Observation

"Sometimes it is raining, sometimes not."
(W.V.O. Quine)

One of the most famous images in modern American poetry is that of a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain. “So much depends upon” it, said William Carlos Williams, without saying exactly what or how. It’s reasonable to assume that he was alluding to imagination, which was the subject of the book in which the poem first appeared. “To whom then am I addressed?” he asks in Spring and All, and answers, “To the imagination.” Nothing much depends on the wheelbarrow or the chickens, but a great deal depends on our ability to imagine them. And the poem shows us that we can imagine them. The importance of this ability — what Kant called Einbildungskraft, which more literally means “the power to form pictures” — can be seen in our near inability to imagine not having it. Imagine not having an imagination at all! You might as well try to imagine what it’s like to be a wheelbarrow.

Or the rain. In my last post, I proposed to reflect on the “data of epistemology”. What is given to us to think about when we think about knowledge, what knowledge is, what it means to “know something”? Can anything be taken for given in philosophy in the first place? In a wonderful essay from 1993, W.V.O. Quine suggested that there are, indeed, “epistemological givens”. They’re not quite as bereft of meaning as the “sense data” of the British empiricists, and not as impossibly technical as the “protocol sentences” of the logical positivists. But they have the same kind of finality. He was thinking about reports of a particular kind of experience, sentences that we understand immediately, and which we can quickly and easily decide whether are true. “It’s cold.” “That’s milk.” “That’s a dog.” And, yes, “It’s raining.”

He called them “observation sentences” and he sang their praises. We might say the thought a great deal depended on them.

Each of us learned some of his observation sentences in early childhood, and each of us learned most of them later. We learn some of them from other ones by analogy, recombining their parts. We learn to form compounds of simple ones, using grammatical particles. As adults we learn many more through the mediation of sophisticated theory. Thus, take the sentence ‘There is some copper in the solution’. We understand it by construction from its separate words, but it becomes an observation sentence for a chemist who has learned to spot the presence of copper by a glance at a solution. What qualifies sentences of both sorts as observational, for a given individual, is just his readiness to assent outright on the strength of appropriate neural intake, irrespective of what he may have been engaged in at the time. (108)

Notice that Quine is here giving us a clear paradigm for epistemological analysis. There is a difference between my statement, “There is copper in the solution,” and the chemist’s observation, expressed in the very same sentence. Being a scientist means being able to make observations of a particular kind, which non-scientists are then consigned to “understand by construction”. Of course, even the scientist must “build us his world,” as Ezra Pound said of the poet. But the materials that scientists build their worlds out of when they are talking to each other are very different from the ones they use when they are talking to us.

All of us, Quine argues, at least whenever we actually know what we are talking about, are building our worlds out of observations. While I don’t find the language of “neural intake” very compelling, Quine insists that it offers a better starting point than, say, things and people, or situations (my preference, I think), because “nerve endings afford a clearly individuated, homogeneous domain” in the causal chain of perception. But that’s not something I’m going to quibble about here. The point is simply that we all know the conditions under which we would grant that it is raining, the conditions under which the sentence “It is raining” is true. Just as we know a white chicken and a red wheelbarrow when we see one. It’s what let you imagine them again just now.

Academic writers do well to bear this in mind. Some of your sentences can be traced back to your observations. You and your peers are qualified to make some observations and not others and some of your claims are grounded, or “bottom out”, or terminate, in these sentences. The essential thing is that they be utterly familiar to your intended readers, your peers. When you say “There is copper in the solution,” they know exactly what you have seen. They can picture it. They understand the sentence as readily as the rest of us understand “It is raining,” and that, at the end of the day, is what makes it an observation. You can imagine it.

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