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.

Better still, because the apparatus of reference, as it figures and is deployed in ordinary usage, is inconveniently hospitable. So indeed is the notation of logic if we simply and uncritically paraphrase our ordinary sentences into that notation. In view of the unrestricted freedom of nominalisation in ordinary language, simply to follow grammatical analogy would land us with an over-luxuriant ontology, embracing many sorts of purported objects that are vague and undefined. The critical, scientific philosopher may be content to leave the common man with his vague and untidy ontology: but for his own purposes, the pursuit of a system of the world which shall be simple, comprehensive and precise, he may revise, curtail or add as he finds necessary.

Bodies are certainly the primitive objects of reference and Quine has no wish to displace them. But the criteria of individuation and identity of kinds of body over time and in space are vague, and the category itself correspondingly so. No such vagueness attaches to the generalised notion of a physical object conceived of as ‘the material content of any portion of space-time, however irregular and discontinuous and heterogeneous’. Physical objects, so conceived, are identical if and only if co-extensive. They are seen by Quine as having the further merit that they can accommodate, by interpretation, both events and mental states. But science, because quantitative laws are its mainstay, calls for more: for numbers and classes, abstract objects as they are.

So far, this appears to leave the philosopher of science with a dualistic ontology comprising two radically different kinds of object: the abstract (classes, including numbers) and the concrete (physical objects). But the appearance, Quine claims, can be seen as illusory. First, re-interpret physical objects as the corresponding place-times, characterised by states; fill out the category of place-times with the empty ones; then drop the space-time regions in favour of the corresponding quadruples of real numbers according to an arbitrarily adopted system of co-ordinates; finally, modelling the quadruples within pure set theory, we are left with a single abstract ontological domain. (Once, in conversation, Quine remarked, not wholly seriously: ‘I’ve got everything down to numbers.’)

We are not to see all these simplifying and unifying stages as obligatory. Within the constraints imposed by his commitment to science, the scientific philosopher is free to choose. He cannot step outside all choices and view all the alternative ontologies as equally true. There is no theory-transcendent position from which to judge reality; he must speak from within his theory. But on no choice is ‘empiricist discipline’ forfeited: theoretical sentences remain answerable to observation sentences, themselves responses to stimulation of sensory receptors, however interpreted in the chosen theory.

Quine’s tolerance of abstract objects is limited by his requirements of precision or clarity. It extends, as we have seen, to classes: but not to attributes or properties. The former have a clear general principle of individuation: classes are identical when their members are identical. There is no such clear principle for attributes; to say that attributes are identical when exemplified by the same objects would be to deny the distinctive character of attributes, to assimilate them to classes. To say that they are identical when they belong to the same classes would, given the identity-condition for classes, be obviously circular. Quine explores one further theoretically possible way of finding, or constructing, for attributes, an identity-condition – one which makes no mention of classes. If we were given an exhaustive list of predicates which could, in our theory, be appropriately affirmed or denied of attributes, then we could define identity of attributes in terms of it. Attributes would be identical if just the same predicates of the list were true or false of them. Quine makes it clear, by implication, that he knows, and expects to know, of no such theory and no such list.

The problem of attribute-identity could readily be solved, Quine concedes, with the resources of modal logic: it is there explained by necessary equivalence of predicates. But necessity and possibility, except in anodyne epistemic interpretations, are highly suspect notions in Quine’s eyes: they go with essences. In one essay, it is true, Quine does his ironic best for modal logic, but insists that he is expounding, not propounding: ‘I am in the position of a Jewish chef preparing ham for a gentile clientèle. Analyticity, essence and modality are not my meat.’ Scepticism about essence and de re necessity carries over into scepticism about de re propositional attitudes: e.g. de re belief. It is a qualified scepticism, since Quine allows that context may give a (variable) sense to the dubious notion. But it is scepticism none the less, for Quine finds that no general criterion is available and nothing less will satisfy him: ‘I do not see here the markings of a proper annexe to austere scientific language.’

It will be seen, and Quine would acknowledge, that his philosophic method is singularly ascetic and his philosophical (or metaphysical) vision strikingly austere. But it would be misleading, in several ways, to let these epithets stand unqualified.

First, there is the question of his style. The elegance, economy, wit and precision of his writing are among the chief glories of modern philosophy. Never have asceticism of method and austerity of vision been so glitteringly displayed.

Second, there are the explicit disclaimers, made necessary by an all too easy misunderstanding of his views. Quine’s materialism is not a denial of the mental, as commonly understood: rather, it is the claim that the common understanding falls short of the stringent requirements of scientific understanding. So Quine by no means equates experience, in all its ‘heady luxuriance’, with triggered nerve-endings and verbal responses: rather, he isolates, in complex phenomena, components which he finds, by his own exalted standards of clarity, clearly explicable. The aim is to see what can be done, in the field of philosophy (of thought, language, experience), with materials amenable to impeccably scientific treatment. Those materials, saving the abstract objects, are material. Quine’s philosophy is selective; it is not reductive. It stands as an impressive demonstration of what can be done.

Third, there are, in this volume, a number of papers in which Quine’s strictly scientific-philosophical concerns are either set on one side or at least set in what is, for him, an unusual context. The members of this category are various. It includes a short essay on metaphor in which Quine points out that the extension of existing concepts (e.g. ‘wave’) which is characteristic of advancing science begins as metaphor before it congeals into a new literalism; and he finds a similar process, of extension by analogy or by partial resemblance, at work even in our first learning of language. So ‘metaphor or something like it governs both the growth of language and our acquisition of it.’ There is a remarkable parallel here with Hume’s discussion of the role of imagination in our mastery and use of general terms, and Hume would have relished Quine’s distinction between the roles of metaphor in science and in religion: in science the tropes put on literalness, the metaphors die into (scientific) life; in religion they remain tropes. ‘Religion ... is involved in metaphor for good.’

In another essay, ‘Has philosophy lost contact with people?’, Quine firmly rejects the common charge implicit in the title. He points to the mathematical and scientific concerns of the great philosophical luminaries of the past and to the way in which their quests for a system on a grand scale were integral to ‘the overall scientific enterprise’. The student who looks for inspirational and edifying writing in philosophy ‘is misguided and probably not a very good student anyway, since intellectual curiosity is not what moves him’. Of the ill, as well as the good, effects of the inflow of funds into the academic world which came with, and after, the war he writes, in ‘Paradoxes of Plenty’, with a just, though not ungenerous severity. Of research grants:

Not a few scientists were lured from their frugal old projects by the glitter of grants. It was not avarice, for the money was not for their pockets. It was selfless admiration of the unaccustomed flow of gold ... Men who in their youth had chosen the austerities of science over the material rewards of a business career were now in business after all, though without those rewards.

On the proliferation of learned journals: ‘Certainly ... new journals were needed: they were needed by authors of articles too poor to be accepted by existing journals.’

Included in this category of papers is Quine’s unique venture into ethics. In a few lucid pages he gives a thoroughly and predictably naturalistic account of the genesis, among the others, of those values we call ‘moral’; divides them persuasively into two largely overlapping classes, the altruistic and the ‘ceremonial’; remarks how factual, causal considerations can minimise, but not extinguish, moral conflict; and finally, and again predictably, deplores the ultimate lack of empirical controls, ‘the methodological infirmity of ethics as compared with science’. Echoes of Hume are heard again in this essay.

The scientific passion for generality does not, in Quine’s case, exclude the commoner and less exalted interest in the wholly particular. The volume ends with two non-philosophical pieces: reviews of The ‘Times’ Atlas of the World (1968) and of a new edition (1963) of Mencken’s The American Language. Though written, and included, Quine says in his Preface, ‘in a somewhat playful spirit’, they manifest an unforced, informed and wholly attractive delight in geographical and philological detail for its own sake.

By virtue of intellectual power, range and fertility of ideas and brilliance of presentation, Quine is the most distinguished and influential of living philosophers who write in English. His severely scientific conception of philosophy is integral to his work and is a part of its strength. The common understanding, as he remarks, embraces many highly general concepts which, at least as commonly understood, are vague and ill-defined. For them, when they are not dismissed as intrinsically confused, Quine typically seeks, and finds, surrogates, free from these defects, in terms of which he proceeds with the task of clarification. But this is not the only way in which, in the analytical tradition, clarification can fruitfully proceed. It is possible, without discarding common understanding, so to exhibit the interrelations and interdependencies of such concepts as to make relatively perspicuous the interlocking frameworks of ideas on which we weave our systems of particular belief; and the performance of this task may be found not less illuminating than the practice of an austerely scientific reconstruction. Some, indeed, will find it more illuminating. The results need not be lacking in rigour; and what is lost in elegant economy is gained in fidelity to the structure of our common thinking. (So it is, for example, with the concepts of reference, of attributes, of body, of person, of belief and other mental concepts – and even of necessity.)

It would be ungrateful to end on a note of dissent: for to all philosophers, whether or not they share Quine’s conception of the methods and aims of their subject, this volume will be a source of intense intellectual pleasure.