Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Quine's Holism - Confirmational and Semantic

Quine takes the smallest units of empirical confirmation to be, not individual propositions, but total theories (i.e. large collections of propositions). And the issue of what to take as a unit of empirical confirmation, for Quine, seems to be intimately bound up with the question of what to count as a unit of meaning. He writes (1951, pp. 39-40):
The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs ... is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges ... A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field ... But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience ... If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement ...
And again, in a similar vein (1951, p. 42):
The idea of defining a symbol in use was ... an advance over the impossible term-by-term empiricism of Locke and Hume. The statement, rather than the term, came with Frege to be recognized as the unit accountable to an empiricist critique. But what I am now urging is that even in taking the statement as unit we have drawn our grid too finely. The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.
If this is a correct reading of Quine, one reason he might have for rejecting the analytic is that it requires us to acknowledge a smaller unit of meaning (and sameness-of-meaning) than a total theory, and Quine does not think it makes sense to talk about such smaller units of meaning because there are no smaller units of empirical confirmation. This is a pretty radical kind of semantic holism: it's not just that the meanings of our individual statements (or other smaller chunks of language) depend on the meaning of the total whole theory containing them, but that these less-than-theory-sized chunks don't have meanings at all; only whole theories do. Nonetheless, it is strongly suggested by certain passages.

Here's my question. Suppose Quine is right that the smallest units of confirmation are theory-sized. And suppose, like him, we are keen to tie meaningfulness to confirmability in some way. This could motivate taking theory-meaning to be primary and sentence-meaning to be derived. But what additional motivation does/could Quine have for taking the further step of denying meaning to anything other than whole theories?


Ben Bayer said...

It depends on what you mean by "denying meaning to anything other than whole theories." What Quine denies is that individual sentences have meanings that are determined by any objective matters of fact.

Since the meaning is the means of verification, and verification is holistic (the Duhem thesis), it follows that meaning is determined by holistic factors. But holistic confirmation factors are not objective. Whether or not we adopt a theory is determined by which auxiliary hypotheses we adopt or reject, and therefore theory is underdetermined by the facts. So, then, is meaning--either holistically taken or sententially.

So it's not that Quine denies that individual sentences have meaning. It's just that they don't have an objective meaning. This matters for his critique of analyticity, because analytically true sentences are supposed to be true come what may, and if meanings themselves cannot be distinguished from collateral information, meanings like theories can change, and there is no basis for setting aside a group of sentences as analytically true.

For more on the relationship between Quine's views about confirmation and meaning holism, check out "On the Reasons for the Indeterminacy of Translation." For how this affects his case against analyticity, see *Word and Object* and also *The Roots of Reference*.


bloggin the Question said...

The whole idea of a unit of meaning is interesting. It seems you are taking Quine to mean by a unit something which can't be broken up into consitutive parts which have independent meanings. The brief history given shows this unit to have grown from terms to sentences and then to whole theories. No one would want to say that individual letters have meaning, so having terms as units is a plausible place to begin. To say that whole sentences don't have independent meaning is only plausible if one recognises that the meaning of a sentence can change given different background assumptions. It is hard to acknowledge this and yet maintain that sentences have independent meaning. In this light Quine's view is attractive.
But to say that sentences don't have independent meanings is not to say that they don't have meanings at all. Presumably we all share the same "theory" much of the time, or our theories are similar enough so that sentences share the same meaning. So we can still talk about the dependent meaning of sentences and words.

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Carrie Jenkins said...

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