Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Between the Proximal and the Distal: An Interpretation of Quine’s Semantics

Topics: Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy of language, Theoretical philosophy
Keywords: Epistemology, Externalism, Internalism, Naturalism, Semantics


The debate on internalism/externalism both in semantics and in epistemology concerns the core relations between the mind and the world. I will use this dichotomy to assess whether and how optimal coordination can be worked out between the different parts of Quine’s philosophy: semantics and epistemology in his earlier development. Since Quine has emphasized that his examination of translation is epistemological and since his epistemological project is an internalist one, it should be logical to assume that his semantics proceeded in the same way. But in Word and Object it is possible to retrace his externalist steps by examining Davidson’s thesis, according to which we can retrace two different positions in Quine’s work: the proximal and the distal.

I will show that it is a fact that in Word and Object we can discern the two positions mentioned above. Even if we all agree that Quine is an internalist, this was not so clear when reading Word and Object, because the empirical semantics at that time was controversial, and not so aligned to his own internalist epistemology. My hypothesis is that the dispute with Davidson is one of the main reasons for the adjustments that Quine brought to his semantics.

Word and Object is one of Quine’s most discussed works and the requisite premise to understanding his epistemological approach. In this work, Quine tends towards a dogma-free empirical semantics deriving from a naturalistic analysis of knowledge that springs from the abandonment of the analytic-synthetic distinction. Not only does he believe that such a distinction does not exist, but also that meanings themselves, intended as intermediary entities between words and objects in the world, have no reason to exist. Here then is Quine’s unambiguous refusal of semantic Platonism and Mentalism: words are learnt by ostension and in either event, mean only as their use in sentences is conditioned to sensory stimuli, verbal and otherwise. Any realistic theory of evidence must be inseparable from…


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