Is content holism incoherent?

Grazer Philosophische Studien 46:173-195 (1993)
There is a great deal of terminological confusion in discussions of holism. While some well-known authors, such as Davidson and Quine, have used “holism” in various of their writings,2 it is not clear that they have held views attributed to them under that label, views that are said to have wildly counterintuitive results.3 In Davidson’s case, it is not clear that he is describing the same doctrine in each of his uses of “holism” or “holistic.” Critics of holism show a similar license. My aim in this paper, therefore, cannot be to provide and to examine a characterization of content holism that matches every use that has been made of the term. I aim rather to give a precise form to a holistic doctrine at one end of a spectrum of views that ranges from localism or atomism about content to holism about content. This view has the wild consequences often attributed to holism. While it is dubious that anyone has ever seriously held the view I characterize,4 some view like it seems to be what critics often have in mind when arguing against content holism. It is therefore worthwhile to make it precise, to distinguish it from other, related views, and to examine its internal coherence. Thus, in this paper, I will, first, clarify the doctrine, or a doctrine, of content holism, and, second, argue that content holism (so characterized) is not just false (which may be readily granted) but self-contradictory. To begin, we must distinguish between meaning holism and content holism. Let us reserve the term “meaning holism” for doctrines which are about the conditions for the possibility of linguistic expressions having meanings. Meaning holism is therefore a doctrine in the domain of the philosophy of language. “Content holism,” in contrast, we will treat as a doctrine in the philosophy of mind, about the conditions for the possibility of a thought5 having a content. By “a content” we mean, intuitively, what..
Keywords Content  Holism  Language
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DOI 10.5840/gps1993468
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