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The Library of Living Philosophers

Willard V. Quine

by Rob Stainton

Willard van Orman Quine (1908-) is arguably the single most influential American philosopher of the 20th Century. He pursued his teaching career at Harvard University, after studies with Rudolf Carnap and Alfred North Whitehead. His (mostly salutary) influence has been both direct – having authored more than 20 crisply-written books about, among other things, logic, epistemology, ontology and philosophy of language – and indirect, via students such as Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett and Burton Dreben.

Quine is emphatically not a ‘one note’ philosopher. He has multiple, and mutually reinforcing, philosophical commitments that form a complex whole. For example, he is an advocate both of empiricism, of a holistic sort, and of extensionalism. According to the first, the source of knowledge is assimilation of experience into an existing ‘web of belief’: no theory-independent, perfectly certain foundational empirical data is allowed – but mere internal coherence isn’t sufficient either. According to extensionalism, only material objects and abstract classes exist. These two doctrines are in a mutually supporting relationship with Quine’s naturalism, according to which physical science holds the keys to genuine theoretical understanding: looking at the advancement of science teaches that experience is always tested for coherence with a theory; and modern physical science only deals with material things and classes. Moreover, naturalism in its turn may be seen to fit nicely with Quine’s pragmatism. Pragmatism tells us that the value of a system of doctrine is in its power or usefulness, and physical science is plausibly the most powerful tool human beings have ever produced. Each Quinean plank – empiricism, extensionalism, naturalism, pragmatism – supports, and is supported by, the rest. Which is just what a holist like Quine would expect.

This system of ideas seems plausible enough at first glance. But it has some rather shocking consequences. For example, Franz Brentano famously argued that meanings cannot be made to fit into the natural world of the physical scientist: to paraphrase him, intentionality (i.e., “aboutness”) is the mark of the mental, not the physical. Suppose he is right, and suppose further that Quine is right that the world only contains things that physical science does or can talk about. Well then, since physical science cannot talk about intensional entities, there simply can’t be any. Hence there just are no meanings, and no mental states – at least not as previously understood. “Aboutness” isn’t real! This is precisely the shocking conclusion Quine draws. To be clear, Quine grants that there are dispositions to overt behavior. So if that’s all you mean by ‘meanings/intensional states’, then there are such. But, as Quine showed in his famous ‘gavagai’ thoughtexperiment, dispositions to overt behavior won’t explain things like synonymy. Nor will they get you a clear distinction between analytic truths of meaning, and synthetic truths of fact. For instance, Quine argues that no amount of unbiased observation of sound-making and gesture will allow the explorer rationally to decide whether the unknown foreign word ‘gavagai’ means ‘rabbit’, rather than ‘undetached rabbit part’, or, say, ‘temporal rabbit stage’. But then why say that ‘gavagai’ really means one of these, and really doesn’t mean the others? Better to grant that there is no fact of the matter about what ‘gavagai’ means. Meaning, in that pre-theoretical sense, isn’t real. In the jargon, translation is indeterminate.

I close with one curious consequence of Quineanism. One used to say that scientists study facts, while philosophers analyze concepts. Or again, that scientists investigate the synthetic domain, while we philosophers investigate the sort of meaning-connections one finds in analytic truths. But if there aren’t any meanings as pre-theoretically conceived, and there isn’t any sharp analytic-synthetic divide, then it surely cannot be the job of analytic philosophy to sort out meaning-connections! Thus there may not be any distinction in principle between philosophy and science. Quine the naturalist would nod: “Quite so”.

© Rob Stainton 2000

The Philosophy of W.V. Quine, edited by Lewis Hahn and Paul Schlipp, was published by Open Court in the Library of Living Philosophers Series in 1998.

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