In this interview with Bryan Magee in 1978, W. V. O. Quine mentions that some philosophers believed that (1) philosophy is separate from science (2) philosophy provided a basis on which to build science:

I think of philosophy as concerned with our knowledge of the world, and the nature of the world. I think of philosophy as attempting "to round out the system of the world" as Newton put it. There have been philosophers who have thought of philosophy as somehow separate from science and as providing a firm basis on which to build science. But this I consider an empty dream. Science, much of science, is firmer than philosophy is or can even perhaps aspire to be. I think of philosophy as continuous with science, even as a part of science.

To which philosophers and school of thoughts is Quine referring here?

  • 3
    All the "foundationalist" philosophers: Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel etc. Feb 12, 2023 at 8:50
  • 2
    Not opposed to everybody, but to those who see philosophy as an apriori activity distinct from science. For Quine and many others, the two are continuous with one another: philosophy is perhaps more general and more abstract, but not fundamentally different in nature, and not different in its epistemology.
    – Bumble
    Feb 12, 2023 at 14:27
  • 1
    In practice, scientists don't really rely on, or wait on, philosophers to do science. I would venture as far as saying that many scientists see philosophers with suspicion.
    – Frank
    Feb 12, 2023 at 16:33
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    In practice, foundationalism needs to appeal to some kind of a priori principles, since otherwise it cannot boot itself up. Even the phenomenalism of the logical positivists involved a kind of a priori acceptance that sense data is indubitable and that all empirical statements of fact can be constructed from it.
    – Bumble
    Feb 12, 2023 at 18:12
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    @Starckman Yes, and those that are strongly in favor align with a natural epistemology (SEP).
    – J D
    Feb 22, 2023 at 20:12

2 Answers 2


What Quine is famous for, among other things is his advocacy that an thorough understanding of language means that there is no real demarcation between philosophy and science like the logical positivists tried to maintain. So, while Mauro is right in delineating "foundationalist" philosophers (particularly Descartes and his confidence in introspection as "first principles"), I think it's fair to say that in a more immediate sense, Quine was responding to the logical empiricists (SEP) and the logical positivists who are often referred to as the Berlin and Vienna circles. These philosophers were openly hostile to metaphysics and tried to show (without success) it could be eliminated. Thus, for the LPs, philosophy was nothing more than linguistic analysis.

Quine also believed in science, mathematics, and logic (the natural and formal sciences), however, he attacked some of the philosophical foundations that men such as Rudolf Carnap took as a starting point in their reasoning, in particular the analytic-synthetic divide that proposed by Kant and used heavily by the German Idealists followed later by the Germans who laid the foundation of modern analytical philosophy (according to Dummett). In his Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Quine attempts to show that there is no clear distinction between strictly analytical propositions which are true a priori, and synthetic truths which are real-world a posteriori. By doing so, he manages to soften up the notion that some truth belongs solely to the introspective powers of reason (read as philosophy) and others soley to sensory experience (read as science). If there's no strict border between truths of logic and truths of senses and observation, then philosophy and the science must in a manner exist as a continuum also with theories that co-mingle propositions of each sort. Quine is also known for his “Epistemology Naturalized” and in fact, he emphasizes the wholistic nature of thought:

On Quine's account, attempts to pursue the traditional project of finding the meanings and truths of science philosophically have failed on their own terms and failed to offer any advantage over the more direct methods of psychology. Quine rejects the analytic-synthetic distinction and emphasizes the holistic nature of our beliefs. Since traditional philosophic analysis of knowledge fails, those wishing to study knowledge ought to employ natural scientific methods. Scientific study of knowledge differs from philosophic study by focusing on how humans acquire knowledge rather than speculative analysis of knowledge.1 According to Quine, this appeal to science to ground the project of studying knowledge, which itself underlies science, should not be dismissed for its circularity since it is the best option available after ruling out traditional philosophic methods for their more serious flaws.

Contemporary philosophers have elaborated and commented on Quine's views extensively. Today, there are a variety of criticisms and plenty of lavish support for his ideas, and those folks, according the SEPs article Naturalism in Epistemology might be characterized as "moderate naturalism" which appeals to two criteria:

Moderate Naturalism

(A) All epistemic warrant or justification is a function of the psychological (perhaps computational) processes that produce or preserve belief.
(B) The epistemological enterprise needs appropriate help from science, especially the science of the mind. (Goldman 1999a: 26)

(Oddly to me) there is still some resistance to some of these statements for a variety of reasons (that you'll hear on this forum). In the extreme, not only does philosophy and science essentially overlap because logic and language reduce to psychology partially, but some philosophers take this relationship as license to practice science themselves to make assertions about philosophical principles. The sciences grew out of natural philosophy, and every science (formal or natural) has a healthy philosophy-of (philosophy of physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). But research, say in the psychology relevant to bias, may have impact on the philosophy of language or logic. According to An Introduction to Metaphilosophy:

[Experimental philosophy] seeks to replace or supplement traditional [philosophical] analysis with empirical, experimental data, specifically collected for the purposes of illuminating some philosophical question.

This, of course, has always been the case, but the appellation "experimental" is a relatively newer self-identification of philosophers. According to the SEP's Experimental Philosophy:

Experimental philosophy is an interdisciplinary approach that brings together ideas from what had previously been regarded as distinct fields. Specifically, research in experimental philosophy brings together two key elements:

  • the kinds of questions and theoretical frameworks traditionally associated with philosophy;
  • the kinds of experimental methods traditionally associated with psychology and cognitive science.

There are many philosophers (a very broad term indeed) who still believe there is some strict wall between philosophical and scientific practice based on topic or methodology, but I suspect on the whole most philosophers of metaphysics, language, and science don't believe there is a strict division like the logical positivists maintained, and in this sense Quine's view stand strong in the face of the failure of the logical positivist programme.

  • "the analytic-synthetic divide that proposed by Kant and used heavily by the German Idealists who laid the foundation of modern analytical philosophy (according to Dummett)." In which way German Idealists laid the foundation of modern analytical philosophy? I thought modern analytical philosophy grew out of opposition to German Idealism
    – Starckman
    Feb 23, 2023 at 3:21
  • Oops. Right to call that blunder out. Ill fix.
    – J D
    Feb 23, 2023 at 7:53
  • Dummett cites Brentano, Meinong, Husserl, and of course Frege.
    – J D
    Feb 23, 2023 at 7:57
  • Not sure I understood. "in particular the analytic-synthetic divide that proposed by Kant and used heavily by the German Idealists followed later by the Germans who laid the foundation of modern analytical philosophy (according to Dummett)."
    – Starckman
    Feb 23, 2023 at 8:12
  • you are referring to the split between continental philosophy and analytical philosophy that followed Kant's analytical/synthetic distinction, which pointed to two road, one analytic and one synthetic? That the German idealists followed the synthetic road, while the analyticists (among whom major figures were German) followed the analytical road, and therefore founded the analytic philosophy tradition?
    – Starckman
    Feb 23, 2023 at 8:12

I'm not an expert on the topic, but from the IEP entry on Metaphilosophy, it seems that he was referring to analytic philosophy pioneers, who focused just on propositions, thus detaching from empirical science methods:

The pioneers of the Analytic movement held that philosophy should begin with the analysis of propositions. In the hands of two of those pioneers, Russell and Wittgenstein, such analysis gives a central role to logic and aims at disclosing the deep structure of the world. [..] Metaphilosophical views held by later Analytic philosophers include the idea that philosophy can be pursued as a descriptive but not a revisionary metaphysics and that philosophy is continuous with science.

As can be seen, he is aligned with the late contributors (even exact wording). Wikipedia also notices such distinction among some analytic philosophers:

Some argue that philosophy is distinct from science in that its questions cannot be answered empirically, that is, by observation or experiment.[34][35] Some analytical philosophers argue that all meaningful empirical questions are to be answered by science, not philosophy.

Quotes [34] and [35] are about Husserl.

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