Willard Quine (1908-2000) was an influential American mathematician and philosopher who rejected Kant’s analytic-synthetic distinction¹ and advocated a form of holism.
Quine argues that empiricism contains “two dogmas.” One dogma is the distinction made between intellectual constructs and facts.
The second dogma is reductionism—that is, the belief that naming and meaning are the same.
Quine’s thought has been variously championed and critiqued. It seems that whatever way we look at the issues Quine addresses, we encounter the same problem. Language (and arguably all symbols, to include numbers) has conceptual and descriptive limits. It can never be entirely precise nor complete.²
The relationship between symbols and reality is an age old debate with no definitive answer. The discussion can go along ‘horizontal,’ conceptual lines or veer off into deeper, ‘vertical’ lines (as with Carl Jung‘s view of the archetypal image).
The discussion can also exist in a kind of matrix. That is, one could argue – as I do – that all words carry a potential numinous power. Numinosity isn’t something restricted to religious or mythological symbols.
In sociology, Quine’s thought appears in discussions about reification and also about the relation between scientific truth claims on the one hand, and ideology, the profit motive and social power on the other hand.
Admittedly this is the briefest of brief sketches about Quine. When it comes to Western philosophy, it seems everyone has their own take on what these complicated thinkers are trying to say.³ My interest in Quine is mostly in trying to get people to think critically about scientific truth claims.
Science is becoming a new kind or medieval-style religion. The initial assumptions, selectivity, biases, interpretations and extrapolations built in to science are so glossed over or taken for granted that the average person tends to see science as “truth” and doesn’t even want to discuss any further.
In other words, science has a pretty firm grip on the minds and actions of many people. Too see this in action, we don’t have to look any further than some of the facile placards in the recent “March for Science.”
Making a religion out of science is misguided, authoritarian and dangerous. I think humanity can do better. So that’s how I justify simplifying Quine. I’m taking a poststructural approach. Something that I think everyone does. Although not everyone might be aware of it (or admit it, if they are).
Need I say more?
¹ Kant devised a distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. Analytic propositions are said to contain the predicate in the subject. Synthetic propositions do not contain the predicate in the subject. An example of an analytic proposition is, “All squares have four sides.” An example of a synthetic proposition is, “All men are athletic.”
² Along these lines the ancient Greek, Heraclitus, once wrote said that we cannot step into the same river twice. So what is a “river?”
³ Not to imply that Eastern philosophy is necessarily simpler or less open to interpretation. Just look at some of the Buddhist logic schools, for instance.