Willard Van Orman Quine
(June 25, 1908 – December
25, 2000) (known to intimates as "Van") was an American philosopher
in the analytic tradition
. From 1930 until his
death 70 years later, Quine was continuously affiliated with
University in one way or another, first as a student, then as
a professor of philosophy and a teacher of mathematics, and finally
as an emeritus elder statesman who published or revised seven books
He filled the Edgar Pierce Chair of
Philosophy at Harvard, 1956–78.
Quine falls squarely into the analytic philosophy tradition while
also being the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not
. His major
writings include "Two Dogmas of
" (1951), which attacked the distinction between
and synthetic propositions
and advocated a form of semantic holism
, and Word and Object
(1960) which further
developed these positions and introduced the notorious indeterminacy of translation
to his autobiography, The Time of My Life (1986), Quine
grew up in Akron, Ohio.
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 thesis supervisor was Alfred North Whitehead
. He was then
appointed a Harvard Junior
, which excused him from having to teach for four years.
During the academic year 1932–33, he travelled in Europe thanks to
a Sheldon 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
During World War II, Quine lectured on logic in Brazil, in
Portuguese, and served in the United States Navy in a military intelligence
the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
At Harvard, Quine helped supervise the Harvard theses of, among
, David Lewis
, Gilbert Harman
, Dagfinn Føllesdal
, Hao Wang
, Hugues LeBlanc
. From 1964 until 1965, Quine was a Fellow on
the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan
Quine had four children by two marriages.
Quine's Ph.D. thesis and early publications were on formal logic
. Only after WWII did he, by virtue of seminal papers on
and language, emerge 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 evinced
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 40s, discussions with Rudolf Carnap
, Nelson Goodman
and Alfred Tarski
, among others, led Quine to
doubt the tenability of 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." This distinction was central to
Quine's criticisms played a major role in the decline of logical
positivism, he remained a verificationist
, to the point of invoking
verificationism to undermine the analytic-synthetic distinction. As
a verificationist, he drew on several sources including his Harvard
colleague B.F. Skinner
, and particularly on his analysis of
language in Verbal
. Quine was a major editor of the journal
Like other analytic
him, Quine accepted the definition
"analytic" as "true in virtue of meaning alone". Unlike them,
however, he concluded that ultimately the definition was circular
. In other words, Quine accepted
that analytic statements are those that are true by definition,
then argued that the notion of truth by definition was
Quine's chief objection to analyticity is with the notion of
(sameness of meaning), a sentence
being analytic, just in case it substitutes a synonym for one
"black" in a proposition like "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 since such speakers also have access to collateral
bearing on the historical existence of black dogs.
Quine maintains that there is no distinction between universally
known collateral information and conceptual or analytic
Another approach to Quine's objection to analyticity and synonymy
emerges from the modal notion of logical possibility
. A traditional
view of meaning held
that each meaningful sentence was associated with a region in the
space of possible worlds. Quine finds 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.
Confirmation holism and ontological relativity
The central theses underlying the indeterminacy of translation
and other extensions of Quine's work are ontological relativity
of confirmation holism
. The premise of
is that all theories (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
" as follows:
As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual
scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future
experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are
conceptually imported into the situation as convenient
intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply
as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of
Homer . . . For my part I do, qua lay
physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and
I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But 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 conceptions only as cultural posits.
Quine's ontological relativism
in the passage above) 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
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.
Quine's writings have led to the wide acceptance of instrumentalism
in the philosophy of science
Existence and Its Contrary
The problem of non-referring names
old puzzle in philosophy, which Quine captured eloquently when he
"A curious thing about the ontological problem is its
It can be put into three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables:
'What is there?'
It can be answered, moreover, in a
word—'Everything'—and everyone will accept this answer as
More directly, the controversy goes, "How can we talk about
? To what does the word 'Pegasus'
refer? If our answer is, 'Something,' then we seem to believe in
mystical entities; if our answer is, 'nothing', then we seem to
talk about nothing and what sense can be made of this? Certainly
when we said that Pegasus was a mythological winged horse we make
sense, and moreover we speak the truth! If we speak the truth, this
must be truth about something
. So we cannot be speaking of
Quine resists the temptation to say that non-referring terms are
meaningless for reasons made clear above. Instead he tells us that
we must first determine whether our terms refer or not before we
know the proper way to understand them. However, Czeslaw Lejewski
criticizes this belief for
reducing the matter to empirical discovery when it seems we should
have a formal distinction between referring and non-referring terms
or elements of our domain. He writes further, "This state of
affairs does not seem to be very satisfactory. The idea that some
of our rules of inference should depend on empirical information,
which may not be forthcoming, is so foreign to the character of
logical inquiry that a thorough re-examination of the two
inferences [existential generalization and universal instantiation]
may prove worth our while." He then goes on to offer a description
of free logic
, which he claims
accommodates an answer to the problem.
Lejewski then points out that free logic additionally can handle
the problem of the empty set for statements like \forall x\,Fx
\rightarrow \exists x\,Fx. Quine had considered the problem of the
empty set unrealistic, which left Lejewski unsatisfied.
Over the course of his career, Quine published a number of
technical and expository papers on formal logic, a number of which
are reprinted in his Selected Logic Papers
and in The
Ways of Paradox
Quine confined logic to classical bivalent first-order logic
, hence to truth and
falsity under any (nonempty) universe of discourse
. Hence the
following were not logic for Quine:
Quine wrote three 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 6 weeks as an ad
hoc solution to his teaching needs.
- Methods of Logic. The four editions of this book
resulted from a more advanced undergraduate course in logic Quine
taught from the end of WWII until his 1978 retirement.
- 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 modal logic, and the non-logical
character of higher-order logic.
is based on Quine's graduate teaching
during the 1930s and 40s. It shows that much of what Principia Mathematica
than 1000 pages to say can be said in 250 pages. The proofs are
concise, even cryptic. The last chapter, on Gödel's incompleteness
of and Tarski's indefinability
, along with the article Quine (1946), became a
launching point for Raymond
's later lucid exposition of these and related
Quine's work in logic gradually became dated in some respects.
Techniques he did not teach and discuss include analytic tableaux
, recursive functions
, and model theory
. His treatment of metalogic
left something to be desired. For
example, Mathematical Logic
does not include any proofs of
. Early in his career, the notation
of his writings on logic was often idiosyncratic. His later
writings nearly always employed the now-dated notation of
. Set against all this are the simplicity of
his preferred method (as exposited in his Methods of
) for determining the satisfiability of quantified
formulas, the richness of his philosophical and linguistic
insights, and the fine prose in which he expressed them.
Most of Quine's original work in formal logic from 1960 onwards was
on variants of his predicate
, one of several ways that have been proposed for
doing logic without quantifiers
. For a
comprehensive treatment of predicate functor logic and its history,
see Quine (1976). For an introduction, see chpt. 45 of his
Methods of Logic
Quine was very warm to the possibility that formal logic would
eventually be applied outside of philosophy and mathematics. He
wrote several papers on the sort of Boolean algebra
employed in electrical engineering
, and with
Edward J. McCluskey
, devised the Quine–McCluskey
of reducing Boolean
to a minimum covering sum of prime implicants
While his contributions to logic include elegant expositions and a
number of technical results, it is in set
that Quine was most innovative. He always maintained
that mathematics required set theory and that set theory was quite
distinct from logic. He flirted with Nelson Goodman
for a while, but backed away when he
failed to find a nominalist grounding of mathematics.
Over the course of his career, Quine proposed three variants of
axiomatic set theory, each including the axiom of extensionality
- New Foundations, NF, creates and
manipulates sets using a single axiom schema for set admissibility,
namely an axiom schema of stratified comprehension, whereby all
individuals satisfying a stratified formula compose a set. A
stratified formula is one that type
theory would allow, were the ontology
to include types. However, Quine's set theory does not feature
types. The metamathematics of NF are curious. NF allows many
"large" sets the now-canonical ZFC set theory
does not allow, even sets for which the axiom of choice does not hold. Since the
axiom of choice holds for all finite sets, the failure of this
axiom in NF proves that NF includes infinite sets. The (relative)
consistency of NF 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 the intuition behind NF. NF and NFU are the only
Quinian set theories with a following. For a derivation of
foundational mathematics in NF, see Rosser (1953);
- The set theory of Mathematical Logic is NF augmented
by the proper classes of Von
Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory, except axiomatized in a much
- The set theory of Set Theory and Its Logic does away
with stratification and is almost entirely derived from a single
axiom schema. Quine derived the foundations of mathematics once
again. This book includes the definitive exposition of Quine's
theory of virtual sets and relations, and surveyed axiomatic set
theory as it stood circa 1960. However, Fraenkel, Bar-Hillel and Levy (1973) do a better job of surveying set
theory as it stood at mid-century.
All three set theories admit a universal class, but since they are
free of any hierarchy
, they have no need for a distinct universal
class at each type level.
Quine's set theory and its background logic were driven by a desire
to minimize posits; each innovation is pushed as far as it can be
pushed before further innovations are introduced. For Quine, there
is but one connective, the Sheffer
, and one quantifier, the universal quantifier
. All polyadic
can be reduced to one dyadic
predicate, interpretable as set membership. His rules of proof were
limited to modus ponens
substitution. He preferred conjunction
to either disjunction
or the conditional
, because conjunction has the least
semantic ambiguity. He was delighted to discover early in his
career that all of first order logic and set theory could be
grounded in a mere two primitive notions: set abstraction
. For an elegant introduction to the
parsimony of Quine's approach to logic, see his "New Foundations
for Mathematical Logic," ch. 5 in his From a Logical Point of
Just as he challenged the dominant analytic-synthetic distinction,
Quine also took aim at traditional normative epistemology
. According to Quine, normative
epistemology is the trend that assigns ought claims to conditions
of knowledge. This approach, he argued, has failed to give us any
real understanding of the necessary and sufficient conditions for
knowledge. Quine recommended that, as an alternative, we look to
natural sciences like psychology for a full explanation of
knowledge. Thus, we must totally replace our entire epistemological
paradigm. Quine's proposal is extremely controversial among
contemporary philosophers and has several important critics, with
the most prominent among
Quine's reductio of the Library of Babel
In a short essay, Quine noted the interesting fact that the
Library of Babel
is finite (i.e.,
we will theoretically come to a point in history where everything
has been written), and that the Library of Babel can be constructed
in its entirety simply by two volumes, one consisting in nothing
but a dot and the other a dash. These two volumes could then be
alternated back and forth at random by the bearer, who would then
be able to read the resulting text in binary
. This, according to Quine shows that
"everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said
with two characters."
In popular culture
- 1951 (1940). Mathematical Logic. Harvard Univ. Press.
- 1966. Selected Logic Papers. New York: Random
- 1970. The Web of Belief. New York: Random House.
- 1980 (1941). Elementary Logic. Harvard Univ. Press.
- 1982 (1950). Methods of Logic. Harvard Univ.
- 1980 (1953). From a Logical Point of View. Harvard
Univ. Press. ISBN 0-674-32351-3. Contains " Two dogmas
- 1960 Word and Object. MIT Press; ISBN 0-262-67001-1.
The closest thing Quine wrote to a philosophical treatise. Chpt. 2
sets out the indeterminacy
of translation thesis.
- 1976 (1966). The Ways of Paradox. Harvard Univ.
- 1969 Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. Columbia
Univ. Press. ISBN 0-231-08357-2. Contains chapters on ontological relativity, naturalized epistemology and
- 1969 (1963). Set Theory and Its Logic. Harvard Univ.
- 1985 The Time of My Life – An Autobiography.
Cambridge, The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-17003-5. 1986: Harvard Univ.
- 1986 (1970). The Philosophy of Logic. Harvard Univ.
- 1987 Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical
Dictionary. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0-14-012522-1. A work of
essays, many subtly humorous, for lay readers, very revealing of
the breadth of his interests.
- 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
- 1946, "Concatenation as a basis for arithmetic." Reprinted in
his Selected Logic Papers. Harvard Univ. Press.
- 1948, "On What There Is,"
Review of Metaphysics. Reprinted in his 1953 From a
Logical Point of View. Harvard University Press.
- 1951, "Two Dogmas of
Empiricism," The Philosophical Review 60: 20–43.
Reprinted in his 1953 From a Logical Point of View.
Harvard University Press.
- 1956, "Quantifiers and Propositional Attitudes," Journal of
Philosophy 53. Reprinted in his 1976 Ways of Paradox.
Harvard Univ. Press: 185–96.
- 1969, "Epistemology
Naturalized" in Ontological Relativity and Other
Essays. New York: Columbia University Press: 69–90.
- Gibson, Roger F., 1982/86. The Philosophy of W.V.
Quine: An Expository Essay. Tampa: University of South
- ————, 1988. Enlightened Empiricism: An Examination of
W. V. Quine's Theory of Knowledge (Tampa:
University of South Florida.
- ————, ed., 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Quine.
Cambridge University Press.
- ————, 2004. Quintessence: Basic Readings from the
Philosophy of W. V. Quine. Harvard Univ.
- ———— and Barrett, R., eds., 1990. Perspectives on
Quine. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Gochet, Paul, 1978. Quine en
perspective, Paris, Flammarion.
- Grattan-Guinness, Ivor,
2000. The Search for Mathematical Roots 1870–1940.
Princeton University Press.
- Hahn, L. E., and Schilpp, P. A., eds., 1986. The Philosophy
of W. V. O. Quine (The Library of
Living Philosophers). Open Court.
- Köhler, Dieter, 1999/2003. Sinnesreize, Sprache und Erfahrung: eine Studie zur
Quineschen Erkenntnistheorie. Ph.D. thesis, Univ. of
- Rosser, John Barkley,
- Valore, Paolo, 2001. Questioni di ontologia quineana,