[This is an invited guest post by Joel Katzav--ES]
Grace A. de Laguna and Willard V. O. Quine contributed papers to a symposium at the 1950 APA Eastern Division meeting, a symposium that aimed to present reviews of what were then the main trends in critical and speculative philosophy. The papers were subsequently published in The Philosophical Review. Willard and his contribution about critical philosophy, that is his Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1951), are well known; the paper introduced his ‘revolutionary’ confirmation holism, his view that all statements (including those of logic and mathematics) are revisable and his critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction. These theses helped to propel Willard to international fame. Grace and her paper Speculative Philosophy (1951), by contrast, have been forgotten. And yet, Grace and her husband Theodore de Laguna had, in 1910, defended more sophisticated variants of Willard’s famous theses than can be found in Two Dogmas. Indeed, they presented their variants of the theses in criticising earlier, widely known, pragmatist variants. Willard’s paper, it appears, was a step backwards, and its fame appears to rest partly on collective amnesia.
Theodore and Grace’s 1910 book Dogmatism and Evolution: Studies in Modern Philosophy (1910) develops their evolutionary epistemology against the backdrop of a critique of pragmatist evolutionary epistemology and confirmation holism, and of, more broadly, modern philosophy. Their discussion includes a lengthy case for confirmation (and meaning) holism. Here is the case’s concluding statement of holism as well as how holism is used to argue that all beliefs are revisable:
[o]ur thoughts direct our conduct, and it is in this service that their meaning ultimately consists; but every concept means both more and less than any particular application of it contains.
To this we have added that the reference of a concept to a mode of conduct is never direct. The concept never directly bridges the gap between stimulus and response. On the contrary, thought is a long-circuiting of the connection, and its whole character depends upon its indirectness, its involution, if we may use the term. Though concepts, apart from the conduct which they prompt, mean nothing, yet their meaning is never analyzable except into other concepts, indirect like the first in their reference to conduct.
….Nowhere is there an absolute given, a self-sufficient first premise. From this, as well as from the indirect and equivocal nature of the reference of thought to conduct, it follows that the confirmation or invalidation of a concept by the result of the conduct which it serves to guide can itself be no more than tentative (ibid., p. 206).
Grace and Theodore are explicit that logic too is revisable. They write that
logic, like geometry and mechanics, represents a stage in the development of scientific universality, not the ideal consummation…..The vital question is whether the underlying concept of number itself, and below it the concepts of implication and inclusion, are absolutely final. This we see no sufficient reason to believe. On the contrary, the utterly unexpected development which the concept of number has recently undergone through researches in the theory of infinite numbers is an index of the possibilities which may yet be in store. Nothing could ever have seemed more necessary than that if 2X — X, X = 0; and yet we know today that there is a distinct class of other roots (ibid., pp. 159-160).
The bare commitment to confirmation holism and the revisability of all beliefs basically captures what Willard tells us about these issues in the final section of Two Dogmas, as well as what is to be found (see, e.g., Ben Menahem 2016) in early twentieth century pragmatism. But Dogmatism and Evolution goes well beyond this in developing confirmation holism. To begin with it explains that, while it is always the case that our beliefs include beliefs that contradict each other as well as that they, collectively, always contradict some observations, it is not the case that these contradictions automatically lead to belief revision (1910, p. 154). Rather, we evaluate the beliefs in a given domain primarily according to the standards and purposes of that domain, and it is these standards and purposes which tell us what attitude to take towards tensions between beliefs:
Because the special science is so remote in its reference to common life and so entirely controlled in its progress by its own special end, it becomes a system relatively independent of the great body of cognitive experience (ibid., p. 200).
Thus, for example, the standards of economics at a given time largely determine whether available observations become a problem for a theory in economics rather than merely something that can be explained away by an appeal to ceteris paribus clauses (ibid., p. 152). The resulting picture of evolving belief is strongly reminiscent of what we find much later in Thomas S. Kuhn’s or Imre Lakatos’s descriptions of the development of science, though Grace and Theodore develop more sophisticated accompanying theories of meaning and learning than these philosophers do.
Consider now the analytic-synthetic distinction, where this distinction is between statements that are true in virtue of their meaning and statements that are true but not in virtue of their meaning. Grace and Theodore deny there are truths that hold in virtue of meaning. All concepts, according to Dogmatism and Evolution, have as part of their meaning a reference to conduct and are judged by their ability to control conduct, including thought; this applies to the concepts of logic (ibid., pp. 206-207, 210, 212). Nevertheless, the book, like Two Dogmas, recognises that there should be a difference between the way in which logic relates to experience and the way in which more directly empirical concepts do. However, while Two Dogmas leaves this difference unclarified – it is simply taken to be a matter of our natural tendency to disturb our system of beliefs as little as possible (1951, pp. 40-41) – Dogmatism and Evolution provides a clarification of what the difference involves. Supposedly, it has been useful, from an evolutionary perspective, to develop ways of evaluating mental states in circumstances in which the stimuli which gave rise to the states are absent (1910, p. 140-1). As a result, logic has acquired a particularly high degree of autonomy from experience (ibid., pp. 205-210).
The de Lagunas go on to develop their views in far more detail than I have provided; they, for example, allow themselves a notion of analyticity, one that is a matter of degree, even though they reject the idea of truth in virtue of meaning. But I want to return to the observation that Willard’s fame was partly due to Two Dogmas. Part of the explanation for the impact of the paper is its criticism of logical positivism, but we can now add to, and go deeper than, this. To begin with, Willard and those involved in promoting Two Dogmas were not concerned with representing the existing problem situation in American epistemology of the time. For not only did they ignore the views of the classical pragmatists, but they ignored the development of such views by critics of pragmatism such as Theodore and Grace. If Willard and his fans did not know about these developments, it was because they did not bother to find out what some of the most prominent and widely read epistemologists and philosophers of language in America thought. Willard need only have, during his formative years as a philosopher, consulted the widely read Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements (Adams and Montague 1930) in order to find particularly neat statements of what came to be some of his central positions. The statements are from Theodore’s overview of his own philosophy, an overview that appeared alongside similar overviews by thirty-three other prominent American philosophers. The philosophers were selected by a referendum vote of the three divisions of the American Philosophical Association and included – in addition to Theodore – John Dewey, George Santayana and Clarence I. Lewis. Willard could also have just asked Grace.
Two Dogma’s prominence, and hence Quine’s fame, may also partly have depended on a broader phenomenon, namely the development of collective amnesia about the work of philosophers such as Grace and Theodore. First, the large community of non-analytic, including speculative, philosophers in mid-twentieth century America was being marginalised, e.g., by being excluded from publishing in prominent journals (see here and here) and through the sectarian attitudes found in influential philosophy departments and PhD programs that were being taken over by analytic philosophers (see here). Second, the large number of young analytic philosophers entering the profession in the 1950s were introduced to speculative philosophy through the irresponsible words of philosophers like Hans Reichenbach (1951). Reichenbach tells us that the speculative philosopher is “the man who uses words for the conveyance of intuitive guesses and unanalyzed conjectures; the man who is willing to adjust his conception of knowledge to attainable forms of knowing from the man who cannot renounce the belief in superempirical truth” (1951, p. 311). From this perspective, speculative philosophers such as Grace should not be expected to contribute to philosophy. Plausibly, the combination of marginalisation and misrepresentation helps to explain why Two Dogmas came to be accepted as revolutionary even though its basic stance would have seemed, to many in the first decades of the twentieth century, underdeveloped and unoriginal.
Let me mention one more (there are others) of the causes of Willard’s prominence. Grace herself had a minor role to play in the development of amnesia about her work. While Willard’s (at best) ignorance of philosophy helped to make him famous, Grace’s knowledge of philosophy, and modesty, meant that her own contributions to philosophy made virtually no appearance in her symposium paper.
De Laguna, G. A. (1951) ‘Speculative Philosophy’, The Philosophical Review, 60(1), pp. 1-19.
De Laguna, T. (1930) ‘The way of opinion’. In G. P. Adams and W. P. Montague (eds.) Contemporary American Philosophy: Personal Statements, pp. 401-422: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. and the MacMillan Company.
De Laguna, T. and de Laguna, G. A. (1910) Dogmatism and Evolution: Studies in Modern Philosophy, the MacMillan Company.
Ben-Menahem, Y. (2016) ‘The Web and the Tree: Quine and James on the Growth of Knowledge’. In Janssen-Lauret, F. and Kemp, G. (eds.) Quine and His Place in History, pp. 59-75. Palgrave Macmillan.
Quine, W. V. O. (1951) ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, The Philosophical Review, 60(1), pp. 20-43.
Reichenbach, H. (1951) The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, University of California Press.
 The Philosophical Review had, in 1951, recently been made virtually speculative philosophy free. Grace’s publication is a stamp marking the end of an era in the journal rather than an expression of interest in speculative work (see here).