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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: December 2009

6 - Metaphor and Argument: Quine on Convention


Quine concludes one of his better-known essays on logical truth in characteristically poetic style:

The lore of our fathers is a fabric of sentences …. It is a pale gray lore, black with fact and white with convention. But I have found no substantial reasons for concluding that there are any quite black threads in it, or any white ones.

([1960] 1966, p. 125)

It is tempting to press the metaphor further and inquire whether, at the end of the day, viewing the web of belief in this grayish light is itself a form of conventionalism. In a way, I do address this question here, though it is not my primary focus. Rather, this chapter examines the role of the web metaphor in Quine's various arguments against conventionalism, particularly, his early critique of conventionalism in “Truth by Convention.” More generally, it attempts to relate the metaphor to the development of Quine's philosophy of language, from his (approving) lectures on Carnap's Logical Syntax of Language, to his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation. More generally still, the metaphor merits examination in the context of other philosophical attempts to identify the conventional elements in truth (or alleged truth), from Poincaré onward. Finally, and most significantly, the chapter shows that Quine eventually deconstructed his own metaphor, thereby undermining the image usually thought of as epitomizing his philosophy of language.