Quine's Naturalism: Language, Theory, and the Knowing Subject (2023)

In this era when results of empirical scientific research are being appealed to all across philosophy, when we even find moral philosophers invoking the results of brain scans, many profess to practice "naturalized epistemology," or to be "epistemological naturalists." Such phrases derive from the title of a well-known essay by Quine,[1] but Paul Gregory's thesis in the work under review is that there is less connection than is usually assumed between Quine's variety of naturalized epistemology and what is today taken, by opponents and proponents alike, to constitute epistemological naturalism. To put it bluntly, as Gregory does in the opening sentence of his introduction, Quine "has not been well understood."

If there is less connection between the Quinean and other epistemological naturalisms than there has often been taken to be, on Gregory's account there is also much more connection between Quine's position on epistemology and his positions on other contentious issues, beginning with his notorious rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction. The "tightly woven nature" of Quine's philosophy, which "hinders the unraveling of his views," is indeed cited as the foremost reason why Quine's naturalism has not been well understood.

A second reason cited is Quine's pithy or breezy style. Gregory suggests that what he calls Quine's "penchant for elegant prose" leads him to offer arguments and explanations too terse to be easily followed. By contrast, no one is likely to complain of excessive terseness in the work under review, where a style antithetical to Quine's is deliberately adopted. Everything is spelled out, and more than once at that; nothing is left to be worked out by the reader; and there are frequent pauses: pauses to review what has come before, pauses to preview what is still to come, and just occasionally pauses to digress a bit into side issues.

While explicitly a defense of Quine against criticisms by epistemological traditionalists, skeptical or foundationalist, Gregory's work is implicitly a criticism also of philosophers who have taken themselves to be adopting a generally Quinean orientation while avoiding what they have taken to be the most dated aspects of Quine's approach, such as his addiction to stimulus-response analyses. Such philosophers tend to think of themselves as agreeing with Quine that traditional epistemology should be abandoned in favor of scientific psychology, while disagreeing with Quine by thinking of psychology as "cognitive science" rather than "behavioral science." But one cannot, according to Gregory, detach one aspect of Quine from another in this way.

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As I myself share the outlook of the philosophers thus implicitly criticized, I should say at the outset that I think Gregory is generally quite convincing on matters of Quine exegesis. His work, together with a rereading of Quine's essay in the light thereof, has convinced me that I am less of a Quinean than I thought -- though it has not persuaded me that I ought to become more of a Quinean than I am.

After a preview of these matters in his first, introductory chapter, Gregory turns to an analysis of Quine's essay, which he finds to be triply misleading, owing to its emphasizing some aspects of Quine's view at the expense of others, presupposing without comment many contentious Quinean doctrines, and omitting arguments. The appearance created is that Quine moves immediately from the failure of one particular (and by hindsight not especially plausible) foundationalist project (Carnap's in his Aufbau) to the conclusion that we might as well just settle for empirical psychology in place of philosophical epistemology. Such an appearance is, of course, the appearance of a non sequitur.

Such a move as Quine appears to make invites an objection in the form of a dilemma. Either Quine expects psychology to justify or validate science, in which case his procedure is viciously circular, since psychology stands as much in need of justification or validation as any other science, and more so than some. Or else Quine is abandoning any normative role for epistemology in favor of a purely descriptive account of scientific theory-construction and theory-choice (or perhaps, a purely descriptive methodology, which merely tells us what norms prevail in the scientific community without pretending to be in a position to offer any justification or any critique of such norms, as purely descriptive grammar merely tells us what norms prevail in a linguistic community). In which case he is abandoning epistemology, even if he retains the word "epistemology," transferring it to some other subject. And Gregory concedes that there is a good deal of textual support for the "replacement interpretation," according to which Quine is doing just what the second horn of the dilemma describes.

Gregory, however, in the end rejects the replacement interpretation. He reads Quine as an empiricist writing for fellow empiricists and taking for granted the empiricist answer to the normative question of how theories are evaluated -- that they are to be judged by their predictive success -- while calling for a study by psychology of how the theories that are to be thus evaluated come to be created. The "calls for psychology" -- and according to Gregory they are really calls for a whole list of disciplines: psychology proper, neurology, linguistics, genetics, and history -- are calls for a psychological account of the context of discovery, not the context of justification.

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Quine does, according to Gregory, have a distinctive take, not on whether predictive success is the criterion by which theories are to be evaluated, but rather on what constitutes predictive success. For the predictive success of a theory is the correctness of the observation sentences it implies,[2] and Quine has a distinctive, behavioristic view of what an "observation sentence" is. Quine avoids involvement in traditional disputes among empiricists over whether "observation sentences" are to be thought of as formulated in a language of sense-data or in a language of everyday objects by taking an "observation sentence" to be simply any sentence that any two members of the speech community, given similar sensory stimulation, will either both assent to or both dissent from.

Gregory then devotes two chapters to the first horn of the dilemma mentioned above, the circularity objection. He develops at a leisurely pace an explanation of why Quine "placidly accepts" that his procedure is "globally circular," an explanation according to which such global circularity is inevitable given the rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction.

In brief, the argument is that without an analytic/synthetic distinction, to speak a language is already to adopt a substantive theory, and hence there is no alternative to "beginning in the middle of things" or "rebuilding our ship on the open sea." (Note in particular, as Gregory does, that under Quine's definition of "observation sentence," speakers of the same language necessarily agree about such sentences.) If there is no analytic/synthetic distinction, then "one cannot engage in meaningful conversation while remaining theoretically uncommitted."

The assumption on which the circularity objection is based, that circularity is, like infinite regress, avoidable and objectionable -- an assumption which Gregory calls that of "linear propositional support" -- thus becomes untenable once the analytic/synthetic distinction has been rejected. Quine's rejection of that distinction is inseparable from a change in conception of what can be considered a cogent epistemological question or issue, a move to a conception on which the issue of circularity is not cogent.

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Of course, if Quine's critics who charge that his rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction is based on old-fashioned behavioristic assumptions are right, and if Gregory is right that Quine's defense against the circularity objection is based on his rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction, then Quine's defense against the circularity objection is based on a kind of assumption on which few scientifically-oriented philosophers today, when scientific psychology has long since moved past the old stimulus-response approach, would wish to base anything of importance.

In his last two chapters Gregory addresses the "normativity" and "change of subject" objections, which are really two aspects of a single objection, the second horn of the dilemma mentioned earlier. From what has been said so far the reader can probably guess what line Gregory will take towards the claim that Quine's so-called epistemology is not normative (as anything properly called "epistemology" must be). On Gregory's interpretation, Quine is, in fact, fully committed to the norm of predictive success, of correctness of observation-sentence implications.

Moreover, given the one categorical imperative to seek predictively successful theories, many hypothetical imperatives will follow. Scientific investigation of scientific reasoning should provide guidance as to which means are most likely to help achieve predictive success, and so provide guidance as to scientific theorizing, once predictive success has been accepted as the end of scientific theorizing. In this sense, naturalized epistemology as Quine conceives it can be fully normative. It can distinguish rational from irrational, though it will be instrumental rationality that is in question. (Hence it is no surprise that Quine was associated with CSICOP.)

But what of skeptical objections to the effect that all the observational predictions of a theory may be correct, and yet the theory not true? Here again Gregory finds Quine's complacency in the face of a philosophical worry tied to his distinctive views about meaning. On the old empiricist theory of meaning, two sentences that imply the same empirical predications have the same meaning, so that there can be no question of one being true and the other false. Quine rejects the old empiricist theory of meaning on the grounds that it is really only whole theories, not individual sentences, that have observational implications. But if that is his only grounds of objection, and he agrees with the old empiricists otherwise, then he will in fact hold that two theories that imply the same empirical predications have the same meaning, so that there can be no question of one being true and the other false. And this is, minus some subtleties, essentially Gregory's account of why Quine is unimpressed by skeptical doubts.

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Here again Gregory draws our attention to the unity of Quine's thought. But at the same time we cannot help but notice, though it is not Gregory's aim to emphasize it, the datedness of some of Quine's key assumptions. The whole tendency of Gregory's approach is to make Quine's philosophy in one way more impressive, on account of the tightness of the interconnections between doctrines in different areas (the areas of philosophy of language and epistemology, in particular), and the thoroughness with which such connections have been thought through. But at the same time this interpretation tends to make Quine's philosophy in another way less attractive, on account of the dogmas of old-fashioned empiricism (and its psychological wing, behaviorism) on which so much else is made to depend.

But the aim of a primarily historical work is not to make the figure from the history of philosophy whose views are discussed look more or less attractive. It is to show the historical figure as he or she really was. In this I believe Gregory, with his firm command of a wide range of Quinean texts, and his close attention to implicit connections, has succeeded remarkably well.

[1] "Epistemology Naturalized," in W. V. O. Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 69-90.

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[2] Gregory does not much discuss Quine's views on logical implication, which is less a matter of holding some sentences to be logically true than a matter of holding some inferences from sentence to sentence to be logically valid. One suspects that in the end the willingness to make such inferences must be, for Quine, merely a firmly-established behavioral disposition. Indeed, Quine nearly says as much himself at the close of "Truth by Convention" (in O. H. Lee, ed., Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead, 1936, Longmans, pp. 90-124).


What does Quine believe? ›

Quine's holism is the view that almost none of our knowledge is directly answerable to experience. (The exceptions are what he calls 'observation sentences'; see 4.2, below.) In almost all cases the relation is indirect: a given sentence is only answerable to experience if a body of theory is presupposed.

What is naturalism knowledge? ›

Naturalistic epistemology is an approach to the theory of knowledge based on the use of scientific methods and empirical data rather than relying solely on deductive methods and a priori analysis of concepts. Within philosophy, knowledge is generally associated with justified true beliefs.

Was Quine a logical positivist? ›

Both of these had been fundamental tenets of logical positivism (or logical empiricism, as it has also been called), and Quine has been seen as an archcritic of this philosophical movement, one whose criticisms have contributed significantly to its demise during the second half of the twentieth century.

Is Quine an empiricist? ›

Quine is a physicalist, in the sense that he considers it a scientific error not to adopt a theory which makes reference to physical objects.

What is Quine's argument about confusing meaning with naming? ›

For Quine, a second objection to the ontology of 'Wyman' and 'Mc X is that it rests on the fallacy of equating meaning and naming. Such a philosophy presumes that if a singular term is meaningfully used it must name something, that there must be something for the name to designate or refer to.

What is the meaning of Quine? ›

(philosophy) To deny the existence or significance of something obviously real or important.

What is the main idea of naturalism? ›

naturalism, in philosophy, a theory that relates scientific method to philosophy by affirming that all beings and events in the universe (whatever their inherent character may be) are natural. Consequently, all knowledge of the universe falls within the pale of scientific investigation.

What are the 4 types of naturalism? ›

There are a variety of naturalisms, including: ontological naturalism, which holds that reality contains no supernatural entities; methodological naturalism, which holds that philosophical inquiry should be consistent with scientific method; and moral naturalism, which typically holds that there are moral facts and ...

What is the purpose of naturalism? ›

The function of naturalism is to present the world as it is—without embellishment, idealization, or romance—and illustrate the dominance of environmental conditions in human life and on individual characters. This perspective allows the author to comment on the darker sides of human nature.

Is Quine a realist? ›

Quine describes himself as a “robust realist” about physical objects in the external world. This realism about objects is due to Quine's naturalism. On the other hand, Quine's natural- istic epistemology involves a conception of objects as posits that we introduce in our theories about the world.

What kind of philosopher was Quine? ›

Willard Van Orman Quine (/kwaɪn/; known to his friends as "Van"; June 25, 1908 – December 25, 2000) was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century".

What are the Two Dogmas of Empiricism According to Quine? ›

Introduction The two dogmas are (1) the analytic/synthetic distinction (2) reductionism (to sense data). Quine claims that both are ill-founded. 1. Background for Analyticity Mainly leading to the reduction of analyticity to synonymy.

Who is the father of logical positivism? ›

Alfred Jules Ayer (1910-89) was a philosopher and a leading English representative of Logical Positivism. He was responsible for introducing the doctrines of the movement as developed in the 1920s and 1930s by the Vienna Circle group of philosophers and scientists into British philosophy.

What is the difference between positivism and logical positivism? ›

Logical positivism is a theory that developed out of positivism, which holds that all meaningful statements are either analytic or conclusively verifiable. Thus the key difference between positivism and logical positivism is based on their history and the influence they have on each other.

What are the two main ideas of logical positivism? ›


According to logical positivism, there are only two sources of knowledge: logical reasoning and empirical experience.

Is Quine a word in Scrabble? ›

Yes, quine is a valid Scrabble word.

Is Quine a relativist? ›

Quine claimed that relativism is paradoxical and unacceptable; never- theless, his own views concerning truth and the underdetermination of theories by data amount to an interesting and plausible form of relativism.

Is there analytic synthetic distinction? ›

“The analytic/synthetic distinction” refers to a distinction between two kinds of truth. Synthetic truths are true both because of what they mean and because of the way the world is, whereas analytic truths are true in virtue of meaning alone.

How do you use quine in a sentence? ›

Quine believed that science and philosophy are in the same boat. Quine was a gifted mathematician, and was attracted to philosophical speculation, but neither recondite mathematical research nor forays into the canon of great philosophers appealed to his intellectual temperament.

Where does the word quine come from? ›

Quine goes back to Old English cwen, meaning a woman, wife or, as in modern English, a queen. An obsolete spelling of this word, quean, shows more clearly the history of this word.

What is Rani called in English? ›

queen countable noun, title noun. A queen is a woman who rules a country as its monarch, or a woman who is married to a king. ... Queen Nefertiti., The king and queen left the country.

What kind of philosopher was Quine? ›

Willard Van Orman Quine (/kwaɪn/; known to his friends as "Van"; June 25, 1908 – December 25, 2000) was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century".

Is Quine a relativist? ›

Quine claimed that relativism is paradoxical and unacceptable; never- theless, his own views concerning truth and the underdetermination of theories by data amount to an interesting and plausible form of relativism.

Is Quine a realist? ›

Quine describes himself as a “robust realist” about physical objects in the external world. This realism about objects is due to Quine's naturalism. On the other hand, Quine's natural- istic epistemology involves a conception of objects as posits that we introduce in our theories about the world.

Was Quine a scientific realist? ›

3.1 Introduction. Semantic realism is the only dimension of Quine's scientific realism that he adhered to from the beginning, although his commitment to it became stronger over time.

Is the idea that states that knowledge is derived from reason and logic without resort to experience? ›

Truth, in the case of rationalism, is not sensory but intellectual, which is why rationalists believe that knowledge can be acquired through reason alone. This makes rationalism a priori, meaning that we gain knowledge without experience through the use of reason.

What does synthetic mean in philosophy? ›

Synthetic truths are true both because of what they mean and because of the way the world is, whereas analytic truths are true in virtue of meaning alone. “Snow is white,” for example, is synthetic, because it is true partly because of what it means and partly because snow has a certain color.

What kind of epistemological theory did Descartes advocate? ›

1.2 Internalism and Justification

Descartes holds an internalist account requiring that all justifying factors take the form of ideas. Various texts imply that ideas are, strictly speaking, the only objects of immediate perception or awareness. (More on the directness or immediacy of sense perception in Section 9.1.)

What claims that we Cannot test a single hypothesis or sentence in isolation? ›

The Duhem–Quine thesis, also called the Duhem–Quine problem, after Pierre Duhem and Willard Van Orman Quine, is that in science it is impossible to experimentally test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, because an empirical test of the hypothesis requires one or more background assumptions (also called auxiliary ...

What is the difference between realism and pragmatism? ›

Perhaps the most significant difference is pragmatism's distrust of invocations of structural power in social explanations, whereas realism encourages them, in interaction with other explanatory elements. The paper problematizes claims that recent work in the study of value is predominantly pragmatist.

What is the duhem problem? ›

The Quine-Duhem thesis is a form of the thesis of the underdetermination of theory by empirical evidence. The basic problem is that individual theoretical claims are unable to be confirmed or falsified on their own, in isolation from surrounding hypotheses.

What is logical empiricism in philosophy? ›

logical positivism, also called logical empiricism, a philosophical movement that arose in Vienna in the 1920s and was characterized by the view that scientific knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge and that all traditional metaphysical doctrines are to be rejected as meaningless.

What is naturalized epistemology write some implications of naturalized epistemology? ›

Naturalized epistemology (a term coined by W. V. O. Quine) is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods.

Which among the following philosopher scientists acclaimed that science gives certainty and power? ›

Answer. Explanation: Roger Bacon, an English thinker and experimenter heavily influenced by al-Haytham, is recognized by many to be the father of modern scientific method. Pls Mark Me As Brainliest!!!!!!


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