June 25, 1908 - December 25, 2000
Perhaps the most important American philosopher of the twentieth century.

Intellectual Legacy
Quine was a logician by training. His arguments were devastating to some of the most central dogmas of analytic philosophy, shaking up logic, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of language.

For the most part, he spent his career at Harvard. Early in his academic career, Quine came under the influence of members of the Vienna Circle, especially Rudolf Carnap. Although his work would expose serious flaws in the foundations of Carnap's (logical positivist, empiricist) view, Quine struggled to remain true to the spirit of positivism. He remained empiricist and physicalist, and was a great proponent of naturalism -- the view that philosophy is like a natural science, investigating phenomena in the real world, and should borrow its methods from science.

He was also a great prose stylist, delightful to read. This doesn't mean, however, that his ideas are laid bare in his papers; they go down easy but are very tough to fully digest. Part of the difficulty in understanding him is that he has divided loyalties -- as I said above, he wanted to stay true to elements of Carnap's positivist program, while at the same time, he was doing work that was devastating to that program. He was a huge figure in the transition from logical positivism (and its dismissal of metaphysics) to later 20th century analytic philosophy (and its devoted examination of metaphysics) -- the tensions of the transition are evident in his work, and sometimes make him say confusing or apparently contradictory stuff (IMHO).

His famous/influential doctrines include:

Collections of his philosophical papers:
From a Logical Point of View, 1953
Word and Object, 1960
Pursuit of Truth, 1990

Biography
1908 Born, Akron, Ohio USA; youngest son of Cloyd Robert Quine and Harriet Van Orman. He is an athiest and a philosophical thinker from an early age.
1926-30 Studies at Oberlin College, majoring in mathematics. During this time, he devours the Principia Mathematica and other works of Alferd North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.
1930-32 Marries Naomi Clayton, 1930 (college sweetheart). Upon graduating Oberlin, he is awarded a scholarship to fund his philosophy PhD studies at Harvard. A.N. Whitehead is his supervisor, and Quine completes his doctorate in two years. He also begins a correspondence with Russell.
1932 Fellowship to Vienna, Warsaw, Prague; meets Schlick, Frank, Godel, Ayer and studies under Tarski and Carnap for six weeks each.
1933 -41 Returns to Harvard to study on Junior Fellowship. Begins teaching in 1936. Publishes papers and books on logic and set theory, including "New Foundations for Mathematical Logic", American Mathematical Monthly 1937.
1942 Leaves Harvard for U.S. Navy Intelligence, spends the war as a cryptographer. Meets his second wife, Marjorie Boynton.
1945-48 Separates from his first wife (they had two children), then divorces her. Marries second wife (they also have two children). Becomes full professor, 1948.
1951 Publishes "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", his first famous philosophy article.
1953-4 Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford, a very influential visit; publishes From a Logical Point of View, collection of previously published papers.
1956 Becomes Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.
1978 Retires, but maintains an active presence in the Harvard department as an emeritus.
2000 Dies, Boston Massachusetts, USA.

He published 22 books, was awarded honorary degrees from 18 universities, and was the recipient of numerous other honors. He travelled and lectured widely throughout his life and was the mentor and advisor of a great many of today's famous philosophers, including Donald Davidson. (He also taught songwriter Tom Lehrer and Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.) His political views were notoriously right-wing.

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.

Thanks to JerboaKolinowski for inspiring me to add the bio. Biographical info from: http://www-groups.dcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Quine.html. The last paragraph of this node ("All his...") is a direct quote from this site.

see also: Quine-McCluskey principle, Quine-Duhem thesis, quine (the computer term, named for WVO).

Colorless Green Idea's writeup above is very well written, but I feel it could benefit from a few random additions.

Brief Biography:

During his long life, Quine (or Van, as his friends called him) was called "the greatest living English-speaking philosopher," "the most influential American philosopher of the postwar period," and "the philosopher's philosopher." His interest in philosophy started at a very early age: he began worrying about heaven and hell at the tender age of nine. Quine earned his BA from Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio) in 1930 and his MA from Harvard University the next year. Quine's doctorate from Harvard, under Alfred North Whitehead (and influenced by Rudolf Carnap), on Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica was earned a record two years after graduating from Oberlin. Joining the Harvard faculty in 1936 and becoming a full professor in 1948, he retired 30 years later as Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy (Emeritus). In 1957 he was made President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. During his time as a professor, his only break from teaching took him into the Navy during World War II where he decrypted messages from German submarines and quizzed colleagues on city names based on their latitude and longitude. Among many other awards and honors, Quine won the Schock Prize (for Logic and Philosophy) from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1993 and the Kyoto Prize (for Creative Arts and Moral Sciences) from the Inamori Foundation in 1996. Later in life, his name was adopted as an adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary and was added to the lexicons of computer programmers and electrical engineers, and is used among philosophers as a verb meaning "to deny a distinction others feel to be obvious." He died on Christmas Day, 2000 in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of exactly ninety-two and a half years.

A Longer List of Quine's More Popular Publications:

1940: Mathematical Logic
1941: Elementary Logic
1950: Methods of Logic
1953: From a Logical Point of View, including the paper Two Dogmas of Empiricism (book named after the calypso song sung by Harry Belafonte)
1960: Word and Object
1966: The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (2nd edition includes the paper Homage to Rudolf Carnap)
1970: Philosophy of Logic
1981: Theories and Things
1985: The Time of My Life: An Autobiography
1987: Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary
1990: Pursuit of Truth
1991: Dear Carnap, Dear Van: The Quine-Carnap Correspondance and Related Work
1995: From Stimulus to Science

Quine published one work of fiction: It Tastes Like Chicken (1951, reprinted in 1989). His books have been translated into a variety of languages, including Polish, Chinese (tradition and simplified characters), Greek, Hungarian, Czech, Swedish, Dutch and Catalan.

Fun Facts:

Quine spoke several languages fluently (including most of the modern romance languages) and, I'm told, bits and pieces of many others (i.e. Chinese, Russian, and Czech). Traveling was a passion of his, and he had set foot in 118 countries before his death. Quine enjoyed a quirky taste in music: he liked eastern European mandolin and liked to dabble on his own mandolin; he taught himself to play piano in the key of F#; he especially loved Dixieland jazz and Gilbert and Sullivan. He was married twice and had two children with each wife: Elizabeth, Norma (first wife Naomi), Douglas and Margaret (second wife Marjorie). He liked puns and riddles, and spent a little time painting in his earlier years with an almost abstract style.

The story about the missing symbols on the 1927 Remington typewriter is true, but the missing symbols were the second period, the second comma (not the exclamation point and numeral one), and the question mark. Quine is also known for coining "gavagai," a theoretical word uttered by a native speaker of a yet-untranslated language upon seeing a rabbit, which illustrated his points about the indeterminacy of translation.

Naming that paper "From a Logical Point of View" annoyed his second wife, who was a very beautiful lady.

Theodore Kaczynski was an A student of his.

Quotable quotes: (here are a bunch more)

  • "Life is what the least of us make the most of us feel the least of us make the most of."
  • "The Humean predicament is the human predicament."
  • "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough."
  • "To be is to be that value of a bound variable."

The "official" web site of WVO Quine is http://www.wvquine.org/, where one will find a full listing of his publications and their translations, his degrees, articles relating to his life and work, and even a detailed list of everywhere Quine had traveled. Some of the information above was obtained there; the rest was from my own knowledge.


Updates
30 June 2003: Paragrah order changed; some new facts I remembered added; some grammar fixed — all thanks to some very helpful people (whose names I've conveniently forgotten) and the discovery that I can edit this (this being my first node and all).
28 July 2003: Little things, no actual content changes.
28 September 2003: More little things, and the bit about Ted Kaczynski.
02 January 2004: XHTMLized, some little link changes; brought about by recent attention
08 March 2004: More little changes...mostly changing links

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