WVO Quine's Epistemic Paradigm

WVO Quine's Epistemic Paradigm

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WVO Quine's Epistemic Paradigm

Since its publication in 1969, Quine's seminal essay entitled Epistemology Naturalized has had a polarizing effect on pursuits in this field. Many have rejected the naturalist approach to epistemology on the grounds that it is mere relativism (see below), while others have celebrated Quine's program for articulating an empirical approach to epistemology. In what follows, I will endeavour to provide a clean explanation of some of the central features of Quine's naturalism and point out what I believe are the strengths and weaknesses of these features and, I will offer a brief account of why I believe Quine's naturalism to be an exemplary approach to clarifying how epistemic pursuits ought to be carried out.

1. Quine's Naturalism

What then is naturalized epistemology according to Quine? Simply stated, it is the departure from traditional philosophy insofar as it invites empirical science to play a crucial role clarifying the explanatory relation between theory and evidence. The reason that this is a departure from the tradition is because philosophical doctrine has clung to the notion that epistemology is primarily a normative inquiry concerned with the pure justification of our claims to knowledge.

One of the major, and perhaps ironic, problems with the traditional view, however, is that there has been much disagreement over just which criteria are to count as justification in the first place. If we need justification to increase the liklihood that our beliefs are true, and thus wind up with knowledge, then how are we to know that our original criteria are themselves justified? The most familiar strategy1 against this risk of infinite regress is to accept only beliefs that are indubitably true, such as first-person reports of conscious phenomena or clear and distinct ideas. From this initial cache of first principles one could then, were this endeavour successful, rationally reconstruct an epistemically justified account of how we come to have knowledge. Quine characterizes this approach generously by drawing a parallel to the attempted reduction of mathematics when he says: "ideally the obscurer concepts would be defined in terms of the clearer ones so as to maximize clarity, and the less obvious laws would be proved from the more obvious ones so as to maximize certainty."2 With this kind of foundationalist epistemology, once one has defined which first principles are to be accepted as justified truths, one can then proceed with the project of explaining science (inter alia) in accordance with them.

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Traditionally, one of the key features of this approach has been the eschewal of sensory observations as providing any kind of initial justifiedness for the reason that, reality to the contrary, appearances are often deceiving.

Quine's theory of knowledge stands in stark contrast to this approach. As Quine sees it, observations (and the sentences these observations entail) are all that we have to go on. Observation stands prior to theorizing because ostensive definition is fundamental to learning how to use a language -- any theory must ultimately be verifiable by a set of observational sentences, which themselves must be verifiable by a set of observations. This is reminiscent of classical Pragmatism, for as Pierce says: "Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects...and, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."3 Quine's commitment to empiricism is also very apparent. For Quine argues that epistemic justification should be replaced by the test of evidential verification, as only the latter notion here can provide any hard evidence for the veracity of the claims we make about the world, and about the relations between the objects that furnish it.

A point of clarification is needed here. For Following Quine's theory closely we discover that no theory can ever be ultimately verified, but only supported by observations to its contrary [Popper]. As Quine states: "pure observation lends only negative evidence, by refuting an observation categorical (such as all a's are b's) that a proposed theory implies."4 It follows that any theory will be forever underdetermined by evidence because we can never fully test the predictive accuracy of it in all future possibilities. Nevertheless, Quine does agree that we argue in support of our theories, and further, that this is where epistemology should concern itself, viz., with seeking to understand the relation between theory and evidence.

It might seem that we have arrived at an impasse. On one side we have the tradition that supports epistemology as a normative inquiry which succeeds only if our beliefs about the world can be justified by appealing to criteria based on sound reasoning alone; while on the other, we have Quine's view of naturalism which makes full use of the methods of empirical science in the attempt to verify what it is that we assert.

Quine's solution is to use the resources of empirical science (most notably empirical psychology) to assist us in our epistemic pursuits. The normative element of traditional epistemology is reduced, or conflated rather, with the findings of science. What we ought to accept as a rational belief, then, becomes inseparably linked to the evidence that we actually have for said belief. Many have argued that this spoils the purity of traditional epistemology (see Kim, 1988.5) insofar as it replaces the normative element of justification with the descriptive element of verification. But as Quine argues: "The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has had to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world. Why not just see how this construction really proceeds?"6 Indeed, why not? The search for pure, doctrinal, normativity drops out of Quine's picture to be replaced by the best, as yet, scientific theory that we have to explain our epistemic position. Accordingly, Quine, in one of his more infamous, and misinterpreted, passages says:

...I think that at this point it may be more useful to say rather that epistemology still goes on, though in a new setting and a clarified status. Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence natural science...The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology; namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what way one's theory of nature transcends any available evidence.7

It is obvious, then, that Quine is offering a revisionist picture of epistemology and of science in general. There is no one perfect principle that can be used in guiding our normative concerns because it is irrational, or at least irresponsible, to assume that we, here and now, have the philosophical authority to justify the way we ought to conduct our epistemic projects prior to any evidence that we are in fact correct.

It may appear that Quine wishes to dispense with normativity altogether, but this is not quite accurate. Quine holds that just as epistemology gets naturalized into science, so too does the normative element of traditional epistemology get naturalized into epistemic engineering, or as Quine calls it: "the technology of anticipating sensory stimulation."8 Thus for Quine, `what we ought to do, or believe' gets transposed as `what science has shown us to be the most fruitful to do, or to believe', while remembering that science is fallible.

At this juncture, however, there may seem to be a sense of vertigo inherent in Quine's claim. As Richard Foley points out, if by some "extraordinary turn of events" science were to convince us "that we have a faculty of clairvoyance and that this faculty is a more reliable source of information about the world than our eyes, ears, and other senses...then even the empiricist norm could be rejected."9 Foley explains how this is possible by reminding us that "this norm is derived from science, and like the rest of science it is fallible."10 Quine would concur with this though. However, he would remind us that all of our evidential support for science is based on empirical observation and that, so far, there is no reason to suppose that clairvoyance or telepathy are viable alternatives.

Normativity, then, is still very much a part of Quine's naturalism, but it takes on a new role in epistemology as a conceptual aid rather than as an a priori justificatory foil against even our most modest claims. Normative justification, following Quine's program, simply no longer does any work in philosophy for the reason that the doctrinal side, traditionally conceived, has proved to be nothing more than an experientially empty dogmatism. (For more on this see David Hume's argument about the failure of an "inductive" principle in his magnum opus, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.)

2. Strengths and Weaknesses of Quine's Naturalism

Perhaps the most obvious virtue of Quine's naturalism is that it gives full recognition to the inseparability of language from theory. Indeed, beginning with observation sentences a child (in any speech community) will be influenced by the way that his particular social group uses language. And thus, if this subject is to be understood by his peers he must, to some degree, conform to what is accepted as general fluency. This approach to the "proofs" of science seems to be highly reasonable when considered against the history and evolutionary nature of our scientific enterprise. Language and theory go together not just as a relationship of the former articulating the latter, but also, as the latter being determined to what extent it can proceed by having a referential object that the former can respectfully observe with a contextually determined name. Quine makes this point clear when he says: "One is taught to associate words with words and other stimulations that there emerges something recognizable as talk of things, and not to be distinguished from truth about the world."11

This leads to another virtue of Quine's naturalism. And here I return to his dismissal of the doctrinal side of epistemology. The reason that Quine's dismissal of doctrinal truth is a virtue (and necessity) of his theory, is because language, as we have seen, is wholly dependent upon an original set of observation sentences that engenders said language with its semantic content. As Quine says: "all inculcation of meanings of words must rest ultimately on sensory evidence."12 And thus the traditional supposition that "truths" can be gleaned from pure reason strikes one as a deus ex machina: for there is no "truth" without language, and there is no language without experience.

It could be argued here that much of language transcends what is directly observable, and that "truth" per se is a prime example of this aspect of language. Here, however, I think that Quine would simply counter that "truth," like any other (abstract) word, must, for it to have any meaning at all, be demonstrable at least within a sentence and a given context. And if this point is granted, then Quine's conception of empirical semantics follows right along.

A third feature of Quine's program is his revisionist approach to science. We have seen already that Quine uses the findings of empirical science to play a crucial role in developing our epistemic understanding, and also, that this move has been sniped by purist philosophers who think that it undermines the normative element of epistemology. Here I think that words from Quine will best make the first of two points I wish to address:

The most notable norm of naturalized epistemology actually coincides with that of traditional epistemology. It is simply the watchword of empiricism: nihil in mente quod non prius in sensu. This is a prime specimen of naturalized epistemology, for it is a finding of natural science itself, however fallible, that our information about the world comes only through impacts on our receptors. And still the point is normative, warning us against telepaths and soothsayers.13
Hence, as far as normativity goes, it appears as if the acceptance of scientific method into epistemology is a laudable feature of the naturalistic approach. Laudable, because this approach suggests that we ought to hold beliefs that can be verified by evidence, rather than hold beliefs that float free from our experience.

The second point, to which I now recur, is that with Quine's revisionist picture of science there is ample room to be wrong. No theory, however carefully worked out and bulwarked with evidence, is immune to refutation. This aspect I see as a virtue of naturalism for the reason that it defies dogmatic claims to ultimate truth, which, true or not, cannot ultimately be tested.

Effectively, then, Quine is arguing for a scientific picture of the world which includes epistemology as one if its theoretical pursuits, and which uses its own "crowning norm," (i.e., empiricism) as the judge. Quine articulates this norm memorably when he argues for "the maxim of minimum mutilation"14 of existing hypotheses when new ones are being tendered. Hence, the core assumption of Quine's epistemology is that our existing scientific procedures, couched in the language of empiricism, are by and large good ones -- yet remain theoretically fallible.

What then of the weaknesses of Quine's picture of epistemology? For by his own standards he has not offered us any "indubitable" method for conducting our epistemic pursuits. I have already alluded to the criticism that Quine's is a relativist program, but before we consider this objection I would like to look at the objection that the diminished normative dimension of his approach appeals to circularity. Now, in fairness to Quine, let us consider what he has had to say in rebuttal to this accusation of circularity.

Such a surrender of the epistemological burden to psychology is a move that was disallowed in earlier times as circular reasoning. If the epistemologist's goal is validation of the grounds of empirical science, he defeats his purpose by using psychology or other empirical science in the validation. However, such scruples against circularity have little point once we have stopped dreaming of deducing science from observations. If we are out simply to understand the link between observation and science, we are well advised to use any available information, including that provided by the very science whose link with observations we are seeking to understand.15
Here, Quine is suggesting that the methods we have already for discovering whether and how our beliefs are valid should not be overlooked in favour of trying to discover this information by appeal to pure rationalization; which, with the denial of the empirical findings of science is what epistemology amounts to.

Elsewhere, this criticism is deflected by Quine when he maintains: "whatever evidence there is for science is sensory evidence."16 Thus, somewhat obstinately, Quine has concluded that an empirical stance towards epistemology is our only rational option. This conclusion comes with a price, however, because following Quine's program epistemic priority is simply given to the actual sense impression rather than to the causal object. And this, perhaps, has the unsavoury effect of mechanizing and insulating our cognitive processes inside a strict internalist approach to epistemology; for as Quine says: "What to count as observation now can be settled in terms of stimulation of sensory receptors, let consciousness fall where it may."17

3. Interpretation: Naturalism or Relativism

In this final section I would like to consider the plausibility of Quine's version of epistemology. As the section heading implies, Quine's naturalism can be interpreted either as a legitimate epistemic system or as a program couched in relativism. My own view is that Quine's epistemology works, and that it offers good reasons for why we should reform the traditional epistemic program. Allow me to provide three reasons.

First, Quine's denial of justification in favour of adopting an evidential relationship between our theories of the world and what we actually discover is one that can be tested. And even though, strictly speaking, evidence can only provide negative support, this does not prevent us from developing inductive theories which attempt to predict the results of certain experiments, as these future results have not yet been observed. Moreover, Quine's admits that science is revisable but he does so in order to show that knowledge, per se, is something that we must have experienced to be sure about, rather than supposing that conjecture can be a stronger catalyst for gleaning knowledge. Hence the normative element of epistemology is redefined in terms that can have some practical bearing on our epistemic enterprise.

Second, with Quine's approach to the learning of a language we can see that its semantic content can be reduced to objects that are immediately verifiable by a community. As Quine says: "Internal factors may vary ad libitum without prejudice...[but] surely one has no choice but to be an empiricist so far as one's theory of linguistic meaning is concerned."18 Hence language, within which `truth' has its only utterable meaning, must be a "socially inculcated" phenomenon -- made objective by its intersubjective agreement.

And Third, Quine's eschewal of a priori reasoning as being an effective method for ascertaining the correct methodology of epistemology guarantees that any of our theories can be tested by science. Admittedly, Quine cannot explain (scientifically) how successful induction proceeds, yet his theory can nevertheless check present success against evidence.

Finally, we ask ourselves if Quine's commitment to empirical observation is itself verifiable (or perhaps, justified). And here we must note that for any conclusive decision on this matter we surely can appeal to no other tribunal than that which has been provided for us by our senses, lest we ignore the procured bounty of experience we all benefit from.


1 Perhaps I am wrong here. The most familiar strategy could quite possibly be: blatant
positive assumption. Back to note location in text

2 W.V.O. Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," in Naturalizing Epistemology, ed. Hilary
Kornblith, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994), p. 15. Back to note
location in text

3 Charles Sanders Pierce, "How To Make Our Ideas Clear," In Pragmatism: The Classic
Writings, ed. H.S. Thayer (Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett Publishing Company, 1982), P.
88. Back to note location in text

4 Quine, The Pursuit of Truth, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Harvard University
Press, 1990), p. 13. Back to note location in text

5 Kim, J. "What is Naturalized Epistemology?," in Kornblith, H ed. Naturalizing
Epistemology, (Cambidge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994), p. 33. Back to note
location in text

6 Ibid., p. 20. Back to note location in text

7 Ibid., p. 25. Back to note location in text

8 Quine, The Pursuit of Truth, p. 19. Back to note location in text

9 Richard Foley, "Quine's Naturalized Epistemology," in Naturalizing Epistemology, p.
256. Back to note location in text

10 Ibid. Back to note location in text

11 Quine, Word and Object, p. 26. Back to note location in text

12 Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," P. 19. Back to note location in text

13 Quine, The Pursuit of Truth, p. 19. Back to note location in text

14 Quine, Pursuit of Truth, p. 14. Back to note location in text

15 Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," p. 20. Back to note location in text

16 Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," p. 19. Back to note location in text

17 Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," p. 26. Back to note location in text

18 Quine, "Epistemology Naturalized," p. 24. Back to note location in text
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