W. V. O. Quine Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

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 entire section is 2405 words.)