The insincerity objection is often raised against skeptical positions (nominalism, anti-realism, anti-intellectualism, solipsism, etc.). An ancient anecdote tells of a skeptic, who taught that actions make no difference, jumping away from a cart that was about to run him over. When asked why he jumped if it makes no difference he responded "Ah, it is because it makes no difference that I jumped". The objection is that where the mouth is the money is not, professed dibelief in universals, reality, meaning, other minds, etc., is accompanied by behavior that indicates otherwise.

NE declares that everything is subject to revision, including NE itself, in the face of recalcitrant experience. If that is the case then it should whole-heartedly embrace say Husserlian phenomenology or mystical insight if those prove to be practically successful. And in some areas they might, e.g. heuristic metaphysics, or ethics, or aesthetics. What "practically successful" means is open to interpretation, but according to Quine himself even in science choice between theories is based on pragmatic considerations due to underdetermination by (empirical) evidence. Such considerations may be interpreted as benefiting from some non-empirical experience, e.g. Husserlian "ideal perception". But Quine certainly favored science and scientific method, as I suspect do most philosophers who self-identify as naturalists, and mostly did not venture into areas where alternatives might come into play.

It may not matter in practice if one stays within a recognized provenance of science, but is NE, as practiced, vulnerable to the insincerity objection? Was it actually raised, are there good responses? Is the objection effective at all? According to Wittgenstein the task of philosophy "is not to explain anything, but to leave everything as it is", so how one behaves might be purely pragmatic, indicating no philosophy.

  • i think the q. would be better if you defined "practically successful"
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 4:42
  • @MATHEMETICIAN It is tough to define how people judge success in practice, but I added an example of how it might happen in epistemological context.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 22:46

1 Answer 1


I don't know if the objection was raised but I believe that naturalised epistemology proponents have the resources needed to answer the objection. The reason, I think, is that being willing to revise one's belief in front of contradictory experience is not the same as not having the belief outright, or being sceptical about it.

It would have been inappropriate to raise the objection against someone who, a few centuries ago, would have said "I believe physical space is fundamentally euclidean but I will revise my belief if an alternative works better". Although it seemed obvious to many (and even, for authors like Kant, a priori true) that physical space was euclidean, it turned out that it is better conceived of as non euclidean. Such a person could have been sincere: no doubt she could have adopted relativity, as many did, in front of crucial experiences. The fact that she strongly believed that space is euclidean, and acted accordingly, does not alter her sincerity when she said she would revise this belief if necessary.

One could argue "well, you're not really willing to revise beliefs such as 'red is a color' because if you did, you'd only change the meaning of 'red' or 'color', so you're not sincere when you say you would revise anything". This argument misses the point: it's not obvious whether we changed or not the meaning of 'space' when we switched to non-euclidean geometry, and the defender of NE will say that meaning is a dubious, or at least a flexible notion and that there is no fact of the matter whether it is the meaning of 'space' or our beliefs about space that we changed. If it turns out that our notion of color is not as appropriate as we think and that it must be redefined in such a way that red is no more a color (or perhaps only in certain widespread contexts), then why not switch to this new framework?

Perhaps the closest to an insincerity objection I can think of is the charge that Quine claimed that even logic is revisable, and was at the same time among the most conservative about first order logic against alternative logics. I heard this objection quite often informally. It amounts to suggest that Quine was not really sincere when he said that he thought logic to be revisable. However Quine argued that logic is so central to our conceptual schemes that the evidence needed to revise it would be tremendous, so again, all this merely shows that being willing to revise a belief if an alternative turns out to be better (however unlikely the prospects) is different from being sceptical outright, and that it is not even incompatible with holding the belief very firmly (if the prospects of revision are very unlikely).

If NE is sceptical about meaning, a more subtle objection could target the view that there are no meanings: after all, NE rests on a scepticism about a priori meaning and analyticity. The objection would go: "you say you don't believe in analyticity but you show otherwise". I'm not sure that kind of objection can get off the ground because analyticity is not a trivial, common sense concept that would be implicit in so many arguments. At least the burden is on the attacker to show that a NE defender is using the notion. Perhaps the notion of meaning is more common sense and often used implicitly, but the defender of NE can argue that she has an aposteriori conception of meaning as use, and that what she is sceptical about is the idea that meaning is a priori.

  • These are good points, I was thinking about insincerity in committing to potentially adopt an unscientific approach if "tribunal of experience" deems it "worthy", i.e. having a hidden methodological commitment declared subject to revision only to avoid defending it. I saw phenomenologists argue something like that: naturalists a priori exclude a priori knowledge, while declaring that they are open to it they limit "experience" to empirical to pre-empt ever doing that. See e.g. the essay about NE (pp.47-49) in books.google.com/…
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 21:51
  • @Conifold I don't understand your point. Are you saying they're not sincerely willing to revise scientific approach (or NE) if necessary? Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 22:26
  • The point is not mine, so I may be misinterpreting, but the claim seems to be that "revision" is limited to "empirically based revision" to avoid already available contexts where scientific approach (allegedly) fails while others (arguably) succeed. In other words, revision either has already become necessary, but did not happen, with "empirically based" offered as an ad hoc excuse, or, even assuming it did not so far become necessary, was not considered in good faith where it was warranted, indicating insincerity.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 23:26
  • Ok I understand although one could respond that science is obviously successful, while it's not clear in what sense phenomenology is and what a "non-empirical success" could be. One must have criteria of success. Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 13:00
  • I came across Zammito's interesting book philpapers.org/rec/ZAMAND, where he takes on "empirically based" from the "left" of Quine:"Cognitive science is an empirical science working to unearth the mechanisms through which natural language constitutes itself. That account has had to recognize the indispensability of mental states... in the discourses of culture, we are compelled to seek a more robust naturalism... and what that requires is the overthrow of Quine's empiricist/behaviorist strictures on evidence... There is still too much "first philosophy" in Quine."
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 0:23

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