Monday, February 2, 2009

Quine as a conservative

For newer readers and others who might be interested, I will occasionally be reprinting some old posts from the now defunct Conservative Philosopher and Right Reason group blogs. Here is a piece that originally appeared in two parts on The Conservative Philosopher, on January 31, 2005 and February 9, 2005 respectively. (I have edited slightly to remove some now irrelevant references reflecting the time they were first posted. Not that anyone would notice.)

Part I:

W.V. Quine was unquestionably one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Almost the entirety of his body of work was in areas of philosophy far removed from ethics and politics: logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, epistemology and metaphysics. But he also happened to be politically conservative, and very occasionally he would express his conservatism in print. Two examples are the entries on “Freedom” and “Tolerance” in his book Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. They are, like nearly everything Quine wrote, elegant in style and well worth reading.

Quine’s conservatism raises interesting questions about the relationship between a philosopher’s metaphysical commitments and his ethical and political commitments. It would be hard to deny that the sort of commonsense metaphysics associated with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas had a bearing on the conservative character of their moral and political views, or that the radicalism of Marx’s social theory was at least in part a consequence of his brand of materialism. Yet while Quine’s metaphysical position was among the most radically revisionist of any that philosophers have produced – physicalist, behaviorist, eliminativist – his political views were, again, conservative.

It is hard to think offhand of too many parallels in the history of philosophy. It is true, of course, that Hume’s far from commonsense epistemology and metaphysics also went hand in hand with a kind of conservatism, but then again Hume was also inclined to emphasize how irrelevant the results of abstruse philosophical speculation were to ordinary life, and inclined also halfway to give back to common sense with his right hand, via an appeal to the primacy of “custom and habit,” what his left hand had taken away via philosophical criticism. Quine, committed as he was to scientism, seemed less inclined then Hume to think that common sense would remain more or less intact regardless of the findings of scientists and philosophers.

There is a very widespread belief these days that ethics can be done more or less without paying attention to metaphysics. I think this is completely mistaken, and that most of the philosophers who hold this belief, being almost always metaphysical naturalists of one stripe or another and rarely having their naturalism challenged, have lost sight of how deeply they are themselves committed to what is really just one metaphysical position among others, and of how deeply it has in fact permeated their moral theorizing.

I also think that it is no accident that naturalistic philosophers tend toward unconservative positions in ethics and politics. Naturalists have a tendency to suppose that the methods of the natural sciences are the right models to apply to the study of the human world. Since the history of natural science has often been a history of proving common sense wrong where matters far removed from everyday human life are concerned, the expectation understandably forms that common sense is likely to be wrong where the human world is concerned as well. This is an attitude Michael Levin has called the “skim milk” fallacy – the fallacy of assuming that “things are never what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream” – and there are good Burkean and Hayekian reasons for thinking that it is indeed a fallacy. It is, Burkeans and Hayekians would argue, unlikely that deep errors about human nature would persist within common sense, given how crucial a right understanding of the human world is to the success of everyday human intercourse, and even to survival.

(I should qualify these remarks by saying that it is the scientistic brand of naturalism, which is the kind predominant in contemporary philosophy, that I claim has the implications I am speaking of here. The sort of naturalism associated with Wittgenstein, concerned as it is, in its way, to defend common sense, is very different, and for obvious reasons more conducive to a conservative position in ethics and politics.)

Whether or not I am right about all this, Quine would seem at least on the surface to be a counterexample to the claims I just made. But I think that in fact he is not, if only because his philosophical and political views seem to have had absolutely nothing to do with one another, even on a subconscious level. As far as I can tell, Quine’s philosophical and political thinking were conducted in two different and hermetically sealed off compartments of his mind. Even with Hume, one can detect a clear connection between his metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and his politics on the other: the centrality of custom and habit in the former finds a parallel in the conservatism of the latter. There seems to be no similar systematic connection in Quine’s thinking.

Far more than other contemporary naturalists, Quine apparently never so much as entertained the possibility that conservative political views might sit uneasily with such a radical metaphysical position. Most naturalistic philosophers end up at least subtly re-conceiving the world of everyday human life along naturalistic metaphysical lines, and this influences they way they think about ethics, whether they realize it or not. Naturalism tells them we’re just clever animals, or “machines made of meat,” or whatever, and at some level the ethical theory reflects that. The average human being doesn’t think this way, of course, and indeed the average naturalistic philosopher doesn’t think this way either in day-to-day life. It is simply too inhuman a way to think about human beings to be possible to sustain for very long. Like the Humean skeptic, the naturalistic philosopher, once he exits his study, leaves the revisionist metaphysics behind and deals with other human beings as creatures having souls (whether you interpret “soul” in the traditional metaphysical sense or in a more figurative Wittgensteinian sense). Unfortunately, though, most naturalistic philosophers seem to write on ethics and politics while they’re still in the study. Quine did not. His conservatism was apparently not an intellectual one, but a matter of ingrained temperament. (That definitely does not mean it was an irrational one, as every conservative understands.)

That’s my armchair speculation anyway, for what it is worth. In any event, whatever one thinks of Quine’s metaphysical position – and for my part, I cannot think of a metaphysical position I am less sympathetic with – it is surely as powerfully developed and articulated as any in the history of philosophy, and deserving of close study. Some philosophers regard it as a brilliant drawing out of the surprising truths implicit in the physicalistic premises Quine starts with; others (like John Searle, and me) regard it as a reductio ad absurdum of those premises. Either way, Quine cannot be ignored.

Part II:

Here are some relevant quotes from Quine’s writings, which should give a sense of his political views.

From Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary:

“Freedom from the trammels of an age outworn can mean quandaries at every turn, for want of a rule, a precedent, a role model, even a vivid self-image” (p. 68)

“Freedom to remodel society, gained by revolution, can be a delicate affair. Society up to that point, if stable at all, was stable in consequence of the gradual combining and canceling of forces and counter-forces, some planned and some not. The new and untested plan shares all the fallibility of the planner, this young newcomer in a complex world. Maybe the new order bids fair to overprivilege a hitherto underprivileged group; maybe it will presently prove to underprivilege all. It is delicate, and delicacy is seldom the revolutionary’s forte. The constraint imposed by social tradition is the gyroscope that helps to keep the ship of state on an even keel.” (p. 69)

“Democratic regard for civil rights and due process affords a shelter for subversive efforts of enemy agents and for seditious activities of native sympathizers. An enemy despot can send his fifth column through democracy's open gates while keeping his own gates secured. Some restraints on democratic tolerance are thus vital to the survival of democracy. Excessive restraints, on the other hand, would be an abdication of democracy. Such, then, is the delicate balance of tolerance.” (pp. 206-7)

“Moral censorship down the years had monitored an ill-defined limit of legitimacy that was regularly pressed, tested, and moderately violated by the literary, artistic, and popular forces for prurience. Burlesque skits had made merry with sexual themes by double entendre and thinly veiled allusion that brought down the house. Press the bounds, however narrowly drawn, and titillation was assured. Withdrawing the bounds did away with the titillation. So far, perhaps, so good; but this was the least of the effects. Pornography burgeoned, ready with ever more extravagant lures lest custom stale. Also apart from such excesses the public prints, films, and broadcasts relaxed their restraints to a marked degree. General standards of taste in speech and behavior could then be counted on to evolve or dissolve apace, dictated as they are by the public prints, films, and broadcasts. It was a bewilderingly abrupt relaxation of the restraints of centuries, and no small achievement on the part of vocal students, liberal English teachers, and a few docile jurists. There were deeper social forces, also, that have yet to be understood. One conspicuous factor, superficial still, was the widespread spirit of rebellion induced by the Vietnam war, when sympathy with the enemy was open and defiant. Insofar, tolerance of the sort that we first considered played a role: tolerance of subversion.” (pp. 207-8)

From “Paradoxes of Plenty” in Theories and Things:

“It was in the increased admittance and financial support of students that the new prodigality [of the post-war university] came its most resounding cropper. Marginal students came on in force, many of them with an eye on the draft, and they soon were as bored with college as they had been with school. In their confusion and restlessness they were easy marks for demagogues, who soon contrived a modest but viable terror. A rather sketchy terror sufficed, in the event, to bring universities to their knees.” (p. 197)

From The Time of My Life: An Autobiography:

“[At the time of the student demonstrations at Harvard] feeling ran high in the faculty between a radical caucus at one edge, which backed the vocal students, and a conservative caucus at the other edge, in which Oscar Handlin played a leading role and I an ineffectual one. Attendance at faculty meetings exceeded all bounds; we had to move them from the faculty room in University Hall to the Loeb Theater. In previous years I had seldom attended, but now duty called. At one of these crowded faculty meetings, two shabby black undergraduates demanded to be admitted and heard. Henry Rosovsky had done a conscientious job of devising a program of Black Studies that might accommodate the new racism without serious abdication of scholarly standards; but the two black youths demanded more radical provisions, on pain, they hinted, of fire and destruction. The serried ranks of faculty, flecked with eminent scholars and Nobel laureates, were cowed – a bare majority of them – by the two frail, bumbling figures and voted as directed. What price scholarly standards, what price self-respect?” (pp. 352-3)

“At Syracuse in May 1981 I received an honorary degree, my twelfth, along with Alexander Haig, who gave the address. Radicals dressed in bloodied nuns’ garb protested our alleged aggression in Salvador and tried to silence him, but he coped admirably and I liked his thoughts on public policy.” (p. 452)


  1. Ed, I'm looking forward to reading this closely when I get a break.

    Meantime, Question: did not Quine pretty much demolish materialism? If I recall correctly he wrote a famous essay sometime in the 50;s, demonstrating that materialism was incoherent...?

  2. Hi John, you're thinking of "Two dogmas of empiricism," which was a critique of empiricism rather than materialism. And he didn't really reject empiricism per se, but rather only sought to modify a version of empiricism that had been defended by the logical positivists.

  3. Logical positivism never really worked and it should have been defunct after Popper published Logik der Forshung in 1935, but the Continental diaspora took root in the leading universities of the US and established logical empiricism as the dominant school of thought in the philosophy of science.

    By the same token, many of the destructive political ideas that resulted in fascism and communism (both forms of socialism) should have been defunct after The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), however that book upset too many academic apple carts and it has been kept in print by a lay readership.

    The point is, that in contrast to Quine who I agree probably kept his philosophical and political ideas in sealed compartments, Popper's ideas have a beautiful synergy. This can be seen from his non-reductive, non-deterministic metaphysics, through his non-foundational/non-authoritarian epistemology and politicial philosophy to his non reductive (evolutionary) approach to psychology and language (derived from Karl Buhler) and his position on rationality and morality.

    Regrettably there was no Readers Digest version of the Open Society, as there was for The Road to Serfdom, so far too few people tackle the daunting task of reading the 800 pages (including hundreds of pages of notes in fine print). This is my effort to supply that need:)

    On the topic of the notes, some are full-fledged essays, like this one on the defects of Wittgenstein's attempt to dispose of metaphysics (the line of thought, following Mach, that animated the logical positivists).

  4. On second thoughts is is not really good form to come to a discussion of Quine and then do a rant about some other philosopher. But I have concerns about Quine's towering reputation among people who give Popper short shrift, this seems to give a hint of dessication, over-specialisation and the wrong kind of professionalism.

    I think I am exasperated that Quine got so much credit for puncturing empiricism when Popper did it years earlier but was still left on the margin of the profession.

    That was a great extract from Quine's autobiography and it makes me think a lot better of him, but some of the parts that I recall were exasperating. For example the way he talked about the positivsts at conferences "moving among the metaphysicians like henchmen", as though the stance of the positivists towards metaphysics was admirable. And the way he thought Carnap had the better of Popper in their argument about induction.

    It was interesting the way the revived the Duhem problem (so it became known as the Duhem Quine problem) and it was fascinating the way the flew a kite with an extreme position and then retracted that possition in correspondence with Grunbaum:

    Dear Professor Grunbaum:

    I have read your paper on the falsifiability of theories with interest. Your claim that the Duhem-Quine thesis, as you call it, is untenable if taken non-trivially, strikes me as persuasive. Certainly it is carefully argued.

    For my own part I would say that the thesis as I have used it is probably trivial. I haven't advanced it as an interesting thesis as such. I bring it in only in the course of arguing against such notions as that the empirical content of sentences can in general be sorted out distributively, sentence by sentence, or that the understanding of a term can be segregated from collateral information regarding the object. For such purposes I am not concerned even to avoid the trivial extreme of sustaining a law by changing a meaning; for the cleavage between meaning and fact is part of what, in such contexts, I am questioning.

    Actually my holism is not as extreme as those brief vague paragraphs at the end of "Two dogmas of empiricism" are bound to sound. See sections 1-3 and 7-10 of Word and Object.

    Sincerely yours,

    W. V. Quine

    (the letter is cited in my thesis on the Duhem Quine problem).

  5. Hi Rafe, and thanks for all that. I think you're right about Popper being a more systematic thinker than Quine with respect to integrating his general metaphysical and epistemological positions with his moral and political ones. Within the metaphysical/epistemological domain itself, Quine is very systematic, of course. But his value here, IMHO, is in showing what extreme and indeed absurd conclusions (indeterminacy of translation, inscrutability of reference, etc.) follow from his false physicalistic premises.

    I've long thought that there is a parallel between Quine on the inscrutability of reference and Popper's unjustly neglected argument against causal theories of language (about which I wrote a blog post here a few months ago). Both of them see that there is no way in principle to fix reference by appeal to causal facts alone, physicalistically understood. The difference is that whereas Quine draws a pragmatist conclusion from this, Popper sees (rightly IMO) that it is a reductio ad absurdum of physicalism.

    In general, with respect to their technical philosophical work, I find Popper a more congenial thinker than Quine at least for this reason: He got more right! (Politically I suspect I would find Quine more congenial, as Popper was more a classical liberal than a true conservative.)

  6. Many in the philosophy biz read Quine as logical positivist and naturalist par example, yet he was also following in the footsteps of Wm James and CS Peirce: few logicians allude to "efficaciousness". Pragmatist criteria are not written in stone (or in the mind of JHVH): scientific naturalism describes a type of thinking that functions, without recourse to various abstract entities (including the mysterious modality--formerly known as probability and induction). Ergo, it's a modifiable ontology, like any pragmatist stipulation--(and therefore also possibly relativistic--). Quine did not reject empiricism: he updates it, lends it a pragmatist aspect (definitions, ie meanings change, even supposed analytical truths), and expands verificationism (which is expanded to the web of beliefs). There are reductionist elements to QuineSpeak, but compared to a few hundred pages of some postmodernist windmachine (or the Open Society's generalizations), rather eloquent and concise.

  7. This is obviously an old post, but here is an idea: Quine in epistemology did seem to support a kind of epistemic conservativism, and used the analogy of fixing a boat at sea where you can’t rebuild the boat from scratch without drowning and but must rebuild it gradually where each new part is compatible with keeping the integrity of the whole attached.

    I wonder if, when you apply this idea to political or moral knowledge you get some kind of conservatism.