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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
W.V. Quine
W.V. Quine
Name: Willard Van Orman Quine
Birth: June 25, 1908
Death: December 25, 2000
School/tradition: Analytic
Main interests
Logic, Ontology, Epistemology, Set Theory
Notable ideas
Indeterminacy of translation, Confirmation holism, Philosophical naturalism, language
Influences Influenced
Rudolf Carnap, Alfred Tarski, Vienna Circle, C.I. Lewis, A. N. Whitehead |
Donald Davidson, David Lewis, Dagfinn Føllesdal, David Kaplan

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 philosophers and logicians of the 20th century.


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", which attacked the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions and advocated a form of semantic holism and Word and Object which further developed these positions and introduced the notorious indeterminacy of translation thesis.


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. For the next four years, his appointment as a Harvard Junior Fellow excused him from having to teach. A traveling fellowship enabled him to spend 1932-33 in Europe, where he met the young Alfred Tarski and other Polish logicians 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. Thus, it is due to Quine that Tarski survived and was able to work 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.

He 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 wrote his autobiography, The Time of My Life, in 1986.


Quine's Ph.D. thesis and early publications were on formal logic and set theory. Only after WWII did he emerge as a major philosopher, by virtue of seminar papers on ontology, epistemology and language. 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: he only taught a course in the history of philosophy once, on Hume.

Rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction

In the 1930s and 40s, discussions 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". This distinction was central to logical positivism, 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 but went on to claim 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 whereas Quine was in fact 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 competent English speakers also have access to the collateral information of the past existence of black dogs. Quine maintains that there is no distinction to be drawn between universally known collateral information and conceptual or analytic truths; a defect of Quine's philosophy, however, is that it provides no other plausible explanation of why the intuition of "analyticity" is excited by some sentences and not others.

Another approach to Quine's objection to analyticity and synonymy comes through the notion of possibility. A traditional Wittgensteinian 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 and the related doctrine of confirmation holism. The premise of confirmation holism 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 alternatives which are equally justifiable. While the Greeks' assumption that (unobservable) Homeric gods exist is false while our supposition of (unobservable) electromagnetic waves is true, both are to be justified solely by their capacity to explain our observations.

Quine concluded his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" 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 (evident 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 is much more restricted and limited than Quine's. For Duhem, underdetermination applies only to physics or possibly to natural science, while it applies to human knowledge as a whole for Quine. Thus, while it is possible to verify or falsify whole theories, it is not possible to verify or falsify individual statements. Nearly any particular statement can be saved if one is prepared to make serious enough modifications elsewhere in the containing theory. For Quine, scientific thought formed 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 particular 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.

Set theory

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 global universal class, but since they are free of any hierarchy of types, they have no need for a distinct universal class at each 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 an alternative way to ground 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 6 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., refutation trees are absent, and the part on metalogy is not as comprehensive), 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:

  • Mathematical Logic. Here, Quine showed that much of what Principia Mathematica took about 1000 pages to say can in fact be said in about 250 pages. The proofs are concise to the point of crypticness, and the overall approach is dated. The last chapter, on the classic incompleteness theorems of Gödel and Tarski, became the launching point for Raymond Smullyan's subsequent and more lucid exposition of these and related results.
  • Set Theory and Its Logic. Sets out yet another flavor of axiomatic set theory and derives the essence of mathematics therefrom. Includes the definitive treatment of Quine's theory of virtual sets and relations. The notation of this book makes for hard reading. 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 the latter two texts and invariably confine their enthusiasm to NF and its offshoots by others.

Academic Genealogy
Notable teachers Notable students
Rudolf Carnap
Clarence Irving Lewis
Alfred North Whitehead
Donald Davidson
Daniel Dennett
Dagfinn Føllesdal
Gilbert Harman
David Lewis
Hao Wang


  • "No entity without identity".
  • "Ontology recapitulates philology".
  • "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough".
  • "To be is to be the value of a bound variable".
  • "The Humean predicament is the human predicament".
  • "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 agid, 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 Hersh, R., 1997, What Is Mathematics, Really?).

Notable books by Quine

  • Set Theory and Its Logic. 1969 (1963). Harvard Univ. Press.
  • Methods of Logic. 1982 (1950). Harvard Univ. Press.
  • The Philosophy of Logic 1986 (1970). Harvard Univ. Press.
  • The Time of My Life (1986). Harvard Univ. Press. His autobiography.
  • Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. 1987. Harvard Univ. Press. ISBN 0140125221. Accessible, entertaining and very revealing of the breadth of his interests.
  • Pursuit of Truth. 1990 (Rev. ed. 1992). Harvard Uni. Press (Short, lively synthesis with the few symbols explained therein). ISBN 0674739515.

Literature about Quine

  • Ivor Grattan-Guinness, 2000. The Search for Mathematical Roots 1870-1940. Princeton Univ. Press.
  • Hahn, L. E., and Shilpp, P. A., eds., 1986. The Philosophy of W. V. O. Quine (The Library of Living Philosophers). Open Court.
  • Valore, Paolo, 2001. Questioni di ontologia quineana, Milano: Cusi.

See also

  • Hold come what may
  • Hold more stubbornly at least
  • Quine-McCluskey algorithm
  • Quine
  • Quine's paradox
  • Schock Prize

External links

Preceded by:
Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy
Succeeded by:
Michael Dummett


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