Chronicle of Higher Education obituary for W V Quine - Feb 2 2001
An Imaginative Philosopher: the Legacy of W.V. Quine
By Richard Rorty
Willard van Orman Quine, the dean of American philosophers, died at the age of 92 on Christmas Day. Just 50 years before, in December of 1950, he read a paper to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association that rocked the audience back on its heels. "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," when published the following year, went on to become the most discussed and most influential article in the history of 20th-century Anglophone philosophy. Few pieces of similar brevity have had such an impact on the course of philosophical thought. It is a model of succinct and convincing argumentation, a good sample of Quine's elegant prose. But it is, above all, an imaginative breakthrough. For in it, Quine raised in a new and urgent form the old question of the relation between philosophy and empirical inquiry.
In "Two Dogmas," Quine questioned the distinction between necessary and contingent truths. Empirical research produces truth of the latter sort -- assertions that can, in principle, be rescinded in light of further observations or experiments. ("Squirrels do not hibernate" and "E=mc2," for example.) Philosophy, Plato and Aristotle taught us, should produce necessary truths, just as mathematics does. Rudolf Carnap, Quine's mentor, and his fellow logical empiricists (like Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer) agreed. But, they said, necessary truths are "analytic" truths -- statements that tell us nothing about reality, but simply reflect linguistic conventions. "Two plus two is four" is made true by the meanings of "two" and "four" and "plus," just as "All bachelors are unmarried" is made true by the meanings of its component terms.
Philosophy, the logical empiricists concluded, should not try to tell us anything about the nature of things. It should confine itself to clarifying the meanings of statements and to exhibiting what Carnap called "the logical syntax of language."
At mid-century, many philosophers took the opposition between that modest view of philosophy and the older, more ambitious view to be epitomized in the contrast between Carnap, a thoroughly decent man who held left-wing political views, and Martin Heidegger, a megalomaniacal ex-Nazi who asked questions like "What is Being?" without bothering to make clear how he would know when he had given the right answer. Carnap wanted philosophers to make their criteria of success explicit and, thereby, to imitate the intellectual honesty characteristic of empirical researchers. Heidegger had considerable contempt both for the natural sciences and for the new mathematical logic developed by Russell and others that Carnap viewed as an indispensable tool of good philosophical work.
Quine, a brilliant young contributor to that kind of logic, had gone to Prague in 1933 to work with Carnap. A few years later, he was helping Carnap and his fellow emigres find jobs in the United States (thereby rendering an invaluable service to American academic life). So it was natural to expect that his 1950 talk (in a symposium on "Recent Tendencies in Philosophy") would be a logical-empiricist manifesto. Instead, Quine went public with doubts he had privately been pressing on Carnap for years. There is, Quine said, no test to determine where appeals to empirical reality stop and appeals to relations of ideas, to the meanings of words, begin. Indeed, there is no good way to sort truths out into the necessary ones and the contingent ones. In place of that ancient dualism, he suggested, we should envisage a spectrum running from beliefs that we cannot imagine giving up to those
that we can easily imagine being disconfirmed by future observations.
Much influenced by his friend B.F. Skinner, Quine was prepared to draw a line between fact and language -- between appeal to sense experience and appeal to knowledge of meanings -- only if it could be drawn on the basis of observation of linguistic behavior. But there is, he pointed out, no test by which a linguist learning a new language can tell which appeal the natives are making when they treat the truth of a certain sentence as uncontroversial. So "Two Dogmas" proceeded to turn the empiricist side of logical empiricism against its logical side. "For all its a priori reasonableness," Quine said, "a boundary between analytic and synthetic [that is, empirically confirmable and disconfirmable] statements simply had not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of the empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith."
"Two Dogmas" raised the question: How can we have analytic philosophy, the kind of philosophy Carnap and Quine, himself, wanted to do, if there are no such things as analytic truths? Quine's bombshell not only shed doubt on a distinction that had seemed obvious to Plato, Aristotle, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, but also seemed to dash the newfound hope that philosophers might achieve permanent, useful results once and for all.
Quine shared the usual Anglophone distaste for Heidegger, and he obviously did not want to bring back the sort of speculative metaphysics that had been produced by, for example, F.H. Bradley and A.N. Whitehead. But he did not offer a metaphilosophical program to replace the one that Russell and Carnap had put forward. Rather, he simply urged philosophers to bring philosophy into contact with empirical science -- to stop trying for necessary truths and to instead find perspicuous ways of arranging the materials that natural science provides. He envisaged, for example, a future in which epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, would be "naturalized" and, thus, absorbed in what we now call "cognitive science." That sort of collaboration with empirical inquiry now seems to many Anglophone philosophers the best way to advance their discipline.
Such a view of their cultural role makes them willing to move philosophy out of the humanities and to place less emphasis than in the past on familiarizing students with the writings of great dead philosophers. Quine once quipped that there are two sorts of people who became philosophy professors: those who are interested in the history of philosophy and those who are interested in philosophy. When his colleagues at Harvard (where he taught throughout his career) tried to get him to teach historical material, he resisted. He once did give a course on Hume, but remarked in his 1985 autobiography, The Time of My Life, that "determining what Hume thought and imparting it to students was less appealing than determining the truth and imparting that." His remark echoes one Carnap is supposed to have made when asked to give a course on Plato: "I will not teach Plato. I shall teach nothing but the truth."
The attempt by analytic philosophers to get out of the vicinity of history and literature departments and to move nearer to scientific laboratories has contributed to the notorious "analytic-Continental" split within the discipline. In non-Anglophone countries, Heidegger's obnoxiousness is cheerfully admitted, but he is nevertheless regarded by many philosophy professors as the most important thinker of the 20th century. That opinion is shared by quite a few U.S. and British teachers of literature, political theory, and intellectual history -- people who cannot see much point to what the analytic philosophers are doing, and who suspect that Anglophone philosophy has become overtechnical and intellectually sterile. The charge of sterility, however, is unjust. On the contrary, Quine's challenge to Carnap (together with complementary challenges to received views offered by Thomas Kuhn and Ludwig Wittgenstein) opened the door to a whole series of original and fruitful reconsiderations of traditional accounts of the relations between language and reality, between knowledge and sense-experience, between science and philosophy. Such reconsiderations have given rise to doubts concerning the conviction, held by Quine, that natural science is the area of culture in which truth about reality is most clearly and obviously attained and in which rationality is most clearly in evidence. Many philosophers who acknowledge a deep debt to Quine have become less eager to praise the so-called hard sciences as paradigms of knowledge. Whereas Quine famously claimed that "the philosophy of science is philosophy enough," these neo-Quinean thinkers are more willing to see scientific inquiry as less different from the rest of culture than Quine took it to be.
Quine never deviated from the claim that the vocabularies of logic and the physical sciences, properly regimented by philosophy, could reveal what he called "the true and ultimate structure of reality." But many contemporary analytic philosophers agree with the late Nelson Goodman, a colleague of Quine's in the Harvard philosophy department, that no such structure exists -- that there is, as Goodman put it, no one way the world is, but merely various alternative descriptions of it. Some descriptions are useful for certain purposes, others for other purposes, but none of them is closer to or farther away from reality. Goodman's view is reminiscent of John Dewey's approach to philosophy and, in particular, of Dewey's willingness to neglect questions about the relation of thought to reality in order to concentrate on the relative pragmatic utility of alternative ways of thinking.
Many of Quine's best students (like Donald Davidson) and many of his most fervent admirers (like Hilary Putnam) tried to argue him into abandoning or softening his scientism, but with no success. The doctrine that statements about human beliefs and desires do not represent anything real, whereas statements about stars and molecules do, remained central to Quine's thinking. Davidson, Putnam, and others have spent many years trying to extend and radicalize Quine's views, pointing to apparent inconsistencies and backslidings in his thought, implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) criticizing him for not appreciating the implications of his own breakthrough. It is to their and Quine's credit that such criticisms, which went very deep indeed, never led either to personal antagonism or to the breakup of analytic philosophy into warring philosophical schools. On the contrary, the respect, created by a profound sense of indebtedness, that Quine showed to Carnap, even as he did his best to demolish some of Carnap's most cherished beliefs, was matched by the honor deservedly paid Quine by those trying to demolish some of his own.
The relation between Quine and Davidson was particularly close, and Davidson, still producing original and provocative philosophical ideas at the age of 83, inherits Quine's decanal position. Davidson has summed up his radicalization of Quine's doubts about the distinction between language and fact by saying that "we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around the world generally. ... I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases."
Davidson's hyper-Quineanism not only offends Noam Chomsky (who regards it as a priori dogmatism, exhibiting contempt for empirical linguistics), but causes consternation among those who think that analytic philosophy would be bankrupt if it could not study precisely the sort of clearly defined shared linguistic structures that Davidson thinks do not exist. Nor did it go over well with Quine himself. When Davidson suggested that we throw out not only the analytic-synthetic distinction, but every other residue of the old Lockean-Kantian distinction between the unorganized jumble provided by the senses and the organizing mind that makes sense of that jumble, Quine dug in his heels.
In his 1974 article "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme," Davidson urged that the distinction between concepts and sensory data, like that between our conceptual schemes and the unconceptualized world to which they are applied, should be set aside: "[The] dualism of scheme and content, of organizing system and something waiting to be organized, cannot be made intelligible and defensible. It is itself a dogma of empiricism, the third dogma. A third, and perhaps last, for if we give it up, then it is not clear that there is anything distinctive left to be called empiricism."
Quine rejoined, in an essay jovially titled "The Very Idea of a Third Dogma" (included in his 1981 book Theories and Things), that empiricism is too important to abandon. If empiricism were to go, Quine thought, so would the project of naturalizing epistemology -- showing how human beings fashion ever more accurate pictures of the world on the basis of the meager inputs provided by their sense organs. Quine's hope for that project, and for the resulting confluence of philosophy and empirical research, rested on his conviction that philosophy's job is to serve as handmaiden to natural science.
In Davidson's view, however, the hard sciences are not so special: He is less sure than Quine that statements about elementary particles are more closely related to reality than statements about moral and aesthetic values. Empiricism, being merely Locke's awkward attempt to find a philosophy that would harmonize with the corpuscularian mechanics of Boyle and Newton, can perhaps be allowed to wither away.
If tomorrow's analytic philosophers wind up following Davidson's lead, and if they come to agree with Putnam that scientism has had a bad influence on 20th-century philosophical thought, then analytic philosophy will have metamorphosed into something that Russell and Carnap would have been hard put to recognize. Historians of 20th-century philosophy are likely to identify "Two Dogmas" as the beginning of that transformation, but they may think of Quine as unwilling to cross over into the land that his disciples went on to colonize.
If such a transformation should occur, there might be some (admittedly faint) chance of an end to the still rather bitter and contentious disagreement about the role of philosophy in culture that divides analytic from nonanalytic philosophers. The former typically cannot see the point of Heidegger. The latter, who still dominate the philosophical profession in most non-Anglophone countries, think (as I do) that there is a lot to be learned from him. Most nonanalytic philosophers do not regard the sciences as an appropriate model for philosophy. They would like to keep philosophy within the humanities. Although they do not share Heidegger's contempt for natural science, they think its importance is overestimated by their analytic colleagues.
Philosophers outside the analytic tradition typically spend more time thinking about intellectual history than about natural science. Some of their favorite books are sweeping narratives of the history of ideas, stories about how European thought got from the Greeks to the present. Those are the sort of stories told, for example, by Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche (in The Birth of Tragedy), Heidegger, Hans Blumenberg, and J¸rgen Habermas (in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity). Reading and writing books of this sort creates quite a different sort of intellectual ambience than the study of relatively brief, pithy, argumentative essays of the sort written by Quine, Davidson, Putnam, and their admirers. Non-analytic philosophers prize such intellectual virtues as historical resonance and synoptic vision as much as they do argumentative acuity.
There ought to be room within a single discipline for both sorts of thinking and writing. Unfortunately, many analytic philosophers still have the same sort of doubts about their nonanalytic colleagues that Carnap had about Heidegger in the 1930's. They suspect their nonanalytic colleagues of frivolity, irrationalism, and a morally dubious refusal to argue from clearly stated premises to clearly stated conclusions.
Many nonanalytic philosophers retaliate with equally unfortunate charges of decadent scholasticism. They see the problems to which analytic philosophers claim to offer solutions as flimsy artifacts, periodically discarded and replaced as the hungry analytic generations tread each other down. Non-Anglophones who take the trouble to familiarize themselves with the analytic tradition sometimes sneer that English-speaking philosophers spent the 50 years prior to "Two Dogmas" marching up a molehill -- and the ensuing 50 years marching back down again.
Such sneers are as misguided as many of those hurled by the analytic philosophers. Critics do not realize that Quine opened a door that led into a larger intellectual world. By insisting that philosophy could remain faithful to the spirit and the results of modern science -- while repudiating the dualisms it had inherited from Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and Kant -- he cleared new philosophical paths. He made it possible for his students to go to places nobody knew existed. Though the importance of "Two Dogmas" will never be immediately evident to the laity (any more than the importance of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason), most of those who do the background reading required to understand the mindset against which Quine was reacting will gasp in admiration at the power of his splendidly iconoclastic imagination.
Philosophy does advance, but not in any straightforward, linear way. Rather, progress is made on several different fronts at once, by fits and starts. It takes time for any initiatives to be consolidated, and more time for them to be integrated with other initiatives. We philosophers are still deliberating not only what morals should be drawn from "Two Dogmas," but what lessons can be learned from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. A recent book by the philosopher of language Robert Brandom, Articulating Reasons, makes as good use of Hegel as it does of Quine. I do not think (and here I disagree with many of my fellow philosophers) that progress is typically made by careful, rigorous examination of the implications of alternative arguments. Occasionally it is, but more often it is the result of someone like Quine spotting what Hegel would have called the implicit contradiction lying at the heart of conventional wisdom, envisaging how things would look if a distinction that has come to seem intuitive and commonsensical were set aside, and then knocking all the pieces off the table. "Two Dogmas," as I remarked earlier, exhibits great argumentative skill as well as great imaginative power. But the latter does most of the work.
That sort of power, the rarest of intellectual gifts, is found in both analytic philosophers like Wittgenstein, Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Davidson, and in nonanalytic philosophers like Nietzsche, Dewey, Henri Bergson, Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida. What such figures have in common -- their ability to envisage alternatives that nobody else has glimpsed -- is far more important than any differences among them. So (to draw a conclusion that Quine would probably have resisted with all his strength), it would be a good thing if philosophy students in every country were encouraged to study both kinds of 20th-century philosophy.
Richard Rorty teaches philosophy in the department of comparative literature at Stanford University.
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