Treading Water in Neurth's Ship: Quine, Davidson, Rorty


  • Chistopher Norris Univeristy of wales



This article examines what I take to be some of the wrong turns and false dilemmas that analytic philosophy has run into since Quine's well-known attack on the two `last dogmas' of old style Logical Empiricism. In particular it traces the consequences of Quine's argument for a thoroughly naturalized epistemology, one that would view philosophy of science as 'all the philosophy we need', and that defines `philosophy of science' in narrowly physicalist terms. I contend that this amounts to a third residual dogma of empincism and that its effect has been chiefly to restrict the range of post-Quinean debate by setting an agenda which preemptively excludes all interest in the wider (i. e., critical and normative) dimensions of philosophic enquiry. Its znfluence can be seen In various responses to Quine, among them those of Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty, both of whom adopt a similar, reductively physicalist approach to issues of meaning, knowledge and truth. Where Davidson takes issue with other Quinean doctrines such as framework-relativism and radical meaning-variance, Rorty pushes those doctrines right through to a wholesale relativist (or `textualist´) position according to which interpretation is completely unconstrained by the mere face of a causal 'correspondence' between beliefs and reality. What they both share — and what thus lays Davidson open to a revisionist reading zn Rorty's favoured style — is this Quine-derived notion that beliefs can be explained in terms of a reflex stimulus-response psychology that finds no room for nor mative issues of epistemological warrant or justification. For it will then seem plausible for Rorty to claim that any 'beliefs' acquired by such a rudimentary mechanism are compatible with pretty much any higher-level theory or description that one cares to place upon them. My article goes on to criticize Rorty's most extreme statement of the case — in his essay 'Texts and Lumps' — and (more constructively) to suggest some ways forward from this post-empiricist predicament.

Author Biography

Chistopher Norris, Univeristy of wales

My BA degree (First-Class Honours in English Literature) was awarded by the University of London in 1970, as was my Ph.D. five years later (thesis topic: ‘William Empson and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism’). My first teaching post was at the University of Duisburg in West Germany (1974-6), after which I worked for a year as Assistant Editor of the magazine Books and Bookmen and then came to Cardiff as a lecturer in the UWIST English Department. In 1987 I was appointed to a chair in the recently-merged joint institution (University of Wales, Cardiff College) and then – in 1991 – crossed over to the Philosophy Department, mainly as a result of changes in my fields of teaching and research over the previous few years. I was awarded the title Distinguished Research Professor in 1997, which has brought relief from most administrative duties although I continue to teach a full complement of undergraduate and graduate courses. These include BA modules on Philosophy of Science, Modern French Philosophy, Deconstruction, Literary Theory, and Philosophy of History.
At MA level I offer courses on ‘Philosophy of Language in the “Two Traditions”’, ‘Deconstruction and Analytic Philosophy’, and ‘Topics in Recent Analytic Philosophy’, along with classes on research methodology and writing skills. Since coming to Cardiff I have supervised 23 successful Ph.D. candidates whose thesis topics have ranged over most of my own chief interests and fields of research. At present these have to do mainly with philosophy of music, deconstruction, and the work of Alain Badiou, about whom I am currently completing a book, due for publication in 2009. Teaching Interests: Philosophy of Science; Epistemology; Philosophy of Language; Modern Continental Philosophy (especially the work of Jacques Derrida).