A powerful critic of much that other philosophers held dear, W. V. Quine had a career as teacher, author and thinker spanning seven decades. In the course of it he became the most famous and probably the most influential analytic philosopher of his time.
Willard Van Orman Quine was born in Akron, Ohio, where he spent the first 18 years of his life, and years later showed his affection for the city and the state by delighting in the song (from Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town) , "Why, oh why, oh why-oh, Did I ever leave Ohio?"
His undergraduate years were spent at Oberlin, but for his graduate study (with A.N. Whitehead) he migrated to Harvard, which was his academic anchor ever after. Quine paid two visits to Oxford: in 1953-54 as Eastman Visiting Professor, and in 1973-74 as Savile Fellow of Merton College and Wolfson Lecturer. The first of these visits had a tremendous impact. At that time Oxford philosophers knew very little logic and were unaware of the subtlety of much contemporary American philosophy. By the time of the second visit, Quine's work was widely known in Oxford.
Quine's career was initially as a mathematical logician. His first five books were all devoted to logic. But he had no great pretensions about his achievements in this field; on his first visit to Oxford, he described himself as a member of the Second XI of logicians. He proved some interesting minor theorems, but no important ones. His principal contribution was the invention of the heterodox system of set theory known as NF, after the article of 1936, New Foundations for Mathematical Logic, in which he originally expounded it.
The system teased the logical community by the difficulty of finding a model for it, or of proving it consistent in any other way. It reflected an important facet of Quine's intellectual character, for it is an example of a mathematical theory conceived, most unusually, in a purely formalist spirit. Quine proposed it without even the vaguest conception of a model for it, that is, of the sort of mathematical structure in which its axioms would hold good. Rather, he simply had a hunch that a certain formal restriction on the assumptions embodied in it about which sets existed would suffice to guard against contradiction.
Quine never abandoned mathematical logic, but from 1953 onwards, with his collection of previously published essays From a Logical Point of View, he acquired a wide reputation as a leading philosopher of language in the analytic tradition. His initial motivation was a reaction against the doctrines of Rudolf Carnap, the influential former member of the Vienna Circle who had settled in the United States. Quine engaged in powerful criticism of basic doctrines of analytic philosophy, as it had developed out of logical positivism.
In particular, he attacked a Kantian dichotomy which had become a basic tool of analytic philosophy, the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements: those whose truth rested solely on the linguistic conventions determining the meanings of the words used to express them, as against those conveying genuine information about the world. His attack was supported by other American analytic philosophers such as Morton White and Donald Davidson, but strongly resisted by the philosophical school then dominant in England and particularly at Oxford.
The rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction posed far-reaching threats to other cherished notions. If any pair of expressions had the same meaning, say "paternal grandfather" and "father's father", then a statement such as "Anyone's paternal grandfather is that person's father's father", asserting their equivalence, must be analytic. So, conversely, if no statement is unambiguously analytic, it can never be determinate that any two expressions have the same meaning. If, thus, the notion of synonymy crumbles, that of meaning itself is in jeopardy.
With the assault upon the notion of meaning went an attack upon modality. Not only did Quine suspect modal logic, which deals with the operators "Possibly" and "Necessarily", of being pseudo-logic; he dismissed as incapable of clear explanation sentences of natural language containing modal verbs such as "can", "may" and "must". Not only was the necessity supposedly deriving wholly from the meanings of words to be repudiated: necessity of any kind was to be repudiated also.
Quine's status as the most respected philosopher in the United States was confirmed with the publication in 1960 of his magnum opus, Word and Object. The most celebrated thesis advanced in this book was the indeterminacy of translation. Two schemes for translating from one language to another might both satisfy all the constraints imposed by the empirically observable behaviour of the speakers of both languages upon an adequate translation scheme; and yet some sentence of the first language might translate under the first scheme into the contradictory of the sentence into which it translated under the second scheme.
This of course could not happen if the sentences of the two languages had determinate meanings and it were a requirement upon an adequate scheme for translating between them that it take a sentence of the one language into a sentence of the other with the same meaning; but Quine contended that no empirically observable facts about the speakers' linguistic and other behaviour determined any such meanings.
Contentions such as these might suggest to those unfamiliar with his writings that Quine was some species of Post-Modernist. Nothing could be further from the truth. His writing was always crystal sharp; he never had the slightest doubt about the value of philosophy, nor did he call the concept of truth in question. Sir Michael Dummet vividly remembers Quine's disgust as they both listened to a talk in which Donald Davidson's philosophy was compared to that of Jacques Derrida.
Quine criticised ideas dear to earlier philosophers and apparently obvious to common sense, not in the interests of cultural relativism or any of the other fashionable varieties of relativism, but in the service of what he saw as a strictly scientific methodology, in fact of a behaviouristic methodology. Where Wittgenstein saw philosophy as an activity wholly unlike scientific enquiry, Quine saw it as ancillary to it and governed by the same canons: it was to his mind just a branch of science. He professed more than once a liking for desert landscapes, and his intellectual landscape was bare indeed: more accurately, bleak.
A commonsense diagnosis is that two factors combine to dispose us to accept as true any statement we do so accept: our grasp of its meaning, and our experience of the world. Quine maintained that these two factors can never be disentangled: we cannot distil out separately the contributions made to our judgments of truth by our knowledge of the language and by our experience of reality.
This doctrine of inextricability was extended to a broader holism about language: we do not give to our sentences meanings which allow us to judge them individually as in accord with our experience or otherwise; we can judge as being or not being in accord with experience only the totality of all that we hold to be true. If we judge it not to accord with our experience, we need to revise our total set of beliefs one way or another; but it may be that there is more than one way in which to revise it so as to bring it into harmony with experience once more, where those two or more possible revisions are not equivalent by any standards.
With speculations of this kind, Quine crossed from the philosophy of language into the realm of epistemology, with which he came to occupy himself greatly. Epistemology, he claimed, should be naturalised; and, with this claim, Quine became responsible for a new fashion in philosophy, the so-called naturalisation of its theories. Though naturalised theories treat of certain questions traditionally posed by philosophers, the answers they give may invoke scientific facts and replace a priori speculation with empirical explanation.
Quine retired in 1978 from a teaching career in which his pupils had included not only influential philosophers but also the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer and Theodore J. Kaczynski, the so-called "Unabomber". He continued for two decades to do active work in philosophy, attending conferences and publishing papers.
He must have collected far more prizes and honorary degrees than any other contemporary philosopher or than almost any other academic; but what he most rejoiced in collecting were the countries that he had visited. He was immensely vain about their number, and vain, too, about his ability to speak a number of languages. He liked etymology and unusual facts about words. His writing was distinguished by a feeling for words and an often witty use of them. His political opinions were on the Right, but he was tactful in not voicing them in the presence of people he knew to be of a different inclination.
Quine was an important philosopher, though posterity may not class him as a great one. He was important because he advanced bold theses for which he never produced proofs but only highly suggestive considerations: but they were theses which it was very difficult to refute, and he therefore stimulated a great deal of fruitful philosophical inquiry. Analytic philosophy in the second half of the 20th century would have been greatly the poorer without him.
In 1930, just on arrival at Harvard, Willard Quine married Naomi Clayton, whom he had met at Oberlin. They had two daughters, in 1935 and 1937, but the marriage came to an end in 1945, when they separated. They divorced two years later. Then, in 1948, Quine married Marjorie Boynton, whom he had first known as a woman volunteer during his time as a Navy lieutenant in Washington during the war. She predeceased him in 1998. He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage and a son and daughter from his second.
© The Times, 2000