Willard Van Orman Quine


Born: 25 June 1908 in Akron, Ohio, USA
Died: 25 December 2000 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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Willard Van Quine's father was Cloyd Robert Quine, an engineer who founded the Akron Equipment Company. His mother, Harriet Van Orman, was a teacher. Willard (or Van as he became known to his friends) was the youngest son of the family. His interests at school were mainly scientific but from a young age he began to interest himself with philosophical questions. For example, the concepts of heaven and hell worried him when he was only nine years old. His older brother William gave him James's Pragmatism before he had left school and the book fascinated him.

After leaving school Quine studied at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, where his brother William had also studied. A fellow student suggested that he would find reading Bertrand Russell's works interesting and indeed reading Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica quickly convinced Quine that he should study mathematics as his major subject with the philosophy of mathematics as a secondary topic. O'Grady writes in [6]:-

Quine's years at Oberlin were idyllic. His rooming house, full of kindred spirits was "an ideal setting in which to wax articulate". His appetite for cosmic understanding was sharpened by reading Russell.

He graduated from Oberlin College in 1930 and then won a scholarship to study for his doctorate at Harvard University. He married Naomi Clayton, who he had known at Oberlin College, soon after arriving in Harvard. Quine completed his doctorate in two years supervised by Alfred North Whitehead. It was Whitehead who introduced him to Russell, who was visiting Harvard to lecture there, and from that time Quine began a correspondence with Russell. Awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard in 1932, Quine described the following year, perhaps the most important for his future research, in a somewhat matter of fact way:-

In 1932 - I already had my PhD and was married to my first wife - I had a travelling fellowship. That was a great year. We used up our resources very accurately - I had $7 when we got back to America. Then I came back to Harvard as a Junior Fellow in 1933.

Indeed it was "a great year" for Quine who made an exciting visit to Europe financed by a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship. In Vienna he met Philip Frank, Moritz Schlick and other members of the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists. He also met the British philosopher A J Ayer and Kurt Gödel.

Quine spent six weeks in Warsaw with Tarski before going on to study at Prague under Rudolf Carnap. Quine became, in his own words, "an ardent disciple" of Carnap discovering:-

... what it was to be intellectually fired by a living teacher rather than by a dead book.

After Quine returned to Harvard in 1933 to take up the Junior Fellowship he published his first book A System of Logistics which was the published version of his doctoral thesis. From this time up to the break in his career for war service Quine's research was mainly on logic although always with a philosophical motivation. One of the most important papers he published during this period was New Foundations for Mathematical Logic in the American Mathematical Monthly in 1937. In this paper he presented his invention of the heterodox system of set theory, which is known as NF set theory after the title of the paper. Quine presented no model for this theory, nor did he prove that the system was consistent. This posed an awkward problem for mathematical logicians and led to quite a bit of interest.

Quine was appointed onto the staff at Harvard in 1936 as an Instructor in Philosophy. He later wrote about his teaching at this stage in his career:-

What I enjoyed most was more the mathematical end than the philosophical, because of it being less a matter of opinion. Clarifying, not defending. Resting on proof. I taught first in both departments, but my appointment was in the Philosophy Department. I taught Mathematical Logic and Set Theory as well as a general course of Logic in Philosophy. Harvard was good about letting me teach my own interests. I gave a course in Philosophy of my own choosing, my own ideas, for concentrators.

The year 1940 was an exciting one for Quine at Harvard for in that year both Carnap and Tarski visited Harvard and the three debated logical positivism. Although Quine was a firm friend of Carnap the two took somewhat different stands on many philosophical issues which led to lively discussions and challenges.

Quine was promoted to Associate Professor in 1941 but shortly after, because of World War II, he undertook war service. From 1942 he spent four years in the United States Navy Intelligence, first as a Lieutenant then as a Lieutenant Commander, decrypting messages from German submarines off the coast. He later wrote of this work decrypting messages:-

The Germans had a replica Enigma breaking complicated ciphers. Each day they had a different setting on the machine. We had to get it the hard way, by intercepting a message from a submarine that gave direction finders. We would know, say, from the preceding day's message he had been sent on a refuelling rendezvous, so a good guess was that some word would be 'refuelling.' Then if our men could fit the word, they could get the setting for the whole.

In 1945 Quine and his wife, having had two daughters, separated and they were divorced two years later. He returned to Harvard where he was promoted to Professor in 1948. He married again in 1948, his second wife being Marjorie Boynton who he met while serving in the Navy. Quine and his second wife had two children, a daughter and a son. The son, Douglas B Quine, has written an obituary of his father. During 1953-54 Quine was Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford and during that time he published a book From a Logical Point of View which was a collection of his earlier articles. One article in this work Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which he had first published in 1951, was the one which made his reputation as a leading philosopher. This article [6]:-

... challenged received notions of knowledge, meaning and truth, and exceeded even the extreme empiricism of logical positivism by arguing that logic and mathematics, like factual statements, are open to revision in the light of experience.

In the article Quine argued that it was:-

... folly to seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold contingently on experience, and analytic statements, which hold come what may.

He argued against the dogma of reductionism, or:-

... the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.

Quine claimed:-

Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system [of our beliefs]. The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.

Quine became Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1956, a post he retained until he retired in 1978. He continued as Edgar Pierce Professor Emeritus at Harvard, commuting daily to his corner office in Emerson Hall, for many years after he retired. His passion for travelling continued after his retirement and throughout his life he visited 118 countries.

We have commented above about Quine's work in mathematical logic. Symbolic logic represented for him the framework for the language of science. He modestly said:-

I do not do anything with computers, although one of my little results in mathematical logic has become a tool of the computer theory, the Quine McCluskey principle. And corresponds to terminals in series, or to those in parallel, so that if you simplify mathematical logical steps, you have simplified your wiring. I arrived at it not from an interest in computers, but as a pedagogical device, a slick way of introducing that way of teaching mathematical logic.

Quine developed a new type of philosophy, which he called naturalized epistemology. He claimed that epistemology's only legitimate role is to describe the way knowledge is actually obtained so, according to Quine, its function is to describe how present science arrives at the beliefs accepted by the scientific community.

Among Quine's publications are works on logic, metaphysics, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of logic. His 22 books include A System of Logistic (1934), Mathematical Logic (1940), Elementary Logic (1941), On What There Is (1948), From a Logical Point of View (1953), Word and Object (1960), Set Theory and Its Logic (1963), Philosophy of Logic (1970), The Time of My Life: an autobiography (1985), Quiddities (1990), and From Stimulus to Science (1995).

Quine won many prizes and medals for his outstanding contributions. These included the Murray Butler gold medal (1965), the F Polacky gold medal in Prague (1991), the Charles University gold medal in Prague (1993), the Rolf Schock Prize in Stockholm (1993), and the Kyoto Prize in Tokyo (1996). The Kyoto Prize for Creative Arts and Moral Sciences focused on the field of philosophy and made the award to Quine as one of America's pre-eminent 20th century philosophers. Indeed, as stated in [2]:-

He must have collected far more prizes and honorary degrees than any other contemporary philosopher or than almost any other academic; but what he most rejoiced in collecting were the countries that he had visited. He was immensely vain about their number, and vain, too, about his ability to speak a number of languages. He liked etymology and unusual facts about words. His writing was distinguished by a feeling for words and an often witty use of them. His political opinions were on the Right, but he was tactful in not voicing them in the presence of people he knew to be of a different inclination.

His achievements were summarised as:-

We may therefore say that the many theses and arguments of Dr Willard Van Orman Quine have become the centre of debate for modern epistemology and ontology as well as philosophy of language and philosophy of science in general. He has created a profound, powerful influence without which it would not be possible to understand the current state of philosophy.

The University of Lille, Oxford University, Cambridge University, Uppsala University, the University of Bern, and Harvard University were among the eighteen universities awarding him an honorary degree. 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).

A little of his character is shown by some entertaining episodes. All his books were typed on the 1927 Remington typewriter, on which he wrote his doctoral thesis, which he had modified by including some mathematical symbols instead of characters such as !, ?, and 1. When once he was asked how he managed without a question mark he replied:-

Well, you see, I deal in certainties.

He gave this picture of himself in his book The Time of My Life :-

I am orderly and I am frugal. For the most part my only emotion is impatience, I am deeply moved by occasional passages of poetry, and so, characteristically, I read little of it.

Outside philosophy and mathematics Quine loved music, especially Dixieland jazz, Mexican folksongs, and Gilbert and Sullivan. He enjoyed playing the piano and he played banjo in several jazz groups.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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List of References (11 books/articles)

Some Quotations (5)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Obituary: The Times
  2. Obituary: The Guardian
  3. Obituary: The Telegraph
  4. Obituary: The Independent
  5. Obituary: The New York Times

Other Web sites
  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project

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