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Quine propagated forward an approach to epistemology wherein there was no need of any sort of justification "beyond observation and the hypothetico-deductive method" (Quine 1981).

Quine is going after a foundationalist view of knowledge acquisition then, wherein one can attain knowledge only in a context of possessing some prior, more certain knowledge.

But while any anti-foundationalist might agree with him here, they might not agree with Quine that there is no certain knowledge period.

That is to say, there seems to be a gap between admitting that all knowledge is based on experience, or "observation and the hypothetico-deductive method", and admitting that all knowledge is uncertain.

How does Quine effectively cross that gap?

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    @RamTobolski I think there is a gap insofar as an account of 'knowledge acquisition' is of a different category than an account of 'what knowledge consists in'. Quine is very concerned with methodology about knowledge, but I see less effort put forward to questions about the criterion of what qualifies as knowledge to begin with. Quine himself seemed to acknowledge purposely avoiding offering any sort of stated criterion.
    – Mos
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 22:08
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    For example, a reductionist materialist answering how we come to know will include a set of various material facts each considered under the aspect of how they culminate in whatever material fact is meant to be our knowledge, whereas the reductionist will give only this last material fact in answer to the question of what our knowledge is specifically. This is but one example of how each account is different. In any case the two are distinct to begin with by the distinct questions they are concerned with.
    – Mos
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 22:24
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    Even if the answer is the same to both questions, that they are different questions should reveal to us that we cannot assume an account of the methodology of a thing is the same as answering ehat the thing is itself, unless we make that assumption beforehand
    – Mos
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 22:30
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    @mobileink No. Aristotelian empiricists would contend that the answer lies in 'abstraction', that the experiences we have are not in themselves void of an essence or intellibility since the world is intelligible. It is the opposite of the Kantian's middle way; instead of saying the order of the world consists in the mind, the Aristotelian says it consists in the uniformity of the world itself, there to be understood by a mind which has the ability to be intelligent.
    – Mos
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 0:26
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    But that is only one example of how one might provide an empiricist based account of how necesarry truths might come to be known. In any case, the point still seems to hold that prima facie points made about knowledge acquisition do not lead directly to conclusions about knowledge simpliciter without further qualification. That we cannot provide an account of how we come to know something in some regard does not mean we do not know said something in said regard.
    – Mos
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 0:48

3 Answers 3

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It's not entirely clear what you're asking or what gap you're referring to. W. V. Quine's approach to epistemology, known as naturalized epistemology, focuses on the role of science and observation in the acquisition of knowledge. According to Quine, knowledge is not acquired through a priori justification or some sort of foundational set of beliefs, but rather through the scientific method and the observation of the world around us. In this sense, Quine's approach is anti-foundationalist, as it denies the existence of any kind of certain, foundational knowledge.

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That is to say, there seems to be a gap between admitting that all knowledge is based on experience, or "observation and the hypothetico-deductive method", and admitting that all knowledge is uncertain

The answer to that would come from his doctrine of meaning holism, first expounded in the last section of his famous essay "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", Empiricism without the Dogmas.

Meaning holism holds that the distinction between analytic and contingent propositions is a matter of degree. Analytic propositions, including the theorems of logic, are simply propositions that are recalcitrant to the test of further experience, but are in principle revisable. Contingent propositions, of which there are many gradations, are closer to the tribunal of experience.

Quine uses the analogy of a "web of belief" to illustrate this view, in which beliefs hold together with some measure of coherence. Beliefs closer to the center are more dependent on other beliefs, whereas beliefs closer to the boundary of experience are more dependent on experiential/empirical input. To give an example: If I believe that there are three trees in my backyard, that statement is more easily revisable from experience than my other belief that matter consists of fields of force. The former statement contains terms that get their meaning more from perceptual input, whereas the latter statement contains terms that are lodged in complex theoretical schemes.

That is to say, both statements get their meanings from both experience and other terms (intesionality), but one is by gradation more easily revisable than the latter because it's meaning is less theoretically dependent than the latter. Both are, in principle, revisable but to revise the first we need to adjust very few other beliefs, while to revise the second we'd have to adjust many other beliefs that hold theoretically together.

Logic, in this picture, is more or less a formalization of broad-scale invariances that are also indirectly dependent on experience/empirical input. That is, everything hinges on the cleavage of the web of belief to the perceptual boundary, but the deeper in the web beliefs are lodged, the harder to revise they are, because they depend on chains of beliefs and interdependent conceptual schemas.

You may find this characterization of logic unsatisfactory. If so, tell me why and I can try to explain how Quine would answer to the best of my ability and to the extent of my knowledge of Quine.

I hope this somewhat answers your question!

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That is to say, there seems to be a gap between admitting that all knowledge is based on experience, or "observation and the hypothetico-deductive method", and admitting that all knowledge is uncertain.

I don't think there's a gap. Traditionally uncertainty is aligned with empirical knowledge. Since empirical knowledge is in principle revisable, it cannot ever reach the mark of certainty. General principles arrived at empirically, namely by some form of induction, are by definition incomplete or rather extrapolations from samples to the population. As such, they can never be certain, simply recalcitrant to the test of further experience. This is why induction is said to be ampliative, as it goes beyond the available evidence.

Philosophers and mathematicians reserve certainty for things like proof and deduction. These seem to hold come what may. Namely, it doesn't matter what happens empirically. However, Quine tried to attack this haven of certainty but saying that even proofs rest indirectly on the way the world is. The principle of contradiction and identity are simply so general at our scale of experience that they are not likely to be revised, but they break down, for example, at the quantum scale. The point Quine is making is that the difference between empirical propositions and analytic propositions is not sharp along Aristotelian genus-differentia, but rather a matter of gradation and degree.

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 20:46
  • Hi Ludwig, thanks for your input but I disagree. Since we're dealing with philosophy, only the content of the answer matters. I'd discourage you from heuristically basing user's answers on reputation, especially since I have witnessed answers from users with high reputation that lack either lack expertise, are outright wrong, nor are serious. If you choose to respond, always try to support your claims with actual and specific evidence and arguments. Hope this helps Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 17:56
  • On looking at this again, I can see your point. There is no gap because it is a matter of gradation and degree, right? My comment was mistaken. I apologize. But I have to protest at your assumption that my comment was based on your reputation score. I've been on this site long enough to know that, as a heuristic, it can be seriously misleading.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 18:09
  • Hi Ludwig, thank you. If you did not, then I apologize for imputing that assumption to you. Indeed, there's gradation. And I've expounded on this in my previous and longer answer, but which I came to think was a rather indirect answer to OP's question. Ultimately, and unless the OP adds further clarification, I see no tension between "all knowledge is based on experience, observation and hopothetico-deductive method" and "all knowledge is uncertain". The only possible tension could be regarding logical truth, but I addressed this in my first answer re: Quine's attack on analycity Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 19:25
  • Thanks. Sites like this one are a rather strange social situation. At least, that how I felt when I joined. It takes a while to get used to them and misunderstandings are not uncommon. Mostly people are quite happy to put them straight and move on. One gets used to the way things work after a while.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 21:32

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