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Holism: mental and semantic

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-W015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

Mental (or semantic) holism is the doctrine that the identity of a belief content (or the meaning of a sentence that expresses it) is determined by its place in the web of beliefs or sentences comprising a whole theory or group of theories. It can be contrasted with two other views: atomism and molecularism. Molecularism characterizes meaning and content in terms of relatively small parts of the web in a way that allows many different theories to share those parts. For example, the meaning of ‘chase’ might be said by a molecularist to be ‘try to catch’. Atomism characterizes meaning and content in terms of none of the web; it says that sentences and beliefs have meaning or content independently of their relations to other sentences or beliefs.

One major motivation for holism has come from reflections on the natures of confirmation and learning. As Quine observed, claims about the world are confirmed not individually but only in conjunction with theories of which they are a part. And, typically, one cannot come to understand scientific claims without understanding a significant chunk of the theory of which they are a part. For example, in learning the Newtonian concepts of ‘force’, ‘mass’, ‘kinetic energy’ and ‘momentum’, one does not learn any definitions of these terms in terms that are understood beforehand, for there are no such definitions. Rather, these theoretical terms are all learned together in conjunction with procedures for solving problems.

The major problem with holism is that it threatens to make generalization in psychology virtually impossible. If the content of any state depends on all others, it would be extremely unlikely that any two believers would ever share a state with the same content. Moreover, holism would appear to conflict with our ordinary conception of reasoning. What sentences one accepts influences what one infers. If I accept a sentence and then later reject it, I thereby change the inferential role of that sentence, so the meaning of what I accept would not be the same as the meaning of what I later reject. But then it would be difficult to understand on this view how one could rationally – or even irrationally! – change one’s mind. And agreement and translation are also problematic for much the same reason. Holists have responded (1) by proposing that we should think not in terms of ‘same/different’ meaning but in terms of a gradient of similarity of meaning, (2) by proposing ‘two-factor’ theories, or (3) by simply accepting the consequence that there is no real difference between changing meanings and changing beliefs.

Citing this article:
Block, Ned. Holism: mental and semantic, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-W015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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