Friday, 13 July 2007

Naturalised Epistemology: Quine vs. Stroud (Part 1)

The central difference between Quinean naturalised epistemology and traditional epistemology is located in Quine's rejection of first philosophy. Traditional epistemology is involved in the following two-fold task. First, traditional epistemology seeks to identify the regulating criterion for knowledge. Second, it tries to determine, based on this criterion, whether or not we truly have knowledge. This two-fold task is referred to as first philosophy because it is analytically prior to all of our sensory or empirical knowledge. In brief, traditional epistemology attempts to find the epistemic foundation and justification for all scientific knowledge.

Quine believes that traditional epistemology's attempt to find a justification for knowledge outside of or prior to science has either failed or is moribund. Our only remaining hope of finding a validation for science is within science itself. Hence, Quine's now famous (or is that infamous?) declaration:
"Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. " (Quine [1994] p. 25).
By Quine’s lights, epistemology is like the mariner in Neurath's parable that has to rebuild his ship as he is sailing on it. We can no more attain a pre-theoretical understanding of science than we can get off a ship while already out at sea.

Defenders of the traditional view tend to object to Quine's naturalised epistemology on two grounds: (1) because it is circular and therefore incoherent and (2) because it lacks the normativity central to epistemology. Stroud's "Reply to Quine" draws on both of these objections. Like traditional epistemology, naturalised epistemology seeks to uncover the relationship between observation and theory. This means providing an account of the disparity between the "meagre" sensory input and the "torrential" theoretical output. This difference between meagre input and torrential output suggests that most of our theoretical knowledge is posited rather than given. In normal scientific investigation we are able to compare a subject's output to the actual world and thereby ascertain how accurately it represents the world.

However, Stroud notes that when we attempt to engage in such a scientific analysis reflexively we encounter the following two-horned dilemma. First, if we assume the accuracy of the scientific picture of knowledge, we find ourselves confronted with the conclusion that all our theories are merely posits. This would not be as bad as it sounds if it we were somehow possible to verify whether our theories accurately represent the world or not. However, when we realise that all our means of evaluating our theories are themselves merely theoretical constructions, or so the argument goes, we find ourselves in a vicious circle. The second horn of the dilemma would be to assume that our scientific picture is wrong, in which case we would simply be confirming the sceptic’s worse fears. Either horn of the dilemma appears to present Quine with an unfavourable outcome.

In my next post on this topic I will look at Quine’s reply to Stroud.


For further reading on this debate, see:

Quine, W.V.O., "Epistemology Naturalized." Naturalizing Epistemology. Edited by Hilary Kornblith. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1994.

Quine, W.V.O., "Reply to Stroud." Midwest Studies in Philosophy vol. VI The Foundations of Analytic Philosophy. Edited by Peter A. French et al. Minneapolis MN: Minnesota Press, 1981.

Quine, W.V.O., The Roots of Reference. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1973.

Stroud, Barry, "The Significance of Naturalized Epistemology." Midwest Studies in Philosophy vol. VI The Foundations of Analytic Philosophy. Edited by Peter A. French et al. Minneapolis MN: Minnesota Press, 1981.

5 comments:

bjb76 said...

I think Stroud's reply to Quine fails because he doesn't understand the purpose of naturalizing epistemology. The purpose is *not* to validate science in any traditional sense. Quine abandoned that goal along with first philosophy. Instead, Quine is simply trying to explain the pragmatic value of science. I elaborate on this interpretation in some detail--including by examining Stroud's critique--in chapter 5 of my dissertation, which is online here.

Ben Bayer

AVERY ARCHER said...

Thanks for the feedback Ben. On my next post on this topic I'll include a link to your dissertation so that it is more visible to readers.

Xerxes said...

277 page dissertation from Ben. Reduce it to like 27 pages, and it's still a bit too long, and remarkably free of what used to be known as valid argument.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Xerxes,
I'm all for constructive criticism. But simply saying that a 277 page dissertation is free of arguments certainly does not help anyone. It would be far better to select a particular passage and criticise it. I'm sure the author would be most grateful for the feedback.

Phritz said...

"......if we assume the accuracy of the scientific picture of knowledge, we find ourselves confronted with the conclusion that all our theories are merely posits."


I doubt that most scientists would agree with that. A Quine uses the term "posit"; an Einstein doesn't, as far as I can recall. A hypothesis (or testable hypothesis at least), is not really a "posit." Personally, I take issue with that section in TDOE where WVOQ asserts (posits?) that the Homeric gods and physical science are both posits, and equal in terms of "reality" (excepting that science functions more "efficaciously" than myths do, at least according to Q.); that section sounds a bit idealist, really, in metaphysical sense (perhaps via that odd idealism of CS Peirce). Nothwithstanding a few weirdnesses of quantum physics, scientists do assume that theories describe a real world--Nature-- which exists independent of the senses.

"""This would not be as bad as it sounds if it we were somehow possible to verify whether our theories accurately represent the world or not.""""

Again, I don't think physical scientists have to deal with that issue. There is no Addendum attached to the Periodic Table proving that our representations of the chemical make-up of Nature are also accurate, in addition to the formulas. There might be a say Popperian Addendum: these physico-chemical "laws" are--or seem to be--- fallible (tho' people might take issue with that fallibilism--Bricmont does). Besides, that issue of representation relates to perception, and vision, cognitive processes, not really to "metaphysics" (if any such study still exists).