In Defense of Wishful Thinking: James, Quine, Emotions, and the Web of Belief

In Sarin Marchetti & Maria Baghramian (eds.), Pragmatism and the European Traditions: Encounters with Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology Before the Great Divide. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 228-250 (2017)
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What is W. V. O. Quine’s relationship to classical pragmatism? Although he resists the comparison to William James in particular, commentators have seen an affinity between his “web of belief” model of theory confirmation and James’s claim that our beliefs form a “stock” that faces new experience as a corporate body. I argue that the similarity is only superficial. James thinks our web of beliefs should be responsive not just to perceptual but also to emotional experiences in some cases; Quine denies this. I motivate James’s controversial view by appealing to an episode in the history of medicine when a researcher self-experimented by swallowing a vial of bacteria that at the time had not been studied in much detail. The researcher’s commitment to his own as-yet untested hypothesis was based in part on emotional considerations. Finally, I argue that Quine’s insistence that emotions can never be relevant to adjusting our web of belief reflects a tacit holdover of one of logical positivism’s crucially anti-pragmatist commitments—that philosophy of science should focus exclusively on the context of justification, not the context of discovery. James’s emphasis on discovery as a (perhaps the) crucial locus for epistemological inquiry is characteristic of pragmatism in general. Since Quinean epistemology is always an epistemology of justification, he is not happily viewed as a member of the pragmatist tradition.

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Alexander Klein
McMaster University


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