W. V. Quine

NEH Summer Seminar
For College and University Teachers
And Advanced Graduate Students

20th Century American Philosophy
Quine and Davidson

Gilbert Harman and Ernie Lepore
June 20 - July 29, 2011
Princeton University

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Quine and Davidson took philosophy to be especially concerned with issues about language and logic, among other things, although they conceived of these issues in somewhat different ways. They both denied that there are distinctive philosophical methods or issues and they conceived of philosophical inquiry as continuous with other sorts of inquiry, principally scientific inquiry for Quine, while Davidson took a wider view.

For Quine, philosophical theories are to be assessed in the ways that scientific hypotheses are, and good philosophical method is continuous with good scientific method. This led him to reject two basic principles accepted by almost all philosophers in the previous century and a half.

First, Quine rejected any sharp distinction between "a priori" truths that can be known just by thinking about them and the sorts of theoretical principles characteristic of scientific theories susceptible to empirical testing; viz. Quine rejected any important distinction between definitional truths and other allegedly more substantive truths. In effect, he rejected the sort of distinction between "analytic" and "synthetic" truths endorsed by almost all prior philosophers from at least Descartes and Kant forward, and still accepted by many contemporary philosophers. In science, definitions come and go. An acid may be defined at one time in terms of effects on litmus paper, at another time as a "proton doner," etc. The same point holds for ordinary words. At one time, a bachelor might be defined as an unmarried man, but that is not enough to settle, for example, whether the Pope is a bachelor, something most people are on reflection reluctant to accept even if they agree the Pope is an unmarried man. Even when it is possible to equate one expression with another, this does not yet distinguish a widely held assumption from a definitional truth. Are tigers four legged by definition? Or is that a substance biological truth about their nature? For those who follow Kant in thinking that a large part of philosophy consists in analyzing key concepts (in effect, in teasing out their definitions), Quine's criticism (if legitimate) is fundamental and devastating.

Second, Quine denied that empirically meaningful claims are always equivalent to claims about possible observations. Instead, he argued for a more "holistic" approach to meaning and theoretical reasoning. The point is obvious in science, where it is well known that theoretical principles by themselves have observational implications only against a background of various assumptions, for example, assumptions about the way measuring instruments work, assumptions about the existence or nonexistence of other forces, etc. It applies also to perfectly ordinary claims such as that a particular apple is red. Such a claim implies that the apple will look red if examined, but only given assumptions about conditions of illumination, lack of color-blindness in an observer, attention spans, etc. Davidson agreed with these Quinean rejections, although his conception of philosophy was much broader than Quine's view that "philosophy of science is philosophy enough." For example, Davidson was concerned with the interpretation of metaphor in literary works, with malapropisms, with scope and limits of rationality, with psychopathology, with the possibility of animal thought, with the social sciences, and with a range of other topics both inside and outside of the scope and limits of traditional analytic philosophy.

Quine and Davidson were especially concerned with language but harbored very different attitudes toward ordinary non-specialized language. Quine argued, in opposition to some of the ordinary language philosophers of mid-20th Century---philosophers who thought the best philosophical method relied on intuitions about ordinary usage---that there can be no logic of ordinary linguistic usage. For him, logic required a special regimented notation, just as arithmetic, algebra, or calculus does, and philosophical questions about the nature of the world must be addressed within such a regimented language rather than in one or another natural language like ordinary English or German. On the other hand, Davidson argued that there can, and perhaps must, be a logic of ordinary language. (Quine himself wrote a widely used and influential logic textbook, Methods of Logic, in which he discussed how to represent ordinary language arguments in a regimented logical notation.)

Quine wrote a great deal about method in linguistics and about translation of one natural language into another. He took it to be a mistake to suppose there are meanings, if meanings are treated as special things, entities in the mind, perhaps. He argued that the basic issues about meaning in linguistics can and should be raised without using the noun meaning. Instead of specifying which expressions have meaning, we can specify which are significant. Instead of asking when two expressions share the same meaning, we can ask when they are synonymous. Translation seeks synonymous expressions in different languages.

Reflection on the possible evidence for translation led Quine to the radical and surprising conclusion that translation is not determinate. According to his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, there are always many equally good but mutually incompatible ways to translate sentences of one language into those of another---with nothing to choose among them. Similar reflection suggested to him that reference was also indeterminate, which led to Quine's thesis of ontological relativity. To take one of his famed examples, if we can interpret a speaker to be talking about rabbits, we can also equally well interpret the speaker to be talking about the property of being a rabbit, or about (undetached) rabbit-parts, etc. Nothing in nature will distinguish these different ontologies (or translations).

Davidson did not reject meanings in principle, but did argue that they had no utility in account of language; they failed "to oil the wheels of interpretation." He did agree with some of Quine's indeterminacy claims but emphasized the fact that a natural language, with its potential infinity of sentences, is nevertheless learnable. Since we can learn only a finite number of different things in our finite lives, our understanding of the expressions of a language must be devised from our understanding of a finite vocabulary and a finite number of ways of constructing larger expressions from words and other smaller expressions. Observing that some of Quine's (and others') preferred philosophical regimentations would require speakers of the regimented language to master an infinite primitive vocabulary---an impossible task for finite beings---Davidson broke new ground by proposing alternative analyses not subject to this problem.

More generally, Davidson argued that a theory of meaning for a natural language must explain how the meanings of complex expressions can depend finitely on the meanings of their constituent parts. This is Davidson's famous criterion of compositionality: the meaning of the whole must be composed out the meanings of its parts; otherwise, language learning would be inexplicable. Davidson argued for a particular form for a theory of meaning for natural languages. His approach (the development of which will be a key component of our seminar) offered a novel treatment for adverbial modification in sentences about how individuals act and how events transpire. He discovered that the most satisfactory treatment of these constructions involved unexpressed quantification over acts or events, a suggestion that is now widely adopted in philosophy and linguistics. Here in rough outline is what he discovered: to explain why a sentence like "Jack ate an apple on Tuesday in his front yard" implies the truth of a sentence like "Jack eats an apple," it is best to understand both sentences as quantifying over an event---namely, an event of Jack's eating an apple. This is so despite there being no reference to, or mention of, any event in these sentences. (However, note it's perfectly acceptable to say "Jack ate an apple and he did it on Tuesday in his front yard.")

From what might seem like rather arcane linguistic facts and treatments, Davidson went on to develop significant and groundbreaking metaphysical accounts of the nature of acts and events, causal relations, and agency. For example, he argued that reasons for an act can be among its causes. This claim may seem obvious but in the 1950s it was nearly universally denied by American and British philosophers (particularly by so-called Wittgensteineans). Davidson's view is now virtually universally endorsed. How one understands the nature of events affects how one understands causation, action, agency, morality, personhood, and the relation between mind and body problem. So we cannot emphasize enough the significance of Davidson's contributions here (as is evidenced by the avalanche of books and articles about his views in print.)

Another topic of great significance that we will need to explore is how Davidson modified Quine's account of translation. He agreed that there is a significant indeterminacy in how to interpret others, and this indeterminacy and the holistic nature of translation led him to reject the possibility of reducing psychology to physics and mind to brain. More specifically, he argued for an "anomalous monism" in which all particular mental events are identified with particular physical events but psychologically specified types of mental events cannot be identified with physically specified types of events, because there are no strict "psycho-physical laws." These are difficult conceptual issues and we intend to clarify them in the seminar. The importance and attraction of his denial of the possibility of a reduction of mind to body (without eliminating the mind altogether---as some have interpreted Skinner and even Quine as doing) cannot be stressed enough.

In short, these two philosophers have contributed crucially to a vast range of the most significant topics in philosophical study on both sides of the ocean for over the past 50 years. They adopted and marshaled support for their views through their own writings and those of through numerous able colleagues and students. The time is ripe for an investigation of their legacy.

Last edited: "June 18, 2011, 01:22 pm"