Willard Van Orman Quine (June 25, 1908 - December 25, 2000), usually cited as W.V. Quine or W.V.O. Quine but known to his friends as Van, was one of the most influential American logicians and philosophers of the twentieth century. His entire academic career-except for many visiting professorships and travels throughout much of the world-was spent at Harvard University. He is best known for his seminal 1951 essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," in which he attacked two central pillars of the logical positivist/empiricist movement: the analytic-synthetic distinction, and the notion of reductionism according to which each meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms which refers exclusively to immediate experience. He also wrote a number of highly influential and still used textbooks in logic, mathematical logic, and set theory. From about the 1950s until about the 1990s he was the dean of American philosophers.
Quine falls squarely into the analytic philosophy tradition while also being the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not conceptual analysis. Quine spent his entire career teaching philosophy and mathematics at Harvard University, his alma mater, where he held the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy from 1956 to 1978. His major writings include "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," first published in 1951, which attacked the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions and advocated a form of semantic holism, and Word and Object, published in 1960, which further developed these positions and introduced the indeterminacy of translation thesis-a thesis that was notorious to adherents of logical positivism and logical empiricism because it undermined the possibility of carrying out their central goal or interest: the program of verificationism.
The Time of My Life (1986) is his autobiography. Quine grew up in Akron, Ohio. His father was a manufacturing entrepreneur and his mother was a schoolteacher. He received his B.A. in mathematics and philosophy from Oberlin College in 1930 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1932. His notional thesis supervisor was Alfred North Whitehead. Upon completing his Ph.D., Quine was appointed a Harvard Junior Fellow, which excused him from having to teach for four years. During the academic year 1932-1933, he travelled in Europe thanks to a fellowship, meeting Polish logicians (including Alfred Tarski) and members of the Vienna Circle (including Rudolf Carnap).
It was through Quine's good offices that Alfred Tarski was invited to attend the September 1939 Unity of Science Congress in Cambridge. To attend that Congress, Tarski sailed for the USA on the last ship to leave Gdańsk before the Third Reich invaded Poland. Tarski survived the war and worked another 44 years in the USA.
During WWII, Quine lectured on logic in Brazil, in Portuguese, and served in the United States Navy in a military intelligence role, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
At Harvard, Quine helped supervise the Harvard theses of, among others, Donald Davidson, David Lewis, Daniel Dennett, Gilbert Harman, Dagfinn Føllesdal, Hao Wang, Hugues LeBlanc and Henry Hiz.
Quine was known as a quick thinker, good with languages, a world traveler, and a warm friend. All his companions speak well of him.
Quine had four children by two marriages.
Quine's Ph.D. thesis and early publications were on formal logic and set theory. After WWII, by virtue of seminal papers on ontology, epistemology and language, he emerged as a major philosopher. By the 1960s, he had worked out his "naturalized epistemology" whose aim was to answer all substantive questions of knowledge and meaning using the methods and tools of the natural sciences. Quine roundly rejected the notion that there should be a "first philosophy," a theoretical standpoint somehow prior to natural science and capable of justifying it. These views are intrinsic to his naturalism.
Quine often wrote superbly crafted and witty English prose. He had a gift for languages and could lecture in French, Spanish, Portuguese and German. But like the logical positivists, he showed little interest in the philosophical canon: only once did he teach a course in the history of philosophy, on Hume.
Rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction
In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions he held with Carnap, Nelson Goodman and Alfred Tarski, among others, led Quine to doubt the tenability of the distinction between "analytic" sentences-those true simply by virtue of 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." Hume had attempted to distinguish between these two kinds of statements as being "relations of ideas and matters of fact." This distinction was central to logical positivism, also known as logical empiricism-the referent of the "empiricism" of his famous paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Quine's criticisms played a major role in the decline of logical positivism although he remained a verificationist, to the point of invoking verificationism to undermine the analytic-synthetic distinction.
Like other analytic philosophers before him, Quine accepted the definition of "analytic" as "true in virtue of meaning alone." Unlike them, however, he did not find the definition to be coherent. In colloquial terms, Quine accepted that analytic statements are those that are true by definition, then argued that the notion of truth by definition was incoherent.
Quine is often misrepresented as believing that all statements are contingent. For instance, it is claimed that Quine held the truth of "All unmarried men are bachelors" to depend on a contingent fact. In truth, he was as skeptical of the necessary/contingent distinction as of the analytic-synthetic distinction (and, for that matter, of reified facts). Hence, to claim that Quine thought all statements were contingent is a mistake, albeit a common one.
Quine's chief objection to analyticity is with the notion of synonymy (sameness of meaning), a sentence being analytic just in case it is synonymous with "All black things are black" (or any other logical truth). The objection to synonymy hinges upon the problem of collateral information. We intuitively feel that there is a distinction between "All unmarried men are bachelors" and "There have been black dogs," but a competent English speaker will assent to both sentences under all conditions (excepting extraneous factors such as bribery or threats) since such speakers also have access to collateral information bearing on the historical existence of black dogs. Quine maintains that there is no distinction between universally known collateral information and conceptual or analytic truths. However, Quine's philosophy does not provide another plausible explanation of why some sentences spark the intuition of "analyticity" and not others.
Another approach to Quine's objection to analyticity and synonymy emerges from the modal notion of logical possibility. A traditional Wittgensteinian view (i.e., the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, as Wittgenstein changed his view on this by the time he wrote his Philosophical Investigations) of meaning held that each meaningful sentence was associated with a region in the space of possible worlds. Quine found the notion of such a space problematic, arguing that there is no distinction between those truths which are universally and confidently believed and those which are necessarily true.
The Quine-Carnap Debate
From about December 1932 to July 1970, a month before Carnap's death, Quine carried on a long and philosophically fruitful correspondence with Rudolf Carnap. Quine was the younger man and first dealt with Carnap as his teacher, but the two became strong friends and remained so until the end of Carnap's life. even though Quine eventually came to reject central points of Carnap's view, especially Carnap's notion of analyticity. Moreover, after Carnap's death Quine continued to speak and write favorably about him, writing a memorial "Homage to Rudolf Carnap" in 1970.
The central disagreement between Quine and Carnap was over analyticity, and has to do with the problem in epistemology of how we can justify our beliefs. Carnap tried to use the principle of verificationism, coupled with an antimetaphysical stance, to avoid reliance on intuition. Instead Carnap proposed that basic beliefs-the things that had been regarded as relying on intuitions-should be regarded as definitions. Languages, of course, are neither true nor false; the only criterion is that some may be more convenient than others. According to Carnap's view, basic claims and their logical consequences are true because of their meanings, and the basic claims can be known through an analysis of the meanings of the terms in them. Those claims that are true in virtue of their meanings are analytic according to Carnap.
Quine, a younger man than Carnap but one who possessed at least as strong logical and analytic skills, did not object to Carnap's view because he wanted to defend the philosophical systems that Carnap undermined, and he was in favor of Carnap's tie-in between logic and philosophy. Quine's final objection to Carnap's method was based on Quine's conclusion that the idea or analyticity is unintelligible, so the supposed distinction between analytic and synthetic statements cannot be upheld.
Quine offered three arguments for his view. First, no one has succeeded in clarifying the notion of analyticity. Second, constructed languages such as Carnap produced do not clarify the notion of analyticity. All Carnap did was define analyticity in L, but that does not clarify or define the term 'analytic.' Third, in science and elsewhere, we are able and willing to modify anything, even our basic notions of analytic logic, if there are good (pragmatic) reasons for doing so. Thus the supposed distinction between what is known analytically and what is known synthetically breaks down.
Confirmation holism and ontological relativity
The central theses underlying the indeterminacy of translation and other extensions of Quine's work are ontological relativity and the related doctrine of confirmation holism. The logical positivists, also known as logical empiricists, had held that unless a term could be reduced or explained logically-unless it could be verified, as they usually put it-by showing that it is derived from immediate sensory experience (this view or claim is often known as reductionism), then it is literally meaningless; it is nothing but useless sound. But Quine rejected reductionism and argued otherwise. The premise of his confirmation holism is that all theories and theoretical terms (and the propositions derived from them) are under-determined by empirical data (data, sensory-data, evidence); although some theories are not justifiable, failing to fit with the data or being unworkably complex, there are many equally justifiable alternatives. While the Greeks' assumption that (unobservable) Homeric gods exist is false, and our supposition of (unobservable) electromagnetic waves is true, both are to be justified solely by their ability to explain our observations.
Quine concluded his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" by writing:
Some issues do, I grant, seem more a question of convenient conceptual scheme and others more a question of brute fact.
Carnap, Lewis, and others take a pragmatic stand on the question of choosing between language forms, scientific frameworks; but their pragmatism leaves off at the imagined boundary between the analytic and the synthetic. In repudiating such a boundary I espouse a more thorough pragmatism. Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic.
Quine's ontological relativism and pragmatism led him to agree with Pierre Duhem that for any collection of empirical evidence, there would always be many theories able to account for it. However, Duhem's holism is much more restricted and limited than Quine's. For Duhem, underdetermination applies only to physics or possibly to natural science, while for Quine it applies to all of human knowledge. Thus, while it is possible to verify or falsify whole theories, it is not possible to verify or falsify individual statements. Almost any particular statements can be saved, given sufficiently radical modifications of the containing theory. For Quine, scientific thought forms a coherent web in which any part could be altered in the light of empirical evidence, and in which no empirical evidence could force the revision of a given part.
A reaction to Quine's writings, although not necessarily one of which he would approve, has been the wide acceptance of instrumentalism in the philosophy of science.
Upon recognizing that natural knowledge couldn't be justified in the traditional epistemological sense, Quine sought to renovate the old approach to epistemology in his 1969 essay, “Epistemology Naturalized.” In this essay, he proposed we acknowledge epistemology's application to psychology and linguistics (and vice versa) so that we may enjoy the advantage of their resources.
The role of justification is noticeably absent from Quine's new epistemology, a fundamental part (if not the fundamental part) of the old epistemology. So why was it eliminated? And why the need for a new epistemology in the first place?
Quine demonstrated the inadequacy of the traditional epistemological paradigm by drawing parallels between mathematical epistemology and general epistemology, which have both attempted studies in doctrine and concept. The conceptual side attends to meaning and clarification by definition (of how the terms relate to each other); the doctrinal is concerned with truth and instituting laws by verifying them. In regards to the mathematical studies, the more complicated concepts would be spoken of in terms of the simpler ones, and elementary laws would explain non-elementary laws. Ideally, the clarification of obscure concepts would help to justify the relationship between mathematical theorems and self-evident truths.
The concepts of mathematics, however, cannot be reduced to logic alone. They rest also on the axioms of set theory, which are even more enigmatic than the theories they have delivered.
A similar problem arises when we consider natural knowledge: Though Hume was able to procure some singular statements about bodies from sensory terms, he proved unsuccessful in trying to construct general statements or singular statements about the future, and so epistemologists began resorting to set theory and contextual definition.
Rudolf Carnap tried to pick up where Hume left off; namely, to translate sentences about the world into the language of logic, set theory, and sense experience. Though these rational reconstructions, as Carnap called them, would fail to actually justify science, they would at least have the potential to legitimize its concepts by translating them into the terms of logic and set theory. But, according to Quine, this translation failed.
Carnap's translation failed, Quine said, because of the translational indeterminacy of theoretical sentences. Individual statements cannot be suitably translated because they have fixed meaning only in the context of the theories they belong to. If I said, for example, that the Prime Mover was above the Crystalline Sphere, this would probably have no particular significance to you unless we were speaking in context of the Ptolemic paradigm of the universe.
Thus, the quest to justify natural knowledge by reducing bodies to sensory terms was abandoned. If, then, we cannot justify knowledge on these terms, the best we can do is to explore how knowledge originated and evolved, in the ontological sense, and how evidence relates to theory. In favoring psychology over rational reductionism, Quine said, “Better to discover how science in fact developed and learned sic than to fabricate a fictitious structure to a similar effect.”
Quine marked the new epistemology as a chapter of psychology, but it seems that, rather than epistemology being subordinate to psychology, they could be mutually supportive of each other. Quine recognized some may object to this idea, claiming it to be circular, and pointed out that we are not trying to justify psychology using epistemology, we are trying to understand knowledge. “We are after an understanding of science as an institution or process in the world,” he says, “and we do not intend that understanding to be any better than the science which is its object.”
The new epistemology, Quine claimed, is also becoming a matter of semantics. A fundamental part of knowledge relies on observation sentences. He defined an observation sentence as a sentence that everyone in a language-speaking community agrees upon. But what is an observation? When I look at the sky, am I observing the photons that hit my color receptors, or am I observing the blueness that results? Quine contended that an observation is whatever is closest to the sensory receptors, notwithstanding consciousness on our part. Observation sentences then, are about bodies rather than impressions, because observations are what we agree on. It doesn't necessarily matter then, that when we look at the sky I may perceive one version of “blue” and you may perceive another. We both agree that the sky is “blue,” because we are referring to a physical phenomenon outside of ourselves that gives us both some sort of impression, congruent or not.
This account, it seems, is a total naturalization of knowledge. Quine rejected the idea that we have knowledge prior to experience. On the contrary, our observations (and not even ones we are necessarily conscious of) determine our “abstract” knowledge. According to Quine, all of our knowledge comes ultimately from the external world.
Richard Rorty, in his obituary for Quine, put it this way:
Quine shared the usual Anglophone distaste for Heidegger, and he obviously did not want to bring back the sort of speculative metaphysics that had been produced by, for example, F.H. Bradley and A.N. Whitehead. But he did not offer a metaphilosophical program to replace the one that Russell and Carnap had put forward. Rather, he simply urged philosophers to bring philosophy into contact with empirical science-to stop trying for necessary truths and to instead find perspicuous ways of arranging the materials that natural science provides. He envisaged, for example, a future in which epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, would be "naturalized" and, thus, absorbed in what we now call "cognitive science." That sort of collaboration with empirical inquiry now seems to many Anglophone philosophers the best way to advance their discipline. (Chronicle of Higher Education obituary for W V Quine - Feb. 2, 2001)
Of course, naturalism may imply that our knowledge isn't the cause of some divine, mysterious force-knowledge is subject to the mechanical inner workings of the brain, which was sculpted unconsciously by evolution, which in essence follows the paths paved by physical law. This naturalization, then, may steer the foundations of knowledge in the direction of a survival mechanism that evolved due to certain environmental factors-a series of fortuitous genetic mutations that thrived and continued to evolve into what we consider knowledge today-and this seems to relegate us to little more than physical systems reacting to our environment. Some would disagree with this version of naturalism and call it cynical, and say that knowledge, with all its burdens, is a liberating phenomenon that gives us the reigns to our own lives and a consciousness to human fate. By bearing this phenomenon, we have an obligation to explore, perpetuate, and adapt it, using any means that hint at an epistemological cohesive whole.
Quine confined logic to classic bivalent first-order logic, hence to truth and falsity under any (nonempty) universe of discourse. Quine also carefully distinguished first-order logic from set theory, as the former requires no more than predicates and an unspecified universe of discourse. Thus much that Principia Mathematica included in logic was not logic for Quine.
While his contributions to logic include elegant expositions and a number of technical results, it is in set theory that Quine was most innovative. His set theory, (New Foundations) (NF) and that of Set Theory and Its Logic, admit a universal class, but since they are free of any hierarchy of types, they have no need for a distinct universal class at each type level. Without going into technical detail, these theories are driven by a desire to minimize posits; each innovation is pushed as far as it can be pushed before further innovations are introduced. Quine always maintained that mathematics required set theory and that set theory was quite distinct from logic. He flirted with Nelson Goodman's nominalism for a while, but backed away when he failed to find a nominalist grounding of mathematics.
New Foundations features a simple and economical criterion for set admissibility, which allows many "large" sets not allowed in the standard ZFC set theory. The (relative) consistency of New Foundations is an open question. A modification of NF, NFU, due to R. B. Jensen and admitting urelements (entities that can be members of sets but that lack elements), turns out to be consistent relative to Peano arithmetic, thus vindicating Quine's intuition.
The logic and mathematics teacher
Quine wrote three classic undergraduate texts on logic:
- Elementary Logic. While teaching an introductory course in 1940, Quine discovered that extant texts for philosophy students did not do justice to quantification theory or first-order predicate logic. Quine wrote this book in six weeks as an ad hoc solution to his teaching needs.
- Methods of Logic. The four editions of this book resulted from the advanced undergraduate course in logic Quine taught from the end of WWII until his retirement in 1978. Technically rather dated (e.g., analytic tableaux are absent and the treatment of metalogic leaves something to be desired), it still contains much philosophical and linguistic insight.
- Philosophy of Logic. A concise and witty undergraduate treatment of a number of Quinian themes, such as the prevalence of use-mention confusions, the dubiousness of quantified modality, and of the non-logical character of higher-order logics.
Quine also wrote two advanced texts on logic, set theory and the foundations of mathematics. They employ the notation of Principia Mathematica which makes for hard reading:
- Mathematical Logic. Shows that much of what Principia Mathematica took more than 1000 pages to say can be said in 250 pages. The proofs are concise, even cryptic, and the overall approach is dated. The set theory is New Foundations, augmented with proper classes. The last chapter, on the classic incompleteness theorems of Gödel and Tarski, became the launching point for Raymond Smullyan's later and more lucid exposition of these and related results.
- Set Theory and Its Logic. Quine proposes yet another flavor of axiomatic set theory, then derives the foundations of mathematics therefrom; includes the definitive treatment of Quine's theory of virtual sets and relations. Fraenkel, Bar-Hillel and Levy (1973) do a better job of surveying set theory as it stood in the 1950s.
All five texts remain in print. Curiously, advocates of Quinian set theory are not warm to the axiomatic set theory Quine advocated in his two advanced texts, and invariably confine their enthusiasm to NF and offshoots thereof proposed by others.
|Notable teachers||Notable students|
Clarence Irving Lewis
Alfred North Whitehead
- "No entity without identity."
- "Ontology recapitulates philology." (Attributed to James Grier Miller in the epigraph of Word and Object)
- "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough."
- "To be is to be the value of a bound variable." (From "On What There Is")
- "The Humean predicament is the human predicament."
- "Quantification is the ontic idiom par excellence."
- "We cannot stem linguistic change, but we can drag our feet. If each of us were to defy Alexander Pope and be the last to lay the old aside, it might not be a better world, but it would be a lovelier language" (Quiddities is chock-full of similar sentiments).
- When asked what the correct collective noun for logicians was, he replied "It is a sequitur of logicians."
- "Life is algid, life is fulgid. Life is what the least of us make most of us feel the least of us make the most of. Life is a burgeoning, a quickening of the dim primordial urge in the murky wastes of time" (interview in Harvard Magazine, quoted in R. Hersh, 1997, What Is Mathematics, Really?).
- "'What is there?' It can be answered, moreover, in a word-'Everything'-and everyone will accept this answer as true." (From "On What There Is".)
- "… in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience." (From "Two Dogmas of Empiricism".)
- "The state lottery is a public subsidy of intelligence since it yields public income that is calculated to lighten the tax burden of us prudent abstainers at the expense of the benighted masses of wishful thinkers." (From "Quiddities".)
Quine in popular culture
- A computer program whose output is its source code is called a "quine," named after him.
- The rock and roll guitarist Robert Quine was his nephew.
Notable books by Quine
- 1951 (1940). Mathematical Logic. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0674554515.
- 1966. Selected Logic Papers. New York: Random House.
- 1980 (1941). Elementary Logic. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0674244516.
- 1982 (1950). Methods of Logic. Harvard Univ. Press.
- 1980 (1953). From a Logical Point of View. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0674323513. Contains Two dogmas of Empiricism. Retrieved June 9, 2008.
- 1960. Word and Object. MIT Press; ISBN 0262670011. The closest thing Quine wrote to a philosophical treatise. Ch. 2 sets out the indeterminacy of translation thesis.
- 1969. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. Columbia Univ. Press. ISBN 0231083572. Contains chapters on ontological relativity, naturalized epistemology and natural kinds.
- 1969 (1963). Set Theory and Its Logic. Harvard Univ. Press.
- 1986 (1970). The Philosophy of Logic. Harvard Univ. Press.
- 1986. The Time of My Life. Harvard Univ. Press. His autobiography.
- 1987. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0140125221. A work of humor for lay readers, very revealing of the breadth of his interests.
- 1990. Dear Carnap, Dear Van: The Quine-Carnap Correspondence and Related Work. W.V. Quine and Rudolf Carnap; Edited with an introduction by Richard Creath. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520068475
- 1992 (1990). Pursuit of Truth. Harvard Univ. Press. A short, lively synthesis of his thought for advanced students and general readers not fooled by its simplicity. ISBN 0674739515.
- "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" The Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 20-43. Reprinted in W.V.O. Quine, From a Logical Point of View, Harvard University Press, 1953.
Literature about Quine
- Barrett, Robert and Roger Gibson, eds., Perspectives on Quine. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. ISBN 063116135X
- Dilman, İlham. Quine on Ontology, Necessity, and Experience: A Philisophical Critique. London: Macmillan, 1984. ISBN 0333352955
- Føllesdal, Dagfinn, ed., Philosophy of Quine. (5 vols.) London: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 081533737X
- Gaudet, Eve. Quine on Meaning. London & New York: Continuum, 2006. ISBN 0826487203
- Gibson, Roger F. The Philosophy of W.V. Quine: An Expository Essay. Tampa: University Presses of Florida, 1982. ISBN 0813007070
- Gibson, Roger F. Enlightened Empiricism: An Examination of W. V. Quine's Theory of Knowledge. Tampa: University Presses of Florida, 1988. ISBN 0813008867
- Gibson, Roger, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Quine. Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0333352955
- Gibson, Roger, ed. Quintessence: Basic Readings from the Philosophy of W. V. Quine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 0674010485
- Glock, Hans-Johann, Quine and Davidson on Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge, UK & New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521821800
- Grattan-Guinness, Ivor. The Search for Mathematical Roots 1870-1940: Logics, Set Theories and the Foundations of Mathematics From Cantor Through Russell to Gödel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN 0691058571
- Hahn, Lewis Edwin, and Paul Arthur Schilpp, eds., The Philosophy of W. V. Quine. La Salle, IL: Open Court (The Library of Living Philosophers, V. 18), 1986. ISBN 0812690109
- Hookway, Christopher. Quine: Language, Experience, and Reality. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988. ISBN 0804713863
- Kemp, Gary, Quine: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York, NY: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2006. ISBN 0826484867 ISBN 0826484875
- Köhler, Dieter, 1999/2003. Sinnesreize, Sprache und Erfahrung: eine Studie zur Quineschen Erkenntnistheorie. Ph.D. thesis, Univ. of Heidelberg. (in German)
- Romanos, George D. Quine and Analytic Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983. ISBN 026218110X
- Orenstein, Alex. W.V. Quine. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. ISBN 0691096058
- Valore, Paolo. Questioni di ontologia quineana. Milano: Cusi, 2001. (Italian)