25 April 2010

Morton White and the Dualism of the Analytic and Synthetic

I just finished Morton White's 1950 essay "The Analytic and the Synthetic: An Untenable Dualism", which is something Quine footnotes near the end of "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". I liked it; it's a nice companion piece to Quine's essay. Here are some observations, largely made to help me remember them later.

White's essay opens as follows: "John Dewey has spent a good part of his life hunting and shooting at dualisms: body-mind, theory-practice, percept-concept, value-science, learning-doing, sensation-thought, external-internal. They are always fair game and Dewey's prose rattles with fire whenever they come into view."

It's this Deweyan approach to dualisms that guides White throughout the piece; whereas Quine seems (especially outside of "Two Dogmas" itself) purely skeptical of notions like "meaning" and "synonymy". Many of the arguments White makes are similar to ones in Quine, but the way they pose the challenge is slightly different: most of "Two Dogmas" is devoted to trying to find a non-circular definition of "analytic", most of "An Untenable Dualism" is devoted to trying to find a way to draw a sharp line between analytic and synthetic statements in ordinary language. In both cases, the conclusion reached is that any distinction we can make sense of here is plausibly one of degree rather than kind (centrality vs. periphery in a web of belief, for Quine), but this conclusion is much more centrally stated in White. White's piece ends as follows: "[If the analytic-synthetic distinction is only one of degree] an unbridgeable chasm will no longer divide those who see meanings or essences and those who collect facts. Another revolt against dualism will have succeeded."

It's also worth noting that Quine called his version of empiricism "pragmatist" just because that was the label Carnap gave to the view he was opposing, and this position was what Quine took up to defend; White does not call his view "pragmatist", but does align himself with Dewey. So you have primarily nominal versus primarily movementarian pragmatism in the two authors.

One place where White distinguishes himself from Quine (explicitly) is that where Quine suspected he would need a behavioristic criterion for sameness of meaning to make any sense of the notion, White only asks for a term extensionally equivalent to "X is synonymous with Y" (other than "X has the same meaning as Y" and others which are similarly in need of clarification), as "X is a featherless biped" is to "X is a rational animal". I don't think these demands differ a great deal in practice, but it's always nice to be able to trim away some of the mid-century behaviorist trappings of Quine's thought.

One bit from White that's not explicitly in "Two Dogmas" resembles an early version of the thesis of the indeterminacy of translation. White notes that if we're dealing with a formal language some logician has cooked up, it can be a simple matter to say whether "X is a rational animal" and "X is a man" mean the same or not: the language can simply have explicit meaning postulates (here he grants his opponent more than Quine does). But if we then try to decide whether a given artificial language is "the rational reconstruction" for a natural language, no means of deciding this has been provided; White concludes that the attempt is suspect. He makes the same point with regards to attempting to treat analyticity as a matter of convention: no criterion has been given for distinguishing between what is conventional in language and what is there for other reasons, though in particular cases we can establish explicit conventions of word-usage without much trouble.

White is also much more explicit about the sorry state of contrary-to-fact conditionals than Quine is (in "Two Dogmas" anyway), and his criticisms are more extensive than those Quine made (at least when it comes to modal semantics, as opposed to modal logic). Quine notes the connection between meaning and essence in passing ("Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word"), but White explicitly sets himself against "essentialism" repeatedly. A discussion of C.I. Lewis's views on modality makes him sound awfully Kripkean:

He holds that I only need to make what he calls an "experiment in imagination" to find out whether all men are necessarily rational animals. And when I try this experiment I am supposed to conclude that I cannot consistently think of, that I cannot conceive of, a man who is not a rational animal. But how shall we interpret this "cannot"? How shall we understand "thinkable"? I suspect that this view leads us to a private, intuitive insight for determining what each of us individually can conceive.... One either sees or doesn't see the relationship and that is the end of the matter. It is very difficult to argue one's difficulties with such a position, and I shall only say that I do not find this early retreat to intuition satisfactory.
So, it seems that even before modal logic & semantics were made respectable (by Kripke's soundness and completeness proofs and his possible worlds semantics), the semantics had a similar sort of backing to it: we're supposed to just have intuitions about modal matters, and that's what the modal logic is used to talk about. This is exactly how Kripke handles things like the necessity of origins; the fact that we're supposed to get similar "insights" from science in the case of "Water is necessarily H2O" and "Gold is necessarily the element with the atomic number 79" does not seem to me to make those less suspect. In both cases the modal element seems to come from a magical faculty we are supposed to each have that lets us know an essential predication when we see one.

Finally, White's article is just a fun read. At one point he considers the defense that we can identify self-contradictory claims because they "produce a certain feeling of horror or queerness on the part of the people who use the language". White notes that for this to work
we will have to be careful to distinguish the horror associated with denying firmly believed synthetic statements from that surrounding the denials of analytic statements. The distinction must not only be a distinction that carves out two mutually exclusive classes of sentences but it must carve them out in a certain way. It would be quite disconcerting to the philosophers I have been criticizing to have the whole of physics or sociology turn out as analytic on their criterion and only a few parts of mathematics.

1 comment:

Duck said...

Thanks, I always intended to read White -- in fact I have a couple of his books around here somewhere. I don't remember anyone making much of the difference between him and Quine; there's usually just a perfunctory footnote and then it's back to Quine. Maybe Putnam does though.