Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"
Holism: Meaning is Relative
The US philosopher Willard Quine was the messiah of holism.
Quine's theory of "under-determination" originated in the sciences. Quine was profoundly influenced by an argument put forth by the French physicist Pierre Duhem: that hypotheses cannot be tested in isolation from the whole theoretical network in which they appear. Quine argued that an hypothesis is verified true or false only relative to background assumptions.
For every empirical datum there can be an infinite number of theories that explain it. Science simply picks the combination of hypotheses that seems more plausible. When a hypothesis fails, the scientist can always modify the other hypotheses to make it hold. There is no certain way to determine what has to be changed in a theory: any hypothesis can be retained as true or discarded as false by performing appropriate adjustments in the overall network of assumptions. No sentence has special epistemic properties that safeguard it from revision.
The so called Quine-Duhem thesis reads: no part of a scientific theory can be proved or disproved; only the whole can.
Ultimately, science is but self-conscious common sense.
Language is a special case. The empirical datum in this case is a discourse and the theory is its meaning. There are infinite interpretations of a discourse depending on the context. A single word has no meaning: its referent is "inscrutable". The meaning of language is not even in the mind of the speaker. It is a natural phenomenon related to the world of that speaker.
Quine thinks that the meaning of a statement is the method that can verify it empirically. But verification of a statement within a theory depends on the set of all other statements of the theory. Each statement in a theory partially determines the meaning of every other statement in the same theory.
In particular, the truth of a statement cannot be assessed as a function of the meaning of its words. An individual statement can be proved true or false only relative to the theory they belong to. Words do not have an absolute meaning. They have a meaning only relative to the other words they are connected to in the sentences that we assume to be true. The meaning of a sentence depends on the interpretation of the entire language. Its meaning can even change in time.
In general, the structure of concepts is determined by the positions that their constituents occupy in the "web of belief" of the individual.
In particular, it is impossible to define what a "correct" translation of a statement is from one language to another, because that depends on the interpretations of both entire languages. Translation from one language to another is indeterminate.
Meaning has no meaning. The only concept that makes sense for interpreting sentences is truth. A sentence can be true or false, but what it refers to is not meaningful.
Technically, Quine’s ideas can be expressed in terms of variables. Values of variables cannot be fixed until the interpretation of the whole formal system is fixed (because of a famous theorem in mathematics, the Loewenheim-Skolem theorem). Thus his famous motto: “To be is to be the value of a variable”.
The US philosopher Paul Churchland expanded Quine's holism by interpreting Quine's network of meanings as a space of semantic states, whose dimensions are all the observable properties. Each expression in the language is equivalent to defining the position of a concept within this space according to the properties that the concept exhibits in that expression. The semantic value of a word derives from its place in the network of the language as a whole.
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