Historically, a cornerstone of classical empiricism has been the notion that every true generalization must be confirmable by specific observations. In classical empiricism, the truth of “All balls are red,” for example, is assessed by inspecting balls; any observation of a non red ball refutes unequivocally the proposed generalization. For W. V. O. Quine, however, this constitutes an overly “narrow” conception of empiricism. “All balls are red,” he maintains, forms one strand within an entire web of statements (our knowledge); individual observations can be referred only to this web as a whole. As new observations are collected, he explains, they must be integrated into the web. Problems occur only if a contradiction develops between a new observation, say, “That ball is blue,” and the preexisting statements. In that case, he argues, any statement or combination of statements (not merely the “offending” generalization, as in classical empiricism) can be altered to achieve the fundamental requirement, a system free of contradictions, even if, in some cases, the alteration consists of labeling the new observation a “hallucination.
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