Dewey, Quine, and Pragmatic Naturalized Epistemology

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  • Dewey, Quine, and Pragmatic Naturalized EpistemologyAuthor(s): John CappsSource: Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Fall, 1996), pp. 634-667Published by: Indiana University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 25/06/2014 01:38

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  • John Capps

    Dewey, Quine, and Pragmatic Naturalized Epistemology

    This paper reflects an attempt to set the project of naturalizing epistemology back by fifty years. If successful, I hope this will not be due to carelessness on my own part

    ? though, at the outset, I should

    note that I do not attempt to do justice to every version of natural ized epistemology. More importantly, however, I wish to argue for the naturalism of Dewey's 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, a re turn to which, I maintain, would help clarify the minimal commit

    ments of a naturalized epistemology, while also providing a response to the standard objections to such an approach. In doing so I will

    engage in some historical reconstruction, arguing that the common

    caricature of naturalism as scientistic, reductive and descriptive ? a

    caricature that even some defenders of naturalism have promoted ?

    can be traced to a particular but by no means obligatory reading of

    Quine's celebrated 1968 paper "Epistemology Naturalized". By re

    interpreting the significance of this paper (admittedly, in ways that

    may go against Quine's own intentions) I hope to undercut many of the commitments of contemporary naturalized epistemology, while at the same time arguing for the centrality of the Deweyan version to debates in this area.

    Vaguely, a naturalized epistemology is committed to the conti

    nuity, in some sense, of epistemology with science. Naturalism, in

    this context, is the rejection of transcendental or "first" philosophy: it looks to our best current methods of inquiry (in a word, science) for insight into typically philosophical questions surrounding the

    possibility of having justified, true beliefs.1 Of course, in this formu

    Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Fall, 1996, Vol. XXXII, No. 4

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  • 635 John Capps

    lation, "continuity" can connote a wide range of conflicting relation

    ships ?

    anything from the elimination of philosophical concepts in favor of scientific terminology, to the reduction or supervenience of the former on the latter, to a modest "methodological" continuity between the standards and rules that constitute good practice for both philosophers and scientists.2 There is a similar ambiguity with

    regard to "science" ? whether we should treat epistemology as con

    tinuous with only the natural or "hard" sciences (or a subset of these, such as physics), or also explore points of contact with the social or

    "soft" sciences, such as sociology and anthropology. In what follows I will argue for a minimalistic form of natural

    ism, one that is neither eliminativist nor reductive, and one that does

    not, at the outset, discriminate between the kinds of science it will

    recognize. "Science", I will maintain, is of use in setting empirical limits to the kinds of questions we can countenance from within our

    epistemology (just as epistemology, in turn, can play a critical role with respect to the concepts and commitments of particular scientific

    inquiries). More importantly, epistemology can benefit from a famil

    iarity with the practical, methodological presuppositions that are part and parcel of scientific practice

    ? doing so, I claim, limits the force

    of skeptical objections that typically provide the background to post Cartesian epistemology. From the perspective of a more robust natu

    ralism, admittedly, this project will seem to be nothing more than non-naturalism with a fig-leaf. Part of my case, as a result, will in volve showing that nothing more is needed: that naturalizing episte mology in this minimal manner clears the way for approaching ques tions of truth and justification from a fresh direction, but without

    making an unwarranted detour through scientific realism and

    reliabilism, as other forms of naturalism are wont to do. I begin, in what follows, with a discussion of Quine's "Episte

    mology Naturalized." I will argue that not only does the Quinean diagnosis of epistemology's malaise not justify the subsequent direc tion of naturalism (a turn, admittedly, that Quine himself seems to have prescribed), but that, on another reading, the central aspects of

    Quine's account can be found, thirty years earlier, in Dewey's Logic?

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  • Dewey, Quine, and Pragmatic Naturalized Epistemology 636

    Before coming to Quine's paper, however, I wish to sketch out

    Dewey's thoughts on naturalism. For Dewey, as for all naturalists, continuity is a central concept. "Naturalism" means

    on one side, that there is no breach of continuity between

    operations of inquiry and biological operations and physical operations. "Continuity," on the other side, means that ra

    tional operations grow out of organic activities, without be

    ing identical with that from which they emerge. (LW 12:26)

    "Continuity" thus describes both the differences between various kinds of inquiry as well as the development of inquiry itself

    ? as is apparent in Dewey's position that "logical forms... arise within the operation of inquiry" itself (LW 12:11, my emphasis). By speaking of continu

    ity in these two senses, Dewey likewise sets two conditions on a theory of inquiry: first, that it treat the differences between various contexts

    of inquiry as differences of degree (not of kind), and second, that it

    explain the origin of logical forms in terms of the resolution of par ticular, concrete indeterminacies. The first condition is basic to any sense of naturalism; the second, as we will see, prevents Dewey's natu

    ralism from being confused with a "chapter" of the natural, descrip tive sciences (as Quine, for example, proposes to do).

    Quine's Naturalism

    Much of the recent interest in a naturalized epistemology can be

    traced back to Quine's seminal paper. Quine's intentions, in "Epis temology Naturalized,"4 are not, however, entirely clear. In this sec

    tion I will examine two distinct readings of this paper: I hope in this

    way to arrive at the minimal, core commitments of a naturalized epis

    temology, even though to do so will involve reading Quine quite charitably, and perhaps even in a way with which he would not agree.

    Subsequently, I will argue that this core position is also present in

    Dewey's naturalism, though in a form that is much less susceptible to

    relativistic, non-normative interpretations.

    Quine begins "Epistemology Naturalized" with a pessimistic

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  • 637 John Capps

    appraisal of the progress made in settling epistemological questions. The "doctrinal" project of justifying "our knowledge of truths about nature" (EN, 71) has made no progress since Hume, and the "con

    ceptual" project of clarifying the meaning of our concepts has, appar

    ently, degenerated into the Carnapian project of rational reconstruc

    tion.5 But this latter project ?

    whereby the implication (but not the

    definition) of terms is given ? offers no advantage, Quine maintains,

    over empirical psychology: it is better, then, "to discover how sci ence is in fact developed than to fabricate a fictitious structure to a

    similar effect" (EN, 78). This leads directly to the most infamous

    passage of Quine's paper, quotation of which, I am afraid, is almost tie rigueur.

    Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomena, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally con trolled input

    ? certain patterns of irradiation in assorted

    frequencies, for instance ? and in the fullness of time the

    subject delivers as output a description of the three dimen sional world and its history. The relation between the mea

    ger input and torrential output is a relation we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that have always prompted epistemology. (EN, 82-3)

    Again, we find the notion of continuity central to a naturalized epis temology. For Quine, this implies that epistemology is a "chapter" of natural science, easily giving rise to the interpretation that he fa vors the elimination, or at least the reduction, of the former to the latter. At the very least there can be no external philosophical stand

    point ? no first philosophy

    ? from which to reconstruct or other wise attempt to ground scientific truths independently of the practice of science itself. Observation sentences are thus relative to a particu lar language, theory, or discipline; what is more, their truth and fal

    sity is similarly relative being defined by the condition that "all speak

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  • Dewey, Quine, and Pragmatic Naturalized Epistemology 638

    ers of the same language give the same verdict when given the same concurrent stimulations" (EN, 86-7).6 We are always, from this per

    spective, operating from within an antecedent linguistic framework, whether understood simply as a language or as a more sophisticated "theory of the world;"7 it is not possible, as a result, to refer to any thing outside such a framework in order to justify the general ap

    proach of a naturalized epistemology. This raises the two standard objections to naturalized epistemol

    ogy: first, whether naturalism can respond adequately to philosophi cal skepticism and, second, whether it allows for a sufficient degree of

    normativity. With regard to the first question it is not at all clear to what extent Quine even wishes to broach the issue

    ? he claims, after

    all, that "the Humean predicament is the human predicament" (EN, 72). In "The Nature of Natural Knowledge", furthermore, he writes that:

    I am not accusing the sceptic of begging the question. He is

    quite within his rights in assuming science in order to refute

    science; this, if carried out, would be a straightforward argu ment by reductio ad absurdum. I am only making the point that sceptical doubts are scientific doubts. (NNK, 68)

    The implication of these remarks is that skepticism is a coherent po sition, albeit one that

    ? like all theories ? is underdetermined by the available evidence. Elsewhere, however, Quine accuses the cul tural relativist of a fundamental inconsistency:

    Truth, says the cultural relativist, is culture-bound. But ifit

    were, then he, within his own culture, ought to see his own

    culture-bound truth as absolute. He cannot proclaim cul

    tural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up.8

    Quine, in other words, seems torn between accepting the prima facie

    intelligibility of radical assaults on the possibility of knowledge, and

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  • 639 John Capps

    rejecting such attacks on grounds of incoherence. This, then, raises the question of how best to understand Quine's proposal for a natu ralized epistemology: whether this new approach is continuous with Cartesian (or Humean) epistemology (in which case we would ex

    pect an appraisal of skepticism) or whether it in fact reflects an en

    tirely new project (in which case it is not clear ifit actually meets our

    expectations for a genuine successor project). It seems to me that Quine's naturalism can be read in either way

    ? as continuous or discontinuous ? and there may well be little

    point in attempting to pin down a single "right" reading. Still, I

    hope a brief examination of these two competing interpretations might help bring to light the potential problems (and prospects) associated with this approach to epistemology.

    If, on the one side, we read Quine as inspired by "the same rea sons that have always prompted epistemology", it is then a question of whether he deals in good faith with these motivating conditions. This gives rise to what I term the "hard" reading of Quine's natural

    ism, best expressed by Jaegwon Kim and Barry Stroud.9 There are two parts to this critical reading. First, if skeptical doubts are scien tific doubts, as Quine admits, and if the skeptic is thereby free to

    question the authority of science by means of a reductio ad absurdum, then Quine is certainly begging the question by referring to science to support the very possibility of knowledge. What is more, he has

    seriously misrepresented the tenor of the skeptic's position. Skepti cism is not, as the above quote would suggest, just another hypoth esis in need of empirical confirmation: it is, as Stroud notes, the more radical position "that none of the competing 'hypotheses' about what is true beyond the data can be known to be true."10 Finally, Quine also seems to misstate the goal of epistemology. If we are

    simply to relate "meager input" with "torrential output", then epis

    temology is nothing more than a matter of specifying the causal laws

    governing belief formation, and thus has nothing at all to do with the

    question of whether these beliefs are actually well-justified or true. But this amounts to a form of professional and philosophical suicide: as Kim notes, "for epistemology to go out of the business of justifica

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