if husserl then quine

husserl quine

The confined space of philosophical inquiry is the work of doing philosophy. It is where we can witness philosophy’s involvement in our lives as it positions or eludes itself upon deliberate reading. In the 1950s W.V.O. Quine subdued key problems with logical empiricism. Sometime before that, Edmund Husserl founded and elaborated phenomenology around the turn of the last century. Both thinkers will be brought together here to find any unique confluence along with their differences, and then to think about how the a priori/ a posteriori, along with the analytic-synthetic, are reconciled by both thinkers.

Husserl, in the Logical Investigations set forth the momentum to solidify a philosophy of “pure phenomenology” (Husserl2 86). “This phenomenology […], has, as its exclusive concern, experiences intuitively sizable and analyzable in the pure generality of their essence […]” (Husserl2 86). This statement underscores Husserl’s phenomenological project as it is directly related to essences, or better said: the eidetic. “Phenomenology is an eidetic science because its descriptions are not empirical” (Moran, Cohen 93). Because Husserl thought of the eidetic in this fundamental way, he had to purify certain philosophical methods of knowing the world essentially. Husserl occupies that unique place somewhere at the origins of continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. This blend is made evident, not necessarily in his methods, but rather in a few of his major concerns, re: logic, language, mathematics, science and so on. There is considerable evidence that he corresponded with Gottlob Frege, the well known analytic philosopher/mathematician, on thorny arithmetical issues. To this relationship, Michael Dummett in his preface to The Shorter Logical Investigations suggests that there was an antagonistic break between the two thinkers and that this could possibly be where the split (between analytic philosophy and phenomenology) took place. One philosophy (phenomenology) fractures with the other philosophy (analytic philosophy) where the former was “[…] investigating intuitions of essences, [and the latter was] analyzing language […] (Husserl1 xxii).

The mention of Frege is not gratuitous since it offers us the excuse to make the turn ourselves, that is, to look at, and to possibly restore, a fundamental (a priori/ a posteriori and analytic/synthetic) link from phenomenology to the analytic tradition. In W.V.O. Quine’s celebrated 1951 paper Two Dogmas of Empiricism, he seeks to eradicate a major problem with the single-track empiricism had taken, as he clearly states in his opening paragraph “[m]odern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is the belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic […] and truths which are synthetic […] (455). It is precisely in Quine’s labor to dispel this dogma where we are led to what might be an uncanny reconciliation between phenomenology and what Quine does to “analyticity” (457). The other dogma Quine speaks of is reductionism “[…] the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience” (455). Although different on the surface, the “two dogmas” do overlap as each addresses common assumptions. But what are Husserl’s implications for Quine’s project thereof? Quine made use of the analytic-synthetic distinction to dissolve it and Husserl brought the a priori down to earth. If these terms are said to be related to any additional claims about the a priori/ a posteriori, then we will now look at the terms themselves to show how there are obvious affinities. One set is semantical (analytic/synthetic) and the other set is epistemological (a priori/a posteriori).

Defined together, the a priori and the a posteriori, accompanied with the analytic and the synthetic, make complementary pairs. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (hereafter CDP) defines the a-priori as “prior to or independent of experience; contrasted with ‘a posteriori’ (empirical)” (35). Then the CDP defines the so-called analytic-synthetic distinction,

[…] the distinction made famous by Kant, according to which an affirmative subject-predicate statement (proposition, judgment) is called analytic if the predicate concept is contained in the subject concept, and synthetic otherwise” (26).

The a priori, then, is traditionally characterized as the operation of mind that works with such things as mathematics and formal logic. This means that the a posteriori are things that need experiential evidence to be verified. Likewise, the analytic can be seen as the semantic variant of the a priori whereby the concept is suspended within a word like ‘triangle’ as it contains its own definition within the way a word means ‘three sided figure with angles adding up to 180°’. This should explain what the synthetic is, as again, the semantic equivalent to the a posteriori where we have to verify a claim by reaching to an actual account of, say, ‘a six inch equilateral triangle’—it’s not verified by the self-contained analytic account. As for the difference between the four terms, in the CDP’s explication of the analytic-synthetic distinction we find that “Kant’s innovation over Leibniz and Hume lay in separating the logosemantic analytic-synthetic distinction from the epistemological a priori-a posteriori distinction […]” (27). This helps us to see that if the analytic-synthetic is ‘logosemantic’ we will have to recognize it as strongly connected to the logical components of semantics. Said differently, the analytic-synthetic has to do with the way words, facts and statements logically mean something. This might suggest a slight hierarchy of the a priori over the analytic, but we have no conclusive evidence on this. Of significance here will be to notice how the four terms are combined, since the combination becomes the question toward what’s at stake. In short, we might be mistaken to think of these arbitrary and clear-cut lines of demarcation that neatly partition one from the other—since, we already know our world to consist of these seemingly contrary terms in tandem.

In Quine’s paper he tells us that “Kant conceived of an analytic statement as one that attributes to its subject no more than is conceptually contained in the subject” (455). With this said, Quine tries to move from such a claim to offer a critique that questions how such a term is related to meaning. He throws off an idea that meaning has to do with naming (after Frege) and reference (after Russell) (455). As soon as he clarifies these distinctions, he soon finds the ‘dogma’ pushed in a corner. “Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing […] the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements […] as obscure intermediary entities […]” (Quine 456). He must be showing us that if we are to take logical empiricism’s dogma seriously, all we are left with is synonymy. Basically, we are left with other words that are merely synonymous to the original terms. This posits a defect in the idea since it doesn’t make sense that we can have this sterile analytic strictness logical empiricism tacitly asks for. All we are left with are the words said to be synonymous with each other and this renders meaning to simply changing the words around whereby equivalencies can be mismanaged, entangled and distorted.

Quine moves to definition. When we set out to define a bachelor, he “[…] is defined as an ‘unmarried man’” (Quine 457). This example too has to succumb to the problem with synonymy because a dictionary still has to rely on empirical facts that break away from logical empiricism’s supposed analytic stringency. Quine desperately (though with informed measure) turns to ‘interchangeability’ to see if he can solve the problem from there. This too is soon brushed aside with regard to the fact that this too begins to look a lot like synonymy. Then in a sharp last ditch effort, he tries on the notion of semantical rules, i.e. can we solve the original problem of defining analycity strictly on its own terms without recourse to extra-analytical terms (re: synthetic terms)? This just sends us into another digression with Quine as he admits the difficulty of bringing in meta-languages and the like. It is as if he’s asking, who has the energy for a fruitless appeal to a meta-language to solve a problem (that couldn’t be solved with the original language to begin with)? In a welcome flash of frustration Quine throws up his hands “[i]t is obvious that truth in general depends on both language and extralinguistic fact” (462). This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is the harmony we craved from the start. Quine had to put his philosophical weapons down only to conclude that the analytic can’t be as logical empiricism assumes it to be–compartmentalized from the synthetic. In spite of all the pain getting to this, this is good news.

While making a point on how philosophy confuses meaning with extension and how Aristotle’s notion of essence does not answer this problem, Quine shows that man cannot be reduced to basic meaning in and of itself, something like an idea that man is en-mattered and essentially rational. Then we find two of Quine’s extraordinary sentences: “Things had essences, for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word” (456). This is important for our shift to Husserl because Quine, via Aristotle, refers to essences, which are central to phenomenology but not as much for Quine. But other than this ‘essentialist’ problem, there’s a deeper relevancy to be found, which is explained by Husserl’s concept of the ‘synthetic a priori’. This includes essences and brings in a law of “parts and wholes” (177). These parts and wholes constitute a priori laws that are “laws of essence” (177). The parts and wholes must be meant to represent a general way that we categorize the world by means of the a priori. In Husserl’s aggressively opaque writing he has to then extend the a priori to matter, to the “synthetic a priori, as opposed to laws which are analytically a priori […]” (178). Why is this important with respect to Quine? Again, because Quine makes the elaborate but incredible point that the analytic can’t be cut away from the synthetic. Husserl makes a similar move, yet in his radical phenomenological idiom. This turn of the a priori to the synthetic started with Kant. The Husserl Dictionary indicates “Thus for Kant ‘7 + 5 = 12’ is an a priori synthetic truth. Similarly, Kant argued that every event has a cause’” this also belongs to his way of thinking about an a priori synthetic truth (Moran, Cohen 41). From this we have found the master link upon which Husserl offered some of the above refinements that took the a priori away from the distillations that logical empiricism wanted to impose on it.

In Husserl’s late work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Sciences (hereafter The Crisis), where his phenomenology became more crystallized, we find him calling upon other varieties of the a priori. There’s the a priori of the “life-world” (Husserl1 140). There’s an “objective a priori”, and a “universal a priori” (Husserl1 140). Most radical is his “universal pre-logical a priori” (Husserl1 140). This is Husserl pushing and extending away from the a priori as limited to only mathematics and logic and fully welcoming it to the life world. Husserl summarizes this move as such: “[…] all that counts is the distinction in principle between the objective-logical and the life world a priori […]” (141). Turning back to Quine, under his entry from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (hereafter REP), we find him credited with “dethroning the a priori” (6). This has the above mentioned reasons, whereby he works to dissolve the analytic/synthetic polarity. This nexus, although slight, has to be in the way Husserl ‘materializes’ the a priori brought together here with Quine’s ‘dethroning’.

A crucial step would have to be to make the clarification with Quine’s resolve to language “[o]bservational sentences serve as both the starting point in human language learning as well as the empirical grounds for science” (REP 5). The approach is considered to be a feature of Quine’s holism, whereby,

[…] one relies […] on two components which are already part of the naturalist’s ontology: the physical happening at the nerve endings, the neural input or stimulus; and the linguistic entity, the observational sentence” (REP 5).

This reserves the observational sentence to a primary way to know the world before we are taught any scientific knowledge. In other words, the observer has direct contact to observation. This is awfully close to Husserl’s conception of a scientific way of knowing the world getting in the way of actual experience. In The Crisis, Husserl talks at length of such problems “[…] what is still lacking, is the actual self-evidence through which he who knows and accomplishes can give himself an account […]” in spite of the scientific accounts that are muddled by “[…] sedimentation or traditionalization […]” (52).

Given any of the above conclusions, we should not surmise that Quine was a phenomenologist, or that Husserl was an analytic logician. Although admittedly, Husserl took a profound interest in analytic and logical problems, there does seem to be a distinguishable affiliation. Incidentally, we did find a 1994 paper by David Woodruff Smith that is humorously titled “How to Husserl a Quine—and a Heidegger, Too.” In the paper Smith takes a totally different path from ours to compare the philosophers. Smith rightly concerns himself with ‘intentionality’ a cherished term for phenomenology. Intentionality roughly translates as consciousness always comported with something—consciousness is the lived world. This term (intentionality) was borrowed by Husserl from his mentor Franz Brentano. Smith deftly shows Quine writing on Brentano and admitting to a philosophical use of the intentional via his (Quine’s) “web of belief” (163). This web of belief is definitely a part of Quine’s holism, whereby observational sentences are not suspended in a vacuum. These sentences are reliant on other observational sentences and are inextricably related in elaborately known and obscure ways, thus holism.

Thanks to Quine, some of the problems of logical empiricism have been torn away from their original hubris or naiveté. Our prerogative resembles Husserl’s urging to “return to the things themselves” (Moran, Cohen 250). This philosophical maneuver enables us to return to the world itself, seen, touched, observed, spoken of etc. And we can then do this in all of Quine’s holistically observational circumstances.

Although Husserl and Quine worked in seemingly disparate fields of philosophical research, upon further exploration we have found a probable blending that uses the a priori/a posteriori and the analytic/synthetic to show us that, in general, our ways of speaking and experiencing the world cannot be compartmentalized into neat inseparable drawers. If Husserl materialized the a priori, then Quine dissolved the arbitrary partition logical positivism placed on the synthetic/analytic question.

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 1999. Print.

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Trans. David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970. Print.

—. The Shorter Logical Investigations. Trans. J.N. Findlay. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Moran, Dermot and Joseph Cohen. The Husserl Dictionary. New York, NY: Continuum Books, 2012. Print.

Smith, David Woodruff. “How to Husserl a Quine and a Heidegger, Too.” Synthese 98, 1994, 153-174. Print

“W.V.O. Quine.” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 8. Ed. Edward Craig. New York, NY: Routledge, 1998, 3-13. Print.

W.V.O. Quine. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophy of Language. Eds. A.P. Martinich, David Sosa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 455-457. Print.

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