The Ideas of Quine
Via Theorem(e) I found out a while ago that on Youtube there are several interviews by Bryan Magee with famous philosophers, including one on Quine. I finally got the chance to watch it this week. It is quite interesting; it’s the first time I see Quine talking, and although I had heard that he wasn’t much of a speaker (Dana Scott, I think, recalled that, when leaving Tarski, he chose Princeton and Church over Harvard and Quine because, inter alia, the latter’s logic courses were dull…), the difference between his belabored prose, so prone to quoting, if not outright memorable, and his jerky, broken off speech was a bit of astonishment. Anyway, the 50 minutes interview is well worth watching. Some of my comments are below.
In spite of being best known for his work in the philosophy of logic and language and epistemology, here Quine discusses mostly issues in metaphysics. For instance, the very first example he gives of a philosophical question is the nature of causation (although his written work contains very few references to causality, here it resurfaces several times, as in the discussion of the mind-body problem, or that of free will). He goes on to state his views on what there is, on the mind-body problem, on the epistemic status of numbers and physical objects, on meaning, translation and modality, and on his method of semantic ascent.
Quite interesting are his pronouncements on the mind-body problem, especially since there is not much consensus on how to read certain paragraphs from his Word and Object. Anyway, he has been considered either a behaviorist or an eliminativist about the mind. But his stated view here does not lend support to any of these hypotheses. What is clear is that he rejects substance dualism (because of the interaction problem and the closure of the physical realm), and recognizes the mental only as „attributes or activities on the part of physical objects, mainly persons.” (i.08:15 onwards) This statement, taken in isolation, seems even compatible with a property-dualist view. Now, he says that he doesn’t deny the existence of mental phenomena (ii.04:20), and that he’s interested in proper criteria of application for mental predicates that would preserve intersubjectivity. Here behaviorism comes into play:
The extent to which I am a behaviorist is seeing behaviorism as a way of making an objective science of mentalistic concepts. I don’t identify mental states with behavior, I identify mental states rather with neural states. Nor do I regard behavioral accounts as, in the last analysis, explanatory of the mental states, mental phenomena; I think that an explanation for these is to be found rather at the neurological level. (iii.01:10)
Reference to behavior is meant to provide the application criteria for the mental vocabulary in order for us to state hypotheses for empirical testing (by neurophysiologists). It is not meant to replace mentalistic terms for everyday use, only for the scientific discourse. In Part 4, when discussing his views on the „predicative” side (that is, on what can be said; in earlier works he called this the „ideology of a theory”), he even seems to treat „behavioral” and „observable” as interchangeable. So, at this point in his career at least, his views on mind-body looks more like a version of identity theory (probably of the Davidsonian type, given the favorable mentions of it in From Stimulus to Science).
Mind aside, here is his ontological credo, from Part 4:
iv.03:03 „I accept, or assume, physical objects (a physical object being construed, quite generously, as the content of any portion, however scattered and discontinuous, of space-time), and all classes of such things, and all classes of such classes, and so on; and mathematicians have known, or discovered over the past century, how all talk of numbers, and functions, and all other mathematical entities can be paraphrased into talk of pure set theory, of classes. […]
iv.03:47: „there are other [abstract objects] that I reject: properties I would reject, because there’s the question, in what circumstances do two descriptions, two characterizations, determine the same property, and in what circumstances do they determine different properties, which has happened to be the properties of all the same things. […] it is ordinarily said that two clauses, two phrases, determine the same property if they have the same meaning. But of course this characterization goes by the board if we don’t accept the notion of meaning. […] properties, I’m persuaded, are dispensible in science; it’s not so clear that we cand dispense with classes.
iv.03:55 „So this would be my tentative ontology, and I would regard it as part of science, and subject to the fallibility of the rest of science, namely the individuals, and the hierarchy of classes, and classes of classes, and so on, built upon them; the individuals being physical objects.”
Also of interest should be the answer Quine gives when Magee asks him (in Part 3) to justify his beliefs in abstract entities. He says that mathematical objects (such as numbers and functions and classes) and some physical objects (mainly the elementary particles) should be considered, epistemically, on a par, as „auxiliary objects” used in framing hypotheses about the world. Magee insists on the intuitive difference between saying of, say, numbers and quarks, that they are unobservable, since the latter, but not the former, are material. Quine’s answer is exemplary: this difference is tenuous, since particles, being smaller than any wavelength, are in principle unobservable, and that their behavior is unlike those of medium-sized bodies, „so much so that only by courtesy are they called ‘material’.” (iii.07:20)
There is more great stuff there, such as his pronouncements on The Big Old Questions Of Human Concern That Analytical Philosophers Systematically Disregard Thus Failing Miserably In Their Mission (no, I won’t spoil your fun 🙂 see from i.04:10), so give it a try.