Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Quine and Aristotelian Essentialism

Quine has argued that Aristotelian essentialism is a "metaphysical jungle," and it is incapable of being made into a sensible doctrine. He posits that the essence of a thing depends on the point of view of the perceiver—there can be as many essences of an object as there are points of view from which the object can be examined.

Douglas B. Rasmussen, in his article, “Quine and Aristotelian Essentialism,” offers a criticism of Quine’s concerns regarding Aristotelian essentialism. Rasmussen holds that the criteria in terms of which the essence of an object is determined consists of these three elements:

1. An essence is that without which a being cannot exist.
2. It is that which differentiates a being from other beings.
3. It is that in terms of which a being can be grouped with other beings into a class.

According to Rasmussen, Quine’s “Kantian turn” is responsible for his wrong notion of Aristotelian essentialism. Rasmussen writes: “Quine holds with Kant that our knowledge is structured by our conceptual system and thus we cannot know what things really are.”

Rasmussen notes that Quine’s rejection of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is based on his conceptual pragmatism whereby he expands the idea of truths based on meaning to truth itself being determined by one’s conceptual system.  In other words, truths based on fact become dependent on the interpretation that a conceptual system provides. Truth understood in this manner can tell us only about reality as interpreted by us, not reality as it is.

In contrast to Quine’s Kantian view, the Aristotelian view holds that there is a “difference between the mode of human cognition and the content of human cognition, and it is not necessary that the two be identical in order to claim that such cognition can know what things really are… [S]imply because concepts/words must be employed when we know or talk about X does not mean that we cannot know what X really is or that talk of what X really is is (somehow) meaningless.”

Rasmussen argues that knowledge of the world that exists can be attained. This knowledge is attained through awareness, and it is not confined to “inner states” of  awareness. “There is no Cartesian question regarding the existence of an “external” world or doubt as to our ability to know it.” Therefore it is possible to identify what features of an entity are essential and what are not. An object’s essence can be expressed on basis of the knowledge that is available. 

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