A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

The Web of Belief – A Reading Note 2

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on May 21, 2007

Continuing from the paragraph quoted in previous post, Quine further writes (my italics):

In an early page we asked what sorts of things were the objects of belief. Then we gratefully dropped that question, noticing that we could instead talk of sentences and of believing them true. Now a similar maneuver conduces to clarity in dealing with the notion of observation: let us ask no longer what counts as an observation, but turn rather to language and ask what counts as an observation sentence.

What makes a sentence an observation sentence is not what sort of event or situation it describes, but how it describes it. Thus I may see the dean of the law school mail a birthday check to his daughter in Belgium. Saying so in these terms does not qualify as an observation sentence. If on the other hand I describe that same event by saying that I saw a stout man with a broad face, a gray moustache, rimless spectacles, a Homburg hat, and a walking stick, putting a small white flat flimsy object into the slot of a mailbox, this is an observation sentence. What makes it an observation sentence is that any second witness would be bound to agree with me on all points then and there, granted merely an understanding of my language. The witness would not be bound to agree that it was the dean, whom he or she might not know, nor expected to know anything about the check or a daughter in Belgium.

About agreement on observational sentences… As I’ve said in the past posts about illusions, it seems to me an obvious fact that different things, (and there I mean completely different things), can appear same way, depending on…

  • characteristic of things
  • which kind of sensual modality (or access) is in question
  • the characteristic of that sensory access. For example in case of seeing – where we are seeing the things from, from what angle, do we wear glasses, are we sleepy, is there a fog, has anybody tampered with our brain, etc…

So, I think, that instead of “second witness would be bound to agree with me on all points then and there, granted merely an understanding of my language”, it would be better to speak that in case of observational sentences the second witness would be bound to agree that the situation seems such and such (granted merely an understanding of the language).

However, when we give up the possibility of sense-data language, I don’t think there is much sense to talk about infallibility of this kind of observational sentences. As there is not some factual state to which we have infallible access.

  1. This IS NOT going back to sense-data description, or to some
    “phenomenal seeming” which would be divorced from the world, and about which we could give some statements.
  2. According to the given analysis, the usage of “it seems that T” doesn’t mean that T is the case, but that among other things if T is the case, it would appear like whatever is the case appears now.
  3. Seeming or Appearance are always to someone. Something can’t appear except to someone. (Notice the symmetry with e.g. One can’t see without seeing something) So implicitly ‘seems’ is ‘seems to me’. And this further acknowledges that there might be limits to my perception, or limits to what I have focused on, or what I’m ignorant of, because of which it appears to me that T.

So, the report is then not a infallible report of some phenomenal fact, but just report of a judgment that we do. Something like “That might be car, but maybe it is not.”. It is hard to see that as some kind of infallible report (though of course, it is hard to see how it can be wrong too).

The Quine’s position on this issue is not like the one I’m presenting here though. He seems to acknowledge that there is some kind of “private experience” and sense-data, and that there are such things as “I’m in pain” and “I seem to see blue”, which would be reports about that “private experience”…

We remarked that some philosophers have identified observations with events of sensation. It is thus not to be wondered that in some philosophical writings the title of observation sentence is reserved for sentences very different from observation sentences as we have defined them. It is reserved for introspective reports like “I am in pain” and “I seem to see blue now.” Such reports also have been rated as infallible. It must be conceded that they tend to be incontestable, because of the speaker’s privileged access to his or her private experience. But on this very point they differ diametrically from observation sentences in our sense. The situations that make them true are not ones to which multiple witnesses could attest.


3 Responses to “The Web of Belief – A Reading Note 2”

  1. I think you are misreading that last quote you put up. Quine is contrasting his view of what an observational sentence is with the “standard” view of the sense-data theorists, of which he is not one!

  2. Hi Richard,

    Right, in that paragraph he is distinguishing his observational sentences from introspective reports.
    However in that distinguishing, it seems to me that he is allowing that both those distinguished things can be there side by side. So, that there is both a)private experience to which we have infallible access, and b)the observational sentences.

    And if a) is allowed it seems to me that is very close to keeping sense-data in the story, though maybe without the role of something which would ground the observation sentences. So, I wanted to distinguish his view there, with the view I presented, in which there is no separate private experience to which we have infallible access.

    But, I might easily be wrong, as this is first thing I read from Quine (except the Two Dogmas), so he might be on this place just putting aside that view (of private experiences to which one has infallible access), without explicitly attacking it.

  3. As far as I know, Quine is a huge critic of that kind of view.

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