W. V. O. Quine

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2405

Article abstract: Variously called the father of post-World War II American philosophy and the greatest philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century, Quine created a new framework or paradigm of philosophy, one that describes the way knowledge is actually obtained.

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Early Life

Willard Van Orman Quine was born into a self-made, upper-middle-class family, the younger of two sons. In his autobiography The Time of My Life, Quine wrote that his passions for foreign travel and intellectual discovery began when he was a boy. For him, the thrill of discovery in theoretical science and the discoveries and knowledge gained from foreign travel were both appealing. As a youth, Quine undertook a number of small ventures to earn money and to exploit his interests in travel and journalism. He sold postage stamps, created maps of Akron, and sold advertising for his own publication.

Quine’s interest in philosophy predated his high school education. He said it was sparked by Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “Eureka.” His interests in philosophy and science were driven by his desire to understand how the universe works. Toward the end of high school, Quine developed an interest in the origins of words and how they are used in ordinary language. He would later investigate the role of language in a variety of philosophical disciplines.

As a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, Quine majored in mathematics and graduated with honors. He wrote his thesis on mathematical philosophy, especially as it was developed and practiced by the English thinker Bertrand Russell. A poker companion introduced Quine to Russell’s work in college. Russell derived the world from experience by logical construction. No one at Oberlin was familiar with the revolutionary developments in logic as developed by Gottlob Frege, Russell, and others. Quine’s professors at Oberlin, however, encouraged him to explore the works of these thinkers on his own.

Life’s Work

Quine chose to do his graduate work at Harvard University because of the strong reputation of its philosophy department, which excelled in logic. Alfred North Whitehead, the coauthor with Russell of Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), was then a Harvard professor. Whitehead eventually became Quine’s dissertation adviser. Under the guidance of Whitehead, Quine completed his doctoral studies and dissertation in two years. Quine analyzed and advanced Russell’s systems in his doctoral dissertation, “The Logic of Sequences: A Generalization of Principia Mathematica.”

Russell had a profound influence on Quine’s intellectual development. Quine used Russell’s ideas to advance the power and scope of mathematical logic. As a graduate student and then as a postgraduate student, Quine also began to explore the branch of metaphysics called ontology, which is concerned with questions of what there is and with the relationship of nature and being.

Another major influence on Quine was the philosopher Rudolf Carnap, whom he described as his greatest teacher. For Carnap, the proper role of philosophy is the analysis, criticism, and refinement of the methods and concepts of science. Philosophers, he argued, should study the meanings of words and how words are put together to form clauses, phrases, and sentences. The study of the rules of language, or syntax, is key to Carnap’s philosophy. Syntax is the basis not only for logic and mathematics but also for the entire logic of science and philosophy. A consequence of Carnap’s perspective is that metaphysical commitment and logical rules are language-dependent.

Quine would eventually break with Carnap and offer an alternative to Carnap’s system of how beliefs are justified. Quine opposed efforts to base logical and factual distinctions on linguistic considerations alone. For Quine, the goal of the philosopher is to escape from intuition and the shackles of linguistic convention. According to Quine, science, not philosophy, determines how a correct view of the real world is determined.

While a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, Quine traveled to Europe and met many of the leading philosophers of the day, especially those associated with mathematical logic and linguistic and analytic philosophy as practiced in the then-leading intellectual capital cities of Europe such as Vienna, Prague, and Warsaw. Analytic and linguistic philosophers contend that the proper role of philosophy is to clarify language and thereby resolve disputes that originate in linguistic confusions. The goal of such activities was to make philosophical assertions clear and unambiguous. As a result of the lessons he learned in Europe, Quine expanded his own philosophical perspective and honed his technical skills, especially in the area of logic. Using what he learned, he conducted a number of philosophical investigations in the field of mathematical logic. Quine sought to develop what he described as an elegant set of axioms from which ordinary mathematics could be developed.

Quine returned to Harvard in the fall of 1933 and was appointed a junior fellow in the prestigious Society of Fellows at Harvard. In 1938, he became a philosophy instructor at Harvard. During World War II, he worked as a Navy cryptographer deciphering messages intercepted from German submarines.

For Quine, the two major goals of philosophy should be to develop a theory to explain the world and to account for how the meager evidence we have of the world leads to our knowledge of reality. Quine rejected the idea that a “first” philosophy existed, one from which everything we know can be derived. In Quine’s view, philosophy is the theory of scientific truth. According to him, there is only one reality. That one reality is the one the science of physics constructs. As he said repeatedly, the philosophy of science is philosophy enough. By attacking the notion that thought alone is sufficient to derive the basis of all human knowledge or prove the existence of a first philosophy, Quine was attacking a tradition dating back to the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato.

Quine also denied there is any such thing as a distinctive philosophical subject matter or method. For him, philosophy, like science, is concerned with matters of fact. According to Quine, the only evidence we have for our theory of what exists is sensory evidence. In Quine’s view, philosophy had the potential to make logical and empirical what we know about the world. Philosophy, in other words, had the potential to be on a par with the exact sciences. From Quine’s behaviorist perspective, we acquire our conception of reality as children by learning to speak. Children learn to speak by learning to identify things by their proper names and in a manner that all who speak the language can understand. In this manner, we acquire our understanding of the world. Our knowledge of the world is then ultimately grounded in logic, observation, and experimental verification and an exploration of its consequences.

Quine retired in 1978 but remained an emeritus professor of philosophy and mathematics at Harvard. His unusually productive career as a philosopher spanned more than six decades. As of 1999, his books had been translated and reprinted in more than fifty editions in at least seventeen languages. He lectured on six continents and visited approximately 113 countries. Perhaps most important of all, through his articles, books, lectures, and textbooks on mathematical logic he taught several generations of philosophers and their students how to do logic and appreciate its power. His textbooks Elementary Logic and Methods of Logic taught undergraduate and graduate students how to grasp a complete proof procedure and how to use logical notation. He taught students how to appreciate the precision and rigor of symbolic logic systems. Quine authored a number of journal articles that are now considered classics, including “New Foundations for Mathematical Logic,” “On What There Is,” and “Ontological Relativity,” as well as such books as his most famous work, Word and Object. Quine was the author of one of the landmarks of twentieth century philosophy, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” the paper that marked Quine’s public break with Carnap.

Over his long career and in his many publications, the core of Quine’s philosophical investigations remained the same. He attempted to find the answers to the fundamental questions of epistemology: How do human beings acquire their theory of the world and why does it work so well? What are the limitations and validity of our methods? How do we know what there is in the world? In his answers to these questions, Quine joined American pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, who argued that the function of thought is to guide action. Quine belongs to the tradition of philosophers of science that includes thinkers such as Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Baruch Spinoza, among others. In addition, he attempted to find a foundation for mathematics anchored by logic and set theory. Quine sought to simplify and refine the work undertaken by Russell.


Quine is often heralded as one of the titans of twentieth century philosophers, a peer group that includes the analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and Russell. The philosopher A. J. Ayer went so far as to describe Quine as perhaps the greatest philosopher of his time. For his numerous contributions to philosophy, Quine received such prestigious awards as the Kyoto and Schock Prizes. The grantors of these prizes said Quine’s body of work had a profound and powerful influence on twentieth century philosophy, especially in the areas of mathematical logic, epistemology, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of science. Among his most influential contributions to logic and the theory of knowledge were his “New Foundations for Mathematical Logic” and Word and Object. Despite the fact that his work resulted in many fundamental advances in computer theory, Quine himself was not interested in computers. Rather, he was interested in theory, not in how his ideas were applied.

Quine was one of the first philosophers to promote the power of mathematical logic in America. He pioneered the development of mathematical logic from its infancy in Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Quine changed the legacy of analytical philosophy or logical positivism in the United States. Many of the central ideas and themes of philosophy in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century may be traced to him. His philosophy helped move philosophers away from Wittgenstein, another of the century’s major philosophers.

Quine’s reputation is that of an innovator and the creator of new approaches to logical theory and the philosophy of logic. As a logician, Quine refined and reformed the logical system of Russell. He did so by infusing it with generous dosages of American pragmatism and the power of the philosophies of the European philosophers. Quine used mathematical logic and the methods of science to prompt philosophers to rethink their approaches to long-standing philosophical disputes and controversies.

Quine was a revolutionary in that he successfully challenged and overthrew the ideas of philosophical movements such as analytical and linguistic philosophy as developed during the first half of the twentieth century. His ideas and insights forced philosophers in the analytical tradition to reassess the fundamental concepts and purpose of epistemology. To some historians, Quine represents a supreme achievement of twentieth century rational philosophy. Rational philosophy is empirically, linguistically, and logically oriented. He developed fresh philosophical techniques, novel devices, and new theories, and revised old ones. Quine developed a new kind of philosophy to describe the way knowledge is actually obtained. “Naturalized epistemology,” as this approach is called, describes how contemporary science arrives at the beliefs held by the scientific community. Quine’s work influenced the development of such philosophers as Donald Davidson and Daniel Dennett. His papers on the simplification of truth functions helped advance computer engineering.

Additional Reading

Arrington, Robert L., and Hans-Johann Glock. Wittgenstein and Quine. London: Routledge, 1996. The essays in this book address the similarities and differences between these philosophers, whom the authors rank as two of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century.

Borradori, Giovanna. The American Philosopher. Translated by Rosanna Croatto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Conversations with Quine and other leading philosophers are recorded in an easy-to-read, question-and-answer format. The interview with Quine reveals how he views his own philosophical development and place in the history of philosophy.

Brown, Stuart, Diane Collinson, and Robert Wilkinson, eds. One Hundred Twentieth-Century Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1998. Quine’s essential ideas and influence are briefly summarized.

Clarke, D. S. Philosophy’s Second Revolution: Early and Recent Analytic Philosophy. Chicago: Open Court, 1997. The author presents a readable and useful account of the origins and evolution of analytic philosophy, especially the role of Quine in the revolution. He argues that Quine’s method of philosophical analysis marks a radical departure in contemporary philosophy.

Davidson, D., and J. Hintikka. Words and Objections: Essays on the Work of W. V. Quine. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1975. The essays are a response to the arguments presented by Quine in his classic Word and Object. Quine’s responses to the remarks by the essayists are also included.

Gibson, Roger F., Jr. Enlightened Empiricism: An Examination of W. V. Quine’s Theory of Knowledge. Tampa: University Presses of Florida, 1988. The premise of this book is that philosophers have not understood Quine as well as they might. Gibson’s goal is to correct the situation.

Hacker, P. M .S. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1997. This text provides an account of Quine’s place in analytic philosophy and compares his ideas with those of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The author documents the role of Quine’s ideas in the decline of Wittgenstein’s influence in analytical philosophy.

Hahn, Lewis Edwin, and Paul Arthur Schilpp, eds. The Philosophy of W. V. Quine. Peru, Ill.: Open Court, 1998. This handy guide includes an intellectual autobiography, a series of essays on Quine’s work and achievements, and a bibliography.

Leonardi, Paolo, and Marco Santambrogio. On Quine: New Essays. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. This collection of essays pays homage to Quine. It is also devoted to making Quine’s work better understood in Europe.

Romanos, George D. Quine and Analytic Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1980. The author explores the relevance of Quine’s methods to various philosophical problems. The book grew out of the author’s doctoral dissertation. What makes this work especially useful is that Quine reviewed the author’s work as it was being written.

White, Morton G. Toward Reunion in Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. This work focuses on solving philosophical problems in the “spirit” of Quine. It also places Quine’s work in the context of philosophers who are his contemporaries.

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