Volume 75, 2018
Theories of Knowledge and Epistemology
Quine’s Argument from Despair
In Quine’s eyes, naturalism can be characterized negatively as the abandonment of a first philosophy prior to natural science. But what are Quine’s reasons for rejecting first philosophy? Prima facie, Quine’s argument against first philosophy seems to be pretty straightforward: in his “Epistemology Naturalized”, Quine famously argues that we ought to abandon traditional epistemology because all attempts to ground our beliefs on sense experience have failed. That is, he argues that we ought to despair of being able to define theoretical terms generally in terms of phenomena. Let me call this the standard conception of Quine’s rejection of first philosophy. The standard conception is widespread among both Quine scholars and critics. In this presentation, I will argue that the standard conception is mistaken. I will show that Quine’s argument against the first philosopher is considerably stronger than the standard conception suggests. Quine does not abandon traditional epistemology out of despair but because the project does not make sense to begin with. Not only is the idea of an external validation of science incoherent, the scientific enterprise also does not require any additional justification in the first place. What I will try to offer, then, is a reconstruction of Quine’s actual argument against first philosophy and a reinterpretation of “epistemology naturalized”.