altogether. Knowing this will require judging whether the analysans or analysing expression is indeed synonymous with the analysandum or expression to be analysed. Although difficulties with the relationship had always been recognized, it was Quine who first made an effective attack on the notion of synonymy, in his widely influential article ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (1951). Quine complained that the ideal of synonymy demands a sharp division between what we put down to linguistic convention, and what we put down to generally held truths about the world, but that in practice this division cannot be sustained. The question of whether we have ‘changed the meaning’ of a term when we come to believe something new about its subject-matter is generally speaking unanswerable and unprofitable. The extent of Quine's critique is, however, problematic. It seems essential to any understanding of language, and especially any belief that logic applies to language, that terms mean the same on one occurrence as they do on another, so at least in some cases a notion of synonymy must be applicable. A compromise would be that a notion of synonymy is applicable when in our actual practices of interpretation we refuse to contemplate the possibility of meaning shift; however, when such possibilities genuinely arise, the way we settle the matter may be subject to a high degree of indeterminacy. See also indeterminacy of translation.
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.