Word and Object Ch 1

Like Shawn, I am reading Word and Object in its entirety for the first time, but more than anything, I was struck by its weirdness upon reading the first chapter.  I don’t have anything insightful to say, but I was confused by how it seems to alternate between psychological and epistemological/logical considerations.  The difficulty is that qua psychology, it doesn’t have much connection with the facts, while epistemologically, it glides over all the hard places.  Let me clarify that first bit: it’s not just that Quine’s psychological stories look a bit dated–but that even by the standards of 1960, they’re incredibly sketchy.

On an unrelated note, I looked at the bibliography, and Quine had read a lot more anthropology than most philosophers (or at least he cited more).  You get Cassirer, Evans-Pritchard, Levy-Bruhl and Malinowski (Sapir is not so surprising in a book on language).


4 responses to “Word and Object Ch 1

  1. What bits of the psychological stuff are outdated? I guess you mean the behaviorism. I think Quine wanted to focus on behavior because that is intersubjectively available whereas mental states are not. I’m not sure how heavy it leans on being psychologically accurate. In his response to Chomsky, Quine explains how the behaviorist picture he paints is compatible with broadly Chomskian views of language learning. You might find that interesting.

  2. religiouskeptic

    You said: “I don’t have anything insightful to say, but I was confused by how it seems to alternate between psychological and epistemological/logical considerations.”

    I dunno why that is entirely puzzling. Quine places the entire structure of epistemology squarely in a subdivision of empirical psychology, so an overlap is expected. Honestly, I find Quine to be convincing in the way Contintental’s are convincing; it just seems like he is saying something important, but it never really impresses itself upon me as true. Good luck with the book, though.

  3. Shawn-it’s the behaviorism and the associated story about learning, as if it’s just noticing that various stimuli covary. This is a case where psychological behaviorism and philosophical behaviorism come apart–I’m convinced you could make appeal to a lot of the products of contemporary cognitive psychology while remaining a philosophical behaviorist. At the very least, there’s no reason a philosophical behaviorist would have to give the kinds of explanations Quine gives about learning.

    Skeptic–my understanding is that epistemology naturalized dates to 1969, which at least makes it weird that Word and Object starts this way (I should still reread EN sometime soon). Moreover, I’m not sure I ever figured out the picture Quine has. One weird aspect of the running together of the two considerations is that the tough parts of the psychological enterprise may be easy in the epistemological/logical enterprise or vice versa.

  4. That would be an interesting project, updating the general Word and Object picture with notions from cognitive psychology. I’m not sure really how important the behaviorism is to Quine’s views. There is a paper by Follesdal that talks about how indeterminacy of translation comes out of a different view of Quine’s that doesn’t depend on the behaviorism. You’d probably have to give up a lot of what Quine says about the mental.

    It would be neat to see a discussion of which of Quine’s views depend heavily on the behaviorism and the story about learning.