Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hacker vs Quine

Oxford gent jacks the corpse of WVO Quine:

""""'Early epistemology focused on the different sources of knowledge and on the different kinds of knowledge that we can attain. Despite Quine’s avowals to the contrary, there are radical differences between mathematical knowledge and empirical knowledge, between selfknowledge and knowledge of others, between knowledge of objects and knowledge of scientific theory (e.g. of electricity, magnetism, ionic theory), between the natural and the social sciences, and so forth. It would be a mistake to suppose that one can glibly say, knowledge is knowledge – it merely has different objects. Knowledge that Jack is taller than Jill is categorically unlike knowledge that red is darker than pink. To know the difference between right and wrong is radically unlike knowing the difference between Coxes and Bramleys. To know what I want is epistemologically unlike knowing what you want, and to know what I think about a given question is not akin to knowing what you think. Could naturalized epistemology contribute to the clarification of such conceptual differences? I think not – any more than mathematics naturalized could explain the differences between natural numbers and signed integers, or between rationals and irrationals."""""

Hacker raises some important objections to Quinean naturalism, and seems to suggest that the traditional analytic-synthetic divide might be preserved (in brief mathematics as analytical a priori, and natural sciences as synthetic a posteriori--derived from experience). Why should the discriminating blog-consumer give a flying phuck care? Here's why: Quine was the big intellectual Vati of behaviorism and eliminative materialism, and arguably, he did much in terms of justifying Darwinian accounts of human mental acts, for lack of a better term (WVOQ, like his hatchet-man pal Skinner, dismisses consciousness, and the "idea idea").

Hacker, like most critics of empirical "associationism", correctly notes that Quine's naturalist claim involves all sorts of conceptual leaps: for one, integers, Pi, and integrals, do not grow on trees. So what can the empiricist (or "radical empiricist", as some refer to Quine) say in his defense of a posteriori knowledge from experience? He could at least suggest that mathematical knowledge (whether of numerical quantity, magnitude, geometric relations, functions) began with observation. Knowledge that Jack is taller than Jill may not be the same type of knowledge that red is darker than pink, yet in some sense they both grew out of humans' interactions with the empirical world (which is to say an observable, external world), even if the rationalist insists that such knowledge depends on assumptions of cognitive skills and abilities that were not learned or experienced. (this is not to suggest that Descartes or Kant are necessarily to be preferred to cognitive science or neurology, however).

According to Hacker, the Quinean school simply ignores the entire problem of how perception of the natural world resulted in Pi, for instance. Perhaps the empiricist might agree that establishing Pi as a mathematical fact required great conceptual leaps of the human mind, but that doesn't necessarily imply some a priori knowledge of Pi: it was abstracted from experience, and codified (which the Hackerists would be somewhat correct in terming a rather complex type of thinking unique to humans).

That doesn't mean, however, that we here at Contingencies award our benediction to Gut Herr Doktor Hacker, or to his metaphysics (with strong hints of Cartesian dualism). It does mean that he was correct in so far as he points out the shortcomings of Quine's radical empiricism; his remarks against Quine's "positing" of external realism also should be noted (many in filo-land forget that Quine often tended to code switch between a sort of Humean doubt and praise of Uncle Meat. Quine's mentor Carnap also admired Hume). Rationalists, of course, have their own biases (whether that rationalism is Platonic, monotheistic, Cartesian, or Hackerian), and tend to overlook or ignore history, for one, not to say El Hombre Economico.

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