Epistemology Naturalised: W.V.O Quine - Naturalist Epistemology (2022)

3.3.1 Quietism and Methodological Constraints

On various occasions (i.e. MacArthur 2004; Putnam 2002), naturalism has been argued as continuous with quietism. MacArthur (2004), for example, holds that Quine’s (1969b) “quietist” response to the scepticism that obtains from strict naturalism is unable to diffuse the sceptical challenge it invites (2004: 107). It is important, before I proceed, to clarify some issues in this regard. As will be further elaborated below, Quine (1969b) does admit that, on pain of circularity, science is not able to justify itself. There could, therefore, be grounds to interpret this as “quietism” in line with work such as Rorty (1979) or Wittgenstein (1953). There are, however, categorical differences that must be elucidated, and which show Quine’s (1969b) efforts as the advancement

of a philosophical movement that transcends his own account. That is, independent of the fact that Quine’s account does result in similar consequences to the “quietist” efforts cited above, his motivations are very different. Quietism capitulates to an assumed incapacity of positive contribution, in the words of Rorty (1979):

Philosophers’ moral concern should be with continuing the conversation of the West, rather than insisting upon a place for the traditional problems of modern philosophy (1979: 394).

Strict naturalism, such as that promoted by Quine (1969b) and pursued by the present scholarship, understands the sceptical challenge differently: as naturalism. This challenges the distinction between philosophy and science, and would then locate scepticism (commonly labelled philosophy) as an instance of this now undifferentiated form of knowledge, namely science. This implies that, in contrast to quietism, naturalism does not understand the sceptical challenge as a challenge, but rather as a validation of naturalism, and of the contextual and/or physical nature of all that occupies a place in reality. It holds that science, understood in these new contextual terms, is nevertheless an evidently positive matter (Quine 1981: 22).

Holding that there is no such thing as “knowledge”, or that “knowledge” is not beneficial, does not result from the sceptical challenge, nor does it correspond to the results of our experience. It can be safely assumed that “knowledge” or “science” is positive and capable of producing viable and beneficial explanations in a way that science herself has as yet not been able to account for. The only way forward, then, seems to be to attempt to find such an account within already accounted for restrictions of knowledge.

What MacArthur (2004) seems to be conflating, is that naturalism most definitely challenges knowledge as traditionally understood, and in that sense it challenges all social organisation that is justified or informed upon such assumptions. In order to hold that naturalism questions the value of science tout court, however, one must hold that scientific value can only be understood in the terms we currently do.

With Quine’s naturalism, however (1995a, 1995c, 1990, 1981, 1976, 1975a, 1969b) Quine assumed that science could provide itself with hypothetical normativity (Quine [1986] 1996: 664-665). In other words, the assumption was that science could provide a scientifically sourced account that provides itself with a “pragmatic” or “instrumental” source of guidance. As was explained in the preceding chapter, hypothetical, instrumental and pragmatic norms or imperatives do not find themselves at odds with the strict contextualism that results from naturalism. I initially described them as the referential standpoint for the pursuit of a determined outcome, in other words, as the normative imperative that obtains when an empirically supported hypothesis expects a desired outcome. In Ronald Giere (1988), words: “if you want to accomplish goal G, try method M” (1988: 379-380).

Regarding what Quine tries to accomplish, hypothetical normativity can be adequately described as a result of the predictive capacity of any explanatory system. That is, naturalism cannot provide an account of how might it be possible for (A) to claim non-arbitrary normative implications (epistemic validity in this case) over (B). There is no way to account for a non-contextual source of epistemic authority (X). This does not, however, imply that (A) cannot claim anything, it only implies that (A) must withhold judgement; it must maintain a hypothetical attitude in regards to its own claims. If it can be said that a certain set of circumstances (M), lead to a determined

(Video) When Naturalized Epistemology Goes Too Far (Quine 1994)

outcome (G), then if agent (B) desires said outcome (G), (B)’s desire or requirement turns into the source of purchase for the normative account (X).

In order for a naturalist account of science to provide a hypothetical imperative that could replace (contingent to the desires of society) the currently operating transcendental assumptions that seem to inform its own conduct, and which are challenged by naturalism, science would need to provide an account of circumstances that explain why science is a desirable endeavour as currently understood.

3.3.2 Quine’s Account of Knowledge

In his last decades, Quine’s work focused on what he referred to as the “genetic project” (Quine [1975] 2009, 1974). This was a naturalist attempt at explaining how it is that humans acquire knowledge, and what relation this knowledge has with the world. Specifically, he set out to explain how cognitive agents “find out about the world from such meagre traces” as “optical projections”, “impacts of air-waves on the eardrums” and “gaseous reactions in the nasal passages” (Quine 1974: 2). He attempted to provide a “scientific” explanation of exactly how it is that cognitive agents (and in particular children) acquire a “system of reference”, which in turn, accounts for the relationship between evidence and theory (1974: 3-4). Quine’s account is elaborate and its particulars are not relevant for our purposes. His specific conclusion on the causal and implicative relationship between evidence, is however pertinent. In his words, it is between the “bombardment of our surfaces on one extreme [and] our scientific output on the other” (Quine 1995b: 349). Quine re-affirms the impossibility of correlating evidence with theory in realist terms. He finds, rather, that the connection between evidence and theory takes place in two phases. The first is causal, “the

bombardment of the exteroreceptors causes a neural intake”. This is then connected with language (Quine 1995b: 349).

The second and most important link consists of what Quine refers to as “observation categorical”. An observation categorical is a relation between observation sentences, “to the effect that the circumstances described in one observation sentence are invariably accompanied by those described in the other” (1990: 10). An “observation categorical”, is, in other words, a sentence of the form “Whenever A, B”, or “Whenever this, that”. An example might be “Whenever there’s smoke, there’s fire”. An observation categorical creates links or connections between observation sentences and language and/or theory through means of successful prediction. Because the observation categorical is constituted by two sentences related by expectation, “true” reference, then, becomes unnecessary. As long as the expected outcome obtains, the agent will refer to the constituents of the observation categorical assuming their referential success. According to Quine (1995b), then, the ultimate relationship between theory, language and/or observation sentences and evidence results from the successful realisation of the expectations contained in observations categorical. Theories, then,

are tested by deducing an observational categorical from it and testing the categorical. If it fails so does the theory. One or another of its component assertions is false and needs to be retracted. If the categorical passes the test, then so far so good. A favourable test does not, of course, prove the theory to be true; it does not even prove the categorical to be true (1995c: 44).

In ways as described above, the above empirically sourced explanations lead to approximations of what exactly (scientific) knowledge is, and also to what it is that science does. It leads, specifically, to the understanding of scientific knowledge as

predictive, and of science’s utility and purpose “fulfilled expectation: true prediction” (Quine [1975] 2009: 258-9).

(Video) When Naturalized Epistemology Goes Too Far [W.V. Quine]

These descriptive and explanatory accounts are able, in turn, to provide Quinean naturalism with a hypothetical capacity of prescription. That is, they provide an explanation of knowledge as prediction-able referential-systems, while the utility of science as the production of successful prediction leads to an understanding of science that is not at odds with the current scientific status quo. It would initially seem, then, that Quine’s empirical theory of knowledge works as a naturalist replacement for the foundational accounts that strict naturalism rejects. If so, this would then provide his philosophy with what would seem to be its intended effect: an affront to traditional epistemology and philosophy of science, rather than an affront to science as a practice and as a social establishment.

3.3.3 The Failure of Pragmatism

There are, however, important complications with the above-described solution. The general problem can be described thusly: if Quine’s naturalist theory of knowledge is interpreted as above, then, whilst apparently naturalist on epistemological grounds (on account of it being empirically obtained) it is not naturalist in ontological terms. As it will shown, if the epistemological and ontological aspects of a position are not continuous, they will be at odds with one other.

We may start elaborating on the above by explaining how it is, or how it is not, that Quine’s “synthetic” theory of knowledge assumes or presupposes the ontological meta-natural.

As was explained above, Quine ([1975] 2009, 1995c) understands scientific theories as instruments for making predictions. This, in turn, is what gives them prescriptive

capacity. By defining what a theory is, Quine (1995c) then is also defining what a theory is not. In this sense, Quine is, either intentionally, or not, providing an account of validity, in the sense that the utility of theory, science, or even knowledge can be valued upon its capacity to predict.

Initially, it would seem that there is no reason to label the above account as meta-natural, or meta-contextual in any way. If we consider nature as that which is located in time and space, contingent on causal forces, Quine’s (1995c) functional-pragmatic definition would seem to be unproblematic. It could be understood perfectly well as a hypothesis of the functional (and therefore practical) value of cognitive-semantic phenomena with predictive capacity. That is, in his account of semantic-utility (like all accounts that obtain from scientific, systematic or otherwise experiential scrutiny) entities and phenomena are hypothesised as explainable. Explanations, in turn, do not account for entities of phenomena in virtue of themselves, as doing so would result in circularity. As noted above, Quine (1995b) accounts for the relationship between “bombardment of sensorial surfaces” and “systems of reference” in this very sense: a) observation sentences result from sensorial input; b) whenever a consistent correlation between two or more observation sentences is recorded by the agent, an observation categorical results; c) finally, observations categorical constitute the final link through which evidence and theory find causal connections.

In Quine’s (1995c) view, then, “theories”, or rather, “systems of reference” are not ontologically independent. Instead, they are contextually situated or spatiotemporally situated. They have a precise causal, and thereby ontological, relationship with the environment. This implies, however, that their capacity of prediction is also contextual and situated. In other words, “sensorial bombardment” in different dimensional (i.e. spatial and temporal) circumstances can always alter the agent’s “system of reference”

in such a way that its previously assumed capacity of prediction is rendered erroneous or obsolete (i.e. the inscrutability of the future).

(Video) Philosopher W.V.O Quine made Easy-er... (and O'Grady)

In a “true” naturalist account, in which there is no room for the a priori, there is also no room for the ontologically independent, or the causally transcendent. Entities and phenomena are ontologically contingent, and thereby subject to change in virtue of the circumstances of their environment. This also goes, however, for Quine’s (1995c) purported semantic utility. In Quine’s (1995c) account, the utility of theories could be judged based on their capacity of prediction, but such a judgement can only take place from the perspective of the agent or group of agents that produced the theory, and therefore, the judgement is ultimately subjective.

This reading of Quine’s (1995b, 1995c) positive account, 8 however, leads to widespread relativism, and is, thereby, unable to provide the standards of objectivity that Quine requires in order for it to serve as a hypothetical imperative capable of replacing the challenged epistemological foundationalism that justifies and informs the conduct of the scientific establishment.

This, however, does not seem to be Quine’s reading. In “Naturalism or Living within One’s Own Means” (1995a) he takes opportunity to clarify his position on these matters. Quine concedes that what he calls “perceptual similarity”, described as “a relation between a subject’s neural intakes” is entirely a “private” matter: “any one range of perceptually fairly similar intakes may prompt the subject’s assent to any one of a range of semantically kindred sentences” (1995a: 253).

In contrast with the above, however, Quine holds that “observation sentences and their semantics are a public matter”. He contends that “learning” (specifically in the

case of children) “depends indeed both on the public currency of the observation sentences and on a pre-established harmony of people’s private scales of perceptual similarity” (1995a: 254). He then establishes that:

Intersubjectivity of observation sentences is […] essential […] to assure objectivity of science. […] The sharing of vocabulary by observation sentences and sentences of science was necessary not only for the emergence of scientific language (1995a: 255).

Regarding how his positive account might operate normatively, Quine states: “what might be offered […] as a norm of naturalised epistemology is prediction of observation

as a test of hypothesis. I think of this as more than a norm: as the name of the game” (1995a: 258).

From the above, it can be safely assumed that Quine (1995a) reads his “naturalist” account of epistemic-semantic utility, as holding sway in “objective”, rather than “subjective” terms.

(Video) W.V. Quine-Epistemology Naturalized

This would imply, however, that even though he considers that the causality of this utility or functionality to be contextually situated, he holds that the utilitarian or functional value itself transcends context. In other words, if he assumes that the utility of science, theory or the utility of “systems of reference” holds in “objective” terms, this seems to necessarily imply that it holds independently of ontological situation and therefore independently of the cognitive circumstance of the agents who might be involved or affected in/by the consequences of the (assumed) prescriptive.

According to this interpretation of the account it may very well be the case that in a hypothetical relationship between two determined agents, (A) and (B), each holding a different position regarding a particular matter that concerns them both, (A)’s position (or [A]’s “system of reference”) has, in objective terms (X), a greater predictive

capacity than (B)’s position. According to this interpretation of Quine’s (1995c) theory, for all practical purposes, (A)’s position, then, would be considered more useful than (B)’s, and it would, thereby, be considered to have, again in objective terms, more practical or pragmatic value.

Quine’s (1995c) account would seem to assert that a course of action that results from the prescriptive capacity of (A)’s position, that may have implications for both (A) and (B), is, in objective terms (X), and therefore irrespective of (B)’s position or cognitive circumstances, a more positive course of action. In other words, according to Quine’s position it may very well be the case that (A) has, in objective terms (X), cognitive authority over (B).

Within his hypothesis, therefore, Quine has committed the de-contextualizing jump. Quine (1995a, 1995c) seems to make an unwarranted ontological jump from causally (and therefore contextually) determined semantics and predictive capacity of theory, to objective, non-situated semantic utility and value.

Once the value of predictive capacity holds irrespective of its site, semantic utility, within Quine’s (1995a, 1995c) hypothesis, turns ontologically independent. It operates, therefore, as a meta-contextual source of authority. Within Quine’s ontology, such a source of authority is beyond the domain of change and therefore beyond the domain of (experiential) scrutiny. This means that, as mentioned above, it is beyond the scrutiny of science and within the bounds of the a priori.

As such, by means of the described unwarranted ontological jump Quine (1995a, 1995c) is, tacitly and unknowingly, importing the a priori into his account. By reducing inter-subjectivity to objectivity he is incorporating assumptions of ontological independence that do not result from his causal explanation. In order to maintain

methodological (and, in this case, epistemological) naturalism, Quine cannot make such an unwarranted jump, and maintain the utilitarian value of prediction within the same context of its cause. This would result in a subscription of strict ontological naturalism continuous with his epistemological position. This would also imply however, that within his hypothetical account, semantic utility cannot prescribe beyond “site” or “system” (a condition that he had already subscribed to in meta-theoretical terms).

Once dissected as such, it is clear again that Quine’s (1995c) (naturalist) theory of scientific utility (or of instrumental, utilitarian and/or functional scientific validity) cannot operate as replacement for the meta-theoretical normativity that the negative components of its position challenge. Quine seems to be forced to either forgo the normative capacity of naturalism, at least as accounted by him, or he must forgo naturalism altogether.

(Video) Naturalized epistemology

Without the capacity to act as a positive norm, Quine’s (1969b) version of (epistemological) naturalism, does however, constitute a challenge to the traditional (and operating) understanding of scientific validity and thereby a challenge to manner in which science is currently practiced and organised. MacArthur (2004) is, in a sense, correct. Naturalism does not challenge the validity of science, but it does challenge its claims to contextual transcendentalism and universalism. This, in turn, does represent an affront to the manner in which we currently understand knowledge.

Using similar arguments, Hilary Putnam (1982) famously decreed that reason cannot be naturalised. Most of the following “naturalist” attempts (i.e. Goldman 2014, 1999, 1995; Giere 1998, 1988; Kitcher 1993; Kornblith 1994; Laudan 1977) assume the presence of some sort of meta-contextual standpoint which provides them with the capacity to account for the value and epistemic consequence of their position in terms

prior to the undertaking. This eliminates the threat of circularity, but also the possibility of a strict naturalism in both its ontological and referential standpoint. With pragmatism and other instrumentalist accounts of normative consequence, Steve Fuller (Fuller and Collier 2004) finds that a problem lies in the fact that “pragmatism lacks a theory of power” (2004: 215). Commonly, pragmatism assumes that pragmatic determinations are able to hold non-arbitrary consequence for two agents ([A] and [B]) independently of their consent and will. As such, pragmatism also assumes its prescriptions and value determinations are objective, and in a sense independent of context. That is, with pragmatism, it is possible to distinguish between its contextual commitments in regards to source and in regards to its claims to currency or consequence. In terms of the circumstances that give rise to pragmatist determination, it is definitely the case that pragmatism is committed to contextualism. That is, it determines fortune or utility in regards to success or consequence, and therefore in regards to causality. In that which regards the exogenous or meta-contextual consequence of its determination, or in other words, in that which regards the domain of validity for its determinations, pragmatism does not seem to be necessarily


1. Partially Examined Life #294: Quine on Science vs. Epistemology (Part One)
(The Partially Examined Life)
2. Naturalism in the Philosophy of Science (2 of 3)
3. Donald Davidson and WVO Quine in Conversation
(Samuel Cantor)
4. Analytic Epistemology
5. Naturalized Metaphysics 1
(Kane B)
6. Why Reason Can’t Be Naturalized by Hilary Putnam Professor of Philosophy and Walter Beverly Pearson
(Peter Marthin)

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