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Willard Van Orman Quine

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Willard Van Orman Quine
Willard Van Orman Quine
(Undated photograph)

Willard Van Orman Quine (AKA W. V. O. Quine, or "Van" to his friends) (1908 - 2000) was an American philosopher and mathematical logician, widely considered one of the most important philosophers of the second half of the 20th Century.

His criticisms and modifications of Logical Positivism and Pragmatism were instrumental in moving 20th Century Analytic Philosophy along, and he revolutionized developments in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Logic, Philosophy of Language and Philosophy of Mathematics. His consistent application of analytic methods led him to a kind of extreme Empiricism, Naturalism and Physicalism.

He published over twenty books and numerous articles, all written in a distinctively crisp and witty style. For the last 70 years of his long life, he was affiliated in some way with Harvard University, first as a student, then as a teacher and professor, and finally as an emeritus elder statesman.


Quine was born on 25 June 1908 in a modest frame house in Akron, Ohio, USA. His father, Cloyd Robert Quine, was an engineer and manufacturing entrepreneur and continued to work at the Akron Equipment Company until his death in 1967. His mother, Harriet Van Orman, was a college-educated local schoolteacher. He had an elder brother called Robert Cloyd Quine.

His interest in philosophy began early and, aged nine, he fretted over the absurdity of heaven and hell. He chose scientific courses at his local high school, and was an ardent stamp collector and list-maker, fascinated by etymology and obsessed with maps and faraway places. Later in high school, his brother gave him William James' "Pragmatism", which he read compulsively (although he always claimed that it was reading Edgar Allen Poe's short story "Eureka" that first filled him with a desire to understand the universe).

He earned his B.A. in mathematics and philosophy in 1930 from Oberlin College (a private, highly selective liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio), where his appetite for "cosmic understanding" was sharpened by reading Bertrand Russell. He was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University, which marked the start of a remarkable 70-year association with the institution. He completed his Ph.D. in just two years in 1932, under the supervision of Alfred North Whitehead, and was then appointed a Harvard Junior Fellow, which excused him from having to teach for the next four years.

In 1932, he married his first wife, Naomi Clayton. Thanks to a fellowship, he traveled in Europe during 1932 and 1933, meeting Alfred Tarski (1901 - 1983) (who was later to accept Quine's invitation to attend a congress in Cambridge, thereby avoiding the Nazi crackdown in Poland) and other Polish logicians, as well as Kurt Gödel (who had just produced his renowned Incompleteness Theorem) and the Logical Positivists Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970), Moritz Schlick and other members of the Vienna Circle, and their British disciple, Alfred Ayer. He became Carnap's "ardent disciple" and, although they were to become increasingly combative philosophically, they remained firm friends.

During the 1930s, he developed his ideas in many articles, mainly on Logic and set theory, as well as his first book, "A System Of Logistics" in 1933. In 1940, he produced the popular textbook, "Mathematical Logic". He became an Instructor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1936, and then Associate Professor in 1941.

Quine was a talented linguist and preferred to learn his audience's French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or whatever, and lecture in that rather than English. For example, during World War II, he lectured on Logic in Brazil in Portuguese. He also served in the United States Navy in a military intelligence role, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander. In 1945, Quine and his wife, having had two daughters, Elizabeth (born 1935) and Norma (born 1937), separated and they were divorced two years later.

He was promoted to full professor at Harvard in 1948. In the same year, he married again, his second wife being Marjorie Boynton (who he had met while serving in the Navy), and they were to bear a son and a daughter, Douglas (born 1950) and Margaret (born 1954). Quine loved Dixieland jazz and played the banjo in jazz groups during this period, as well as the piano.

Quine held the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard University from 1956 until his retirement from Harvard in 1978, and then as Professor Emeritus until his death in 2000. His prolific output and his obsession with traveling continued up to and beyond his retirement (throughout his life he visited 118 countries) and he commuted daily to his Harvard office well after his retirement.

He first established his wider reputation with his seminal 1951 book, "Two Dogmas Of Empiricism", but he continued publishing and revising at a frantic pace for most of the rest of his life, including "Word And Object" (1960), "Philosophy of Logic" (1969), "Set Theory and Its Logic" (1963), "Methods of Logic" (1972), "The Roots of Reference" (1973), "Theories and Things" (1981), "Pursuit of Truth" (1989), "Quiddities" (1990) and "From Stimulus to Science" (1995).

Among the eighteen universities which awarded him an honorary degree were The University of Lille, Oxford University, Cambridge University, Uppsala University, the University of Bern and (of course) Harvard University. He was elected to fellowships of many learned societies including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1949), the British Academy (1959), the Instituto Brasileiro de Filosophia (1963), the National Academy of Sciences (1977), the Institut de France (1978) and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences (1979).

Quine died on 25 December 2000. His ashes rest between his parents in the Glendale Cemetary, Akron, Ohio, with portions also scattered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard, Massachusetts, and Meriden, Connecticut.

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Quine's philosophy at first seems utterly fragmentary, with fundamental shifts in doctrine. However, over time, his philosophy assumed a growing systematic coherence.

In Epistemology, he was known for rejecting epistemological Foundationalism in favor of what he called "naturalized epistemology", whose task was to give a psychological account of how scientific knowledge is obtained. This was in effect a kind of Fallibilism (the doctrine that all claims to knowledge could, in principle, be mistaken, and that we need not have logically conclusive justifications for what we know).

Quine's seminal 1951 essay, "Two Dogmas Of Empiricism", and its follow-up "From a Logical Point of View" of 1953, were the works which first established his reputation. In these works, he denied the importance (and even the existence) of the "analytic-synthetic distinction", a claim that was seen almost as heresy in most Analytic Philosophy camps of the day. The distinction between "analytic" statements (those true simply by the meanings of their words, such as "All bachelors are unmarried") and "synthetic" statements (those true or false by virtue of facts about the world, such as "There is a cat on the mat") had first been established by Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century, and was one of the cardinal doctrines of Logical Positivism. Quine argued that ultimately the definition of "analytic" was circular and that the whole notion of truth by definition was unsatisfactory. He further argued that there is in fact no distinction between universally known collateral information and conceptual or analytic truths.

By denying it, Quine effectively made even the "truths" of Logic and mathematics totally empirical, and opened the door for logical and mathematical statements to be (in principle at least) modified or even abandoned in the light of experience, in much the same way as factual statements are. This led to the development of a naturalistic and revitalized Epistemology, and his work heralded a major shift away from the views of language descended from Logical Positivism, and a new appreciation of the difficulty of providing a sound empirical basis for theses concerning convention, meaning and synonymy.

The other main tenet of Logical Positivism attacked by Quine in these works was that of Reductionism (the theory that any meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms which refers exclusively to immediate experience). Although Quine's criticisms played a major role in the decline of Logical Positivism, he remained a Verificationist. Thus, he believed that, while it may be possible to verify or falsify whole theories, it is not possible to verify or falsify individual statements. He also subscribed to a kind of Relativism, believing that for any collection of empirical evidence, there would always be many theories able to account for it.

In his Metaphysics and ontology (or "ontic theory" as Quine referred to it), two articles stand out, "Steps toward a Constructive Nominalism" (1947) and "On What There Is" (1948). In general, his ontology was originally nominalistic, maintaining that only particular individuals exist, and that universals or abstract entities do not exist (except perhaps as linguistic symbols). He made clear, however, that accepted scientific theories allow for more than one ontic theory of existence, and that it is incorrect to seek to determine that just one such ontic theory is true. The primacy of mathematical logic in Quine's ontology is evident in his celebrated definition of being: "To be is to be the value of a variable".

"Word And Object" (1960), along with his later "Pursuit of Truth" (1990), attacked prevailing theories in Philosophy of Language which see meanings as objects in a kind of museum of ideas, with verbal expressions as their arbitrary, interchangeable labels. By this time, he had abandoned his earlier Nominalism by acknowledging the existence of abstract entities, and he also developed a behaviorist account of language learning. It was in "Word And Object" that he first proposed his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, particularly regarding radical translation (the attempt to translate a hitherto unknown language). He noted that there are always different ways one might break a sentence into words, and different ways to distribute functions among words, so that a single sentence must always be taken to have more than one different meaning. He effectively broadened the principle of Semantic or Confirmation Holism still further to arrive at the position that a sentence (and therefore a word) has meaning only in the context of a whole language.

Quine's early work was mainly on mathematical Logic, including significant contributions to the development of the important mathematical area of set theory, particularly in his papers "A System of Logic" (1934), "New Foundations of Mathematical Logic" (1937), "Mathematical Logic" (1940), "Methods of Logic" (1950) and "Set Theory and Its Logic" (1963).

He also developed an interesting paradox, which has come to be known as Quine's Paradox: "yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation" yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation.

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