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A theme in Quine’s writing is that proper languages for the austere purposes of science should be extensional. At one point, if memory serves, he says that if propositional attitude predicates must be intensional, so much the worse for them. They aren’t needed in a proper science anyway. Similarly for dispositions. They are good shorthand, but they are modal notions, which are intensional, and so disposable in a proper extensional language of science. Where did this idea originate? I don’t remember any arguments in Quine to the effect that scientific predicates are extensional. Is this an idea that can be traced back to the Vienna Circle or someone before then? Davidson picks it up and uses it to argue for some analysis of causation [edit: in “Causal Relations.”]. Someone (name escapes me and I can’t find the articl [edit: Crane and Mellor’s “There is No Question of Physicalism.”]) responds to Davidson by arguing that causation is actually an intensional notion [edit: and other intensional contexts appear in physics, e.g. probability]. So, why would one think that scientific notions are essentially extensional anyway? If dispositional properties and counterfactuals or other modal notions are involved in scientific theories, then one wouldn’t think that scientific theories are extensional. No idea really.

Quine has that famous saying, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” While it is quite a strong pronouncement, it isn’t one that seemed to impart a great deal of influence on Quine’s own writing. He didn’t write much about philosophy of science. He often wrote that science should have pride of place in our worldviews, but there isn’t much philosophy of science proper. I think the closest he gets is discussing the relation of theory and evidence, which is certainly a bit of philosophy of science. It is sort of like the people that say philosophers should engage in naturalized epistemology, e.g. my hero Van, but don’t include long discussions of psychological literature or cite any psychological findings. Gesturing at Psychology, with a capitol ‘P’, is not enough I think. Davidson, while not buying into this “philosophy enough” business, did “dirty” his hands with some empirical research in decision theory. He published the results in a book with Pat Suppes. It’s understandable why one would want to stay away from the research and stick to the pronouncements. The former are frustrating and a huge time sink.

In class the other day, Brandom said the Vienna Circle split into two camps about what to do when they discovered that naturalism and empiricism were in conflict. One camp said that naturalism was the doctrine they should adopt. The other camp said that empricism should remain the core doctrine. He characterized Qune as falling into the latter camp which confused me at first. He said that this was because Quine rejected modal notions including dispositions and stuck with the idea of empiricism as a methodology until the end. This partly seemed right because Quine responds to Davidson in his “On the very idea of a third dogma” by saying that we can’t reject the content/scheme distinction because then there would be nothing left of empiricism. This partly seemed wrong because the Quine that I remember talked about the primacy of naturalism (no first philosophy) and of recasting meaning in terms of dispositions to verbal behavior. While this is right, the picture of Quine siding with empiricism makes more sense in terms of the overall picture of Quine’s philosophy. He did reject all modal notions. He was quite claer about that. I had forgotten that he had also suggested that dispositions should be eliminated in terms of descriptions of the physical structure that underlies the dispositional behavior. This split was a tension in Quine’s work that he never really seemed to acknowledge. There should be some places where this comes out very clearly. One of the ones suggested to me was Word and Object; I am guessing it is in chapter 2.

Quine said that philosohy was on a continuum with science. He also said, “Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.” I’m not sure if I’ve heard a good explanation of the way(s) in which philosophy is different only in degree and not in kind from scientific practice in general. Here are a couple of stabs at what that could mean. First, he could have meant that there is no first philosophy above science and all philosophy should come from science. This might not be too far off. Another way of taking it is that philosophy should be commentary on scientific results and the practice of scientists. This would explain the philosophy of science quip. A third way of taking it is that science is the regimenting of common sense practices of testing and forming beliefs to make sense of the evidence and philosophy is also a method of systematizing common sense and bringing it into reflective equilibrium. This would be a kind of David Lewis idea of philosophy. I don’t think this is exactly what Quine had in mind, but it meshes well with his idea.

One way of reading Quine is to say that we each have a set of beliefs, connected in an inferential network. This set forms something like a web (hence the metaphor) with a group of core beliefs and a beliefs lying along the edges of the web. Experience impinges on the web only at its edges and modificaitons are made primarily along the edges. Changes can make their way to the interior of the web only if the recalcitrant experience is strong enough to require modifying more central beliefs to preserve as much of the overall structure as possible. This is somewhat appealling as far as it goes, but I realized I don’t understand the mechanism behind the change. What I mean is that it sounds like we have beliefs and we get sensory experience of the outside world which constitutes experience; this experience either supports or conflicts with our existing beliefs. If it supports it, so much the better we think. If it conflicts, then we must modify our web, making as few changes as possible. One of the problems is that experiences don’t come labelled as recalcitrant or not. They first have to be recognized as such. Somone can have experiences that would seem to undermine other beliefs she holds without seeing those experiences as the basis of conflicting beliefs. She could refuse to draw the inferences necessary to make the conflict apparent. Often the links between what we experience and how that experience impinges on our already held beliefs is separated by a large gulf, so problems are not immediately recognizable in most cases. That is one problem.

Another problem is how the web is revised. Suppose I have some experience E that I view (or come to view) as recalcitrant with regards to my web of beliefs. I could make the minimal changes in my web by changing the truth values I ascribe to various sentences along the periphery of the web. Or, I could change the strength of the inferential connections in different places. I could use E as the basis of a new theory that I will tack onto my web. Or, I could reinterpret E such that it actually supports rather than undermines my beliefs. Or, I could suspend any revisions while I try to figure out if my beliefs are actually compatible with E. Or, I could suspend my revisions because I think there is some crucial information that I need to make sense of the combination of E and my beliefs, e.g. I need to learn more about some topic before I can say for sure what status E has in regards to my beliefs. Or, I could reject the recalcitrant experience because I think that any conflict with my core beliefs is either merely apparent -and not real- or based on reasoning whose fallacies I don’t currently detect but am sure of due to the strength of my core beliefs. That makes seven different ways of responding to recalcitrant beliefs, some of which do not involve any modification to my web, even along the edges. I think that Quine had the fairly straight-forward minimal revision (of the sort found in some of the current belief revision literature in logic) in mind. No doubt some of these options can be removed by stipulation or idealization, but there are a lot of options. I guess my points are that belief revision shouldn’t be taken as a functional process, experience needs to be interpreted (or recognized) as recalcitrant, and recalcitrant experience need not entail even minimal revision.


Shawn Standefer, recent Ph.D. in philosophy from Pitt. (More about me)