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[Nettime-bold] RIP: W.V. Quine (1908-2000)
R. A. Hettinga on 1 Jan 2001 01:27:38 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] RIP: W.V. Quine (1908-2000)

...and now for something (almost) completely atopical :-)...



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Date:         Sun, 31 Dec 2000 09:34:56 -0800
Reply-To: Hayek Related Research <HAYEK-L {AT} MAELSTROM.STJOHNS.EDU>
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Subject:      RIP: W.V. Quine (1908-2000)

December 29, 2000

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92

New York Times

W. V. Quine, a logician and Harvard philosophy professor whose analysis
of language and its relation to reality made him one of the most
influential philosophers of the 20th century, died on Monday at a
hospital in Boston, where he lived. He was 92.

As a mathematical logician who wrote and published prolifically, Mr.
Quine was often perceived as a philosopher who focused his analytic
talents on many apparently disparate doctrines and theses. Yet those who
understood him best insisted on his status as a system builder, or a
thinker who addressed and attempted to answer the larger questions of

Stuart Hampshire, a fellow philosopher, called him in 1971 "our most
distinguished living systematic philosopher."

Like most philosophers, Mr. Quine set out to define the reality of the
world and how humans fit into that reality. He concluded that a person
can only understand the world empirically, or through direct experience
of it. In "The Philosophy of W. V. Quine: An Expository Essay," a study
that the subject endorsed, Roger F. Gibson Jr. wrote that if Mr. Quine's
project could be summed up in a single sentence, that sentence would
read, "Quine's philosophy is a systematic attempt to answer, from a
uniquely empiricistic point of view, what he takes to be the central
question of epistemology, namely, `How do we acquire our theory of the
world?' "

Mr. Quine's answer, in a nutshell, began by rephrasing the question to
read, "How do we acquire our talk about the world?" In his radically
empiricist view, nothing that humans know about the world lies outside
the realm of language, and so he insisted that any theory of knowledge
depended on a theory of language, which he duly set about developing and
which became the framework of his philosophy.

In pursuing this objective Mr. Quine found himself in a distinct
position among his contemporaries. Among 20th-century philosophers were
the so-called historicists  those willing to speculate about and
proclaim metaphysical truths independent of empirical evidence  and the
formalists  those mathematical logicians who considered philosophy an
autonomous, ahistorical discipline that replaced metaphysical
speculation with scientific thinking. In the battle between followers of
those views, Mr. Quine was a standard-bearer in the latter camp, a hero
of empiricism who once declared that "philosophy of science is
philosophy enough."

Changing Direction

In a Scholarly Battle

This led him to fight in the ranks of the so- called logical
positivists, or those like his European friends A. J. Ayer and Rudolf
Carnap, who asserted that all statements of truth must be based on
observable data. He even helped to shift the main ground of their battle
from Europe to the United States. Yet Mr. Quine later challenged them in
what is arguably the best known of his many published essays, "Two
Dogmas of Empiricism." It first appeared in the Philosophical Review in
January 1951 and was reprinted in 1953 in a collection of his essays
titled "From a Logical Point of View."

The essay set out to undermine the two main points of positivism. First,
Mr. Quine rejected the fundamental distinction between what Kant had
called analytic and synthetic propositions, or the distinction between
statements that seem true no matter what (like "all bachelors are
unmarried") and those that are true because of the way things happen to
be (like "Mr. X is a bachelor"). (This position, incidentally, earned
him a place in Dan Dennett's "Philosophers' Lexicon," in which names of
philosophers are construed as verbs or common nouns: to "quine" is to
repudiate a clear distinction.)

To deny the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements meant
that nothing could be known independent of experience.

Second, the essay argued against what he called the dogma of
reductionism, or "the belief," as he put it, "that each meaningful
statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer
to immediate experience." In other words, nothing in a person's
experience lies beyond meaningful statement about it.

Although this seemed to amount to a rejection of all knowledge of a
reality beyond our senses, Mr. Quine did not completely shut the door to
a world out there. The alternative that he preferred was this
explanation: "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."

This position led him to two more conclusions about the nature of
meaning and what humans can know about objective reality. One,
enunciated in his 1960 book, "Word and Object," was that when
translating from one language to another, or even from one sentence to
another within the same language, there were bound to be many
contradictory ways to understand the meaning and that there was no sense
in asking which of them was right.

This works, in his view, with what he called ontological relativity,
which holds that because our theories of what exists are not
sufficiently determined by the experiences that give rise to them, quite
different accounts of what there is, each with its own interpretation of
the evidence, may be equally in accord with that evidence.

To the objection that surely at least physical objects must figure in
all theories of what is out there, Mr. Quine responded, yes, in
practice, although he said he considered physical objects a matter of

Tools for Determining

The Real World

"As an empiricist," he wrote toward the end of "Two Dogmas of
Empiricism," "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."

He concluded: "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."

Willard Van Orman Quine, or Van to his friends, was born on June 25,
1908, in Akron, Ohio, the second son of Cloyd Robert Quine, a machinist
and successful businessman, and Harriet (Van Orman) Quine. The surname
is from the Celtic language Manx, Mr. Quine's paternal grandfather
having emigrated from the Isle of Man to Akron. Mr. Quine was named
Willard after his mother's brother, a mathematician.

The nominal connection seemed to work. He took a liking to mathematics
in high school and majored in it at Oberlin, although philology and
philosophy also interested him early. (During his junior year at college
his mother presented him with Whitehead and Russell's "Principia
Mathematica" and Skeat's Etymological Dictionary, the latter of which,
he said, "I persistently consulted and explored over the succeeding half
century," a fact attested to by the liveliness and clarity of his

About his subsequent teaching career he said: "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."

His honors thesis at Oberlin used the system of "Principia Mathematica"
to prove with 18 pages of symbols a law having to do with ways of
combining logical classes. (He later edited the 18 pages down to three
for the Journal of the London Mathematical Society.) His thesis landed
him at Harvard University, where he switched to philosophy to study with
Alfred North Whitehead. ("He radiated greatness and seemed old as the
hills," Mr. Quine wrote in his autobiography, "The Time of My Life." "I
retained a vivid sense of being in the presence of the great.")

Trying to Grasp

The Nature of Science

Only two years later, in 1932, he had earned his Ph.D., his dissertation
being an attempt, in his words, "like `Principia,' to comprehend the
foundations of logic and mathematics and hence of the abstract nature of
all science." (It was published in revised form by the Harvard
University Press with the title "A System of Logistic.")

He then went to Europe on a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship and spent the
next year in Vienna, Prague and Warsaw, where he studied, lectured and
met various members of the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, among
them Philip Frank, Moritz Schlick, Alfred Tarski, A. J. Ayer, their
English spokesman, Kurt Gdel (who preferred not to be called a logical
positivist), and Rudolf Carnap, from whom, Mr. Quine said, "I gained
more . . . than from any other philosopher." (In Vienna he dropped a
note to Wittgenstein, who never responded.)

The European interlude allowed him to indulge his lifelong passion for
crossing borders (perhaps related to his penchant for denying
distinctions, or, more likely, inspired by a youthful ardor for
philately), which, according to a count he made late in his life, was to
take him into 118 countries, over another 19, and within sight of 8
more, among the last being China, Oman and Bangladesh. His autobiography
describes many of these visits somewhat matter-of-factly. His early love
of geography was also reflected in a gift for drawing maps, which later
extended to sketching portraits, several of which appear in his

In 1933 he returned to Harvard as a junior fellow in the newly formed
Society of Fellows, which meant three years of unfettered research.
Another junior fellow that year was the psychologist B. F. Skinner, with
whom Mr. Quine came to share, as he put it, "the fundamental position
that an explanation  not the deepest one, but one of a shallower kind 
is possible at the purest behavioral level."

In 1936 Mr. Quine became an instructor in philosophy at Harvard, where
he taught, off and on, for the rest of his life, interrupted only by
service in the Navy during World War II, when he did cryptanalytic work
translating the German submarine cypher in Washington, as well as by his
globe-girdling travels, the bestowal of medals, prizes and some
dozen-and-a-half honorary degrees, and by lectures and classes delivered
all over the world.

A Harvard Professor

To Notable Students

His students at Harvard included Donald Davidson and Burton Dreben, the
philosophers; Tom Lehrer, the mathematician and songwriter; and Theodore
J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber ("although I don't remember him," Mr. Quine
told an interviewer, "he tied for top, 98.9 percent").

In the Navy he met Marjorie Boynton, a Wave in his office who became his
second wife in 1948. His first marriage to Naomi Clayton in 1930 ended
in divorce in 1947. His second wife died in 1998. He is survived by two
daughters from his first marriage, Elizabeth Quine Roberts and Norma
Quine; a son and daughter from his second, Douglas Boynton Quine and
Margaret Quine McGovern; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A Positive View

Of State Lotteries

Mr. Quine published about 20 books, some reprinted in multiple editions
and several translated into as many as eight languages. One of the more
accessible works, "Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical
Dictionary" (1987), was praised in The New York Times by John Gross in
general for "a deadpan humor that can light up even the most austere
subjects" and in particular for commending the state lottery as " `a
public subsidy of intelligence,' on the grounds that `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.'

At the end of "The Time of My Life," Mr. Quine wrote: "I am orderly and
I am frugal. For the most part my only emotion is impatience," he
continued. "I am deeply moved by occasional passages of poetry, and so,
characteristically, I read little of it."

Although a "Quine" is defined in the New Hackers Dictionary as "a
program that generates a copy of its own source text as its complete
output," Mr. Quine never wrote on a computer, always preferring the 1927
Remington typewriter that he first used for his doctoral thesis. Because
that project contained so many special symbols, he had to have the
machine adjusted by removing the second period, the second comma and the
question mark.

"You don't miss the question mark?" a reporter once asked him.

"Well, you see," he replied, "I deal in certainties."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah {AT} ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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