Enlightened empiricism: an examination of W.V. Quines theory of knowledge

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On this reading, descriptive epistemology does not address the questions of traditional epistemology because it deems them irrelevant or unanswerable or uninteresting. Many defenders of naturalized epistemologies fall into this camp including the early Quine Quine Insofar as option 3 entails the rejection of all the traditional normative questions associated with epistemology it is open to the charge leveled against option 1. What remains when questions of justification are set aside, it has been charged, is epistemology in name only.

For radicals like Rorty, who argue that much of the tradition in philosophy is wrongheaded, this suggests that there is no longer any point in doing epistemology under any name. For moderates like the more recent Quine, such an approach smacks of throwing the baby out with the bath water.


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Over the years, Quine has retreated from his apparently more radical earlier view that naturalized epistemology must be purely descriptive to a more tempered view which endorses, in a transformed way, the justificational questions of traditional epistemology. This has led some critics to charge that, in effect, Quine wants to have his cake and eat it too.

One criticism, to the effect that Quine's position does not answer the traditional skeptic and, hence, is not justificatory enough has been addressed by Quine in a debate with Stroud. A second criticism contends that Quine's view, in attempting to deal with prescriptive issues from a descriptive point of view, confuses causal with evidential considerations.

Quine protests that it is his critics who are confused. A broadly pragmatic reconstruction of Quine's position shows that he is more in the right than they.

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What are the implications of "putting epistemology in a psychological setting? The second option, endorsed by Quine in "Epistemology Naturalized" is to abandon the pretence of classical epistemology to be the foundation of knowledge and employ all available means to produce a construction of what we know, using psychology and whatever.

The result, in Quine's view is a kind of "reciprocal containment" of science and epistemology within each other. The result is a non-vicious circularity. We employ the tools and results of science in general and psychology in particular to construct an epistemological apparatus which can then, in turn, be used to criticize and correct scientific practice.

As epistemologists we become "busy sailors" on Neurath's raft. The problem of epistemological priority conscious states versus physiological stimulations gets resolved in favor of the latter. Finally, the Gestaltist problem of figure and ground gets resolved in an analogous manner.

Whatever is causally closest to the sensory receptors is epistemologically prior. These latter conclusions led critics of Quine to charge that by naturalizing epistemology Quine had replaced epistemic connections with psychological and physiological relations and, in effect, confused causal with evidential considerations. Evidential considerations are evaluated by means of methodological rules. The claim that naturalized epistemologies confuse causal with evidential considerations can be defused by showing that a naturalized epistemology can accommodate such rules.

I return to this point in section 4. Epistemology remains a going concern, but transformed. It becomes a part of science; the factual inquiry into the relationship between observation and theory. The key focus for epistemology now becomes how do human beings process observations to produce theories [including mental representations?

The key question for Quine , 74 becomes "how we human beings. As a part of natural science, epistemology is free to use the results of the natural sciences to answer its question[s]. This raises the question of circularity. How can epistemology use the results of science to justify science? Gibson, , Stroud charges that Quine's project, insofar as it ignores the project of Kant and Carnap, evades a deep problem endemic to the human condition.

Stroud , Insofar as Quine restricts the epistemological enterprise to that which can be explored by science he has, in Stroud's view, changed the subject.


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  • The very posing of this alternative, however, suggests that somehow questions exist independently of the contexts in which they were asked. But the problem of traditional skepticism arises within the context of a particular way of conceptualizing the human condition. It is a product of a foundationalist, infallibilist conception of knowledge inherited from the Greeks. In response to Stroud's objections to attacking epistemological questions by "projecting ourselves into the other's place," Quine argues that "this projection must be seen no transcendentally but as a routine matter of analogies and causal hypotheses within our scientific theories" Quine , ; cf.

    Olding , 2 In such a way, Quine thinks, we get from an epistemology of the other to traditional epistemology. Quine's move may appear to just beg the question against the skeptic again. But, one can defuse, in part, the sting of traditional skepticism by dividing skeptics into two groups: those who will not accept anything and those who argue for skepticism on the basis of arguments from illusion or the fallibility of science or the like. To the former, we can say nothing and must leave them at the crossroads.

    Life is too short to take such objections seriously.

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    To the latter, Quine's point is more telling for it is, in effect, a rejection of the skeptic's move to "transcendentalize" objections which, after all, were derived from intersubjective comparisons and errors in the first place. On this reading, both the skeptic and the epistemologist of the other start from the same intersubjective considerations but the traditional skeptic is the one who gives the argument a transcendental turn and then complains that appeals to intersubjective experience are question-begging.

    The epistemologist of the other need only block the initial turn to thwart this line of argument. The wrong move would be to accept the problem as posed by the skeptic in its transcendental form and then try to argue back to intersubjectivity. The solution is to avoid being seduced behind the veil in the first place. Stroud, , Quine sees naturalized epistemology as an "enlightened" approach to the traditional problems. It is enlightened insofar as it recognizes that "global" skepticism the problem of the justification of science is unwarranted; only "local" skepticism the problem of justification in science has any bite.

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    Local skepticism is of a piece with normal scientific uncertainty. Skeptical doubts are really scientific doubts. Stroud , argues that the skeptic, if he is producing a reductio, is unshaken by Quine's contention that skeptical doubts are scientific doubts. He suggests as one potential skeptical reductio the following: Either science is true and gives us knowledge or it does not.

    Willard Van Orman Quine

    If it is not true, nothing we believe about the physical world amounts to knowledge. But if it does give us knowledge, we can see from what it tells us about the meager impacts at our sensory surfaces during perception that we can never tell whether the external world really is the way we perceive it to be. But of that is so, we can know nothing about the physical world.

    So once again nothing we believe about the physical world amounts to knowledge. On either possibility we know nothing about the physical world. This does not seem fair. The first horn appears to amount to the dubious claim that "If science does not give us knowledge about the physical world then nothing does.

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    The other horn is not convincing either. If science does give us knowledge, then the theory that tells us that our sensory inputs are meager is embedded in other theories which tell us about the nature of our bodies and the objects which produce the signals that impinge upon our sensory organs to produce the meager impacts which are the foundation of our construction of models about ourselves and the world.

    So we do know much more about the world then the claim suggests. Of course, we cannot be sure about any of the particular claims about any aspect of ourselves and the world, but this just is the scientific predicament. In any case, it just does not follow from these considerations that "nothing we believe about the physical world amounts to knowledge. But, if this is the skeptic game, then we are warranted in rejecting the conditions of the engagement. The shift to fallibilism in the 17th century was implicitly such a rejection.

    Stroud concludes that "the fact that 'skeptical doubts are scientific doubts' does not put the epistemologist who raises such doubts in the stronger position of being free to use scientific knowledge of the world in his effort to answer those doubts and explain how knowledge is possible. It all depends on how one construes the phrase "explain how knowledge is possible. No such global explanations are forthcoming, but none are called for. To insist on such is to side with those who insist that in addition to providing causal explanations of all causal processes of the universe, one is called upon to provide a causal explanation of the universe as such.

    If instead the call is to provide a local explanation of how it is possible for human beings, constructed as they are, to know, then such accounts fallible though they may be are readily forthcoming and they are the kind of explanations that Quine seems to call for. The problem, in principle, is no different from providing an explanation of how migratory birds orient themselves in the absence of visual cues, or, for that matter, how they process visual cues at all. The skeptical problem in its classical radical form is an artefact of a particular model of human knowledge. Quine's naturalization of epistemology is at one with a rejection of that model.

    The "deep problem" of skepticism is just endemic to one model of the human condition.

    arbuchkosothyl.ml Quine's dictum that the Humean condition is the Human condition must be understood in a transformed manner. This early formulation of Quine's position has struck many as being excessively descriptivist. There appears to be no place for the epistemology of validation for Quine in this view.

    PHILOSOPHY - Epistemology: Introduction to Theory of Knowledge [HD]

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