Quine has a holism (based in radical empiricism) that is very appealing. It's a significant part of his Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which many say is the most significant philosophical work in the 20th Century.

I want to know are his holism and holisms writ large tolerant of inconsistencies/contradictions^? Are they antithetical and antagonistic, or not necessarily? Like, if Mortensen, Graham Priest, or JC Beall*, say there are inconsistencies/contradictions in epistemology, sentence meaning, or "out there", is holism unacceptable to them? Or then weirdly, if there are inconsistencies between holism and dialetheism, can they cohabitate with an "inconsistent holism" - is that pluralism?

If for Quine's holism, everything is up to empirical revision, what would count as motivating revision if not inconsitencies/contradictions? That's roughly why I think they can't coexist. (And if there are inconsitencies/contradictions in some sense, like many philosophers are warm to, we lose Quine's holism).

^ hopefully I don't have to distinguish between the two here, I'm using them interchangeably

*"there is an ongoing discussion about the philosophical nature of contradictions and inconsistencies that can be summarized as whether they are ‘in our head’ or ‘out there’. Graham Priest's dialetheism is the perfect illustration of the latter view, whereas Chris Mortensen sides quite explicitly with the former"

For fun: "here we have a different technique (employ a contradiction to describe how inconsistent figures look, to demonstrate that the content is genuinely contradictory). If successful, this is a demonstration that human conceptualisation exceeds the merely possible (consistent)."

  • No, but if "it can be rational to believe in a contradiction, we need to replace consistency maintenance with some other concept that can do similar work. Newton da Costa and Otavio Bueno suggest the avoidance of triviality for this task," Mares, Paraconsistent Theory of Belief Revision. Paraconsistency tolerates only some contradictions, not all of them, not those that trivialize the theory. Mares further suggests "coherence", stronger than non-triviality but weaker than consistency, where some types of contradictions are rejected first.
    – Conifold
    Sep 29 at 20:52
  • @Conifold Ok thanks, I think I can see through things better now
    – J Kusin
    Sep 29 at 22:50
  • Many empirical knowledges at the edge of Quine's web are uncertain models thus 'contradiction' could be handled by Bayesian net parameter tuning. Also QM is at the core but already with contradiction of QM and GR at the blackhole singularity. Duhem-Quine thesis is application to modern scientific knowledge body of the perennial holism which admonished without knowledge of the whole body one cannot completely know what's really a hand is for via observing the said hand alone. As Quine admitted later in his life causal localism is more to the point thus his web is really like foundationalism... Sep 30 at 4:24
  • Also per Kripke there could be a posteriori necessity, meaning once some empirical observation is done some essential scientific propositions immediately become necessary truths without any further possibility to undergo any revision again, such as Water is H2O. Thus Quine's web of potential perpetual revisions have to satisfy these Kripkean posteriori necessity conditions at least... Sep 30 at 5:58

1 Answer 1


If you are asking specifically about Quine's position, he sticks rigidly to classical logic. He does not accept logical pluralism and does not allow that any contradictions are true. In Two Dogmas (1951), Quine says that logic itself may be revisable in the light of experience, but by the time he wrote Philosophy of Logic (1970), he had retreated away from this position and held that classical logic is the only logic and that anyone who uses anything else is changing the subject.

On his earlier view, a change in logic might be motivated by the usual pragmatic considerations that lead us to favour one theory over another: simplicity, expressive power, consilience, parsimony, lack of adhocness, explanatory power, etc. Maybe a different logic provides a better way of enabling us to describe the world, or at least to describe some particular domain of application. On this view, logic consists of the most tightly held threads in our web of belief, and so are highly resistant to revision, but not immune.

On his later view, only classical logic, specifically first order classical logic, qualifies to be called logic. Quine doesn't believe in 'meanings' but he comes extremely close to saying that classical logic is guaranteed by what logical terms mean, and anyone who uses a different logic is changing the meaning. For myself, I find his earlier position more consistent. Claiming that some sentences, even logical truths, must be true because of their meanings is what Quine criticised in his earlier work, including Truth by Convention (1936), Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1951), Carnap and Logical Truth (1954) and Word and Object (1960).

Moving beyond Quine, holism is not incompatible with logical pluralism. It is common to hold that theories are underdetermined by data. So we may have several rival theories that are consistent with known data, are self-consistent, but are not compatible with each other. A logical pluralist might say the same for logic. Maybe logics are underdetermined by the totality of our experience of the world, and so there are several logics, with no definite criteria by which to say that one is uniquely correct.

A weaker form of pluralism relativises logic to a domain of application, or a case. We may want a logic of truth, a logic of obligation, a logic of necessity, a logic of assertability, a logic of proof, etc., and these turn out to be different logics. On this weaker view, there are lots of territories and each territory needs a different map. On the stronger version of pluralism, there are several maps of a single territory with no way to choose between them.

As to contradictions, most logics consider all contradictions to be false, but dialetheism allows that some are true. Dialetheism is consistent with holism. On the weaker version, there may be domains or cases where we wish to deploy a paraconsistent logic. For example, when studying inconsistent structures in mathematics. And there may be other domains where an explosive logic is appropriate.

On the stronger version of pluralism, things are slightly more difficult, but we may still allow that there are different logics that are capable of accounting for our experience, and some of these are paraconsistent and some not. We do not need to rely on contradictions to revise our assessment of a logic, because we can use the same pragmatic criteria that we use to assess theories.

It is also worth noting that holism does not have to be entirely 'wholly'. Quine himself, in a retrospective, wrote this:

Looking back on it, one thing I regret is my needlessly strong statement of holism.

The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science [...]. Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments [...]. Conversely, [...] no statement is immune to revision.

This is true enough in a legalistic sort of way, but it diverts attention from what is more to the point: the varying degrees of proximity to observation, the example of the brick houses in Elm Street. In later writings I have invoked not the whole of science but chunks of it, clusters of sentences just inclusive enough to have critical semantic mass. By this I mean a cluster sufficient to imply an observable effect of an observable experimental condition.

W. V. Quine. "Two Dogmas in Retrospect". Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 21, No. 3 (1991), p. 268.

  • Thanks! "We do not need to rely on contradictions to revise our assessment of a logic, because we can use the same pragmatic criteria that we use to assess theories." This is especially helpful. Is pragmatism a way to have strong empiricism without using purely empirical truth to adopt such a world view? Or do they collapse into one another?
    – J Kusin
    Sep 29 at 22:50
  • I think pragmatic considerations are unavoidable. Considerations like Occam's razor, explanatory value, adhocness, simplicity, etc., are not 'purely empirical' in the sense that we can perform experiments to assess them directly. A simple theory isn't more true than a complex one, or even more likely to be true, it is just preferable by virtue of being simpler.
    – Bumble
    Sep 29 at 23:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .