My understanding of Quine's view of holist underdetermination and how it connects to his holist view of science is summarized well by this quote:

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.

Meanwhile contrastive underdetermination:

Questions the ability of the evidence to confirm any given hypothesis against alternatives, and the central focus of discussion in this connection (equally often regarded as “the” problem of underdetermination) concerns the character of the supposed alternatives. (SEP)

It's my understanding that these both stem from the general idea of underdetermination, but bring up relatively different points. Quine's holist view of belief is that the principle is open to us to revise any of our beliefs, even those concerning logic and math. That "the beliefs we hold at any given time are linked in an interconnected web, which encounters our sensory experience only at its periphery."

So my question is, does Quine's holist view of science stemming from holist underdetermination contrast at all with the views held by Duhem and others that focused on contrastive underdetermination? What would Duhem think of the idea that we could revise our views around logic just to better fit the "web?" It seems to me like they're mostly focused on addressing different examples and focuses, but I can't see how they might be incompatible.

  • Duhem did not focus on contrastive underdetermination only, in fact, he explicitly distinguished the two and discussed both, see SEP. It is true that Quine's holism is much more radical than Duhem's, which just focused on physical theories, so radical that the difference between the two forms of indeterminacy is almost mooted, they are both just manifestations of being able to revise the web of belief in any way suitable. It is not so on Duhem's more modest holism, and he treats the two as distinct challenges.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 21:25

1 Answer 1


What Pierre Duham actually averred was what has come to be known as the Separability Thesis, which is simply that: “an experiment [an observation] in physics can never condemn an isolated hypothesis,” sometimes paraphrased as “no single or individual physical theoretical hypothesis by itself has any observable consequences.“

Which means that a physicist can never subject an isolated hypothesis to experimental test, but only a whole group of hypotheses; when the experiment is in disagreement with his predictions, what he learns is that at least one of the hypotheses constituting this group is unacceptable and ought to be modified; but the experiment does not designate which one should be changed.

Which is actually a far cry from the wholesale holism of Quine’s web of belief. Never did Duham suggest, with radical holistic Quinery, that this implies that individual propositions, including those encoding the rules of logic itself, are candidates for revision. But exegesis tends to follow ideological, rather than logical, mandates. All of this was later peppered with hyperbolic [mis]readings of the Kuhnian incommensurability thesis.

But this is incredibly complicated stuff to get a handle on. First, I suggest you have a look at Chapter Two, at minimum pp. 17-33, of John Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. (https://www.amazon.com/Nice-Derangement-Epistemes-Post-positivism-Science/dp/0226978621); the opus from which much of this analysis was derived.

If your thirst remains unabated then read Phillip L. Quinn’s What Duhem Really Meant: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-010-2128-9_3, and then Nancy Tuana’s critique of Quinn's opus in Quinn on Duhem: An Emendation https://www.jstor.org/stable/187031?seq=1. And on and on from there. Hundreds of essays have been written about holism and the underdetermination thesis in the past three quarters of a century.

Aside: IMHO (and in Zammito’s) it is precisely the hyperbolic ideologically driven misreading of the tenets of conceptual and linguistic holism, underdetermination and incommensurability of scientific theories, and theory ladenness of facts/observations, that have delivered us into the the contemporary post truth ethos, with its seemingly intractable identitarian epistemology and resulting political/ideological polarity.

  • It is easy to grasp how compelling all of these theoretically driven attempts to capture and make some kind of sense about the multi-layered distillates which comprise the layers separating the sentient searcher from the materialistic fabric, appear to the analytical person, which both obscures and at the same time beckons the thinker to ponder and ask, which part of any of this is 'real'?
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 3:01
  • Even easier, @ Charles M Saunders to see how opportunistic sophists with little of substance to contribute hyperventilate obscurely in the face of epistemological fallibility to fill the vacuum. Saying not with Hemingway “Isn't it pretty to think so?, but it is so pretty it is so.
    – gonzo
    Commented Nov 1, 2020 at 15:41

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