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Willard V. Quine

by Paul O’Grady

Willard Van Orman Quine is regarded by many as the most significant philosopher to have written in English in the second half of the twentieth century. Born in Akron, Ohio, his parents of Dutch and Manx descent, he attended Oberlin College where he studied mathematics and philosophy. He graduated to Harvard, where he competed his PhD in a record two years on Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, under Whitehead’s supervision. He was elected as one of the first group of research fellows of that institution (as was B.F.Skinner). This gave Quine financial security (it was 1932) and freedom to pursue his research interests. He travelled to Europe, attending the meetings of the Vienna Circle, where he met his great mentor Rudolf Carnap. He also met A.J.Ayer and Kurt Gödel. The Vienna Circle espoused an anti-metaphysical and scientific-minded philosophy. Quine’s distinctive philosophical contribution was to develop their views in revolutionary ways, undermining positivism from within using resources from American Pragmatism and creating a new philosophical landscape.

His first major book, a collection of essays From A Logical Point of View (1953 – probably the only seminal text named after a Harry Belafonte calypso) heralded many of the themes developed subsequently, particularly in Word and Object (1960) his chief work. He denied any distinction in principle between knowledge derived from the senses and any other kind of knowledge. In so doing he recast the way philosophers understood their task – since he denied that philosophy has any special tools or methods not available to scientists. Specifically he rejected the view that philosophers analyse meanings in a way analogous to chemists analysing physical compounds. This was part of his reason for famously rejecting the distinction between analytic and synthetic sentences, between those true by virtue of meaning and those true because of how the world is. He held that there is no decent notion of meaning available to make such a distinction. In so doing Quine defended what was called a naturalistic method. Philosophy does not supply foundations for the sciences, neither does it provide vocabulary or logical tools for scientists. Rather philosophy is part of the general scientific project of understanding the world – it looks at certain kinds of theoretical questions about knowledge, evidence and meaning in collaboration with the sciences, not construed as a separate foundational area. In his works he elegantly articulated this kind of philosophy, defending many contentious theses about reference, meaning and knowledge.

Despite the austerity of his philosophical vision, (his taste for desert landscapes as he put it), he was a master stylist, revelling in the pithy epigram. In citing an historical forebear of his empiricist philosophy he noted “The Humean predicament is the human predicament”. In holding that our account of what exists (our ontology) is best captured and expressed in the calculus of mathematical logic, he expressed it as, “to be is to be the value of a variable”. Among his most powerful metaphors was that of our system of beliefs as a web, with those parts at the centre less liable to change, those at the edge quite changeable – but everything revisable in principle, even logic and mathematics.

His influence has been immense – among the leading contemporary philosophers are his students Putnam and Davidson, who respond in quite different ways to his work. Developments in cognitive science are indebted to his lead (for instance the work of Daniel Dennett). He has set much of the agenda for philosophy of language, epistemology and curiously enough contemporary metaphysics. He resisted the therapeutic tendency of philosophers influenced by the later Wittgenstein, robustly producing a systematic and distinctive metaphysical system. In so doing he strongly influenced the contemporary practice of philosophy in America and Britain. Despite travelling extensively and lecturing in many languages throughout the world, his academic career was rooted at Harvard, where he delighted in teaching freshman logic as well as his more advanced classes. He married twice, with four children and numerous grandchildren.

© Dr Paul O'Grady 2001

Paul O’Grady lectures in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin.

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