Was Quine Naturalizing Epistemology?

By Natan de Carvalho


February 2, 2018

Abstract: Naturalized Epistemology is usually seen as Quine’s attempt to move epistemology away from philosophy to science. Some ill-advised Naturalists make use of Quine’s response to Carnap to justify the “end of Philosophy” (or at least Epistemology), and to affirm the primacy of Naturalistic Scientism over other disciplines. Nevertheless, I suggest that such readings of Quine’s essay might reveal some Naturalistic aspirations, but it surely does not reveal Quine’s intention behind his words. My short article proposes that Quine abided in the normative question until the end of his life, and that his essay should be understood as an ironic response to Carnap. This undermines the Naturalistic endeavor to crown Science above all other disciplines, and it allows for a more contextual reading of Quine.

Normative Epistemology tries to determine how we ought to conduct our cognitive lives, while Descriptive Epistemology only describes how people do so.[1] Naturalized Epistemology (NE) claims that neuroscience and psychology ought to be the guides of Epistemology, thus subjecting the latter to the former. NE rejects a priori efforts to establish knowledge and opts for naturalized sources as the conductors of the epistemic enterprise. Part of the shift to NE is credited to Quine’s 1969 essay on NE. Nevertheless, I am not fully convinced this is the right way to look at Quine’s NE for a few reasons I will expand here.

First, in the writing that follows Quine’s “Epistemology Naturalized,” it seems that Quine still engages the normative question. If Quine was trying to show that Epistemology should settle for psychology, then he failed to follow his own suggestion. Furthermore, his own essay approaches the normative question and does not approach the issue from the mechanics of science. If Quine was trying to restrict the epistemological task to psychology, then why did not he proceeded this way? Moreover, why did not his students and followers do the same?

Second, I am not sure that Quine wants “epistemology,” as we normally define, to be substituted by psychology. It seems that Quine’s use of the term “epistemology” in his essay is idiosyncratic. Here things can get a little messy, specially because Quine’s suggestion arises as a response to Carnap’s rational reconstructionism. Carnap was proposing a logical reconstruction of reality and Quine simply responded that there is a way in which humans already construct reality based on their experiences. Quine argued that Carnap’s rational reconstruction is not doctrinal (not aimed at the study of justification), but conceptual. It appears to me that Carnap aims at showing how we formulate such doctrines (and how we dispense their use whenever needed), because we favor sense data and observations. If this is Carnap’s suggestion then, why not settle for psychology? Since the doctrinal aspects are dispensable, why not settle for psychology instead of rational reconstruction? It appears to me that Quine was responding to Carnap, not simply suggesting that epistemology in general should retire in favor of psychology.[2] Quine’s question is rhetorical and quite ironic.

If my second observation is accurate, then it would make sense that Quine suggests the abandonment of Carnapian epistemology in favor of psychology. Carnap elevated the value of reconstruction within the epistemological enterprise to the point of making epistemology nothing but reconstruction. If I am correct in my reading of Quine, then his use of the word “epistemology” in his essay is very particular. He is adopting Carnap’s view that epistemology is constituted by rational reconstruction, and this is what he means by “epistemology.” His suggestion to settle that for NE seems ironic and provocative rather than a suggestion for revolution within the field of epistemology.

Quine seems to have realized that reconstruction and translation were efforts only made possible through reductionism. However, it is impossible to reduce everything that there is into sense data and logic. If that is the case, then epistemology has come to an end. If this is really the case, then it is better to settle epistemology as a “chapter of psychology,” as Quine calls it. I do not believe this is the case. I am not convinced Quinean epistemology is as reductionist as his behaviorism. However, let me consider the large possibility of a sophomore in philosophy being mistaken about what he claims to know.

Let me assume that Quine’s proposal was indeed that psychology was to replace epistemology. Assuming also that the normative question is of no value because descriptivism is the answer. Why bother with philosophers trying to show how we should have knowledge, why not simply look at instances where we have knowledge? Is not that what Quine proposed in his behaviorism? In such theory, he assumed that human beings are not social by nature, and thus suggested that we observe how human beings interact (individually) so that we can come to know why we form behaviors and come to the conclusions we come to. I would have to stand with Dewey here, since he valued the social aspects of human beings much more. For him, individuality is learned, while community is natural. If in NE we ought to observe particular instances in which knowledge already occurs and put aside the normative question, what ought we to do of the social aspects of humanity? The social sciences cannot be reduced to the descriptive project, because they themselves assume and respond to some normative questions. Furthermore, the appropriation of which theory one ought to approve in favor of another does not happen because of the descriptive project. On the contrary, the normative project of the social sciences appropriates itself of epistemological categories to declare the theory that most seems fit. Thus, it seems that extreme reducibility of epistemology to science will not work, because science itself worries (in part) about the normative.

Moreover, it seems that NE is an escape to Cartesian skepticism. Descartes put a weight on the philosophical enterprise to justify science. NE (allegedly) suggests that such skepticism is not valid because science has been way more successful than epistemology in nearly every respect. Quine was interested in the relationship of science and philosophy, but I do not believe he suggested the abandonment of latter for the former because science itself is composed of philosophical tenets. If data is to be received, what is the most reliable way to analyze it? If logic and math are at the center of science, where can we fit reason? Lastly, “science” is too broad. Social sciences and descriptive science and all of the other fields have their own conceptual framework that is limited to the scope of their project.[3]

In conclusion, I am not fully convinced NE is (or that it must be) reductionist. If it is not, then NE has something to add to the conversation. If it is, then it does not answer skeptic challenges and it takes a very shallow understanding of “science.”


[1] Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 334.

[2] I came to this conclusion after reading Bredo C. Johnsen, “How to Read “Epistemology Naturalized,”” The Journal of Philosophy, v. 102, no. 2 (February 2005), 78-93.

[3] These insights came from a lecture with professor John Shook.


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About the Author

By Natan de Carvalho

Bio: Natan de Carvalho is a student of Philosophy and Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, NC. Born in Brazil, Natan now lives in Raleigh, where he serves at Crossroads Fellowship Church, leading Small Groups and teaching regularly. Natan is a Student Ambassador for PragerU, a writer for the Pensamento Crítico website, and has collaborated with Logos Bible Software as a translator from Portuguese to English.