- December 25
Perhaps the most important American philosopher
of the twentieth century.
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
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).