Willard Van Orman Quine


Willard Van Orman Quine (; known to his friends as "Van"; June 25, 1908 – December 25, 2000) was an and in the , recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century". From 1930 until his death 70 years later, Quine was continually affiliated with in one way or another, first as a student, then as a professor. He filled the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard from 1956 to 1978. Quine was a teacher of logic and . Quine was famous for his position that is the only kind worthy of the name, and developed his own system of mathematics and set theory, known as . In , he and his Harvard colleague developed the , an argument for the .Colyvan, Mark
"Indispensability Arguments in the Philosophy of Mathematics"
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
However, he was the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not , but continuous with science; the abstract branch of the empirical sciences. This led to his famous quip that " is philosophy enough". He led a "systematic attempt to understand science from within the resources of science itself" and developed an influential that tried to provide "an improved scientific explanation of how we have developed elaborate scientific theories on the basis of meager sensory input"."Quine's Philosophy of Science"
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Iep.utm.edu. July 27, 2009. Accessed March 8, 2010.
He also advocated in science, known as the . His major writings include the papers "On What There Is" (1948), which elucidated 's and contains Quine's famous dictum of commitment, "To be is to be the value of a ", and "" (1951), which attacked the traditional and reductionism, undermining the then-popular , advocating instead a form of . They also include the books ''The Web of Belief'', which advocates a kind of , and ' (1960), which further developed these positions and introduced Quine's famous thesis, advocating a . A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries. He won the first in 1993 for "his systematical and penetrating discussions of how learning of language and communication are based on socially available evidence and of the consequences of this for theories on knowledge and linguistic meaning". In 1996 he was awarded the for his "outstanding contributions to the progress of philosophy in the 20th century by proposing numerous theories based on keen insights in logic, , philosophy of science and philosophy of language".


Quine grew up in , where he lived with his parents and older brother Robert Cloyd. His father, Cloyd Robert,''The Cambridge Companion to Quine'', ed. Roger F. Gibson, Jr, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 1 was a manufacturing entrepreneur (founder of the Akron Equipment Company, which produced tire molds) and his mother, Harriett E., was a schoolteacher and later a . Quine was an atheist when he was a teenager.


Quine received his ' in mathematics from in 1930, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from in 1932. His thesis supervisor was . He was then appointed a , 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 and ) and members of the (including ), as well as the .

World War II

Quine arranged for Tarski to be invited to the September 1939 Congress in Cambridge, for which the Jewish Tarski sailed on the last ship to leave before the invaded Poland and triggered . Tarski survived the war and worked another 44 years in the US. During the war, Quine lectured on logic in , in Portuguese, and served in the in a role, deciphering messages from German submarines, and reaching the rank of lieutenant commander. Quine could lecture in , , and , as well as his native .


He had four children by two marriages. Guitarist was his nephew. Quine was politically conservative, but the bulk of his writing was in technical areas of philosophy removed from direct political issues. He did, however, write in defense of several conservative positions: for example, he wrote in defense of ; while, in his autobiography, he made some criticisms of American postwar academics.


At Harvard, Quine helped supervise the Harvard of, among others, , , , , , and . For the academic year 1964–1965, Quine was a fellow on the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at . In 1980 Quine received an from the Faculty of Humanities at , Sweden. Quine's student Dagfinn Føllesdal noted that Quine began to lose his memory toward the end of his life. The deterioration of his short-term memory was so severe that he struggled to continue following arguments. Quine also had considerable difficulty in his project to make the desired revisions to ''Word and Object''. Before passing away, Quine noted to Morton White: "I do not remember what my illness is called, Althusser or , but since I cannot remember it, it must be Alzheimer." He died from the illness on Christmas Day in 2000.


Quine's Ph.D. thesis and early publications were on and . Only after World War II did he, by virtue of seminal papers on , and language, emerge as a major philosopher. By the 1960s, he had worked out his "" 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 . Like the logical positivists, Quine evinced little interest in the philosophical canon: only once did he teach a course in the history of philosophy, on .


Over the course of his career, Quine published numerous technical and expository papers on formal logic, some of which are reprinted in his ''Selected Logic Papers'' and in ''The Ways of Paradox''. His most well-known collection of papers is ''From A Logical Point of View''. Quine confined logic to classical bivalent , hence to truth and falsity under any (nonempty) . Hence the following were not logic for Quine: * Higher-order logic and set theory. He referred to as "set theory in disguise"; * Much of what ' included in logic was not logic for Quine. * Formal systems involving al notions, especially . Quine was especially hostile to modal logic with , a battle he largely lost when 's became canonical for s. Quine wrote three undergraduate texts on formal logic: * ''Elementary Logic''. While teaching an introductory course in 1940, Quine discovered that extant texts for philosophy students did not do justice to or . Quine wrote this book in 6 weeks as an ' 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 World War II 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 , and the non-logical character of higher-order logic. ''Mathematical Logic'' is based on Quine's graduate teaching during the 1930s and 1940s. It shows that much of what ' took more than 1000 pages to say can be said in 250 pages. The proofs are concise, even cryptic. The last chapter, on and , along with the article Quine (1946), became a launching point for 's later lucid exposition of these and related results. Quine's work in logic gradually became dated in some respects. Techniques he did not teach and discuss include x, s, and . His treatment of left something to be desired. For example, ''Mathematical Logic'' does not include any proofs of and . 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 ''Principia Mathematica''. Set against all this are the simplicity of his preferred method (as exposited in his ''Methods of Logic'') 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 , one of several ways that have been proposed for doing logic without s. For a comprehensive treatment of predicate functor logic and its history, see Quine (1976). For an introduction, see ch. 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 employed in , and with , devised the of reducing s to a minimum covering sum of s.

Set theory

While his contributions to logic include elegant expositions and a number of technical results, it is in 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 's for a while, but backed away when he failed to find a nominalist grounding of mathematics.Bueno, Otávio, 2013,
Nominalism in the Philosophy of Mathematics
at the .
Over the course of his career, Quine proposed three axiomatic set theories. * , 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 would allow, were the 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 set theory does not allow, even sets for which the 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 consistency of NF relative to other formal systems adequate for mathematics is an open question, albeit that a number of candidate proofs are current in the NF community suggesting that NF is equiconsistent with without Choice. A modification of NF, , due to R. B. Jensen and admitting s (entities that can be members of sets but that lack elements), turns out to be consistent relative to , thus vindicating the intuition behind NF. NF and NFU are the only Quinean set theories with a following. For a derivation of foundational mathematics in NF, see Rosser (1952); * The set theory of ''Mathematical Logic'' is NF augmented by the es of , except axiomatized in a much simpler way; * 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. All three set theories admit a universal class, but since they are free of any of , 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 , and one quantifier, the . All polyadic can be reduced to one dyadic predicate, interpretable as set membership. His rules of proof were limited to and substitution. He preferred to either or the , 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: and . 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 View''.


Quine has had numerous influences on contemporary metaphysics. He coined the term "". He also coined the term "" to refer to the problem of s.

Rejection of the analytic–synthetic distinction

In the 1930s and 40s, discussions with , and , 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 "No bachelor is married"— 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 . Although Quine is not normally associated with , some philosophers believe the tenet is not incompatible with his general philosophy of language, citing his Harvard colleague and his analysis of language in '. Like other philosophers before him, Quine accepted the of "analytic" as "true in virtue of meaning alone". Unlike them, however, he concluded that ultimately the definition was . 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 unsatisfactory. Quine's chief objection to analyticity is with the notion of (sameness of meaning). He argues that analytical sentences are typically divided into two kinds; sentences that are clearly logically true (e.g. "no unmarried man is married") and the more dubious ones; sentences like "no bachelor is married". Previously it was thought that if you can prove that there is synonymity between "unmarried man" and "bachelor", you have proved that both sentences are logically true and therefore self evident. Quine however gives several arguments for why this is not possible, for instance that "bachelor" in some contexts mean a bachelor of arts, not an unmarried man.

Confirmation holism and ontological relativity

Colleague called Quine's thesis "the most fascinating and the most discussed philosophical argument since 's ". The central theses underlying it are and the related of . The premise of confirmation is that all theories (and the propositions derived from them) are 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. The ' tells about a linguist, who tries to find out, what the expression ''gavagai'' means, when uttered by a speaker of a yet unknown, native language upon seeing a rabbit. At first glance, it seems that ''gavagai'' simply translates with ''rabbit''. Now, Quine points out that the background language and its referring devices might fool the linguist here, because he is misled in a sense that he always makes direct comparisons between the foreign language and his own. However, when shouting ''gavagai'', and pointing at a rabbit, the natives could as well refer to something like ''undetached rabbit-parts'', or ''rabbit-'' and it would not make any observable difference. The behavioural data the linguist could collect from the native speaker would be the same in every case, or to reword it, several translation hypotheses could be built on the same sensoric stimuli. Quine concluded his "" 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 …. 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 (evident in the passage above) led him to agree with that for any collection of , there would always be many theories able to account for it, known as the . However, Duhem's is much more restricted and limited than Quine's. For Duhem, applies only to or possibly to , while for Quine it applies to all of human knowledge. Thus, while it is possible to verify or whole theories, it is not possible to verify or falsify individual statements. Almost any particular statement can be saved, given sufficiently radical modifications of the containing theory. For Quine, scientific thought forms a 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.

Existence and its contrary

The is an old puzzle in philosophy, which Quine captured when he wrote,
A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. 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 true.
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 nothing.
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, 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. Lejewski 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.
Lejewski then goes on to offer a description of , which he claims accommodates an answer to the problem. Lejewski also 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.

Ontological commitment

The notion of plays a central role in Quine's contributions to ontology. A theory is ontologically committed to an entity if that entity must exist in order for the theory to be true. Quine proposed that the best way to determine this is by translating the theory in question into . Of special interest in this translation are the logical constants known as (''), whose meaning corresponds to expressions like "there exists..." or "for some...". They are used to in the expression following the quantifier. The ontological commitments of the theory then correspond to the variables bound by existential quantifiers. For example, the sentence "There are electrons" could be translated as "", in which the bound variable ''x'' ranges over electrons, resulting in an ontological commitment to electrons. This approach is summed up by Quine's famous dictum that "[t]o be is to be the value of a variable". Quine applied this method to various traditional disputes in ontology. For example, he reasoned from the sentence "There are prime numbers between 1000 and 1010" to an ontological commitment to the existence of numbers, i.e. about numbers. This method by itself is not sufficient for ontology since it depends on a theory in order to result in ontological commitments. Quine proposed that we should base our ontology on our best scientific theory. Various followers of Quine's method chose to apply it to different fields, for example to "everyday conceptions expressed in natural language".

Indispensability argument for mathematical realism

In , he and his Harvard colleague developed the , an argument for the . The form of the argument is as follows. #One must have commitments to ''all'' entities that are indispensable to the best scientific theories, and to those entities ''only'' (commonly referred to as "all and only"). #Mathematical entities are indispensable to the best scientific theories. Therefore, #One must have ontological commitments to mathematical entities.Putnam, H. ''Mathematics, Matter and Method. Philosophical Papers'', vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. 2nd. ed., 1985. The justification for the first premise is the most controversial. Both Putnam and Quine invoke to justify the exclusion of all non-scientific entities, and hence to defend the "only" part of "all and only". The assertion that "all" entities postulated in scientific theories, including numbers, should be accepted as real is justified by . Since theories are not confirmed in a piecemeal fashion, but as a whole, there is no justification for excluding any of the entities referred to in well-confirmed theories. This puts the who wishes to exclude the existence of and , but to include the existence of s and other undetectable entities of physics, for example, in a difficult position.


Just as he challenged the dominant analytic–synthetic distinction, Quine also took aim at traditional . According to Quine, traditional epistemology tried to justify the sciences, but this effort (as exemplified by ) failed, and so we should replace traditional epistemology with an empirical study of what sensory inputs produce what theoretical outputs: "Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input—certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance—and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one's theory of nature transcends any available evidence... But a conspicuous difference between old epistemology and the epistemological enterprise in this new psychological setting is that we can now make free use of empirical psychology." (Quine, 1969: 82–83) Quine's proposal is controversial among contemporary philosophers and has several critics, with the most prominent among them.

In popular culture

* A whose output is its own source code is called a "" after Quine. This usage was introduced by in his 1979 book, '. * Quine is a recurring character in the webcomic "". * Quine was selected for inclusion in the 's "Pantheon of Skeptics", which celebrates contributors to the cause of . * Quine was mentioned in the Peacock series .


Selected books

* 1934 ''A System of Logistic''. Harvard Univ. Press. * 1951 (1940). ''Mathematical Logic''. Harvard Univ. Press. . * 1980 (1941). ''Elementary Logic''. Harvard Univ. Press. . * 1982 (1950). ''Methods of Logic''. Harvard Univ. Press. 1980 (1953)
''From a Logical Point of View''
Harvard Univ. Press. . Contains

* 1960 '. MIT Press; . The closest thing Quine wrote to a philosophical treatise. Ch. 2 sets out the thesis. * 1969 (1963). ''Set Theory and Its Logic''. Harvard Univ. Press. * 1966. ''Selected Logic Papers''. New York: Random House. * 1976 (1966). ''The Ways of Paradox''. Harvard Univ. Press. * 1969 ''Ontological Relativity and Other Essays''. Columbia Univ. Press. . Contains chapters on , , and s. * 1970 (2nd ed., 1978). With J. S. Ullian. ''The Web of Belief''. New York: Random House. * 1986 (1970). ''The Philosophy of Logic''. Harvard Univ. Press. * 1974 (1971). '. Open Court Publishing Company (developed from Quine's ). * 1981. ''Theories and Things''. Harvard Univ. Press. * 1985. ''The Time of My Life: An Autobiography''. Cambridge, The MIT Press. . * 1987. ''Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary''. Harvard Univ. Press. . 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. . * 1995. ''From Stimulus to Science''. Harvard Univ. Press. .

Important articles

* 1946, "Concatenation as a basis for arithmetic". Reprinted in his ''Selected Logic Papers''. Harvard Univ. Press. * 1948, "", ''Review of Metaphysics'' 2(5)
. Reprinted in his 1953 ''From a Logical Point of View''. Harvard University Press.In this paper, Quine explicitly connected each of the three main medieval ontological positions, namely //, with one of three dominant schools in modern philosophy of mathematics: // respectively. * 1951, "", ''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: 185–196. * 1969, "Epistemology Naturalized" in ''Ontological Relativity and Other Essays''. New York: Columbia University Press: 69–90. * "Truth by Convention", first published in 1936. Reprinted in the book, ''Readings in Philosophical Analysis'', edited by Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars, pp. 250–273, ', 1949.


* (host), ': "The Ideas of Quine", BBC, 1978. * Rudolf Fara (host), ''In conversation: W.V. Quine'' (7 videocassettes), Philosophy International, Centre for Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences, London School of Economics, 1994.

See also



Further reading

* * * * * * , 1978. ''Quine en perspective'', Paris, Flammarion. * , 2003. ''Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science''. * , 2000. ''The Search for Mathematical Roots 1870–1940''. Princeton University Press. * and . "In Defense of a Dogma". ''The Philosophical Review 65'' (1965). * 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 Heidelberg. * * , ''The Development of Quine's Philosophy'' (Heidelberg, Springer, 2012) (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 291). * * . "The Greatest Logical Positivist". Reprinted in ''Realism with a Human Face'', ed. James Conant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. * , "The axiom of infinity in Quine's new foundations", ''Journal of Symbolic Logic'' 17 (4):238–242, 1952. * Valore, Paolo, 2001. ''Questioni di ontologia quineana'', Milano: Cusi.

External links


Willard Van Orman Quine
at the ' * *
Quine's Philosophy of Science
at the '
Quine's New Foundations
at the ' *

Summary and Explanation of "On What There Is"

"On Simple Theories Of A Complex World"
{{DEFAULTSORT:Quine, Willard Van Orman Corresponding Fellows of the British Academy