The philosopher and logician W.V. Quine was the foremost representative of a world view that attracted and influenced many philosophers in the second half of the 20th century.
Quine's philosophical outlook is known as "naturalism". Its central thesis is the unity of philosophy and natural science. Quine thought of philosophy as an activity within nature whereby nature attempts to know itself. His favourite analogy was that we are like sailors forced to repair our ship while still at sea. There is no secure position -- no dry dock -- from which to clarify or justify our overall views. This contrasts with those who distinguish philosophy from science and place philosophy in a special transcendent position for gaining knowledge.
The methods of science are empirical, so Quine was an empiricist, but with a difference. Traditional empiricism takes sensory evidence as the basic unit of thought. Quine's empiricism took account of the theoretical as well as the observational aspects of science. It is holistic. The unit of empirical significance is not single observations but whole systems of beliefs. What helps us choose between such systems is their degree of explanatory power, simplicity and precision.
He was a "fallibilist" because he took the view that each belief in a system is in principle revisable. Quine proposed a new account of our knowledge of the external world including a rejection of knowledge not based on experience, and he extended the same empiricist and fallibilist account to our knowledge of logic and mathematics.
Quine was an important contributor to logic and the foundations of mathematics. These are empirical subjects, when empiricism is understood in Quine's way. They belong to the system of beliefs that make up the natural sciences. The language of logic serves as a specially privileged language in which to express our commitments as to what exists. Quine encapsulated this project in the slogan "To be is to be the value of a variable". This play on George Berkeley's "To be is to be perceived" appeared in Quine's influential essay "On What There Is" (1948).
The question of which existence claims we should accept is answered by empirical science. Our beliefs about what exists in the world, said Quine, are best settled by what our best scientific theories require as their objects. On this basis, Quine concluded that we have to believe in the existence of physical objects and mathematical sets, for this is what physical science requires. Quine was an important contributor to discussions in the theory of meaning, some of his papers permanently altering the course of debate in this central part of philosophy.
Willard Van Orman Quine was born in 1908 and raised in Akron, Ohio. As a graduate student at Harvard he completed his PhD in two years. While there he had what he described as his "most dazzling exposure to greatness" when Bertrand Russell came to lecture. Russell was one of the two most influential figures for Quine. They shared a preoccupation with questions as to what exists.
Some of Quine's most famous systems of logic and set theory are designed to achieve the same effects as Russell and A.N. Whitehead's Principia Mathematica (1910) while avoiding what Quine sees as its excesses. Wherever possible, Quine tries to get on with the fewest and most precise assumptions which will suffice to do the job at hand.
A travelling fellowship to Europe in 1932 exposed Quine to the latest developments in logic and philosophy. In Prague, he met Rudolf Carnap, one of the most careful expositors of prominent themes of the logical empiricists. In the period before the Second World War, Quine became a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He worked out his two most distinctive systems of logic and set theory -- New Foundations for Mathematical Logic (1937) and Mathematical Logic (1940) -- and his views on existence and the nature of logical and mathematical truth.
Quine served as a naval officer during the Second World War. After the war he returned to be a member of the philosophy department at Harvard University and remained so until his retirement. Much of his work after that was the further formulation and elaboration of the views which proved so influential in 20th-century analytic philosophy. He continued his work on these topics and published his most famous paper, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", in 1951.
In it he criticised the idea that that there are two types of truths, one analytic, non-empirical and merely based on language and the other synthetic and reducible to individual observations. In place of this distinction he offered his unified, holistic empiricist account. Quine published his best-known papers from that period in the collection From a Logical Point of View (1953).
In Word and Object (1960) this holistic empiricism is employed to present a conjecture of the indeterminacy of translation. In Ontological Relativity (1968), The Roots of Reference (1974), Pursuit of Truth (1992), and From Stimulus to Science (1995) and essays such as "Epistemology Naturalized" Quine's naturalism comes to the fore.
Quine had a passion for travelling and mentioned many of the places that he visited in his autobiography The Time of My Life (1985). His former student, friend and colleague Burton Dreben quipped that the autobiography might have been entitled "A Moving Van".
Quine's writing style has been a source of enjoyment to his readers. His restatement of the problem of how a Cartesian self can come to know the external world was put in strikingly naturalistic terms:
I am a physical object sitting in a physical world. Some of the forces of this physical world impinge on my surface. Light rays strike my retinas; molecules bombard my eardrums and fingertips. I strike back, emanating concentric air waves. These waves take the form of a torrent of discourse about tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas, air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil.
By Alex Orenstein, 15 January 2001 © Independent Digital (UK) Ltd