Brief Lives

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000)

Alistair MacFarlane on a long life looking into language and logic.

Quine was an outstandingly able logician who became America’s leading analytical philosopher. As a logician, he was keenly aware of the wider implications of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem of 1931: if logic was unable to capture the truth of all that mathematics can say, how could everyday language fully describe the world and our experience in it? Quine addressed this crucial question over many decades of painstaking and often controversial work. As a result, he produced three Theses of Indeterminacy: the indeterminacy of translation, the inscrutability of reference, and the underdetermination of science. He was free from self-doubt, and largely impervious to criticism. When asked why he had totally ignored consciousness in his work, he urbanely replied that he was not conscious of having done so.

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