09-03-08

Linguistics and Philosophy

"The behaviorist is knowingly and cheerfully up to his neck in innate mechanisms of learning-readiness. The very reinforcement and extinction of responses, so central to behaviorism, depends on prior inequalities in the subject's qualitative spacing, so to speak, of stimulations...." W. Quine in Linguistics & Philosophy as quoted in "The Cambridge companion to Quine, Cambridge University Press 2004, p. 190.

"Science settles for partial criteria and for partial explanation in terms of other partially explained notions." W. Quine in Comment on Parsons, ibid, p.191.


Science is becoming suspect, again. More so behaviorism - itself already for a long time under attack from within science. There just has to be more - or, at least, another valid point of view on the same.

A familar perspectivist or relativist move is to contend that a scientific method is based on an absolute assumption. This is fair enough since it is a particular weakness of non-scientific claims that they are based on such absolutes that have to be taken in faith. If it's indeed established that science is no different in this respect one might as well give relativism a shot - even if it doesn't give any explanation it seems to fit the facts that people just happen to have this or that particular point of view based on this or that particular absolute.

But the move does not stand scrutiny. Just try the discussion: it will take just a couple of answers before your relativist counterpart will use one out of the set of words "all", "everything", "always" or "nothing" in relation to what are the typical claims of science. But the scientific method is just that: a method - it does not contend anything about "all things" positively. It is not positivism or scientism. It merely consists in looking at something in a way admitting of critical discussion. This is also the only way one can look at something whilst allowing any sensible discussion on it.

Even in pre-scientific times or in, so called, points of view that reject science's claim as the universal method it is the scientific method that was & is used to advance or arbitrate in any particular subject. That's part of being universal - the scientific method is effectively inescapable if one is to make a point that's not merely enforced but that enforces itself regardless of the force of the one making it.

It is not very different with behaviorism. From within science it is criticized for assuming that all can be reduced to behaviour. Behaviorism, strictly spoken, does not do anything of the kind. It merely says that in looking at something one only can look at what can be observed. A typical format of answer in the attack on behaviorism reverts to sensations, qualia & other subjectives that, supposedly, cannot be observed externally & at the same time are needed in any worthwhile explanation if we do not want to stoop so low as to claim we are merely carbon-rich automata. The move, now within 'science', is, indeed, not very different from the relativist one; not behavorism is decried but some sufficiently deformed caricature of behaviorism is put forward that is more or less as mysterious as the 'traditional' points of view. Once the caricature can be pointed at anything goes & everybody can remain at ease in his traditional wooliness. 

Resisting the caricature it is however clear that the behavioristic point of view is the universal point of view. The only way of looking at something allowing a critical discussion is to refer to things that can be observed. When a group of subjects have the same taste the investigation starts from an observation of behaviour. Even when a single person is said to have a certain taste, that is an assertion that can only be made by virtue of previsouly observed external behaviour. The fact that a certain taste is provoked in a certain individual by an innate mechanism proper to that individual that is itself not 'external' in a superficial way is still a fact that can only be established by first observing an external behaviour not only of that individual but of other, more or less, like individuals.

The fear that has been making a come-back clearly is that science is too cold, & behaviorism unbearably light compared to more grandiose positions. Maybe one can be sympathetic to this kind of nostalgia - I am not - but nostalgia can never take the place of reason. Whether unbearably cold or light, whatever a thing we start out with we only have the form of our universal methods to be able to cope with it & this quite regardless of the instinctive ambition we have to make substantive claims about its content or the content. The alternative is simply to regress to the beastly state of using physical strength to ascertain the way ahead & the semi-beastly state of reducing language to semi-poetic ungrammatical babble in propagandaic support of what happens to be your preferred position.

To use language in order to destroy the proper use of language is the most universal crime against humanity. To use mathematics & logic to destroy the proper use of mathematics & logic is intellectual suicide. Unfortunately, we're not very bothered by either the crime or the suicide, as long as our position's the one that in the end prevails. 

But it remains - contra Quine - that there is something like mathematics, that that something is precise & that neither science nor language can be seen as independent from it. That is a mystery, all attempts to ground mathematics in a psychological or empirical way are self-defeating. The truth is that in order to do science or to speak a language one is to presuppose something pure & precise that permeates the form of every argument without ever contending anything at all as to the substantial content of anything.

In this sense, maybe, there is something absolute assumed prior to science & which cannot be in its turn be approached with the method of science nor can be shed light on by observing any external behavour. But relativists have not gained a lot unless they want to get rid of mathematics & logic alltogether in defence of their own point of view (that's the way of the mystics - but there's yet to be spotted a mystic that remains consistent - and hence isolated - for a long time).


(to be redone)

17:57 Gepost door Guido Nius in Algemeen | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: quine, language, form-content |  Facebook |

De commentaren zijn gesloten.