Willard Van Orman Quine

W. V. Quine
W. V. Quine

Willard Van Orman Quine (June 25, 1908December 25, 2000) was one of the most influential American philosophers and logicians of the 20th century.



Sometimes referred to as the "philosopher's philosopher", Quine is the quintessential model of an analytic philosopher. He served as the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard University from 1956 to 2000. His major writings include Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which influentially attacked the logical positivists' conception of analytic and synthetic propositions, and Word and Object.


Quine grew up in Akron, Ohio. He received his B.A. from Oberlin College and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1932. At Harvard he studied logic with Alfred North Whitehead. For the next couple of years he travelled Europe on a generous research fellowship, coming under the influence of the Polish Logicians, the Vienna Circle, and especially Rudolf Carnap.

From 1942 to 1946, he worked in United States Navy Intelligence, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

At Harvard his own students included many now-famed philosophers, including Donald Davidson, David Lewis, and Daniel Dennett.

His nephew was rock and roll guitarist Robert Quine.


Most of Quine's early publications were in the field of formal logic. He gradually began to work on questions of ontology, epistemology, and language, and by the sixties he had substantially developed his project of "naturalized epistemology," the aim of which 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 and capable of justifying science. Both these standpoints are part of Quine's naturalism.

Rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction

In the thirties and forties discussions with Carnap, Nelson Goodman, and Alfred Tarski, among others, led Quine to doubt the tenability of logical positivism's fundamental distinction between "analytic" sentences--those true in virtue simply of the meanings of their words, such as "All bachelors are unmarried"--and "synthetic" statements, those true or false in virtue of facts in the world such as "There is a cat on the mat."

For Quine, in order for a statement to be analytic, it must be true by definition. For instance, the proposition “All unmarried men are bachelors” is considered analytic. Yet, for Quine, this proposition cannot be true by definition, rather, its truth is contingent upon a fact in the world. Thus, for Quine, propositions that were previously thought to be analytic are synthetic – the distinction is dissolved.

The reason the proposition “All unmarried men are bachelors” is synthetic has to do with the two terms “unmarried” and “bachelors.” The reason for their analyticity is that they supposedly refer to the same thing. Yet, Quine asks, how do we know they do in fact refer to the same thing? If they are analytic, they must be logically equivalent, but their equivalence is not a function of logic, like “unmarried” and “not married”, but is, rather, dependent upon the world. One cannot say that the two terms “mean” the same, because meaning is intentional. But, Quine rejects intentionality from his behaviorism, as he believes there is no way to empirically verify propositions about mental states. Also, it cannot be necessarily true by definition that “bachelor” and “unmarried man” are synonymous, for definitions are dependent upon language and language is dependent upon convention. Thus, we must look at the world to see if in fact “bachelor” and “unmarried man” refer to the same thing, yet, as it is a synthetic judgment, it can only be probabilistically true. Also, Quine mentions that the two terms are not the same because “unmarried man” has 12 letters, while “bachelor” has 8. In essence, even if we have good evidence that two terms refer to the same thing, it is still not analytic, as it is not necessarily true. For Quine, this distinction is not warranted.

The indeterminacy of translation

Word and Object (1960) synthesized much of Quine's previous work outside of formal logic. Quine considers the methods that would be available to a "field linguist" attempting to translate a hitherto unknown language. He notes that there are always different ways one might break a sentence into words, and different ways to distribute functions among words. Any hypothesis of translation could be defended only by appeal to context: to seeing what other sentences a native would utter. But the same indeterminacy will appear there: any hypothesis can be defended if one adopts enough compensatory hypotheses regarding other parts of language.

Quine's now-legendary example is of the word "gavagai" uttered by a native in the presence of a rabbit. The linguist could translate this as "rabbit," or "Lo, a rabbit," or "rabbit-fly" (the name, perhaps, of a kind of insect that always accompanies rabbits), or "food" or "Let's go hunting," or "There will be a storm tonight" (if these natives are superstitious), or even "momentary rabbit-stage," "temporal cross-section of a four-dimensional space-time extension of a rabbit," "mass of rabbithood," or "undetached rabbit-part." Some of these might become less likely -- that is, become more unwieldy hypotheses--in the light of subsequent observation. Others can only be ruled out by asking the natives questions: An affirmative answer to "Is this the same gavagai as that earlier one?" will rule out "momentary rabbit stage," and so forth. But these questions can only be asked once the linguist has mastered a great amount of the natives' grammar and abstract vocabulary; that in turn can only be done on the basis of hypotheses derived from simpler, observation-connected bits of language; and those sentences, on their own, allow for multiple interpretations, as we have seen.

There is no way to escape this circle. In fact, it holds just as well in interpreting speakers of one's own language, and even one's own past utterances. This does not, contrary to a widely-disseminated caricature of Quine, lead to skepticism about meaning -- either that meaning is hidden and unknowable, or that words are meaningless. The conclusion is that there is and can be no more to "meaning" than could be learned from a speaker's behaviour. There is, indeed, no need to countenance such entities as "meanings" at all, since the notion of sameness of meaning cannot be given any workable explanation, but saying there are not "meanings" is not to say that words don't mean. Consequently there is no question of "right" or "wrong" to be raised in translating one language into another. There are only questions of "better" and "worse." These too are not questions of "accuracy" as that would ordinarily be construed: theories of translation are better or worse as they more or less successfully predict future utterances, and translate according to a more or less simple scheme of rules.

Confirmation holism and ontological relativity

The central thesis underlying the indeterminacy of translation and other extensions of Quine's work is ontological relativity and the related theory of confirmation holism. The premise of confirmation holism is that all theories (and the propositions derived from them) of what exists are not sufficiently determined by empirical data (data, sensory-data, evidence); each theory with its interpretation of the evidence is equally justifiable. Thus, the Greek's worldview of Homeric gods is as credible as the physicists' world of electromagnetic waves.

As to his personal beliefs, Quine clarifies at the end of "Two Dogmas of Empiricism":

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 Homer . . . 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 relativism led him to agree with Pierre Duhem that for any collection of empirical evidence there would always be many theories able to account for it. Thus it is not possible to verify or falsify a theory simply by comparing it to the empirical evidence; the theory can always be saved by some modification. For Quine, scientific thought formed a coherent 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 part.

Quine's work has helped drive the wide acceptance of instrumentalism in the philosophy of science.



  • "To be is to be the value of a bound variable"
  • "No entity without identity."
  • "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough."
  • "We cannot stem linguistic change, but we can drag our feet. If each of us were to defy Alexander Pope and be the last to lay the old aside, it might not be a better world, but it would be a lovelier language."
  • Quine was asked what was the correct collective noun for logicians. He replied "It is a sequitur of logicians."

Notable books by Quine

Literature about Quine

See also

External links

de:Willard Van Orman Quine fr:Willard van Orman Quine it:Willard Van Orman Quine io:Willard Quine ja:ウィラード・ヴァン・オーマン・クワイン pt:Willard Van Orman Quine sv:Willard van Orman Quine


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