A Brief Note on Philosophy and Rhetoric

In What Philosophers Know (2007), Garry Gutting showed that Quine didn’t demonstrate the truth of his arguments against the two dogmas of empiricism, analyticity and reductionism. Indeed, he hardly argued his case at all:

Quine’s holism, along with his related naturalism and pragmatism, seems supported by nothing more than persuasive rhetoric. His presentation is impressive as a philosophical manifesto or program, but not as a cogent argument for a conclusion. (P. 30.)

Other philosophers agree. Richard Creath says that “there is no explicit argument…. We are left to conclude that the elegance and coherence of his positive views are intended by Quine to be the argument” (p. 30).

Tyler Burdge recognizes that Quine makes arguments, but that those “against the second dogma are unsound” and that “the metaphors, slogans, and observations invoked to recommend them do not … make them cogent.” Quine’s holism “is not argued anywhere in depth,” and “the view rides on the waves of assertion and metaphor” (p. 29).

Gutting adds that “Quine’s critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction is based on unjustified controversial assumptions,” in particular those of Skinnerian behaviorism (p. 22).

This doesn’t mean that Quine’s arguments weren’t important. Gutting quotes Gilbert Hartman: “few philosophers were converted to Quinian skepticism about the distinction at first, but there followed an intense exploration, in which numerous attempts to defend the distinction proved ineffective” (p. 25). The exploration showed that “analytic” could not be defined without using concepts such as “necessary” and “self-contradictory,” but it didn’t show that there was no valid analytic-synthetic distinction.

The episode says something about the philosophical enterprise: it isn’t all about making conclusive arguments. Sometimes philosophy can move forward when someone draws attention to a problem in a way that makes looking into it seem exciting, rewarding, or otherwise attractive. A philosopher can paint a picture of a problem without making an argument, and a good picture can set the stage for argument. Philosophy and rhetoric aren’t necessarily the enemies that Plato made them out to be.

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