Analytic Philosophy Anti-Philosophy

W.V.O. Quine

[Firstly to summarize: the big thing that Quine is famous for is that he didn’t believe that analytic statements really are analytic – they are at bottom really synthetic, like all statements are.] 

There is a lot of Quine that I can’t get my mind into, more so than in any other philosopher I have tried.  Trying harder is of no avail because I just haven’t got that kind of mind.  For me it is wisdom by and for: the boffin, the egghead, the nerd.  Again I am sorry to use such words but they are the closest I can come.  I have put below what I do understand; and I also mention some things that  seem important in Quine’s thinking but that I don’t understand.

He lived from 1908 to 2000, and arrived in Philosophy shortly after Russell and Wittgenstein.

He has here been called the philosopher’s philosopher, the quintessential model of an analytic philosopher.

An analytic philosopher, after the work of Russell (here) and especially of Wittgenstein ( here), is someone who believes in not getting into mistakes of language like philosophers had up till then done and thereby created false problems for them to solve.

One would have thought then that a great deal of what had been Philosophy for two and half thousand years would have been laid to rest, never to re-awaken, but no, Quine continued to do  a tremendous amount of philosophizing in aid of analytic philosophy and from the same old mentality of logic, of mathematics, and of valuing science as being knowledge.

He has been here described as a philosopher whose revolutionary ideas challenged the accepted way we look at ourselves (!) and our universe!   He revolutionized developments in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language and philosophy of maths.

But like all philosophers, to my mind, he lacked the human intelligence, the human sensibility to human life, to its wholeness and its irreducibility to intellectualistic abstractions where one loses it.  These are second-hand words I have largely taken from  Leavis and embellished them.  They are the best I can presently do.  Leavis wasn’t himself anti-philosophy.   For me, wisdom comes from creators of human life like Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.

Here are some clues from Quine’s early years that give me an inkling of his kind of mind.  They may consist of acceptable ideas  passed on and not by people who knew him personally:

From here:  He was a stamp collector and cartographer in his teens, and became quite entrepreneurial.  He did some hitch-hiking and riding of freight-trains, and sleeping rough and in jails.  He was interested in foreign languages and in grammar.  He could speak and lecture in several foreign languages.  He loved Dixieland and played the banjo in jazz groups, as well as the piano.  (I warm to him.)

From here:  Late in high-school, he compulsively read William James’s Pragmatism.

From here:  He majored in mathematics, mathematical philosophy and logic at his local university, and for his PhD at Harvard he wrote a shortened and simplified version of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.

From here:   Most of Quine’s early publications were in formal logic.

From here and here:  During the 1930s at Harvard, he published on logic and set-theory, in works on mathematics and mathematical logic.

From here:  He was pre-eminently a philosopher of logic.

The following, to-me incomprehensible, excerpts are examples of Quine’s logicking  mind:

From here;  ‘In the New Foundations approach to set theory pioneered by Quine, the axiom of comprehension for a given predicate takes the unrestricted form, but the predicates that may be used in the schema are themselves restricted. The predicate (C is not in C) is forbidden, because the same symbol C appears on both sides of the membership symbol; thus, Russell’s paradox is avoided. However, by taking P(C) to be (C = C), which is allowed, we can form a set of all sets.’

From here:  ‘While his contributions to logic include elegant expositions and a number of technical results, it is in set theory that Quine was most innovative. His set theory, (New Foundations) (NF) and that of Set Theory and Its Logic, admit a universal class, but since they are free of any hierarchy of types, they have no need for a distinct universal class at each type level. Without going into technical detail, these theories are driven by a desire to minimize posits; each innovation is pushed as far as it can be pushed before further innovations are introduced. Quine always maintained that mathematics required set theory and that set theory was quite distinct from logic. He flirted with Nelson Goodman’s nominalism for a while, but backed away when he failed to find a nominalist grounding of mathematics.’  (I probably didn’t edit this paragraph.)

And for me there is even worse here which I have edited as follows: Quine was interested in the statement ‘this statement is false’.  It represents ‘the liar paradox’ which had already interested Bertrand Russell in set theory in mathematics.  It brought Quine into the general problem of statements that refer to themselves, and of putting quotations from other authors into one’s work.   (That’s the sort of thinking that occupies philosophers today!  The rest of this site is occupied by what looks like symbolic logic which resembles maths.  A Quine today is some kind of computer program.)

And finally from here is a very telling excerpt on what this mind may have lacked:  ‘ “I have been accused of denying consciousness,” Quine said, “but I am not conscious of having done so.” ….however, his 1985 autobiography The Time Of My Life is little more than a travel itinerary, so devoid of emotion and internality as almost to suggest not only that he had neither, but hardly even knew what they might be.‘


From here:  He was of course empiricist, in favour of science, against metaphysics but also against the logical positivists in the sense, it seems , of denying the analytic/synthetic distinction.  He was a behaviourist in his thinking about Mind.

He is famous for his denial that there are  analytic statements that are different from synthetic ones.  The analytic/synthetic division had first been recognized by Hume (or even earlier empiricists) but only so named by Kant.  It had since become gospel.

The example of an analytic statement that everyone gives is ‘All bachelors are unmarried’, which is inevitably and necessarily 100% true because of the definition of the word ‘bachelors’. (You don’t have to be a philosopher to see that, or to see that analytic statements don’t say anything.)

From here and here:  But Quine had the amazing thought that the definitions of words are themselves based on our experience of facts in the world!   He thought that in the end we must  look at the world to see if in fact “bachelor” and “unmarried man” refer to the same thing.  So, as this analytic statement is in fact a synthetic one, it can only be probably true!  (How, ask I,  can ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ be only probably true?!)

Quine’s explanation for his denial of analyticity was that there is a circularity in the idea of certainty from definition.  From here:  His argument for circularity has to do with the concepts of synonymity and of logical equivalence.  (These are presently beyond me because I haven’t got a philosopher’s mind.  If I had, I would be able to understand what is in here and in other articles on the same website.)

From here:  The objection to synonymy hinges on the problem of ‘collateral information’ (which seems to mean our knowledge of facts in the empirical world).  Although we intuitively feel a distinction between “All unmarried men are bachelors” and “There have been black dogs,” we immediately and similarly assent to even the second sentence because of the overwhelming collateral information we have on black dogs.  Quine maintains that there is no distinction between universally known collateral information and conceptual or analytic truths!

Yet Quine’s philosophy doesn’t explain why some sentences spark our intuition that they are analytic, and thereby different from synthetic sentences.  (To me, this difference is self-evident: Quine may argue that the definitions of terms were long ago arrived at from experience, but today they are the definitions, and this makes them ‘analytic‘.)

From here: Quine’s chief objection to analyticity is with the notion of synonymy (sameness of meaning):  a sentence is analytic if it substitutes a synonym for one “black” in the proposition “All black things are black” (or any other logical truth).

[For completeness on Quine, I include the following from here, even though  I don’t understand it:  Another approach to Quine’s objection to analyticity and synonymy emerges from the modal notion of logical possibility. A traditional Wittgensteinian view of meaning [in his Tractatus] was that each meaningful sentence was associated with a region in the “logical space” . Quine finds the notion of such a space problematic, arguing that there is no distinction between those truths which are universally and confidently believed and those which are necessarily true.   (But, think I , vainly pretending to understand, the latter are still true by definition, no matter how confident one is of empirical truths in the world.)]

From here:  Quine felt that his denial of analytic truth abolished metaphysics.  Metaphysics is mostly seen as a matter of taking analytic axioms ( i.e. self-evidently true statements) applying deductive logic to them, and coming up with propositions that must therefore be true too.  But, says Quine, there are no such necessarily, analytically, truthful axioms.  So metaphysics falls away.  This attack on metaphysics by Quine stimulated new kinds of metaphysics which do not rely on deductive logicking.  (But, having written that, it doesn’t deal with the problem that Quine’s disagreement was with axioms themselves.)

(As an aside, from here, the Greek philosophers thought that these axioms plus the logic plus the final propositions reflected the necessary and eternal nature of the universe.  This for me comes closest to explaining why the Greeks continued to sit in their armchairs and do logicking, rather than getting up and doing scientific method.)

From here:   Quine’s denial of analyticity touches on Hume’s problem that any number of observations of what happens in the world, however scientific they may be, can’t logically lead to a law of what is bound to happen next or all the time.  This mistaken arguing from lots of examples to a universal law is called ‘inductive’ logic.  Hume seems to have had the idea that this mistake is a fault of human psychology, or is simply a matter of enumeration or repetition.  (Popper two centuries later thought that scientific method didn’t depend on induction at all but on hypothetico-deduction.  But then Popper himself was refuted by the Quine-Duhem thesis (which is not anywhere explained gradually enough or explicitly enough for me to grasp).

This site seems to see in what Hume was saying that he was denying there can be any a priori (i.e. prior to experience) knowledge of the world, even to the extent of denying that present synthetic experience can predict future experience of the world!

Did Quine use the term ‘social convention’ ( see here) for what words mean, i.e. for their definitions?   I think it is surely social convention that decides the definitions of terms and thereby creates the socially conventional certainties of analytic statements.

(Am I floundering in the morass of trying to understand Quine and myself getting into this piffling on language that amounts in modern times to  Wisdom?)

This site has more to say on Quine:  That his 1951 article Two Dogmas Of Empiricism ‘challenged received notions of knowledge, meaning and truth’, and exceeded the logical positivists’ extreme empiricism by arguing that even logic and maths  are open to revision by experience.  (I don’t presently see that Quine’s denial of analyticity was so fundamental to so much of Philosophy.  Also, I thought that the logical positivists believed in the whole concept of analyticity which Quine was now refuting.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            From here (although some of it may have come from other articles on this site that I can’t now trace):  Quine also seems to have agreed with Kuhn that scientific observations are theory-laden, in that they are partly based on ‘paradigms’.  These are our unconscious set of assumptions about what can possibly be true about anything.  Taking up a new paradigm doesn’t of course mean we have to re-verify or re-falsify our scientific observations or theories.  Kuhn said that science hasn’t advanced purely as an accumulation of facts, but as changes of paradigm too.   (I think ‘theory’ in the second line of this paragraph refers to paradigms; and on the third line, to scientific theories based on observations.)                                                                                                                                                                           

(In the next two paragraphs, I have derived from here thoughts of Quine that I need to mention as part of his philosophizing but which I haven’t grasped:)  He seems to have said that experience does not confirm or falsify individual statements, but that the whole interlocking theory-laden system of statements has to be adjusted.  ( Does ‘theory’ here refer to the basic paradigm of assumptions or to scientific theory?)

Did he also say in Word and Object (1960) that there cannot be any system of beliefs universal to mankind, since the way any theory describes the world is relative to its particular linguistic background?  (That’s also presently beyond me; and ‘theory’ now seems to mean a scientific theory of how things are, and not  an unconscious mental paradigm of the scientist’s.)

Did he also say somewhere that ‘Philosophy of science is philosophy enough’?  Did he mean that philosophy of science is all that philosophy is entitled to do?

There are further concepts in his thinking that I’ve not understood:  According to here, he rejected epistemological Foundationalism in favor of what he called “naturalized epistemology”.  The concept  ‘Fallibilism’ also comes in here.

According to here , Quine believed that Philosophy can make use of the findings of science in its own pursuit, and that it can also criticize scientists’ claims if they seem ungrounded, confused, or inconsistent; philosophy should be “continuous with” science. (That seems pretty unexceptional to me.)

According to here, he  also went into the concepts of ‘intensional’ and ‘extensional’ definitions.  (Was he the first to think of them?)  Intensional definitions seem to be what we call ‘meanings’, such as that ‘cat’ means a ‘four-legged feline mammal’.  Extensional definition is a pointing to actual cats.  It is the difference between meaning and reference.  ‘The Morning Star’ has a different meaning from ‘The Evening Star’, but refers to the same thing, the planet Venus (said Quine.).

Quine also said that the meaning of a word, and the essential qualities of an object denoted by that word, are the same thing. For example, the essence of mankind is rationality. Only mankind is rational and all mankind is rational.  ‘Essence’ turns into ‘meaning’ when it is divorced from the object referred to and attached to the word.

Quine seems to have thought that there cannot be a language of observation that is free of theory (?paradigm), so the notion of testing theories with facts is problematic.  (That is something I can’t grasp.)

The term ’theory’, in relation to Quine, seems to be used for both scientific theories as well as for basic paradigms, including when he talks about ‘Confirmation Holism’, which is confusing.

I am not sure which site I derived this from — that Quine said that observations for the purposes of science should be restricted to objects that are objects for different observers, that are inter-subjective. This seems to mean that the nature of the observations is also agreed upon.  These requirements are easily come by for physical phenomena, but not for social or mental phenomena, let alone for those in theology or ethics.  The latter phenomena may not be recognized as objects by everybody.

According to here, and almost verbatim in places: Quine took philosophical naturalism as basic.  This concept,  composed of related attitudes, comes out of materialism and pragmatism.  It rejects explanations or theories that use entities inaccessible to natural science.  Naturalism is not the belief that science is entirely correct, but that science is the best explanation we have.  As we go along we can change it.

There is no better method than the scientific method for judging the claims of science, and no  place for a “first philosophy,” such as metaphysics or epistemology, that could stand behind and justify science or the scientific method.

There is dispute whether naturalism rules out areas of philosophy such as semantics, ethics, aesthetics, or that it excludes mentalistic vocabulary (such as “believes,” “thinks,”) in philosophy of mind.

Quine avoided most of these topics, but some have argued that even though mentalistic descriptions and value judgements cannot be translated into physicalistic descriptions, they also do not need to presuppose the existence of anything other than physical phenomena.


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