What can be done

P.F. Strawson

  • Theories and Things by W.V. Quine
    Harvard, 219 pp, £8.75, November 1981, ISBN 0 674 87925 2

In earlier essays, not reproduced in this volume, Quine wrote, ‘Philosophy, or what appeals to me under that head, is continuous with science’; and, more bluntly: ‘Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.’ There are pages in the present collection of 26 papers which seem to invite a still narrower construction of these apparently restrictive remarks: to invite one, in a word, to gloss ‘science’ as ‘physics’. Deploring Goodman’s proliferation of worlds or world-versions, Quine holds out for one world only: the world of physical theory. To the question, ‘Why this special deference to physical theory?’ he has a ready answer. Although ‘not everything worth saying, not even all good science, can be translated into the technical vocabulary of physics,’ yet ‘nothing happens in the world, not the flutter of an eyelid, not the flicker of a thought, without some redistribution of microphysical states … Full coverage, in this sense, is the business of physics, and only of physics.’

To adopt this stance is not to confound the questions confronting the philosopher – Quine’s philosopher – with those confronting the physicist. There is, for the philosopher, the question of how we come to have the very thought of the objects of physical theory; indeed, of how we come to have the thought of objects at all, of any kind. Theories require language, thought is too elusive to be studied except in its expression. So our question about thought of objects becomes a question about verbal reference to objects. We are launched into the philosophy of language and, in particular, into the theory of linguistic reference. Quine gives his enquiry an appropriately physicalist form: the physical input to which we are exposed is the triggering of sensory receptors, the physical output the utterance of the sentences of our theories; the pay-off is our ability to foresee and control later triggerings in the light of earlier. Quine enquires by what mechanism we advance from the crude input to the sophisticated output. The enquiry is at once semantic, epistemological and – since what we count as objects of reference are what we recognise to exist – ontological.

The first step is the simple conditioning of a response. Through conditioning the child learns to associate terms (single words) with sensory stimulations and to produce, or assent to, unstructured utterances of terms on appropriate occasions. This does not by itself bring him to the point of objective reference, reference to distinct and distinguishable objects – though he is helped on his way by the mastery of what will later qualify as individuative terms, like ‘dog’. Predication is the next stage, the saying of an individual thing that it answers to such a term (‘Fido is a dog’): but we are still a long way from the full apparatus of objective reference, which stands forth in its clearest, uncluttered form, Quine famously holds, only when we have at our disposal the device of the relative pronoun, or, better still, its representative in the regimented notation of logic, viz. the variable of quantification.

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