Willard Van Orman Quine - local newspaper profiles
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Profiles of Willard Van Orman Quine, mathematician and philosopher, from the local newspaper published for Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts. This page is maintained by Douglas Boynton Quine; please e-mail additions, or corrections to the webmaster:
Beacon Hill Paper: May 15 1996; page 11
Willard Van Quine, professor of philosophy and mathematics emeritus from Harvard University who is regarded as one of the four most famous living philosophers in the world, wrote his doctoral thesis on a 1927 Remington typewriter, which he still uses. However, he "had an operation on it" to change a few keys to accommodate special symbols. "I found I could do without the second period, the second comma -- and the question mark."
"You don't miss the question mark?"
"Well, you see, I deal in certainties."
Van Quine and his wife, Marjorie, have lived on Beacon Hill for 38 years and brought up their two children, Douglas and Margaret, here. Quine has commuted for most of these years by subway to his teaching job at Harvard. Finally retired eighteen years ago at the mandatory age of 70, he still commutes almost daily to his corner office in Emerson Hall.
In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, Quine stated that he often thought of living in Cambridge, so much more an intellectual community. Asked if he had received a lot of heat for that opinion from his Beacon Hill neighbors, Quine smiled. "No. I don't know as they've seen it."
When he is not in his office, more than likely Quine is attending lunch or dinner at one of his many honorary and professional organizations.
"Every Monday in term time I am off at the Society of Fellows dinner."
Quine was in the first group of elected junior fellows when the society began in 1933. He had just received his doctorate -- in only two years. "There were only six of us that year. The senior fellows included Professor Alfred North Whitehead, who sponsored my PhD thesis. The president of Harvard and the dean of Arts & Sciences are ex officio members, of course."
Quine became a senior fellow and was on the governing board for 30 years. Its only job is choosing each year's eight new junior fellows.
"All the senior fellows read and judge papers and samples of nominees' work; and then the baneful business begins of weeding out men who are good but not good enough.
"We once had three great physicists to consider. Norman Ramsey and Ed Purcell, both physicists, felt that there shouldn't be more than two physicists, so two were chosen, almost a matter of drawing lots. The odd man out just a few months later got a Nobel Prize. That certainly brings out the quality we aspire to in the Society, although certainly there have been some duds along the way."
Born in Ohio in 1908, Quine arrived at Harvard as a graduate student after attending Oberlin College. He has never left, except for a stint in the Navy during World War II.
In the summer of 1928, with two friends, he drove to the West Coast in a Model T they had picked up for $75.
"We sold it for about $50 in San Francisco and came back on freight trains and hitchhiking. My father was impressed, so he staked my brother and me to a trip to Europe the next year. I had planned to get a job on a cattle boat.
"In 1932 - I already had my PhD and was married to my first wife - I had a traveling fellowship. That was a great year. We used up our resources very accurately - I had $7 when we got back to America. Then I came back to Harvard as a Junior Fellow in 1933."
What part of your teaching career did you find most enjoyable?
"What I enjoyed most was more the mathematical end than the philosophical, because of it being less a matter of opinion. Clarifying, not defending. Resting on proof. I taught first in both departments, but my appointment was in the Philosophy Department. I taught Mathematical Logic and Set Theory as well as a general course of Logic in Philosophy. Harvard was good about letting me teach my own interests. I gave a course in Philosophy of my own choosing, my own ideas, for concentrators.
"Just the other day, I took out my old records. I did teach Kaczynski [the Unabomber], although I don't remember him. He tied for top, 98.9%."
Quine took leave from Harvard during World War 11 to go into the Navy, in the section that decrypted messages from German submarines off the coast.
"At first, I was put on harmless stuff, like direction finding. Then we were let in on the top secret. The Germans had a replica Enigma breaking complicated ciphers. Each day they had a different setting on the machine. We had to get it the hard way, by intercepting a message from a submarine that gave direction finders. We would know, say, from the preceding day's message he had been sent on a refueling rendezvous, so a good guess was that some word would be 'refueling.' Then if our men could fit the word, they could get the setting for the whole. There would be days when they didn't have a hint. Those were gloomy days. Our boats were being sunk in the convoys."
Quine's unit translated the German messages.
"There were times when we were just biding our time. My second and I had a wall map on my left - his right - and we'd spend the time asking each other, "29N/67W - wet or dry?"
Marjorie Boynton a recent graduate of Wellesley who had also studied cryptanalysis was in his unit, and they were later married in 1948.
Quine was free to join in where the machines were, but, he added, "In spite of my interest in Math and having done a passing job in cryptographic analysis, I had no interest in how the machines work. I do not do anything with computers, although one of my little results in mathematical logic has become a tool of the computer theory, the Quine McCluskey principle. And corresponds to terminals in series, or to those in parallel, so that if you simplify mathematical logical steps, you have simplified your wiring. I arrived at it not from an interest in computers, but as a pedagogical device, a slick way of introducing that way of teaching mathematical logic.
In other words, pure theory?
"Yes. I think by now I'm pretty sure I'm not interested in computers. I am interested in Algorithms."
"In Set Theory, all classical mathematics can be expressed by a single two-place predicate, namely, membership in a class. ' X is a member of Y.' The one predicate over and above pure logic. The rest is pure logic, that can be got down to and and not, and so-called quantifiers, all and some. Then add that membership predicate, which makes it possible to translate, and it gives you all of classical mathematics. Significance of modern logic is what it contributed to drawing clear distinctions in philosophy. The second was the great triumph in technology, computer theory."
And yet Quine uses a 1927 typewriter.
"I'm only interested in theory. Not its application."
Professor Willard Van Orman ("Van") Quine, a retired full professor at Harvard University who has been studying and publishing works of philosophy for the past 60 years, will be awarded the Kyoto Prize for his outstanding work in the theory of knowledge. The prize comes with a substantial stipend. His work has been referenced in over 1,250 published books and articles all over the world and has been translated into 15 languages.
His specialties have been divided between mathematical logic including set theory and the theory of knowledge. His current work is focused on the theory of knowledge.
Among his most influential contributions to logic and set theory were his New Foundations of Mathematical Logic released in 1937 and later his Word and Object encompassing theory of knowledge and philosophy of science, which was released in 1960. Both have had quite an impact in the areas of theory of knowledge and philosophy of science.
Three years ago Professor Quine received the Schock prize from Sweden, also worth a generous sum, for his work in logic and philosophy.
Professor Quine is by no means "slowing down." In two weeks, he is off to the Czech Republic and then England to give lectures. In November, he will travel to Japan for the nine day ceremony, where he will give two lectures before being honored with the Kyoto prize and gold medal. The Kyoto Prize is given by the Inamori Foundation three times a year to individuals who have made outstanding and influential contributions to science.
Professor Quine was subject of a profile in the May 15 issue of The Beacon Hill Paper.