Norris’ "Epistemology" Intro, Section II.

Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”

Introduction, section II.

This section deals with the demise of logical positivism, beginning with W.V. Quine’s 1951 essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. Quine attacked 1. “the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements (or ‘truths of reason’ and ‘matters of fact’),” and 2. “the idea that scientific claims, predictions, or hypotheses could be tested one-by-one against observational findings or items of empirical evidence.” He replaced those two pillars with the approach that theories are always ‘undetermined’ by the empirical evidence, which is “always in some degree ‘theory-laden’, and the ‘unit of empirical significance’ was not the single observation or statement concerning it but rather the entire ‘web’ or ‘fabric’ of accepted belief at any given time.” So there is no ‘crucial experiment’ which can decide one of rival theories or hypotheses. In short, we can always make excuses for the results… even revise ‘laws’ of logic.

I don’t understand the analytic/synthetic thing.

“Quine maintains a resolutely physicalist or science-led conception of epistemology-one that rejects all its normative claims and treats it as a mere sub-branch of behavioral psychology.” On the one hand he says the physical sciences are not privileged and so numbers, bricks, and unicorns share the same ontological status-on the other hand, he insists the physical sciences are “by far our best guide in philosophic matters and hence that epistemology should forthwith ‘fall into place’ as a thoroughly naturalized study of the processes by which the ‘meagre input’ of sensory stimuli somehow gives rise to the ‘torrential output’ of conjectures, hypotheses, theoretically informed observation statements, and so forth.” This “leaves philosophy wholly bereft of normative standards or values. What then drops out-or would if this programme were carried right through-is any prospect of explaining the growth of knowledge (or our knowledge of the growth of knowledge) in terms that provide a basis for informed and rational theory-choice, as distinct from Quine’s somewhat ad hoc appeal to a process of negotiated trade-off between the interests of economy, conservatism and sheer pragmatic convenience. This normativity-deficit has been noted by various critics, along with the conceptual problems induced by a narrowly empiricist (behaviorist) account of belief-acquisition-albeit shorn of the ‘two dogmas’-which likewise conspicuously fails to explain how and why certain theories are superior to others in point of rational and causal-explanatory power.”

So. Sounds like Norris doesn’t want to reduce normative standards or values to “what works”. I am curious to see how he grounds them.

Directions of post-Quinean epistemology and philosophy of science:

1. Make good on normativity-deficit by rejecting Quine’s physicalist thesis “by offering more detailed accounts of what constitutes a genuine advance in knowledge… (This approach) accepts…theory-laden character of empirical observations-and the ‘undetermination’ of theory by evidence-but sees…that theories can be more or less strongly supported by the best evidence to hand and such evidence more or less convincingly explained by the best available theory.”
2. Something about causal interaction that escapes me. Causal realism. Kripke/Putnam causal theory of reference-fixing.
3. Take anti-realism as somewhat of a default position, aim “not so much to refute that position as to come up with a range of alternative middle-ground proposals whereby truth is conceived in epistemic rather than alethic terms.”
4. Stop fixating on issues between realism/anti-realism, objectivist truth vs. warranted assertibility (insoluble dilemmas… a false-start)-which have more to do with metaphysical or logic/language disputes than with epistemology-and “include some account of theepistemic virtues or the various kinds of knowledge-conducive attitude, mind-set, intellectual character, and so forth, that enable virtuous (well-motivated) enquirers to pursue their task with the best prospect of success. … What is required is an approach that, more in the spirit of Aristotle, allows for a distinctively ethical conception of knowledge, one that gives pride of place to the epistemic virtues.” It would then become a question of why the exercise of some virtue “should have proved especially sound, reliable or apt to maximize the truth-content of those theories and hypotheses arrived at under their guidance.”

Number 4 will be discussed in chapter 5, tracing the problems back to Kant “in the First Critique concerning the role of judgement as a mediating term between sensuous intuitions and concepts of understanding” on to McDowell’s “revisionist (but still deeply problematical) reading of Kant.” “…the virtue-based theory falls into the same kinds of dilemma that afflict those alternative accounts. That is to say, it conspicuously fails to close the gap between a normative conception that relativizes truth to ‘best option’ in the manner of response-dependence theorists and a realist (or objectivist) conception that takes truth to be always in principle verification-transcendent. Moreover this brings it out on the side of an anti-realist approach according to which truth cannot possibly elude or surpass the limits of present-best, virtuously formed belief.” So any theory can describe the sort of mind-set needed for knowledge-conducive enquiry-but this alone cannot provide “a means of reconciling truth (or veridical knowledge) with the deliverance of optimized epistemic warrant or accredited best judgement.”

So in chapter 5 Norris is going to address the problems that surface in virtue-based epistemology. Virtue-oriented, cool. Virtue-based… not so cool.


Explanation of analytic/synthetic: Basically Quine just said there is no distinction, because there are only synthetic statements, because analytic (a priori) statements are circular. I wonder…was that merely a practical conclusion?

Perhaps this is a dumb question, but … is this “normativity” thing separate from the field of ethics, or … is it saying we have a moral obligation to believe (that? in?)–we ought to believe–when the evidence warrants belief (and that any real moral obligation conflicts with a physicalist worldview)? Is Quine just countering that belief is not a moral duty but a mere matter of practicality or whatever? Like… the ought in “If you want to get there quickly, you ought to take this route?” — is not a “moral” ought.

Or is this talking about … when Norris says “the growth of knowledge”… the “spread” (between minds) of ideas (at first I just thought he meant the growth of knowledge inside an individual mind)? Reminds me of Richard Dawkins’ (“selfish”) meme. We could be dealing with two separate issues here, I think (though related). There is the spread of ideas, and then there is the spread of “true” ideas. They both probably follow the laws of memes (not as “strict” as the laws of truth… prob’ly only requiring “resonance” in the intuition)–but true ideas also correspond to reality.


Reply from Professor Norris, posted with his kind permission:

No, the two kinds of ‘ought’ are quite distinct, and need to be treated as such since otherwise we’ll get into all sorts of muddles. Still I think you can have a much stronger (more strongly normative) sense of ‘ought’ when you’re doing science or any other kind of disciplined activity – drawing conclusions, weighing evidence, testing the soundness of inductive or other inferential reasonings – than anything allowed for by Quine’s ultra-pragmatist approach. This ‘ought’ is a matter of respecting evidence, admitting counter-evidence, not being swayed by foregone beliefs or assumptions, etc., and it does connect – even if not in any straightforward or direct way – with the sorts of ethical imperative that (ought to) govern our dealings with other people.

It’s so nice to get non-combative feedback! I can’t even tell you how nice it is. What a God-send.


Does Quine think norms leading to correspondence do not “physically exist”–does that have anything to do with it (is he saying all truth claims, or methods of arriving at truth, are not about “this is how it is” or “this is how we find out how it is” but are instead about “this is how we should think it is” or “this is how we should find out how-we-should-think-it-is”)?


Quine snippets from my Intro. to Philo. / Christian Perspective (Geisler/Feinberg) book–

“W.V.O. Quine, a contemporary philosopher, views knowledge in terms of a ‘web of belief.’ He argues that at the center of the web are those beliefs that we hold with greatest certainty, but he claims that even these could be given up. Among the beliefs at the center of the web are beliefs about logic. Quine denies that there are any purely formal or analytic beliefs or statements which are incapable of surrender or modification. He says that we tend to retain our belief in the matters at the center of our web because any change in this area would demand radical revision of our picture of the world, and we tend to resist this as much as possible.”

Summary of section on Coherentism or Contextualism–

Major alternative to foundationalism (realism, right?) is coherentism/contextualism (anti-realism, right?)–the nebula theory of justification (Quine’s “web of belief”). There are no basic propositions, no immediately justified beliefs–beliefs are justified if they don’t conflict with the existing web of belief (which reminds me of every time I have to qualify that only one option among conflicting options “can” correspond–rather than “does” correspond—-the coherentist/contextualist is saying that if it “coheres” it corresponds (and all the other conflicting beliefs necessarily do not correspond). But what if the part of the web to which the belief coheres–does not correspond?

That was a nutshell summary–a LOT left out. Maybe for a later time. Movie time is now.


Some stuff on logical positivism from Intro. to Philo./A Christian Perspective, Geisler/Feinberg:

“A group of philosophers, generally within the analytic school of logical positivism…claims that statements of moral principle are not prescriptive, at least not in any straightforward sense. Rather, they express personal approval or disapproval. So to say, “Killing is wrong,” is merely to express one’s own distaste for murder. It is true that the statement advises a similar policy for others, but they are under no obligation to comply. This form of ethical theory is known as emotivism, and is expounded by A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson.”

So emotivism is a logical positivist theory. Hm.

“In recent times the group of philosophers called logical positivists have argued that a good deal of what had traditionally been a part of metaphysics was pseudoscience. Thus, they talked about the elimination of metaphysics, since they branded it as nonsense or meaningless.”

Doesn’t sound much different from Quine’s physicalism, but maybe that doesn’t rule out the posibility that Quine is a “rationalist metaphysician”–see below. It seems it was Ayer’s verification principle Quine attacked.

Nutshell version of the “Methodology of Philosophy” chapter (covering Socrates’ Interrogation, Zeno’s Reductio ad Absurdum, Aristotle’s Deduction, The Inductive Method, Mill’s Canons of Induction, The Scientific Method, The Existential Method, Phenomenological Method and The Analytic Method), “The Analytic Method” section (covering Verification Method and Clarification Method), “Verification Method” subsection– “The Vienna Circle of the 1920s and the logical positivism movement in general, included men such as A.J. Ayer (1910-1970), Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). In Language, Truth and Logic Ayer attempts, as indicated in the title of the first chapter, “The Elimination of Metaphysics.” This alleged elimination is based on his verification principle, that for a statement to be meaningful it must be either purely definitional (analytic) or else verifiable (synthetic) by one or more of the five senses. All other statements (ethical, theological, and metaphysical statements) are non-sense, or meaningless.” The verification principle itself is not verifiable, and if it is just a meta-language rule explaining how how language is to be used, “then it cannot be used in a prescriptive way, say, to eliminate statements about God or ultimate reality.” “There are many objections to this principle. Some have pointed out that it is too restrictive: it eliminates statements that are obviously meaningful even to empiricists (such as empirical generalizations of science, like ‘all swans are white.’ This is not empirically verifiable unless one observesall swans, a practical impossibility). Others have objected that the principle attempts to legislate meaning and not listen to it.” The verification method includes the falsification principle (noted by Flew)–if nothing can count against a statement, then nothing should be allowed to count ‘for’ it, either. This is confusing to me, because if something could count against it–then it would be falsified. I think some examples should have been used.

In the chapter “Can We Know?” Geisler/Feinberg imply Ayer’s dismissal of metaphysics with the requirement of verification/falsifiablility is a skeptical position.

In the chapter “What is Truth?” (covering coherence theory, the pragmatism of Pierce, James and Dewey, performative theory, and the correspondence of Moore and Tarski), it is said that “For a short time it enjoyed some support among logical positivists such as Neurath and Hempel.” Oddly–this reminds me of Quine’s “web of belief”–the nebula theory of truth. But, “The system of coherent statements is different for the rationalist metaphysicians (does that include Quine?) and the logical positivists (like Ayer). For the rationalists the system is a comprehensive account of the universe or reality. The logical positivists, on the other hand, see the system of statements as the scientific picture of the world as described by contemporary sciences.” That’s why it reminds me of Quine’s physicalism. So…Quine’s physicalism doesn’t rule out metaphysics, then? Maybe I’m just confused on the meaning of “metaphysics”. Geisler/Feinberg suggest coherence is a necessary condition of truth–but it is not “enough” because beliefs can cohere which do not correspond. 1) a statement can cohere with one system and conflict with another, 2) a statement can cohere with some system but not correspond to the real world, 3) it is possible to have two coherent systems which are incompatible, so coherence alone cannot decide between the two systems. There’s two more points, but these three clinch it for me.

So it seems logical positivists (like Ayer) were anti-metaphysical realists (even though they required “verification”–like anti-realists, who disagree truth transcends verification), and that anti-realist rational metaphysicians (like Quine) are responsible for the demise of logical positivism. Si o no? Fascinating and weird.


Professor Norris’ reply:

No, not exactly – the logical positivists (and logical empiricists) were much closer to the radical-empiricist & anti-realist (or classical positivist) line of thought descending from Ernst Mach – verification was all (or observation, measurement, etc.). Dummettian anti-realism comes out of that tradition and gives it a logical/metaphysical twist by hooking it up to intuitionism ( = anti-realism) in philosophy of maths. Hopes this clarifies matters (!).

— Professor Norris

They’re BOTH anti-realists. Well, that makes sense, given the requirement for verification. I don’t understand everything you said–math is not my field of expertise (I don’t have such a field, lol)–but–I think I’ve got what I need for now to be able to move on. Thankyou!

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