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  • Working from Within: The Nature and Development of Quine’s Naturalism by Sander Verhaegh
  • Sean Morris
Sander Verhaegh. Working from Within: The Nature and Development of Quine’s Naturalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xxi + 218. Cloth, $74.00.

Verhaegh’s excellent book provides the first complete account of Quine’s naturalism. Guiding Quine’s view is the idea that we cannot stand outside our theory of the world. We are always working from within. Only by understanding this idea do we see what Quine’s naturalism comes to.

While many philosophers casually treat Quine’s naturalism as something already well-understood, Verhaegh does not, and he dedicates part 1 to its systematic exposition. According to him, this consists of two components: “the principled rejection of transcendental perspectives and the adoption of a perspective immanent to our scientific conceptual scheme,” both based on Quine’s view that we must always be working from within (11). Verhaegh discusses Quine’s epistemology and metaphysics. I will consider the latter, as it is less familiar and also shows some of the significance this book has beyond Quine scholarship. [End Page 162]

Quine’s claim that he is blurring the boundary between metaphysics and natural science has often been taken as rescuing metaphysics from attacks by Rudolf Carnap and other logical empiricists. Verhaegh explains that this reading does not fit with Quine’s own claims against metaphysics, sounding like those Carnap made in terms of internal and external questions. Carnap distinguishes between two types of internal-external distinctions:

(I/E1) that between meaningful internal questions and meaningless metaphysical external questions; and

(I/E2) that between internal theoretical questions and external practical questions.

According to Verhaegh, Quine would have to reject (I/E1) if he intended to resurrect the metaphysics Carnap railed against. Instead, Quine attacks (I/E2) on grounds that he sees no in-principle distinction between theoretical and practical questions. Interesting here is Verhaegh’s account of Carnap and Quine on the (I/E1) distinction. Carnap and Quine appear to agree on traditional metaphysics, dismissing it as meaningless. We have to be careful, though, since Quine, unlike Carnap, rejects any general metalinguistic criterion for what counts as meaningful. Quine, Verhaegh explains, understands “meaningless” as “useless from a scientific point of view” (53). He then dismisses traditional metaphysics from within science, which shows that working within is fundamental to Quine’s naturalism. I find this interpretation important also in furthering our understanding of Carnap and Quine by, on the one hand, uniting them in philosophical attitude, while, on the other, showing their differences more clearly. Furthermore, this point has general consequences for understanding the development of analytic philosophy. Instead of seeing Quine’s views on metaphysics as a significant break with Carnap and the empiricist tradition, we see Quine and Carnap take a similar stance on this topic. We might then view them as the culmination of a scientific tradition in analytic philosophy, distinguished from much of the ensuing contemporary analytic metaphysics.

In part 2, Verhaegh provides a developmental account of Quine’s naturalism, starting with his earliest attempt at a comprehensive philosophy: the book project Sign and Object, begun in 1941 and halted in 1946 as the result of two problems. First, Quine had not been able to develop a comprehensive account of language, meaning, and the nature of logical and mathematical knowledge. He had long been unsatisfied with Carnap’s account in terms of the analytic-synthetic distinction but had not yet found anything better. Second, although Quine had already committed himself to realism, he still lacked a response to phenomenalist views that sense experience is more fundamental than physical objects (93–94).

Interestingly, Verhaegh observes that Quine’s solutions to these problems come after the 1951 “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” True, Quine rejects the analytic-synthetic distinction in the latter, adopting a holistic epistemology, but the point was largely negative, with only a sketchy replacement. Verhaegh suggests that many readers overlook this, reading instead Quine’s mature epistemological holism back into that paper (98). Furthermore, Quine says nothing about phenomenalism and the problem of epistemic priority (99). Only in the following year...


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