A blog about belief

Posts Tagged ‘W.V.O. Quine’

Speaking objectively

In Philosophy, Science on November 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm

The “plain style” of speech that has just about completely supplanted the “high” rhetoric of the past is in part a remnant of an early version of the scientific method that claimed to root knowledge in objective observation.  The ideal of dispassionate language has persisted even as this interpretation of scientific practice has given way to more sophisticated ones, and I’m not sure of the extent to which we ought to hold on to it.  One thing that I’ve learned from Twentieth-century philosophers of science like Karl Popper and W.V. Quine, who have more in common with post-structuralism than anyone wants to admit, is that science works because observation is subjective, because there is no way of reporting what we see that cannot be disputed by someone who sees it differently.  Every act of perception is an act of interpretation in terms of a particular doctrine, and this is a good thing, because discovery occurs at the points at which our doctrines come into tension with what we perceive, at which, that is, there is something that we just can’t make fit with our present beliefs.  Objectivity is the process in which we actively seek this sort of tension.  It’s not the opposite of subjectivity, it’s what happens when subjectivity runs up against the world.

The thing is, this process only works if the doctrine in terms of which one interprets things is in a certain sense rigid.  If the associations that constitute one’s beliefs are flexible enough, then one can finagle any sensory data one comes across to fit them; I have called this, in another post, paranoia.  The purpose of the sort of formalized language that Quine takes such pains to develop is not to be transparent, but to be sufficiently rigid for science to work.  It is to make the relationships between different statements clear enough that when contradictions arise – when things don’t line up properly – the tension is manifest.  A language made rigid in this way looks quite similar to the “plain” modes of speech advocated by the early Royal Society empiricists, but the theoretical basis for it is very different from what led, for instance, Thomas Sprat to decry “figural” language as a cause of pointless contention.  There is a legitimate place for this formal sort of language, although not for the reasons that Sprat gives.  It facilitates both experimentation and productive debate.

But rigidity is only one of the prerequisites of objective discussion as I have defined it.  The other, the contingency and changeability of the systems of doctrine by which we make claims, would seem to be best served by a type of language that looks quite different from the traditional scientific plainness, and I’m not convinced that the particular formalization that Quine comes up with doesn’t falter in this regard.  Despite the theoretical motive to the contrary, Quinean language still looks like it’s meant to be transparent, if due to historical association alone.  An ideal sort of language for an objective discourse would be right up front about the fact that each individual statement in that discourse represents a particular, contingent, subjective viewpoint, while still providing as little give as possible when the discussion runs up against one of these viewpoints’ limitations.  This is doubly important in literary criticism, where it’s always import to keep aware of one’s own cultural position, and how that might impact one’s understanding of a text.


Quine as literary theory

In Literature, Philosophy on September 22, 2011 at 11:27 pm

W.V.O. Quine’s project in Word and Object is the derivation of a formal language suitable for scientific hypothesis in a way that does not rely, like logical positivism, on protocol sentences that are taken to communicate observations in impartial and objective terms, or the existence of “meaning” independently from language.  Instead of building his system from the ground up out of logical primitives, Quine derives something quite similar to the language of propositional logic from empirically-testable regularities in our natural ways of speaking.

What’s crucial to Quine’s project is the idea of paraphrase.  In Quine’s terms, we accept a sentence as a paraphrase of what we’ve said not because the two sentences express the same underlying meaning, but because we judge that the second would have served whatever our purpose was just as well.  Quine sets out in detail a procedure for transforming arbitrary sentences into clear logical form using only operations that normally, at least when we are trying to speak objectively, produce acceptable paraphrases.  The operations he chooses to use are not meant to apply with certainty in every single case, but their applicability is supposed to be empirically testable in a reasonable range of circumstances.  As I’ve noted before, Quine emphasizes that it’s the original speaker who must finally judge whether a paraphrase is acceptable.  Any supposition we might make about what the other person is getting at can ultimately be no more than an educated guess unless we ask them and have reason to trust in the truthfulness of their answer.

Since Quine’s primary interest is science, he proceeds in his regimentation of language by using operations that he thinks would normally produce acceptable paraphrases in scientific discourse.  What happens if we apply a similar approach to literature?  A canonical form that arises out of, say, poetry, might look quite different from what Quine comes up with for science.  I don’t have the space to try this out in this post, but I will sketch out how the process might go.

First off, arguments about authorial intent would have to be off-limits in a Quinean approach to literature.  The theory that Quine sets out puts the focus on the speaker, but he expects that, if we are in doubt of what someone’s getting at, we can actually ask them to confirm our paraphrase.  To apply his approach to literature, we would have to set the standard for paraphrase in reader-centric terms based on the effect that the work has on us, so that we have a reasonable epistemic standard.  An acceptable paraphrase of a poem, then, would be one that produces approximately the same response in us as the original.  With this definition in mind, we would proceed by examining what changes we could make that produce acceptable paraphrases, looking for regularities in the sorts of operations that tend to leave a poem’s effect intact and perhaps learning something, thereby, about how a poem does what it does.

Those who’ve made a fair effort at understanding both analytic and continental philosophy won’t be surprised that, by applying Quine’s approach to literature, we’ve gotten quite close to deconstruction.  Both approaches avoid having to talk about meaning by focusing on the relationships between different pieces of language.  There is a difference in valence, though, and I think the Quinean approach has an advantage – it would, I think, be able to avoid making everything look like a “surface.”  The question that a deconstructionist asks is what difference it would make if another word were used in a particular spot – she aims to get everything she can out of the little textual details, with the assumption that every word has an equal chance at significance.  Instead, we would be looking for changes that wouldn’t make much of a difference, with the aim of stripping out all but a skeleton.  In the process we would be building a logic of poetry in terms of connectives and quantifiers like the structuralists tried to do, but we wouldn’t be building them from the ground up.  We would be enmeshing our theory with a living body of poetry.

This approach has an obvious affinity for the Imagists, and in particular the eliminative editing style of Ezra Pound, but I don’t think it would take us back to the Modernist distinction between surface and essence that has been rightly criticized from so many quarters.  Instead, it provides an explanation of what Pound was doing if he wasn’t finding poetry’s essence.  It would also provide, if it were to succeed, a class of literary universals that consists not of supposed “objective correlatives” between image and emotion, but, instead, of invariancies under transformation.

Quine and “Quine”

In Philosophy on August 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I’m working my way through Word and Object. I’m finding it frustrating in some ways. What drew me to Quine is his idea of the “web of belief,” a brilliant image of how a conceptual scheme for the world could work without an a priori foundation, but, however much it’s been discussed in commentary on Quine, it seems to be little more than a footnote in his actual work. There’s barely any explicit discussion of this metaphor in The Web of Belief, despite the title, and when it comes up in Word and Object Quine finds it sufficient to quote a paraphrase by Virgil Aldrich rather than bother with the exposition himself (12). Instead of backing up the idea with evidence and working out its implications for cognition, Quine spends a good portion of the book speculating about language acquisition (in the comments section of this New APPS post Jon Cogburn talks about Quine’s “weird a priori stories of language acquisition”) in a way that is, for someone so expressly concerned with science as Quine, strangely lacking in concrete evidence.

Someone recently quipped (I can’t find where) that the significance of Quine’s ideas comes through better in “cover versions” of his philosophy by others than in his own work. I certainly think this is the case with Word and Object. Buried in Quine’s regimentation and speculative psychology are some ideas that are highly relevant today, but they are relevant mostly in areas that Quine had little interest in exploring.

There are, though, some moments in Word and Object that can be quite readily construed in ethical/political terms. The way Quine writes about “native languages” in his section about radical translation has dated poorly, but the section does touch briefly on the ethics of anthropological research. Quine opposes the “doctrine of ‘prelogical mentality'”, in which the anthropologist carefully avoids the assumption that “natives” follow any particular rules of logic, because, Quine argues, we can’t be sure we’re understanding them correctly unless we assume they’re being consistent. “Better translation,” he writes, “imposes our logic upon them” (58). A postcolonialist might bristle at this, but the lack of determinate meaning in Quine’s theory of language places a limit on that imposition:

The speaker can be advised in his paraphrasing, and on occasion he can even be enjoined to accept a proposed paraphrase or substitute another or hold his peace; but his choice is the only one that binds him. A foggy appreciation of this point is expressed in saying that there is no dictating another’s meaning; but the notion of there being a fixed, explicable, and as yet unexplained meaning in the speaker’s mind is gratuitous. The real point is simply that the speaker is the one to judge whether the substitution of S’ for S in the present context will forward his present or evolving program of activity to his satisfaction. (160)

To assume that someone is being logically consistent is to impose on them a set of rules for how logical connectives in a language must work. But if we don’t take speech as the transmission of a “meaning” that exists apart from language, we can infer nothing about what they actually believe with these rules. All we can do is infer, on some hypothesis about their purpose in speaking to us, to what other sentences they might give assent, and in this we can assume neither that they are being honest with us nor that their purpose is fixed. It would take more than just a reading of Quine to develop this line of thought fully, but in his work we have the seed of a rational choice assumption that doesn’t actually assume much about what it means for another person to be rational.


In Philosophy on July 14, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Philip K. Dick wrote that “the paranoid is totally rigid”, but there is an element of flexibility to the systems that paranoid people construct that is critical to the systems’ ability to endure.  The more that a belief is rigidly universalizing – “all sheep are white” – the stronger the possibility that we encounter evidence that would force us to revise it.  If we see a sheep that is not white, then the belief that all sheep are white will wither.  The types of beliefs that are central to paranoia, by contrast, are vague in the sense that there is no clear way of falsifying them, and this gives them a flexibility that enables one to adduce more-or-less any stimulation as positive evidence of their truth.

Things get more complicated, of course, once we start thinking about language.  We do not simply encounter a sheep that is not white; we encounter something that meets our definition of sheep that is not white.  One might say that we have two options when faced with the evidence – we can either revise our belief that all sheep are white, or else we can revise our definition of sheep.  If we accept, as I do, Quine’s thesis that there is no “fact of the matter” about analyticity of sentences, then there is actually no clear difference between these two responses.  Is our belief that all sheep are white a part of our mental definition of “sheep,” or is it information we have gleaned from experience about a concept that is defined by other characteristics?  The answer is that this is not a well-formed question, at least empirically speaking.  Every belief we have about sheep contributes, if only in some small way, to what the word means to us; it is only that some of these beliefs are closer to the surface, where the empirical force can more easily affect them, than others.

Thought in these terms, paranoia is a state in which the deep mental connections to a proposition at the center of one’s worldview are too few, or too weak, to avoid being easily altered by new evidence.  The difference between believing that “all sheep are white” and believing that “the toaster is out to get me” is that there is not adequate mental rigging fixing the meaning of “out to get me” in that context, while presumably there is for the word “sheep.”  Because of this lack of fixity, observational evidence no longer serves to improve the paranoid’s beliefs by forcing revision of them.  Instead, it pulls their existing beliefs this way and that.

The “interplay of chain stimulations”

In Mathematics, Philosophy on July 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm

In Word and Object, W.V.O. Quine talks about the way in which the mind revises its web of beliefs as if this process occurs in an unconscious way:

[…]  Prediction is in effect the conjectural anticipation of further sensory evidence for a foregone conclusion.  When a prediction comes out wrong, what we have is a divergent and troublesome sensory stimulation that tends to inhibit that once foregone conclusion, and so to extinguish the sentence-to-sentence conditionings that led to the prediction.  Thus it is that theories wither when their predictions fail.

In an extreme case, the theory may consist in such firmly conditioned connections between two sentences that it withstands the failure of a prediction or two.  We find ourselves excusing the failure of prediction as a mistake in observation or a result of unexplained interference.  The tail thus comes, in an extremity, to wag the dog.

The sifting of evidence would seem from recent remarks to be a strangely passive affair, apart from the effort to intercept helpful stimuli: we just try to be as sensitively responsive as possible to the ensuing interplay of chain stimulations.  What conscious policy does one follow, then, when not simply passive toward this interanimation of sentences?  Consciously the quest seems to be for the simplest story.  Yet this supposed quality of simplicity is more easily sensed than described.  Perhaps our vaunted sense of simplicity, or of likeliest explanation, is in many cases just a feeling of conviction attaching to the blind resultant of the interplay of chain stimulations in their various strengths.  (§5)

Mercier & Sperber’s argumentative theory of reasoning could offer an answer to this conundrum.  To be sure, Quine is not suggesting an argumentative theory – by “story” he means theory, not argument.  But he is only able to hesitantly claim that the conscious part of cognition has the function of preserving the simplicity of theories.  Even this operation appears to occur at the level of intuition, and what purpose conscious reasoning has left is unclear.  In the argumentative theory of reasoning, the “interplay of chain stimulations” by which contrary evidence tugs at our theoretical ideas would be a part of the intuitive track of cognition.  The function of conscious reasoning would be not to oversee this intuitive process, but to come up with good ways of verbalizing its results.  Conscious reasoning would not, in the normal course of things, involve changing the web of belief at all – instead its purpose would be to look for paths along the web that link the particular beliefs one anticipates having to defend to sentences that others might be willing to take as premises.

The argumentative theory claims to explain the confirmation bias by thus reconceiving the function of conscious reasoning, but Quine suggests (in the second paragraph I quoted) that a confirmation bias of sorts can occur in what I have assigned to the intuitive track of cognition as well.  Sometimes our theoretical ideas have become so ingrained that we “excuse” contrary observations.  As far as I can tell, Mercier & Sperber’s argumentative theory would not explain this sort of confirmation bias.

To the extent that it serves the preference for simplicity, an intuitive confirmation bias is not fundamentally irrational, because at least in certain situations selectively ignoring evidence in the name of simplicity can result in better predictions.  This has proven true experimentally in the field of machine learning.  Suppose that we have a plane on which each point is either red or green.  Given a finite number of observations about the colors of particular points, we wish to come up with a way of predicting the color of any point on the plane.  One way of doing this is to produce a function that divides the plane into two sections, red and green.  If we can draw a straight line that correctly divides all of our observations, red on one side and green on the other, then we have a very simple model that, assuming that the set of observations we used to derive it is representative and sufficiently large, is likely to work well.  However, if it is necessary to draw a very complex, squiggly line to correctly account for all of the observations (if we are required to use a learning machine with a high VC dimension), then it is often better to choose a simpler function even if makes the wrong prediction for a few of our observed cases.  Overfitting can lead to the creation of models that deviate from the general pattern in order to account for what might actually be random noise in the observational data.  In the same way, if we attempted to account for every possible bit of contrary evidence in the revision our mental theories, our ability to make useful predictions with them would be confounded.  We will always encounter deviations from what we expect, and at least some of these will be caused by factors that we will never come across enough data to model correctly.  In such cases, we are better off allowing our too-simple theories to stand.

Analytic, continental

In Philosophy on June 18, 2011 at 2:53 pm

There’s been another round of posts on the philosophy blogs about the schism between analytic and continental philosophers.  If the schism is a bad thing, as everyone seems to agree it is, it doesn’t help matters to make “these people are like this, those people are like that” claims, but I do think there’s something to be learned by investigating why it is that philosophers tend to get so het up about this divide.  I’m going to stereotype the two schools to an extent, but it is with the goal of understanding why each is viewed negatively by those allied with the other side.

Jeff Bell at New APPS argues that the most important difference is that

for most analytic philosophers doing justice to novelty is not a problem (or at least not a significant problem) whereas giving an adequate account of the way things are is a problem. I do not believe doing justice to novelty or justifying the way things are (or common sense) are mutually exclusive goals—William James certainly didn’t think so—but it is important to realize that these are different problems that lead to the creation and use of different concepts.

This difference in goals explains much of the difference in method between analytic and continental philosophy.  The problem of accounting for novelty would seem to suggest a historicist or dialectical approach, while the questions analytic philosophers ask demand answers in the form of unchanging truths.  But there’s still the question of why the two schools of philosophy pose different types of questions when working in areas that both cover well, like ethics.  The fundamental difference, I think, is that analytic philosophers aim to work from a neutral, impersonal point of view in which only the validity of inference matters, while continental philosophers try to take into account their place, as academics, in the structure of the society in which they live.  While many analytics view continental philosophy as obfuscating, the analytic project of clarification looks to continentals like an exertion of power.

The continental approach as I have (very simplistically) defined it has the advantage in dealing with issues like race where, if only for instrumental reasons, it’s important to pay attention to the identity of those putting forth arguments.  A white male philosopher can easily do more harm than good in addressing issues of privilege, because many people in oppressed groups feel the need to reject what those in power say regardless of its truth or validity in the name of independence.  This is one of the major reasons why Literature departments in the U.S. have (I would say to their detriment) tended to ignore Quine and Lewis in favor of Derrida.  The issue of privilege is hard to avoid in literature, and the analytic approach seems, to someone steeped in it, more a part of the problem than anything.

Where continental philosophers begin to look absurd is when they seem to take up such a strongly anti-authoritarian stance as to reject the power that they have as academics to make positive statements.  Whether or not this is really a fair judgment, it does appear that many of the authors associated with continental philosophy have focused more on revealing hidden complexities than on stating their own positions clearly, and this has been to the detriment of their credibility.  This problem is is basically the converse of the objection to analytic philosophy as an exercise of privilege.  The relativism that critics of continentals decry comes not so much from the particular ideas involved – Nick at Yeah, OK, But Still points out that, despite the difference in method, the ideas discussed in analytic and continental philosophy are often quite similar – but from a discomfort with the use of power that was originally motivated by strong-enough ethical reasons (the fallout of colonialism and the Holocaust) but that has done little in the United States but erode the academy’s authority in the eyes of the general population.

Those ethical concerns do not, in themselves, require us to go so far.  Even if we accept that our own philosophical system irreducibly represents one particular way of looking at things among many, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t still strongly believe in it, or even that we shouldn’t teach it and thereby exercise our power to impose it on others.  The alienation that characterized late Twentieth-century life for a lot of the people who think about such things as Zeitgeists is a fear of fully inhabiting the particular situation in which one is.  That fear is motivated by valid ethical concerns, but a better response than relativism would be to start holding the beliefs by which we act to a higher standard.  We can’t do that if we attempt to leave them, in late-Heideggerian fashion, “open to difference.”  Instead we should state our beliefs strongly, with the knowledge that they are just that, beliefs.