I have not infrequently come across the expression "Pickwickian sense". Of course, I have tried to search on the web, but generally the explanations I have found do not fit well into the context concerned. For example, the online Merriam-Webster offers the following description:

Definition of Pickwickian

:  marked by simplicity and generosity

:  intended or taken in a sense other than the obvious or literal one


I feel, however, that the e.g. text below says something more subtle than the one in which the expression interpreted in this way:

[...] I had the opportunity to suggest to Quine that this strong version of revisability is rather hard to take, especially when applied to laws of logic. Quine responded as follows: "Well, I think I rather agree. I think nowadays it seems to me at best an uninteresting legalism".

The expression "uninteresting legalism" is Quine's marker for earlier views that he has come to view as - if not altogether wrong, and perhaps even in some Pickwickian sense correct - needlessly extreme.

(Fogelin: Aspects of Quine's Naturalized Epistemology In: The Cambridge Companion to QUINE, Edited by Roger F. Gibson Jr., p.32)

  • I don't see what you're asking, Gyorgy. The expression uninteresting legalism seems to be vital, but to what, please? – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 18:14
  • @Robbie Goodwin Some of Quine's views are considered too extreme. When he softened them, he claimed that they were correct only in some very formal way. My question is that how the phrase "Pickwickian sense" can express this fact. – Gyorgy Sereny Jun 9 '17 at 18:17
  • Well, is Quine Pickwick, please? – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 18:18
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    thanks and now you've lost me, unless you're saying Quine speaks exactly as Pickwick would… – Robbie Goodwin Jun 9 '17 at 18:43
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    Dickens’s advice to anyone who loses his (or her) hat in the wind is, while others laugh, keep “smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else”. 1 – MikeJRamsey56 Jun 9 '17 at 19:02

The Unabridged version of Merriam-Webster expands on the definition of Pickwickian that you give (emphasis mine):

[so called from the peculiar sense given to common words by Mr. Blotton and Mr. Pickwick, characters in the novel Pickwick Papers] : intended or taken in a sense other than the obvious or literal one : specially or whimsically limited or distorted in intended meaning

"injustice … is merely a Pickwickian expression for what human beings do not like" — Nation

In your quote, Pickwickian is used to refer to Quine's earlier views that, "if not altogether wrong," had, in some limited or whimsical sense, some degree of correctness.

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    Thank you very much, indeed. It is clear: this characterization means not only that something is to be taken simply in a non-literal sense, but in an intentionally distorted one. – Gyorgy Sereny Jun 9 '17 at 20:04

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