Willard Van Orman Quine

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Willard Van Orman Quine

Willard Van Orman Quine (born 1908), American philosopher, is best known for his advocacy of the logical regimentation of ordinary language.

On June 25, 1908, W. V. Quine was born in Akron, Ohio. He earned the bachelor of arts degree summa cum laude in 1930 from Oberlin College. At Harvard University Graduate School he concentrated on logic under the supervision of Alfred North Whitehead. He received his doctorate in 1932. Quine then traveled to Vienna, Austria. He was there when the circle of logical positivist philosophers flourished, studied mathematical logic at Warsaw, and in Prague, befriended Rudolf Carnap, a leader of the logical positivist movement.

Quine's A System of Logic (1934) contributed significantly to the development of mathematical set theory. In 1936 he joined the Harvard faculty. His essay "New Foundations of Mathematical Logic" (1937) retained in principle Bertrand Russell's theory of types (a revision of set theory) but sought to avoid its complexities. Nevertheless, Quine's new theory had drawbacks. In Mathematical Logic (1940) he presented a superior system. His Set Theory and Its Logic (1963) traced relations between his own system of set theory and others.

Explaining Ontic Theory

Two articles, "Steps toward a Constructive Nominalism" (1947) and "On What There Is" (1948), represent Quine's widely considered doctrines in ontology. Ontology—in Quine's words, "ontic" theory—consists of assertions of existence. He made clear that accepted scientific theories allow for more than one ontic theory and that it is incorrect to seek to determine that one such ontic theory is true. He proposed a method for explaining the ontic importance of a theory, calling for formulation of the statements which a theory contains into symbolic expressions with existential importance. 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."

A Reverse in Logic

Quine's ontology was originally nominalistic, maintaining that only particular individuals exist and that universals or abstract entities do not exist, except perhaps as linguistic symbols. In 1947 Quine denied the existence of abstract entities and proposed the construction of logical and mathematical systems without resort to such entities. In Word and Object (1960), however, Quine abandoned his earlier nominalism by acknowledging the existence of abstract entities. He contended that language consists of dispositions, acquired by conditioning, to respond acceptably to socially observable stimuli. His Pursuit of Truth (1990) also puts forth this argument.

Quine's main contribution to epistemology (the theory of knowledge), signaled by his article "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951), was his denial of the validity of the analytic-synthetic distinction. According to this distinction, every statement in any system of knowledge is either synthetic or analytic. A synthetic statement is true or false as a matter of fact, and an analytic statement is true or false without reference to fact but with reference to meanings or formal rules within the language in which the statement is expressed. In challenging this central distinction in recent epistemology, Quine had a decisive impact on the field. He pointed out that the distinction was never made satisfactorily and, in fact, argued that it could not be made.

In 1955 Quine was appointed Edgar Pierce professor of philosophy at Harvard. President of the Association of Symbolic Logic (1953-1956), in 1957 he was elected president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. In 1968 he inaugurated the John Dewey Lectures at Columbia University. In December 1971 he delivered the prestigious Carus Lectures before the American Philosophical Association. In 1996, Quine received the Kyoto Prize, one of Japan's most prestigious awards given by a private foundation. He was awarded the $460, 000 prize in the category of creative arts and moral sciences.

Quine's philosophy at first seemed utterly fragmentary. Despite fundamental shifts in doctrine, however, his philosophy later assumed growing systematic coherence. Quine's publications include From a Logical Point of View (1953), Word and Object (1960), Selected Logic Papers (1966), The Ways of Paradox (1966), Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969), Philosophy of Logic (1970), and Pursuit of Truth (1990).

Further Reading

Quine's work is discussed in Donald Davidson and Jaakho Hintikka, eds., Words and Objections: Essays on the Work of W. V. Quine (1969). His importance is also analyzed in Neils Egmont Christensen, On the Nature of Meanings: A Philosophical Analysis (1961; 2d ed. 1965). A short biography of Quine is in Paul Kurtz, ed., American Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (1966).

Additional Sources

(Orenstein, Alex) Willard Van Orman Quine, Twayne Publishers, 1977.

(Quine, W. V.) The Time of My Life: An Autobiography, MIT Press, 1985.

(Honderich, Ted, ed.) Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 1995.

New York Times (July 1, 1996). □

Quine, Willard Van Orman

views updated May 29 2018

Quine, Willard Van Orman (1908–2000) US philosopher. He was professor of philosophy at Harvard (1948–78). Quine regarded philosophy as a branch of natural science. In Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1951), he argued for a holistic approach to empiricism, abandoning the analytic-synthetic distinction made by Immanuel Kant. In Word and Object (1960), Quine put forward the notion of the indeterminancy of translation. Other works include From a Logical Point of View (1953) and Pursuit of Truth (1990). See also logical positivism