Cognitive synonymy is a type of synonymy in which synonyms are so similar in meaning that they cannot be differentiated either denotatively or connotatively, that is, not even by mental associations, connotations, emotive responses, and poetic value. It is a stricter (more precise) technical definition of synonymy, specifically for theoretical (e.g., linguistic and philosophical) purposes. In usage employing this definition, synonyms with greater differences are often called near-synonyms rather than synonyms.[1]


If a word is cognitively synonymous with another word, they refer to the same thing independently of context. Thus, a word is cognitively synonymous with another word if and only if all instances of both words express the same exact thing, and the referents are necessarily identical, which means that the words' interchangeability is not context-sensitive.

Willard Van Orman Quine used the concept of cognitive synonymy extensively in his famous 1951 paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", where two words were cognitively synonymous if they were interchangeable in every possible instance.[2][3]

For example,

Quine notes that if one is referring to the word itself, this doesn't apply, as in,

As compared to the substitution which is obviously false,

See also


  1. ^ Stanojević, Maja (2009), "Cognitive synonymy: a general overview" (PDF), Facta Universitatis, Linguistics and Literature series, 7 (2): 193–200.
  2. ^ Hanna, Patricia (2005), Cognitive Synonymy, from Notes on "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", archived from the original on 2009-06-24, retrieved 2009-05-05.
  3. ^ Quine, Willard Van Orman (1951), "Two dogmas of empiricism", The Philosophical Review, 60: 20–43. Reprinted in his 1953 book From a Logical Point of View. Harvard University Press.

Further reading