Saturday, March 29, 2008

Washing the fur

I read Alexander George's "On Washing the Fur without Wetting It" today. The assessment of he gives of the analyticity debate is very appealing. He gives some arguments that the standard interpretation of the debate is incorrect since it makes out Quine's arguments to be too weak or Carnap to be too dense. I need to think about it some more before I can comment on the reconstruction, but I did want to comment on the moral that he draws. The big contribution of the paper is an explanation of how the different takes on analyticity change what is at stake in the debate. As George puts it:
"[F]or this distinction between kinds of truth is of a piece with one between kinds of difference, and so differences over anlyticity must affect how those very differences can be conceived. This is no doubt a source of the difficulty in obtaining a satisfactory perspective on the dispute...: for there appears to be no way even to judge what kind of dispute it is without thereby taking a side in it. To try to determine the nature of a disagreement over the nature of disagreements without taking any kind of position on that disagreement is just to try to wash the fur without wetting it."
The last sentence was included to explain the title. I don't think the last sentence is correct in general. George makes a case that it applies to the different stands on analyticity in particular, which is all that is needed. Read more

If one endorses the distinction like Carnap, the debate seems insubstantial since it appears to be a matter of framework external questions. If one denies the distinction like Quine, then it looks like there are substantial things at issue. George thinks this is so for Quine because once he rejects the distionction, "there is nowhere for any dispute to locate itself beyond the arena of factual disagreement." If one looks at the debate as a Carnapian, it will look like Quine isn't saying anything damaging against Carnap. If one looks at the debate as a Quinean, it will look like Carnap isn't offering a strong defense. This leaves the question of how the exposition was since, according to George, we can't approach this debate in a way that doesn't beg the question on one side or the other. He seems to do a good job of appearing neutral, which would undermine his point.
Regardless, his reading is an improvement over the traditional ones because it makes some sense out of why this debate is so hard to get a grip on.

The paper closes with a sort of aftermath for Quine. George argues that Quine's empiricism and linguacentrism, the name for Quine's view that one cannot escape a language and all systems of belief to pass judgment on disagreements ontological or otherwise. lead to a problem. Quine wants to maintain that theories can be incompatible and empirically equivalent but, in virtue of some more theoretical claims, one be true and the other false. This is dubbed "sectarianism." Quine at some points later in life considered a view on which such empirically equivalent theories could both make a claim to truth. This is dubbed "ecumenical." This position, George thinks, starts to look quite Carnapian. If two theories are empirically equivalent, then choosing one over the other is a pragmatic matter, hinging on no facts of the matter beyond the empirical on which they agree. The tension between (1) wanting to say one theory is true and the other false even though (2) there is no empirical evidence that could bear this out. (2) is supported by his empiricism, but I'm a bit confused about how linguacentrism is supposed to support (1). It seems like the rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction is supposed to get the disagreement between theories into the realm of the empirical, in some sense, which realm would allow at most one to be true. Linguacentrism is supposed to be useful to Quine in responding to this, but I'm having trouble seeing it. George presses the tension, claiming that Quine is forced to be more like Carnap and adopt an ecumenical stance. In the end it is hard to see what Quine can end up maintaining that Carnap would disagree with.


If George is right up to this point, then his conclusion seems correct. He makes it sound like Quine didn't see a fundamental tension in his own views. There is something about the latter part of the article that seems like a starting point for a response. This is how linguacentrism is the source of the problem. I may just need to read this part again, but in reviewing the article it seems like the support for (1) isn't coming directly from that. Linguacentrism seems to be a side issue. This doesn't eliminate the problem but it might sharpen it for a response. Another possibility, just for fun, is that this is another indication that Quine should give up empiricism, as Davidson urged. Of course, this is a different reason than the one Davidson provided. (What was that article?) Quine, of course, would hate this reply, as he indicated in his response to Davidson.

10 comments:

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Another possibility, just for fun, is that this is another indication that Quine should give up empiricism, as Davidson urged. Of course, this is a different reason than the one Davidson provided. (What was that article?)"

"On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme". I can't tell if you were being sarcastic, or just forgot the name of the article.

The article looks good.

Shawn said...

I was being serious. I couldn't remember the name of it. I think I have been running that one together with another one in which Davidson talks about proximal and distal stimuli. (That is another one, right?) Davidson's objection is that Quine's empiricism has its own dogma, one of form and content, and he urges Quine to abandon that dogma. Quine's reply, from what I recall, isn't particularly helpful. It seemed to amount to Quine claiming that abandoning that would be to abandon empiricism as a doctrine but empiricism was too good to abandon. I don't see a non-dogmatic rationale for that response. Of course, there may have been more to Quine's response, which would surely be illuminating.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Davidson tries to convince Quine that's he's wrong about proximal vs. distal stimuli a few places iirc. (Sadly, neither term made it into the index for "Truth, Language, and History" and the book isn't searchable on Amazon.) The big one is "Meaning, Truth, and Evidence". But he doesn't argue that Quine has his own peculiar dogma of "form" and "content"; he argues that Quine is still under the sway of the dualism of "conceptual scheme and empirical content" that Davidson had argued against several years prior. See pages 48/49 in "Truth, Language, and History".

I'm not aware of Quine responding to "Meaning, Truth, and Evidence"; I agree that "On The Very Idea of a Third Dogma" is not a very compelling response to Davidson -- I recall Quine basically sputtering that there had to be something to empiricism, therego Davidson must be wrong, and also Davidson's criticisms didn't hit Quine anyway.

I think McDowell actually makes it possible to see how the first part could be compelling, while taking to heart Davidson's criticisms. "Meaning, Truth and Evidence" handle the second objection. -- Quine's more mature views are not different in a relevant way.

I suppose not everyone rereads "On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" every few months, so forgetting the name of it is probably easier than I'd thought. Also "therego" was too cute a typo to correct, so I left it.

Shawn said...

"But he doesn't argue that Quine has his own peculiar dogma of "form" and "content"; he argues that Quine is still under the sway of the dualism of "conceptual scheme and empirical content" that Davidson had argued against several years prior"

Davidson probably does not call it a dogma. I think I was incorporating the title of Quine's response. I'm not sure I see how the distinction being between conceptual scheme and empirical content is different than the distinction between form and content. Is the point you're driving at the addition of "conceptual" and "empirical" respectively?

Were you thinking of any McDowell essays in particular or just McDowell's whole project? He certainly wants to take empiricism, in the form of experience contributing something to knowledge, seriously whereas Davidson does not.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Davidson probably does not call it a dogma. I think I was incorporating the title of Quine's response. I'm not sure I see how the distinction being between conceptual scheme and empirical content is different than the distinction between form and content. Is the point you're driving at the addition of "conceptual" and "empirical" respectively? "

Davidson's does call it a "dogma", which is why Quine titled his article like that. Davidson's "dogma" is the scheme-content dogma: "The third, and perhaps the last, dogma of empiricism, for if we give it up it is not clear that there is anything distinctive left to call empiricism." And in "Meaning, Truth, and Evidence" he argues that Quine is still under the sway of this dogma. So, I meant to *deny* that there were two dualisms in question: in MTW Davidson doesn't argue against a *peculiar* dualism that Quine in particular is prone to, but the *same* dualism he'd previously argued against in "On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme". Sorry I didn't make that clear enough earlier.

I don't think adding "conceptual" and "empirical" adds anything at all; Davidson himself usually calls it "the scheme-content dualism". Nor do I think it changes anything if we refer to the dualism as that between "scheme" and "Given", as McDowell urges us to in "Mind and World"'s opening lecture. Sellars & Davidson are attacking the same general sort of problem.

The McDowell I had in question is "Mind and World" itself, so none of his essays. The first appendix would be especially relevant, I should think; it's where McDowell re-narrates the Carnap-Quine-Davidson story (with emphasis on Davidson).

Daniel Lindquist said...

Ha, spent a few minutes looking up a quote and then forgot to give the reference. "The third, and perhaps the last, dogma of empiricism, for if we give it up it is not clear that there is anything distinctive left to call empiricism." is at the bottom of the page on p.189 in "Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation".

Also "MTW" should be "MTE" -- "Meaning, Truth, and Evidence".

Rick Danko said...

"He certainly wants to take empiricism, in the form of experience contributing something to knowledge, seriously whereas Davidson does not."

I think I have to disagree with you here.

It seems to me that Davidson *does* want to take the doctrine that "experience contributes something to knowledge" seriously. What he rejects is a certain picture of *what* experience contributes to empirical knowledge. Davidson thinks of experience as making a *causual* contribution to empirical knowledge, whereas a true blue empiricist wants to say that experience figures in offering up *credentials* or *reasons* for empirical knowledge. Davidson rejects this thought, arguing that the only things that can offer up credentials for "knowledge claims" are other "knowledge claims": "the only thing that can count as a reason for a belief is another belief".

I think McDowell's basic project is something along the lines of this: (1) Yes, the notion of experience that true blue empiricists have tried to found our empirical knowledge on is defective; things outside the space of reasons cannot serve as reasons, and true blue empiricists conceive of experience as outside the space of reasons; (2) But instead of digesting this fact and "recoiling" into the frictionless coherentism of Davidson, we need to conceive of experience in a different way. (3) The tools for so doing are given to us by Kant, especially in the B version of the transcendental deduction of the categories.

This is what I understood McDowell to be saying in his "In Conversation" video interview with Davidson. But I'm not an expert on this stuff, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Maybe Dan can say more about how Kant figures in this story McDowell is trying to weave, and possibly maybe he might even tell us what role Hegel plays as well.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Maybe Dan can say more about how Kant figures in this story McDowell is trying to weave, and possibly maybe he might even tell us what role Hegel plays as well."

Awfully tall order for a comment-box discussion!

As an attempt at a short version: Kant links experiencings with various forms of judgements. Experiencing is always an experiencing of things (the world) being some particular way -- being thus-and-so. This is not itself a judging that things are thus-and-so, but the content of an experience is always such that it could become the content of a judgement. In Kant's terms, "The same function which gives unity to the various representations in a judgment also gives unity to the mere synthesis of various representations in an intuition". (A79/B104-5) If I experience things as being thus-and-so, I merely need to take things at face value to judge that things are thus-and-so, to "endorse" the "claim" which is made possible by the experiencing. The "unity of an intuition" (an appearing that things are thus-and-so) is made possible for me by the same means that allow me to judge that things are thus-and-so (the "unity of a judgement") -- my conceptual faculties, my ability to understand a language.

Davidson is unable to do justice to this insight -- for Davidson, a perceptual belief is just a belief which is caused by the objects it is about. The objects are regarded as contributing the content of the belief, but this is supposed to happen merely by their causing the subject to form the belief in question. But this betrays Davidson's own insights about the relations between reasons and causes. If all you know about two events, A and B, is that A is a cause of B, then for you it's an open question whether or not A stands in any sort of epistemic relation to B. Some causes are reasons, some are not. So Davidson's "perceptual beliefs" play no special epistemic role; they are just beliefs among other beliefs. But this doesn't do justice to our epistemic situation. Perceiving is a privileged way of forming a belief. If I believe that p, then I ought to be able to give further reasons for thinking that p. If I perceive that p, then I don't have this same duty to offer further justifications for thinking that p. Perceivings are non-inferential beliefs. They "offer friction with the world" because the world necessarily plays a part in my perceiving anything, whereas my beliefs more generally might fly free of the facts.

McDowell thinks that the problem with Davidson's position is that he doesn't consider the possibility of there being things which are "belief-like", which can rightly be understood as reasons for a belief, and not merely as causes, but which are not themselves full-fledged beliefs. These would be conceptually-structured happenings which are not purely the actions of a judging subject. McDowell thinks that Kant (read through Hegelian lenses, like Sellars read him) lets us understand the possibility that the conceptual powers which I actively draw on in judging might also be passively drawn on in experiencing. Experiencing is not merely a matter of the world making a brute impact on me, but nor is it something I do of my own volition. In experience I notice how things are, as the world offers itself up to me; I am both active and passive in the process, both mover and moved.

McDowell diagnoses the root problem as being Davidson's concept of nature. For Davidson, nature is that which is described by the sciences, chiefly physics. To position a happening in nature is to position it in "the realm of law", to deal with it with the sort of understanding peculiar to modern science. But law-like connections between events are not epistemic connections; the mental is anomalous. McDowell's conception of an experience is that of a natural happening which counts as a reason for a belief. But if to understand something as a "natural happening" is just to position it in the "space of laws" and counting something as a reason is to position it in the "space of reasons", then this looks like a category error. So the bulk of "Mind and World" is dedicated to criticizing this restricted view of nature, and reminding us that "second nature is nature, too."

That was not very short, but hopefully it was helpful.

Rick Danko said...

That was actually probably the best short summary of McDowell's project that I have ever read. Nice!

Duck said...

McDowell explains his concerns with Davidson's formulation of the various dualisms in "Scheme-Content Dualism and Empiricism" (in the Davidson volume of the Living Philosophers series). Very helpful article!