Friday, June 20, 2014

A Final Post (For Now) On Whether Quine was a "Verificationist"
In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show".  This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Hilary Putnam

I seem to be in a minority in claiming that, in the sense of equating lack of verifiability with meaninglessness, which was the logical positivist sense of "verificationism", Quine was no verificationist. But an excellent defense of this "minority view" by Panu Raatikainen appeared in The Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. XLI (2003). Here are some key paragraphs:

"Quine considers explicitly the notion of meaninglessness and the normative role it played in the heyday of the Vienna Circle, when metaphysics was denounced as meaningless. As Quine puts it, ‘[f]or this purpose a sentence was rated as meaningless if neither it nor its negation was either analytic or empirically verifiable.’ ‘However’, Quine adds, ‘the notion of analyticity has its troubles, and the notion of verifiability has had, increasingly down the years, its troubles too’.[i]"

"Further, in his recent response to Bergström, Quine expresses his view on the verificationist criterion of meaningfulness quite clearly: ‘Contrary to positivist spirit, I do not repudiate sentences for lack of empirical content.’[ii] Quine then continues his reply by citing himself in From Stimulus to Science:

Even if I had a satisfactory notion of shared content, I would not want to impose it in a positivist spirit as a condition of meaningfulness. Much that is accepted as true or plausible even in the hard sciences, I expect, is accepted without thought of its joining forces with other plausible hypotheses to form a testable set. Such acceptations may be prompted by symmetries and analogies, or as welcome unifying links in the structure of the theory. Surely it often happens that a hypothesis remote from all checkpoints suggests further hypotheses that are testable. This must be a major source of hypotheses worth testing. Positivistic insistence on empirical content could, if heeded, impede the progress of science.[iii]"

"In a very similar vein, Quine writes the following on another occasion:

... let me add, contrary to positivism, that a sentence does not even need to be testable in order to qualify as a respectable sentence of science. A sentence is testable, in my liberal or holistic sense, if adding it to previously accepted sentences clinches an observation categorical that was not implied by those previous sentences alone; but much good science is untestable even in this liberal sense. We believe many things because they fit in smoothly by analogy, or they symmetrize and simplify the overall design. Surely much history and social science is of this sort, and some hard science. Moreover, such acceptations are not idle fancy; their proliferation generates, every here and there, a hypothesis that can indeed be tested. Surely this is the major source of testable hypotheses and the growth of science.[iv]"

[i]  W.V. Quine, ‘Philosophical Progress in Language Theory’, Metaphilosophy 1, p. 7.

[ii]  W.V. Quine, ‘Responses’, Inquiry, 37 (1994), p. 497.

[iii] W.V. Quine, From Stimulus to Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 49.

[iv]  W.V. Quine, ‘Naturalism; Or, Living Within Ones Means’, Dialectica, 49 (1995), p. 256.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Comment on a comment
Daniel Estrada writes,
"I also think i's important to emphasize how radical Quine's holism was. Putnam refers to the "evidential holism" to distinguish it from "meaning holism", and describes it as a "moderate" view (using Quine's own description). Perhaps it is true that most philosophers agree with Quine's rejection of verificationism, but it seems to me Quine's holism goes farther than that. 

Quine doesn't just argue for a holistic treatment of the relationship between evidence and theory; in Two Dogmas, Quine says the evidence impinges on the whole of science. Evidence doesn't just pertain to this or that theory, any more than meaning pertains to individual sentences; instead, evidence meets the totality of our knowledge as a "fabric". 

This isn't "meaning holism", but it isn't a moderate holism either. It certainly isn't the overwhelmingly consensus view Putnam seems to think it is; see discussions on the autonomy of the special sciences for philosophers (like Fodor) who reject Quine's picture of "total science". If people are failing to appreciate the just how radical of Quine's views, then I suspect they underappreciate the radicalness of his holism too. I wonder if Putnam isn't making the same mistake here. "

Daniel is quite right. The epistemic holism of "Two Dogmas" was extreme (although the less extreme version that Quine called "moderate holism" and described in Pursuit of Truth (p.16)  would have sufficed for his purposes). Many interpreters (e.g. Dagfinn Follesdal) think that the moderate position was Quine's all along, and that the extreme language in "Two Dogmas" was rhetorical overkill. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Two Interesting Comments
In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show".  This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Hilary Putnam

A reader of this blog (“undergrad student”) writes “…it is unfair to attribute to Carnap the view that analytic sentences are unrevisable.”  That is true. But I did not talk about sentences but about statements, including ones regarded as “definitions”. Yes, Carnap would allow us to negate or otherwise revise any sentences we might write down, provided we say that, in the case of sentences he regarded as analytic, we have changed the meaning of the sentences in question (so they no longer express the same statements). My objection (in The Analytic and the Synthetic”) was different from Quine’s.  Quine regarded the notion of “meaning change” as unintelligible (although, when he wrote "Two Dogmas", he did not yet regard reference as indeterminate). I do not. But I argued (see the section titled “Analytic and Nonanalytic Statements”) that when Einstein replaced the Newtonian (actually post-Newtonian) definition of kinetic energy, e = ½ mv2, with  e = m + ½ mv2 + 3/8 mv4 +  . [choosing units so that the speed of light =1], the meaning has not changed enough to effect what we are talking about.(see pp. 52-53 of my Mathematics, Matter and Method.)  Even if one regards only the terms in this power series after "m" as corresponding to what is properly regarded as kinetic energy, the remainder—½ mv2 + 3/8 mv4 +  — is only approximately equal to ½ mv2, and then only at non-relativistic velocities. If we say that we changed the meaning of kinetic energy, we had better also claim that the meaning change was great enough to affect the reference (the Bedeutung) of the term "kinetic energy" (otherwise the meaning change would be irrelevant to the truth-value of the statement). But if we did claim that, we would be wrong: the physical magnitude we referred to as "kinetic energy" never equaled one half m times velocity squared; it always equaled what Einstein said, and we discovered that the very statement we thought was analytic was false, and not just that we wish to write down a different sentence.
 Charles Pigden, who is a master of this subject, points out that Quine uses the expression "unit of empirical significance" in "Two Dogmas".  But the use of the term "empirical significance" (or "empirical meaning", or "empirical import") of a theory to refer to the theory's observational consequences is widespread in philosophy of science, and its use does not indicate that the writer thinks that empirical meaning = linguistic meaning. In "The Problem of Meaning in Linguistics", Quine equates speaking meaningfully with using words in ways that don't evoke  responses "suggestive of bizarreness" and equates understanding with possession of "speech dispositions", but does not talk about theories and their empirical meaning.

Monday, June 16, 2014

P.S. To “How Not to Read/Teach  ‘Two Dogmas’"

Rereading the previous, I regret that I failed to say something more positive about Quine’s great achievement in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. What Quine did (along with his friend and my undergraduate teacher, Morton White—see “The Analytic and the Synthetic; an Untenable Dualism”) was to raise the stunning question, whether there is any intelligible sense of “analytic” in which, as the positivists claimed, mathematics is analytic, or in which “light travels in straight lines”  is analytic, or, in which any fundamental principle of science is analytic (and hence unrevisable).  Once one sees that there isn't any sense in which some of our fundamental beliefs are analytic—or “synthetic apriori” as Kant thought, either—one views the history of human knowledge (not just science!) in a different way. Quine’s rejection of the notion of “meaning” was, I believe, mistaken; but accepting that there is such a thing as describing the meaning of words does not commit one to accepting the overblown notion of  the analytic that Quine and White attacked. This is what I said long ago in "The Analytic and the Synthetic”, and I should have repeated it.
How Not to Read/Teach “Two Dogmas”
In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show".  This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Hilary Putnam

Surfing the web, I find that two very wrong ideas about Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” are (almost) ubiquitous. Many philosophers, including some who do not make serious mistakes about any other twentieth century philosopher, tell their readers that “Two Dogmas” defends  two forms of holism: “meaning holism” and “confirmation holism”.  This post has two purposes: to explain why these are misinterpretations, and to speculate about the possible reasons that many philosophers (including, no doubt, many teachers of courses that discuss “Two Dogmas”) impose these misreadings on that famous text.
But first a disclaimer: I do not think that “only Hilary Putnam understands Quine, and everyone else gets him wrong.”  The best books on Quine (as opposed to many articles and PDFs I see on the web) do not make these mistakes. For example, Peter Hylton’s indispensable book, Quine, does not mention “confirmation”—which is as it should be, because, as I pointed out in a previous blog, Quine mentions “confirmation” in “Two Dogmas” only to say that, “apart from prefabricated examples of black and white balls in an urn”, we no more have a theory of confirmation than we do of analyticity!  Since the whole point of “Two Dogmas” is that “analytic” is a term we should stop using in philosophy, the reason Quine compares the two problems, the problem of explaining analyticity and the problem of explaining confirmation, has to be that we should no more employ the notion of confirmation than we should the notion of analyticity. Quine is not a  confirmation holist; he is a confirmation rejectionist. (See also my post on Quine and Popper). 
As for “meaning holism”, I have noticed something peculiar: I have noticed that whenever a passage from “Two Dogmas” is quoted to show that Quine is a “meaning holist”, the passage isn't ever about meaning. What is cited are passages that display Quine’s “Duhemianism”, that is, the view that our bodies of scientific theory confront “recalcitrant” experiences as wholes. This is a form of holism—call it “evidential holism”, but it doesn’t concern meaning. (Why the evidence relation isn’t a justification relation for Quine, I shall come to shortly.) This is peculiar, because no one, to my knowledge, thinks that Duhem was a meaning holist!  Indeed, since the demise of the early logical positivist claim that empirical statements can be verified (and not just confirmed or disconfirmed) by sense-data [a claim that Carnap abandoned in Testability and Meaning,  and arguably already in Logical Syntax of Language], it has become hard—perhaps impossible—to find a philosopher who does not agree with what Quine sometimes called “moderate holism” with respect to the relation between theory and evidence. But no one says that all these philosophers are “meaning holists”.  So why is Quine, and Quine alone, read in such a way that if he is a Duhemian, he must be a “meaning holist”? Just as he is a confirmation-rejectionist  and not a confirmation holist, Quine is a meaning-rejectionist and not a meaning holist.
 The source of the misreading.
I believe that the source of both misreadings is a refusal to believe that Quine’s views are as radically different from those of traditional epistemologists and traditional philosophers of language as they are. Philosophers who have written serious books defending or criticizing Quine (or partially defending and partially criticizing him), in particular Peter Hylton and Christopher Hookway stress this radicalism; so it seems too me that people who make these mistakes must have failed to avail themselves of the insights of these major Quine scholars. And at the heart of what am calling Quine’s philosophical “radicalism” is this: the evidential relation, for Quine, is not a justificatory relation. When Quine tells us that the “evidence” for scientific theories comes from experience, be means that the causal starting points in the human construction of science are  impacts on our senses (after Word and Object: impacts  on our sensory receptors). Some beliefs are “argued for probabilistically” [Quine in Pursuit of Truth—see my post on Quine and Popper], and sometimes even deductively, given a background theory (“the lore of our fathers”)—for example, given a lot of theory, a scientist can say that the BICEP2 [] experiment’s significance level is 5.2 sigma—but there is no such thing as our scientific theory as a whole being probabilized by observations alone. If you want a “foundation” forget it.
If one makes the mistake of taking Quine’s talk of evidence and of accepting statements and of revision as talk about confirmation and disconfirmation, it easy to see how one will misread him as a “confirmation holist”. The mistake of reading him as a meaning holist is somewhat stranger, but here is my conjecture: “Two Dogmas” criticizes “the verification theory of meaning”, by arguing that there is no such thing as the method of verification (or confirmation/disconfirmation) of an individual sentence.  The philosophers I am referring to must be assuming that Quine cannot be so radical as to reject the notion of meaning altogether; so, they must think, he must mean that it is sufficiently large bodies of theory (perhaps total science) that have meaning and methods of verification together!  But this is a double error.
I have already explained why bodies of theory are not confirmed by observation alone, for Quine: because the notion of confirmation is one he wants us to throw in the trash barrel along with the notion of analyticity. (Quine does tell us that given background beliefs, we can justify many statements deductively, and given probability theory and the like, sometimes probabilistically.) And similarly with the notion of “meaning”: one of the main claims of “Two Dogmas” (and of Word and Object and subsequent publications) is that there are no acceptable [to Quine] identity-conditions for “meanings”.  Yes, there are “translation manuals” (Word and Object), and the purpose of Word and Object is to show how communication (speaking with members of one’s community as well as translation of alien languages) is possible without positing such entities as “meanings”, indeed, without going beyond Fred Skinner’s behaviorist account of “verbal behavior”.  But there are no “meanings”, neither of single utterances nor of whole theories. In short, Quine was already practicing “naturalized epistemology” (and language theory) long before he wrote “Epistemology Naturalized”.
In conclusion
I agree with Hookway [Language, Experience, and Reality] that Quine’s three fundamental commitments are “empiricism, scientism, and physicalism”. Although I do not share those commitments, each of them is important, and Quine, like David Hume, was a great philosopher because he was willing to point out the radical consequences of his own commitments, rather than hide them or deny them. One does no favor to either Quine or philosophy by making him less radical than he is.