Willard Van Orman Quine 1908-2000
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Obituaries, memorials, symposia, and photographs of Willard Van Orman Quine, mathematician and philosopher. Professor Quine was born June 25 1908 (anti-Christmas) and died December 25 2000 (Christmas). The last paper he presented was Three Networks: Similarity, Implication, and Membership in Boston (August 1998); it was published in Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Volume 6. Extensive visitor comments regarding his philosophy may be read in the read in the W V Quine guest book where you may sign into (email) the guestbook: to post your comments & questions . This page is maintained by Douglas Boynton Quine; please e-mail recommended additions, or corrections to the webmaster:
Memorial Talks (continued)
Willard Van Orman Quine
When Dad was writing Quiddities he jotted down a few random thoughts that really showed his love of words and his great sense of the ridiculous. I want to read a few of my favorites.
"Wayward Passages" in Grand Street, Autumn, 1988
Willard Van Orman Quine
When I was 18 years old I took a philosophy course in which the instructor began with an essay by Willard Van Orman Quine, to whom he referred to as the father of American Philosophy. Sometime later in the course, I came to realize that the father of American philosophy was living only one hundred miles east of where I was going to school. I asked the instructor why we puzzled over what he meant each day when we could just call him up and ask what he meant. The instructor assured me that this is not how one does philosophy. He was wrong. We should have called Van up.
Once I heard Umberto Eco tell Van with enormous pride that everyone one of his in Bologna knew that there were brick houses on Elm Street. He might have added that they were all familiar with the philosopher McX or all those possible fat men in the doorway, or the shadowy figure of Bernard J. Ortcutt or those unforgettable undetached rabbit parts. In his writings, Van took us on flights from intensions, to the roots of reference, confronted us with the tribunal of experience, liberated us from two dogmas of empiricism, dispelled the myth of the museum, and ensnared us in the web of beliefs.
We can all chart our philosophical education and development by recalling when we first encountered these images and grappled with the doctrines that surrounded them.
In August of 1999, at the world congress of philosophy in Boston, references to Van's philosophy were commonplace. Participants from as far away as Novasibirsk, Beijing and Bombay, from all over Eastern and Western Europe, from the Middle East and Africa, from South and Central America felt completely at home discussing, e.g., the indeterminacy of translation, the inscrutability of reference, the underdetermination of theory, ontological relativity, radical translation, and epistemology naturalized. These are all peculiarly Van's terms.
What was most striking was that each time a thesis was mentioned the speaker just assumed that everyone present would understand what was being discussed. It's hard to imagine a greater testament to the substance and durability of a philosopher's achievements. Van's corpus has become part of the canon, and it is here to stay. Today, however, I want to talk not about his philosophy, but about him.
I met him only about 30 years ago - "met" is too strong - I along with several hundred professors and other students attended a lecture he gave. I doubt I got within 25 yards of him, but it was such a thrill to see him in the flesh. Years later Don Davidson properly introduced us. Van began that conversation by asking me why I mispronounced my surname. I thought how odd for someone to go about correcting someone else's pronunciation of his own name. It was only several years later, while visiting relatives in Italy that I learned that after immigrating to the United States my father had changed the pronunciation of our last name. Van might have had an advantage with my name since it turns out that it means in the local dialect - "hare" as in undetached rabbit part.
Over the years, Van and Marge visited with me in NYC several times. I recall once we went to see Verdi's La Traviata -Van's favorite opera - at the Metropolitan Opera House. During intermission, we rushed to get four glasses of champagne. I then watched as Van carefully and unhurriedly counted each dollar bill and coin and then handed over the entire sum to an anxious waiter who was watching a rather long line of customers assemble behind us. Van turned to me, with that inimitable beam on his face, and exclaimed, "Exact change". He abhorred unnecessary and superfluous exchanges not only in his philosophy but in his daily life as well. However, his affinity for parsimony never compromised his capacity for generosity.
One representative example of such was the time he agreed to visit an undergraduate seminar I was teaching on his work. Word circulated in the NY metropolitan area that Van would be at my university on a certain day and at a certain time. When the seminar began, more than one hundred philosophers materialized. I had to quickly locate an empty auditorium. Unfortunately for Van, he had to sit on stage in one of those undersized uncomfortable wooden student desks. As the audience watched with anticipation, with Van sat all scrunched up in his tiny wooden seat. He pulled out of his briefcase a stack of papers, on each sheet of which was a question my undergraduate students had submitted to him about his work. In front of the congregation of professional philosophers Van proceeded to read out loud each beginning student's question, whereupon he turned each over each sheet in order to read his handwritten response. No one in the audience dared move until he had gone through well over 30 submissions. Once he finished, the philosophers politely applauded while the undergraduates stormed the stage with wild applause. Van then distributed to each student his or her typed question with his handwritten reply on the back.
Years later, when he and Marge visited me in Florence, Italy, I had organized a party for them. Old friends from all over Italy converged on Florence to participate. The party ran into the wee hours, and at around 3 am after everyone had finally parted I glanced over at the daunting task that awaited me the next morning of cleaning up the mess left by a party of over 50 people. Van turned to me, rolled up his sleeves and exclaimed, "Ernie, you wash and I'll dry". He was 85 years old at the time.
This past thanksgiving weekend, a mere month before Van's death, Don Davidson, Marcia Cavell and I visited with Van. Don had long ago realized that if you gave Van one line of any Edgar Allen Poe poem, he would gleefully race through the rest of it. Don took enormous pleasure in doing as much all day of the last day of our visit, and Van never paused. I took my own personal pleasure in asking Van about his hitchhiking back and forth in his youth across this country and all over Europe as well. I got such an enormous kick out of hearing about his rugged and, to my mind, rather romantic life on the road - nothing like one's stereotype of the cloistered academic.
As the weekend came to an end, days chock full of stories about his life, with lessons in geography and etymology, poetry readings thrown in to boot, we each hugged Van goodbye. I recall telling Don and Marcia how I used to get very sad when leaving 38 Chestnut Street, since I would wonder, at least during these past few years, whether it would be the last time I'd ever see Van. I then smiled saying that I had finally let go of that fear having convinced myself that Van would live forever.
I miss Van, but it was grand being his friend.
Willard Van Orman Quine
At the time I was born in 1954, my father was halfway through his life. My parents and brother were in Oxford for the year, Dad was a visiting professor. Word and Object was in the works. 10 years later I got to visit my birthplace and see the house on the cobblestone corner of Logic Lane.
Most of you here know my father's works in Philosophy and Mathematical Logic. I don't. Dad rarely spoke about work at the dinner table, didn't test out his philosophical ideas on his children. We did, however, have some pretty unusual conversations with a professor of heady graduate students at one end of the table, a nursery school teacher at the other, and my brother and me somewhere in between.
I know how hard my father worked and what a loyal member he was to the organizations he chose to join. Every Monday night during the school year he was at Society of Fellows. I was very honored to be invited by him to be his dinner companion there a couple of years ago after my mother had died. Once a month on Thursday evenings he was out at Shop Club and there was Academy of Sciences, Eliot House, American Philosophical Society. Those are just some of the places he went when he was going out, during the school year.
What I can treasure is the summer evenings up at The Lake, our rustic country cabin that Dad designed in the 1950's to be inconspicuous and efficient, in the town of Harvard, MA. We have two wooded acres there, very narrow, with waterfront. . Dad built himself a small "shack" as he called it to be as far away from the family noise as possible. That way he could work to his heart's content and not interfere with the noisy comings and goings of the likes of my brother and me and our friends. It was not wired for electricity, so when it was late or dark or stormy, he would light his kerosene lanterns and keep pounding away on his typewriter. Daddy would surface when he wanted company or diversion, have a swim and sail in the late afternoon. Or he might climb into his canoe with a handful of reprints, and paddle upwind on our small lake. He would sit down in the bottom of the canoe, get out his reading, and just coast as far as he could until it became necessary to disengage himself from lily pads or someone's mooring. I was just thankful that he was never actually capsized by any of my miscreant friends bombing around the lake in speedboats. He taught me to sail the small Sailfish we had, good on a pond such as this, since it didn't require much wind. He had taken me out a few times. One day when I was 10 or so, we were in the middle of the cove and I was at the tiller. Suddenly Daddy just dove off and headed back to the dock. I guess he figured that that was how I was going to finally learn to maneuver the craft, and he made it back to shore without my running him down. The thing about the summers at the lake was that we spent more time together.
After dinners, my brother Doug and I would stack up the Motown 45's on the record player and wash up the dishes while Mum and Daddy would go out for a canoe ride. No matter what the tensions might have been with two teenagers at the dinner table, my parents always returned from their sunset paddle, up the hill, arm in arm or holding hands.
In the evenings he read to us, Alice in Wonderland was great, and the Crater and Kenilworth, and lots of Dickens. The tough part was that Dad would tend to read ahead a little, chuckle to himself over some clever turn of phrase, and then go back and read it out loud to us. I have to admit that Thackery's Vanity Fair out loud, bit by bit, was more than I could handle and my mind wandered.
Dad was very frugal. He saw no point in replacing clothing, for example, until it was beyond threadbare. And he could never waste time. Social chit chat was difficult for him. But he COULD enjoy a good game with friends, such as Poker with his Oberlin college friends who reuned at the lake. I was very pleased when I finally was taught the ins and outs of the game and got to play with them. We bowled with friends in the summer, and later on had years of avid Scrabble games and collected the score sheets in the game box as a remembrance of who was there, who played. Strict rules had to be adhered to as far as what got to count as a word, and house rules accepted Quine as a valid word, uppercase "Q" and all. For all these years, every family visit would include the requisite game or two and I am happy to state that my children could hold their own with their Grandfather. There was never a penalty for challenging a word as the idea of learning something was, as always, paramount. Often this was the best part of the game, the ensuing discussion of the word. Winning was supposedly less important.
Dad's taste for poetry was not very sophisticated. There were certain selections that really struck his fancy, Poe's The Raven most notably. He knew the verses to his dying day, and could take great pleasure in reciting them. If he wasn't getting the next line, just a prodding word or two would set him off and running again. I will never be able to hear The Raven without thinking of Daddy and his fondness for the cadence of verses, distinctive rhyming patterns and grim imagery.
My father found great pleasure in making music at home. Certainly untrained, and self-taught, he developed his own system. He picked out melodies by ear on the piano, always in the key of G-flat which I proudly pointed out when I had had enough theory to recognize it. It was easier to find his way around the piano on the black keys. He loved opera, partly for the music and largely for the foreign language, and he and my mother would sing to their hearts' content together. Gilbert & Sullivan were a big hit in our family, we went to all the student productions at the Agassiz, which were dependably outstanding, often after dining at the Faculty Club. Dad had a mandolin which he picked up somewhere along the way, and he crooned Mexican folk songs accompanying himself quite nicely on the instrument. He delighted in Dixieland jazz, never tired of it. When my brother and I traveled with him to Prague 2 years ago, he rediscovered the Czech Dixieland musicians who are very taken with and accomplished at this kind of American music. There were bands in night spots, on street corners and most memorably on the be-statued Charles Bridge. We have a CD of this music, the same familiar songs, but intriguingly in the Czech tongue. When I am finished talking, you will hear a selection which will be Sweet Georgia Brown.
To the end, Daddy lived in the house I grew up in on Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill. It is a wonderful place to live, built in 1820, my brother and I had our own floor. Daddy loved the area. One of his favorite pastimes with his visiting friends was to "prowl" the streets, particularly of the North End and anywhere he could find with a bit of old-world character. He was bitter about the modernization and destruction of old neighborhoods. He could never bring himself to refer to Government Center, it was known as "where Scullay Square used to be."
Daddy was a great walker. In the spring 3 years ago when we were all back in Boston celebrating my mother's 80th and final birthday, Dad marched us all over the North End and to Old Ironsides and of course we walked all the way home. He was 90 a couple of months later. Later that year, the two of us walked across downtown to take a boat out to the Harbor Islands. Daddy was moving a bit slowly, but we were walking and we would rest when we got on board.
His frugality and penchant for efficiency were consistent with his knowing the most direct route from A to B. If ever one of us took a cab from the house heading to the airport, he would insist that we have the cab driver back up about 3 car-lengths to go down Spruce Street to start the journey instead of the more traditional way - with the idea that it would save a few minutes, a few city blocks and of course a few dimes. So, apologetically, we would ask the cabbie to humour us, and please back up. Of course we usually take the subway.
Daddy had friendships that lasted longer than most of us have been alive. He knew a good thing when he saw it. I am sorry to say for his sake that he outlived most of these people and this caused him great pain in his later years. He could be in total control of his writing and his traveling but he couldn't get back my Uncle Bob, my mother to whom he was married 50 years, or a few of his very near and dear friends with whom he had such powerful and deeply loyal connection.
I'd like to finish by reading a short passage that Daddy wrote for his Grandchildren in a family book that my Mother put together at my request in 1987.
"Grandfather Would Want You To Know"
When you wonder about something, don't dismiss the question. Think about it, look it up, ask somebody. Finding out will raise further questions, and it is the happiest way of learning things.
To seek the truth is to try to be right, and that is a good thing. But trying to have been right is a bad thing. Do not resist correction, for it is the best kind of learning; it pays doubly, by both adding to your knowledge and removing a false belief.
Not that you should accept correction uncritically. Did your corrector have a better way than you to know the truth of the matter? The point is just not to score points but top keep your eye on the ball, the evidence.
So don't go out for the debating team, and don't grow up to be a lawyer. Convincing people is one thing and seeking the truth is very much another.
Further counsel, which I wish I had known & followed:
W. V. Quine: A Talk for the Celebration of Quine's Life
Van Quine was a stalwart of Harvard's Society of Fellows, a sturdy supporter and a staunch advocate. I string together these S-T words, all signifying strength and stability and steadfastness, because in after-dinner conversation at the Society Van would no doubt have taken pleasure (and given pleasure to his listeners as well) from speculating on the etymology of this kind of subset of vocabulary, not just in English but in whole families of other languages as well. But here I get ahead of my story.
Van Quine was in the Society's first class of junior fellows, elected in 1933: a distinguished group that also included Garrett Birkhoff, B.F. Skinner, and three others. He remained a junior fellow for the full allotment of three years, until 1936. He returned to active participation in the Society as a senior fellow in 1949, serving in that capacity for fully 29 years, longer than anyone else to date. (Second place honors, incidentally, go to Arthur Darby Nock, at 26 years.) Although it is difficult to imagine for an institution that has now existed for nearly seven decades, Van's combined active service as a junior and senior fellow spanned nearly half of the Society's history to date.
I came to know Van Quine in his role as a senior fellow when I was a junior fellow. Let me say straight out that I regarded the group of distinguished scholars who served as senior fellows during my tenure in the Society in absolute awe. After the passage of more than three decades, I still do.
Two things mark my recollection of conversations with Van at Society of Fellows dinners. First - and I say this in part with regret - I do not recall ever being in a conversation with Van about his work, or about philosophy more generally. While the purpose of Society of Fellows dinners is not for the senior fellows to hold forth on their work, I do remember listening with great fascination to what Paul Freund and Charlie Wyzanski had to say about matters of the law (often including comments by Charlie on cases he had decided), learning about the defense issues of the day from Paul Doty, and even picking up some intuition about statistical inference from Ed Purcell that was directly useful to me in my own work. I was always especially interested in anything Herbert Bloch had to say about the classical world. What Jim Watson had to say was, in those days, an entirely new world to me. And of course I talked about economics with Wassily Leontief, although mostly we did that elsewhere.)
But I recall no conversation with Van Quine about anything having to do with philosophy in any direct way. On one occasion, Van brought A.J. Ayer to dinner as his guest. I had read Ayer's popular book on logical positivism some years earlier (perhaps in college, maybe even in high school), and I made it a point that night to sit nearby at the table. I remember enjoying the evening enormously. But at least as I remember it now, the conversation was not about philosophy. (On the other hand, perhaps it was and I just didn't realize it.)
By contrast, what I do remember from many conversations in which Van was a part was the astonishing range not merely of his interests - many people know about many things - but of his knowledge. It was difficult to find any subject in which Van did not at least appear to be attentively interested. Moreover, he always seemed to have some bit of knowledge that was at least pertinent to the subject at hand, if not central to it.
Much of what Van contributed to these far-ranging conversations drew on his travels. Here too, many people travel and some travel widely. But more so than most people I have known, Van remembered in graphic detail experiences from where he had gone and what he had seen and done. I recall in particular Van's sharing, on more than one occasion, his recollection of Europe in the 1930s, from his year of post-post graduate travel and study in Prague and Warsaw. To an economist of my generation, the great depression was history, albeit important and interesting history, and the depression in Europe was far-away history. But when the conversation turned to questions like the social background that led to the politics that in turn led to World War II, Van had a seemingly endless stock of vivid details to report on the everyday hardships of the people with whom he lived and studied. Moreover, unlike in the conversation of many other people who fondly recall their travels of some decades earlier, these details did not emerge at random.
The other aspect of dinner and postprandial conversation with Van that always struck me was the humor that he seemed to see in so much of what he learned and saw, and the good-natured puzzlement, followed by willingness to speculate, with which he reacted. If the subject under discussion was not inherently amusing, then there was always a connection to some related subject that was. And if even that failed, then the language in which even serious subjects were discussed was itself a potential source of amusement and puzzlement and speculation: Why did we think some key word being used to express a thought, or to pose a question, had the connotation it did in English when a similar sounding word in another language connoted something entirely different - often different enough to make the comparison outright funny? Was there a connection between what someone had just said and a familiar phrase (familiar to Van, that is) in Norwegian? Or maybe Hindi? At first I couldn't tell whether he was asking questions to which he already knew the answer, perhaps to see if anyone else knew or perhaps simply to steer the conversation in a different direction. After some time, I became convinced that neither had crossed Van's mind. He simply found those connections interesting, or puzzling, and often amusing. And he liked to share those reactions, as they arose in him, with whoever was nearby.
The S-T vocabulary of steadfastness and stalwartness and sturdiness aside, Van Quine was plainly as loyal to the Society of Fellows, and as devoted to the Society's purpose, as anyone that body has ever known. During much of the period when Burt Dreben was the Society's chairman, Burt would regularly stand up at the annual dinner in May, to which all junior and senior fellows are invited, and report that the Society had again that year been the beneficiary of a generous gift from an anonymous donor. Burt would go on to say that he himself had no idea who the donor was, but if that person happened to be present at the dinner, he or she should know that the gift was much appreciated. Although I never had any concrete evidence to this effect, and I suppose I will never know the truth, I always assumed that the anonymous donor was Van.
In the entry that he wrote for the first (and to date the only) Society of Fellows directory, published in 1959, Van lamented his "all-too-hurried pursuit of the Ph.D." and went on to say, "By way of sequel I could have asked nothing better than a few serene years in which to sort out accumulated ideas and pursue their consequences, untrammeled by degree requirements or teaching duties; and three such years the Society of Fellows provided." Later on, when I knew him, he still seemed to be sorting out his extraordinary stock of accumulated ideas. And he remained ever grateful for what the Society had given him, and eager for others to have that same opportunity.
W. V. Quine: A Talk for the Celebration of Quine's Life
I miss Van enormously, both intellectually and as a friend. Beacon Hill will never be the same without him and Marj at 38 Chestnut Street. I first heard the name "Quine" as a child, from my father, who took logic with Van in 1950--I believe in this very room. My brother-in-law Arthur Dreben also took logic with Van as a Harvard undergraduate. I had the privilege of getting to know the Quine family over the last 8 years through my marriage to Burton Dreben. Van and Marj attended our wedding, where Van made an exquisite toast sharing in our happiness; Marj Quine introduced me to Margaret and Doug Quine. It's not always easy to have a formidable and reknowned intellectual for a father or a husband. Van was not gregarious, nor an especially effusive person; in some ways he was rather shy, despite his eminent sociability and his gifts as a conversationalist. But in looking back over the time I knew him, time which was not always easy for the family, two things strike me most about Van as a person: his strength of character and his capacity for friendship. And I especially admire the ways in which he passed these two character traits on to his children and to his closest students.
He was a tremendously warm and a tremendously loyal friend. He had memorized Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven", with its testament to abiding love, and in the year after Marj's death, which devastated him, he recited it in entirety over and over again. In the last years of his life, even as he found it more and more difficult to keep working, he kept fighting back, always curious, always wanting to learn more, always wanting to share his knowledge, always appreciative of those whom he cared about most. His warmth and generosity in conversation remained with him his whole life, and his fondness for his friends and family was often, I thought, beautifully expressed in his open joy at their visits and phone calls. He was thoughtful, and highly sensitive as a friend; he understood how difficult it is to lose a spouse, and was tremendously consoling to me after Burt's death, which after all was also a terrible loss for him. His fortitude in the face of his losses was a shining example to me. He knew how to give and how to receive kindness, from all sorts of very different people. With the help of his children, in his final years he and his wonderful housekeeper Sadi created a home it was always a pleasure to visit.
Van and Marj were among the most youthful and energetic people I have ever known, and the perspectives they had in their 70's, and Van's '80s and '90's, were often very wise. I remember one evening soon after Burt and I were married when we were invited to dine at 38 Chestnut Street along with Marjorie and Charles Parsons. There in the living room on Beacon Hill sat three generations of Edgar Pierce Professors of philosophy, each a Doktorvater of the next. As by far the youngest member of the group, I was at first a bit intimidated. But after serving the hors d'oeuvres, Marj turned to her four guests and said, "Well, now what have you kids been up to lately?" It was such a pleasure for me to be included along with Burt and Charles and Marjorie as one of the "kids". It gave me a whole new perspective on aging. Van and Marj remained young. They took the long view.
There was something magnificent about Van's friendship with Burt. Burt used to say that there had never been a longer working relationship between two individuals in the entire history of philosophy; they met in the spring of 1946, when Burt became Van's tutee, and for the next 53 years they talked. Van once told me, with an amused smile, about his first meeting with Burt. Burt approached him with a request for a tutorial on Locke and Leibniz. Van, puzzled, agreed. Soon, however, they were discussing Van's current work, and this never stopped. Morty White remembers entering the Bechtel room sometime in the late 1940's and seeing Van in the middle of the room, being circled by a short, wiry undergraduate, who was lecturing Van loudly and critically on Van's own philosophy. It was Burt. Nearly 50 years later I used to enjoy long walks with Van and Burt by the Charles or in Brookline by the Muddy River (which Van dubbed "the mighty Muddy"). Van was always pressing Burt to give him new problems to work on; he wanted to know what we thought were the most important outstanding problems in philosophy today. His appetite for learning was insatiable. Friends who visited him always knew how to cheer Van up: just bring up a new fact one had learned, however obscure, about the history of science, or geography, or etymology. Burt and I often had Van over to dinner, and more than once we spent an entire evening discussing a single word. One night it was the origins of the phrase "Welsh rarebit" I recall another evening when Van and my father came to dine. Van explained that the name "Floyd" is Welsh, and really the same name as "Lloyd", but with different alliteration into English from the original. Its pronunciation in Welsh requires the use of the left lateral, as in "Chslloyd". Van would not leave until he had demonstrated the proper pronunciation repeatedly and satisfied himself that my father and I could properly pronounce our own name.
There are many things Van and Burt taught me about logic and philosophy; I couldn't possibly begin to enumerate them all here. There was between them a shared intellectual attitude that went deep, and deeply affected me. Each could be very funny, and especially funny when making cutting remarks to one another about philosophical work they took to be slipshod or misguided. But each was willing to take a joke on himself when it let him express pleasure in having transcendend his own confusions. There was absolutely no room for vanity in their philosophical conversations. This was connected with the fact that they both hated the idea that philosophy could be practised by labelling positions ideologically, by taxonomy of different "isms". Burt was always explicit about the contempt he had for this way of doing philosophy. But it wasn't until late in Burt's life, after I'd spent a good bit of time talking with Van, and watching them talk to each other, that I realized how much of this attitude Burt had learned from Van. The notion that a philosopher's job is to defend one or another received view-realism or idealism or pragmatism; the idea that in philosophy the "isms" are what primarily matter, was anathema to both of them. This is easy to miss about Van's philosophy, for he often used certain "isms" to summarize his own point of view. Nevertheless, careful reading of his works reveals that he rests very little on these labels; they are shorthand for starting points he doesn't argue for, or helpful pointers, reader's orientation for setting up an attack he plans to mount on an oversimplified distinction. The "isms" are never the be-all and end-all of his work. One day when Burt and I were driving Van home from Cambridge, Van told Burt about a letter he had received from a German scholar. The scholar wanted to know which position in the philosophy of mathematics Van wished to defend. Van said, in disgust, "Burt, he asked me to pick from among that list of views...You know, what is it?...that disgraceful triad..." Of course Van had in mind the traditional tripartite division between logicism, formalism and intuitionism in the philosophy of mathematics, but he was so disgusted with the question that he couldn't even mutter the words. It was utterly disgraceful to Van that a philosopher should be asked to fit into a pre-existing classification of ideologies. Such exercises in pigeonholing were at best useful for deans and librarians, not for thinkers. (Van referred to all members of the upper academic echelon, no matter how exalted, as "the management".) The art of philosophy, as Van and Burt conceived it, requires judgment in how to draw distinctions that matter, just sharply enough to illuminate a problem, and never more sharply than that. Even when Van invokes naturalism or pragmatism, these notions carry no more weight than his surrounding philosophy gives them. They are not part of any procrustean ideological bed; he and Burt simply did not believe in philosophical movements. I take Van's love of the vernacular, of everyday language, to have been part and parcel of this attitude. It was intrinsic to his conception of free intellectual inquiry. He despised false stuffiness and intellectual posturing. He was opinionated, but he went to great lengths to avoid being doctrinaire in philosophy, and his nose for uncritical dogmatism was unerring. His prose is so memorable and striking, so easily lends itself to drive-by quotation, that it is terribly easy to lose sight of this, to think that one may pick and choose among doctrinal pieces of his thought. But Van is to the twentieth century something like what Hume was to the eighteenth. At its most serious, his words are often drenched in irony, as he jousts with received modes of thought, poking fun, mimicking and punning, trying to wean his readers away from traditional ways of formulating their questions. It is not easy to summarize the force of his whole perspective. Like Hume, Van's thought has both a negative, critical edge and at the same time a positive, constructive edge, and it is very difficult to keep both sides of his thought in mind at once. I think even he had trouble with this at times. Conceiving himself to be a scientific philosopher, Van fully expected that his positive ideas would be developed and emended as knowledge evolved. I spoke with him more than once about his great book Word and Object. With great honesty, and to my great surprise, he confessed that Word and Object was not one of his favorites among his works; he said that on the whole he much preferred his logic textbooks, for they gave him a much greater sense of satisfaction than his more speculative philosophical writings. He inscribed Burt's copy of Word and Object "For Burt, but for whom it would have been worse". Nevertheless, I believe that he wanted to have his philosophy remembered, in the right spirit, a spirit of serious fun. He was delighted when I told him that I would begin my seminar on his work last spring with Word and Object. "Good," he said, "begin in the middle". More than once last year he shared with me a sense of his genuine surprise and genuine gratification that students were still reading his books forty or even fifty years after he'd written them.
(c) Juliet Floyd, 2001 (reprinted here by wvquine.org with the author's permission)
Quine and Oxford
Oxford developed a huge affection for Quine; and Quine seemed to reciprocate. As his autobiography shows, during his visits there his stance on local customs was that of a sympathetic social anthropologist. He was, however, an anthropologist who was willing to join in local customs with some gusto. His legendary stamina for philosophical discussions was matched by his stamina for dinners, parties, even all-night balls. Over the years, he willingly crossed the line from participation to identification. On his second year-long visit, he wore the Merton College tie from the day after his arrival. He also showed up to observe student protests, muttering about communist infiltration. He enjoyed himself.
What Quine's autobiography does not show is something of which he may not have been fully aware, the transformation he effected in the way philosophy, and especially philosophy of language and logic, was done in Britain. The turning point is widely believed to be Quine's contributions in discussion at the seminar given by Grice and Strawson in the first term of Quine's visit in 1953. Quine describes the occasion modestly, as one in which the British spoke with formality and restraint. But Quine himself did indeed speak more freely. I was not around then, but I have reliable reports from many friends and former colleagues. On Quine's first visit to Oxford, there was a very widespread desire to get the better of him, thus proving the superiority of Oxford philosophy. This desire was strongly manifested in the joint seminar of Paul Grice and Peter Strawson. Their mood of triumph when one of them had read a paper designed to crush him quickly changed to chagrin when he won the argument that followed.
After these seminars, none of the more influential writers in Oxford thought that one could simply uncritically use the notions of meaning, the a priori, or even of reference without doing the very hard work required to earn the right to lean heavily on them in your philosophical work. More generally, it is inconceivable to me that the best work done in the Anglo-American tradition in the past half-century on reference, predication, identity and the propositional attitudes would have occurred without the depth and resourcefulness, as well as the wit and style, of Quine's contributions.
Another local effect in Oxford of Quine's visits and writings was to get logic taken far more seriously in philosophy. Even the most determinedly and avowedly atheoretical linguistic philosopher could hardly deny, on hearing the content of 'Quantifiers and Propositional Attitudes', that here were many fascinating and important distinctions that could scarcely even be articulated, let alone elucidated, without logical apparatus. It is hard, today, to believe that battles had to be fought on this matter, particularly as mathematical logic now flourishes in Oxford. Yet even in 1970, when as a second-year undergraduate there, I needed tuition in logic beyond the baby-stage, and Michael Dummett and Robin Gandy were unavailable, a desperate search was initiated to find someone, amongst more than a hundred philosophers, who could do it. (I was saved by my tutor discovering a young research fellow at St. John's College, my friend and now my colleague Kit Fine.) In Oxford's political structures, logic could develop properly and gain the necessary appointments only by being fully supported by the philosophers. I doubt that without Quine's influence on their thought, philosophers there would so quickly have come to see the point of knowing and using logical resources.
Quine's famous brief Memoir on Carnap describes Carnap's generosity in time and friendship to the young Quine when he visited the more senior philosopher in Europe for the first time. When he came to stand in the other term of the seniority relation, Quine was by everyone's account equally generous in his time and energy in the 1950s with younger, developing philosophers at Oxford. And then Quine did it yet again, in 1973-4, when I was in my early twenties. My graduate student contemporaries and I, and some of the younger faculty members, prepared dreadfully long lists of questions for Quine, on everything from predicate-functor logic, through the inscrutability of reference, to the indeterminacy of translation. I am not the one to speak to the quality of the questions, but I certainly do know their number was dreadful, because I still have the papers. Quine prepared answers in advance to all of them, often for occasions on which no time-limit was set for discussion of his responses. It was a tremendous experience, still vivid in my memory. Our subject is at its healthiest when there is such support and encouragement for its beginners in their formative years. We will have no problems on this score if we could all attain the same openness, accessibility and grace as was shown in Oxford by Quine.
(c) Christopher Peacocke, 2001 (reprinted here by wvquine.org with the author's permission)
Good afternoon. It is great to be back at Princeton University - my alma mater. The last talk I gave here was almost exactly 28 years ago when I presented my undergraduate thesis defense across the street.
As you know, Dad was not a religious man. Indeed, his thoughts on the subject were eloquently outlined in his essay What I Believe. This essay was one of 13 by a number of august thinkers including Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, James Thurber, and HG Wells collected by Mark Booth in a book by the same name. I guess Dad's idea of a functional temple was a temple of knowledge - such as we are gathered in today - which makes this a very fitting place to recognize him. There was, however, one occasion which he recorded, and several of us witnessed, that could have shaken a lesser man. I'll quote from his travel journal of our 6 month trip abroad in 1964 and 1965.
"Here is a factual account of miraculous interventions observed in the train bound from Venice to Milan. The six of us had a compartment and were eating bread and cheese that we had brought aboard. Liz was relaying a description she had lately heard of pathetic pilgrims to the Portuguese shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. I said, "Speaking of our Lady of Fatima puts me in mind of an amusing anecdote." Straight way there was a mess. Marge had given me a block of cheese by putting it on a paper napkin that was on my lap; the cheese tumbled through, and in trying to rescue it I spilled wine from my cup. I got things cleaned up and went doggedly on. "It puts me in mind of an amusing anecdote. 'Who dat heavy set lady ...'", and crash! came an overnight bag on to my head as the train started up. I rallied. 'Who dat heavy set lady I seen you wid last night?'" The train jerked and a raincoat came tumbling.
His attention to detail in the written word is, of course well known. You may be amused by the earliest example that I'm aware of. The OK Stamp News, which Dad authored and distributed at the age of 16, was printed on a home printing press by Jack Chamberlain - who later became an executive at Bendix Corporation. The first issue was printed with the erroneous title: Our Debutante; Dad recalled the issue and insisted that Jack reprint it. The next version came out: Our Debute; again Dad recalled it. Finally the third version was successful: Our Debut.
Without ever having a TV at home when we grew up, we learned stories from our parents. As a child, I loved Dad's frequent readings on summer evenings in Harvard. While Charles Dickens was too dense to read myself, Dad hooked us by reading them out loud - and the last chapter each night left us in suspense until the next evening.
Another of my favorites - recorded in a letter in Dad's files - is the story of the cigarette that saved Bertie's - that is Bertand Russell's - life. Russell flew to Norway in a seaplane for a meeting in 1948. While boarding, he insisted on sitting in the smoking section. He explained to the stewardess "If I cannot smoke, I shall die". At the end of the flight, the seaplane landed in a fjord, hit a submerged log, and flipped. Those in the rear smoking section, including the 76 year old Russell, survived by swimming to shore; all the non-smokers in front drowned.
Despite various reports in the British press about Dad playing jazz on his clarinet or his banjo, actually he played the piano and the mandolin. One mandolin met an unceremonious end when it spent the winter neatly wedged into its designated spot within the open 2 by 4 board frame of our house in Harvard. It was crushed when the house contracted in the cold. Its successor continued to be played for a number of years and indeed my son, Alexander, has exercised it recently. Dad's piano playing also had an interesting twist - he developed his own system. He picked out melodies by ear on the piano in the key of G-flat - as my sister Margaret pointed out when she knew enough music theory to recognize it. It was easiest for him to find his way around the piano on the black keys.
Of course Dad also loved to play with language. He filled notebooks with thoughts, one liners, and phrases which he wrote or which captured his attention. One instance, I fear, took advantage of my sister, Margaret. He captured the exchange as follows in his 1964 notebook:
I said to Margaret. "Eighty-Two, You know what I mean?'
I wonder whether people studying the indeterminacy of translation have considered this problem - that when statement is made in a non-native tongue, it creates a implied question - which does not exist in the native tongue.
He also loved to pull apart idioms - much as Gary Larson in The Far Side enjoyed pulling apart visual cliches. For instance, in his last notebook - which began in 1985, Dad wrote.
"I've been sick as a dog. Sick as a wet dog. Even sicker than some wet dogs. I've been as sick as a diseased dog. I've been diseased."
I must say that until I read this last weekend, it never occurred to me to question the logic of that familiar first expression. [page 13, 1985 notebook]
The beginning of that journal, incidentally, is annotated as follows:
It is amusing to see the carbon paper copies on the first dozen pages. These notebooks also served as repository for his sketches of people and places - some of which were reproduced in his autobiography, The Time of My Life, in 1985. Perhaps the one opportunity for a unique phrase that he missed was the title of this book - which has been used in very similar forms for autobiographies by many authors - including former First Lady Betty Ford. I'm told his close friend Burt Dreben captured the ideal title for the autobiography - Traveling Van. [1964 notebook, page 4]
In 1951, Henry Aiken, his wife, and my parents went to a nightspot in Greenwich Village where they heard Harry Belafonte sang a Calypso song which suggested a great book title:
Today that book is Dad's best seller on-line. Obviously, for those of you who know the rest of the song, much as he enjoyed the music, it is clear that he did NOT implement the song's recommended conclusion in his personal life.
As we grew up, there were events that provided glimpses into the importance of the work in Dad's office. I remember one summer at the age of 9 - before the age of photocopies, when manuscripts had to be painstakingly retyped or microfilmed to create a duplicate. A few days before the trip to Cambridge to microfilm, Dad kept his old briefcase containing the only copy of Word & Object on a hook by the door of our cabin at the lake. He said if there were a fire - this was the first object to get out of the house. Later when the book was finally published, I remember him saying the book had taken him 7 years to write. Clearly this was something important.
Speaking of writing, Dad created some legends in his time - including the typewriter with no question mark. The "unnecessary" characters had been replaced with mathematical symbols. That 1927 Remington is over there on the table. In recent years obtaining replacement ribbons became an increasing challenge; sometimes the old tattered one had to be re-inked instead. Next to it are two letters written in response to a request posted in the on-lineWVQ guest book by a total stranger. Dad typed a prose response and mailed it to me to relay on the original response. Two days later, Dad thought of a mathematical response and typed another letter. It was illuminating to see the question answered in two different ways.
If there are those among you who were tormented by his lack of a question mark (as well as exclamation mark); I've already asked how he coped. The exclamation mark could be created with an apostrophe / backspace / period and the question mark was 7 / backspace / period - but naturally neither was required in either letter.
Despite his many academic interests, Dad was also quite physically active. At the age of 89, he still could out - walk many of his younger colleagues and thought nothing of a stroll from Beacon Hill past Prudential Center and back. He did not however, believe in gratuitous exercise. He would not walk on a treadmill - he would explore the city. In recent summers my parents walked to Harvard center for the mail each day - about a 3 mile round trip (rural free delivery had not yet reached as far as 32 miles from here). Another favorite form of mental relaxation (which I found contagious), he called "mucking about". He would descend into the swamp behind the house with his hoe and carefully remove whatever leaves or sticks clogged the stream. Over 30 years, the nearly perfectly level hoe wide slot which ran the length of the swamp reached a yard depth in places - as well as providing an elegant object lesson in the ancient Egyptian technique of determining a level using standing water.
He did move beyond swamp water. He appreciated a drink of the good stuff - and for many years, those who tried to keep up with him did so at their own peril. While his parents were confirmed teetotalers, they kept a bottle of medicinal whiskey in the house in the event of an extreme emergency. In 1969, when we emptied out the ancestral house, the bottle was still full. It is probably just as well that they had conscientiously abstained - for Dad had consumed that whiskey during prohibition - and replaced it with tea which might have had unexpected effects four decades later.
While I'm not skilled in philosophy or mathematics, Dad and I worked out a great division of labor. I specialized in Biology, Computers, and Technology - and helped out with repairs. We both avoided spectator sports and the entertainment industry. He covered everything else.
Now because of his name he did have an advantage avoiding technology. When someone called asking for "Willard" or "Mr. Quinn" - we knew immediately they were strangers calling to sell something. There was no need to screen calls with caller ID or an answering machine.
In any case, the remarkable thing was that even in Biology, his perceptive questions about my college research rivaled those of the faculty. My interests in computers and Internet technologies occupy much of my time today. On July 4th, 1996, I decided that he should have a web site - and spent the day building him one. For his birthday 2 years later, I printed it out and presented him a laminated copy which he studied carefully. One New Year's Eve, we spent the entire evening pouring through a travel notebook to create the country by country summary of his travels which have been posted on-line ever since.
I do have to be careful about implying that he regarded computers as friends, in his written musings one quote that caught my eye was:
"Computers do slow things up, but it must be said for them that they create jobs for people who otherwise would be unemployable" [1985 notebook page 20]
That does cut a little close to home. It is also ironic from the co-author of the Quine-McCluskey theorem that has been instrumental in simplifying wiring diagrams and thus facilitating the development of computer technology. But even there he was consistent; Dad did the logic and McCluskey did the technology.
Understandably, then, since he died, we've been flooded with e-mail from around the world. For a while, there were hundreds of visitors a day and many of them left messages about him. People told stories of how they met, how he influenced them, and how he patiently worked with them. Two weeks ago, I received a letter from one of Dad's fans (as he called them) in China. He asked me if possible, could you tell me how much you are influenced by your father's philosophy. I suppose the Principles that I have learned were:
Dad's memory and knowledge were intimidating to most of us. It seemed that on almost any subject we chose to investigate, he already knew more than we did. It was therefore especially difficult for him when his memory started to fail. I found it touching to read on the second to last leaf of his final notebook an entry entitled:
I've taken you down this winding path of stories and quotes because I feel that the only way to describe such a varied person is to illustrate them from many facets and to paint an image for you to visualize the whole. In closing I'd like to play an aptly titled song introduced to him by my cousins - Dad's favorite rock and roll song by the Everly Brothers.
Philosophy of Language
Quine was my main dissertation adviser, although his advice always took the form of "Yes" or "No." "No, that does not work." "Yes, this chapter is OK." "No, Carnap has already done that."
My dissertation was in epistemology. But much of my work while I was a graduate student and immediately afterward was in linguistics. One summer, 1961 I think, I was hired to work on a project headed by Russell Kirsch at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, the "Picture Language Machine." The purpose was to devise a computer program that would analyze patent applications to decide whether they idea proposed was actually patentable. Part of the project was concerned with analyzing the pictures in the application. The part I worked on was to translate the part written in English into the sorts of logical analyses Quine had proposed in Word and Object. In the end, we didn't get very far with this project.
Quine of course was skeptical about the extent to which one could find the logical form of ordinary language. He thought of logic as like algebra and calculus, as providing an improved notation for saying things that could not easily be said in ordinary terms, not as a way of uncovering a form that was already there in ordinary language.
Nevertheless, he did write about "Logic as a Source of Syntactical Insights." And, linguists and philosophers of language have continued used Quine's own work as the basis for further investigation of ordinary language.
Of course, Quine is particularly associated with his challenge to the analytic-synthetic distinction in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (along with related arguments by White, Goodman, and Hempel). In the 1950s few philosophers agreed with this challenge. But as people replied to the challenge and their replies were seen to be inadequate, the tide turned. By the late 1960s philosophers tended to be nervous about relying on the analytic synthetic distinction.
As an empiricist, Quine was interested in the distinction between theory and observation and made the strikingly important point that this distinction has to be understood as a distinction between theoretical and observational sentences, not as a distinction between theoretical and observational predicates.
Quine had much to say about the distinction between mass and count terms. He also noted ways in which logical analysis of language might make good use of appeals to temporal and other parts of objects and to sums of parts, temporal and other.
He discussed how to distinguish ambiguity from generality, asking whether questions hard in the same sense in which chairs are hard, or whether numbers exist in the same sense in which people exist.
He stressed the importance of distinguishing use and mention of a term. He emphasized the distinction between the material conditional and material implication.
He made much of the distinction between predicates and singular terms referring to properties or kinds. He argued that we should not see a reference to properties just because there is talk using prediates.
He discussed the interpretation of "is" as a copula. He suggested that we can treat "is" plus a proper name as a predicate true of the named object: "is Socrates" = "Socratizes". He raised the question whether "is" ever means "is identical to". Quine thought yes, but the issue is still under active discussion. (Burge, Graff)
Noting the importance of variables in logic, Quine discussed how pronouns might sometimes play the role of variables and how definite descriptions might play the role of variables ("the former", "the latter", etc.)
He wrote about the scope of operators in ordinary language and how a word like "not" interacts with "any", "every", "some", "each," as in the distinction between "Jack does not like any student here" and "Jack does not like every student here."
He wrote a great deal about what he called referential opacity and transparency. He discussed apparent quantification into opaque contexts, for example, quantifying into the complements of verbs of propositional attitude or into modal statements. He noted connections with de re belief and essential properties.
He discussed how to interpret indefinite intentional objects, as in "Ernest is hunting lions." He suggested that philosophers of perception could avoid appeals to sense data by thinking of perception verbs as creating opaque contexts.
In these and other cases, Quine has been important for contemporary linguistic semantics and linguistically-aware philosophy of language.
Quine As Logician
If I may begin with a personal note, when I first came here thirty-five years ago, I enrolled in Professor Hempel's introductory problems-of-philosophy course, and by the end of my first semester would have become a convert to logical empiricism, except that I had heard rumors that someone named Willard Quinn or something like that had a serious criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction. Between semesters I got hold of and read "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". The scales fell from my eyes, and I have considered myself a Quinean ever since.
During the following semester I collected as many of Quine's books as I could lay my hands on - I even, though laid up in the infirmary when he visited campus to speak, managed to get his autograph on one of them - and I recall my great excitement upon learning from a friend one evening that two new volumes, a blue one and an orange one, nominally copyrighted the previous year, had just arrived that day at the U-store (which in those days carried books). I also recall my frustration the next morning when, arriving at the store, I found that, owing to an amount of snow that was by Ohio standards - for I, too, am a native of that great state - piddling, it was not going to open that day. I did, however, eventually get hold of the coveted volumes, and devoted the next couple of summers to studying the orange book and the related papers to which it referred.
I know of no better way to proceed in discussing Quine as logician than to revisit the orange book, Selected Logic Papers, dedicated to his son Douglas, (as the blue book, The Ways of Paradox, is dedicated to his daughter Margaret), since it includes papers in almost every area of logic in which Quine worked.
Leafing through it from back to front, I will pass over my personal favorite, "Variables Explained Away", which inaugurated a whole new branch of logic - predicate-functor logic - merely mentioning its troubling implication that if "to be is to be the value of a variable", then it would seem that being can be explained away! I will also pass over "Logic and the Empty Domain", which was the occasion of my own first contribution (if so it may be called) to logic, and my own first correspondence with Quine, which elicited a reply from him after a delay of some months explained by his being away in Equitorial Africa, an episode mentioned in his little autobiography at the beginning of the Schilpp volume.
We then come to several primarily pedagogical papers, containing new and more perspicuous proofs of "Church's Theorem on the Decision Problem" and of the completeness of "A Proof Procedure for Quantification Theory". Methods of Logic is the most perfect textbook at its level ever written, and these papers are in much the same vein. Unfortunately this side of Quine's work has been little recognized, but that is not really surprising, since in mathematics generally, and in mathematical logic in particular, insufficient value is placed on new proofs of old theorems.
It is rather more surprising that some of Quine's new theorems have also been under-noticed, and in particular his joint work with Church and Craig, related to a paper in the orange book I have skipped over, "Reduction to a Dyadic Predicate". These joint papers establish the undecidability of the logic of a single symmetric binary relation. Now the undecidability of the logic of a single binary relation is no surprise, given the basic results of metalogic, since we know that essentially the whole of mathematics can be expressed in any of several systems of axiomatic set theory, involving but a single binary relation, that of elementhood or membership. But of course that releation is far from being symmetric, and the Church-Craig-Quine result, still not as well known as it should be, comes as a genuine surprise.
Let me skip temporarily over the next papers in sequence to mention two contributions of Quine's to the theory of syntax that appear early in the volume, "Concatenation as a Basis for Arithmetic" and "Definition of Substitution". These, too, contain results that, like the one on the reduction to a symmetric dyadic predicate, ought to have been incorporated as standard topics into subsequent textbooks of intermediate-level logic, but that as yet have not been. The latter of them is clearly relevant to the notorious joint paper with Goodman on "Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism" - but let me not get off on that issue!
Returning to the back-to-front survey of the volume where I left off, something that may come as a surprise to philosophers is that, much as Einstein's most cited paper is not any of his epochal works on special or general relativity or on light quanta, but an early paper on viscosity, important for industrial applications, so similarly Quine's most cited paper is not "Two Dogmas" or "On What There Is", but "On a Method of Simplifying Truth Functions". Its sequel, "On Cores and Prime Implicants", also on "the simplification problem, dear to computer engineers", as Quine puts it, comes next in the orange book, along with other papers on Boolean functions.
Thereafter we come to the largest block of papers in the volume, all related to the largest body of Quine's work in logic, his studies in axiomatic set theory - including so-called "higher-order logic", which he was among to first to expose as "set theory in sheep's clothing". Quine's earliest work, nominally under Whitehead, was in this area. So also were what I believe to have been Quine's last technical contributions, made when he was well into his 80s. Unfortunately, he was too modest about these later contributions to allow his name to be listed among those of the authors of the appendix to David Lewis's Parts of Classes, thus depriving me among others of the honor of being a co-author of his.
In between his earliest and his latest work there were a dozen or more papers, half of which are collected in the first half of orange volume, as well as three books: A System of Logistic, Mathematical Logic, and Set Theory and Its Logic. While Quine's work in this area involves many lesser contributions, what is best remembered is his proposal of a new axiomatic system of set theory, NF, contrasting both with the Russell-Whitehead system PM, and the Zermelo-Frankel system ZFC.
It would be easy to dismiss the work on NF and related systems as a brilliant failure, since - despite the studies of Rosser, Wang, Specker, and later the great Jensen - NF never did get taken seriously as a rival to PM or ZFC, the latter of which is now the accepted system. At most, it might be said, Quine has bequeathed us a very difficult problem: to determine whether or not the system NF is consistent.
But such an assessment would be radically mistaken. Quine was unusual in the degree of attention he gave to comparative axiomatics, as opposed to the advocacy and elaboration of a single system, and from a philosophical point of view the failure of NF to find an actual following among mathematicians is immaterial. For philosophy what is important is the availability of multiple systems which could potentially do the same job, representing different ways of weaving the web of belief. It is surely in Quine's work on such matters that one must seek the origins of his thesis of the underdetermination of theory.
Likewise, his views on the untenability of the analytic / synthetic distinction are surely best understood against the background of what he calls the "vaporousness" of the question whether the different set theories he compares represent different views about the same things, sets, or views about different things, different kinds of sets or sets variously conceived, and against the background of Quine's work on different options in axiomatic set theory as to what is to be taken as an undefined primitive and what as defined, and as to how more complicated objects, beginning with ordered pairs, are to be "constructed out of" or "identified with" or "reduced to" sets.
It really is true that, as he says in Word and Object, for Quine the ordered pair was "a philosophical paradigm". Ultra-technical as they may seem, such papers in the orange book as "On Ordered Pairs and Relations" of 1945, or "Logic Based on Inclusion and Abstraction" of 1937, point the way towards "Two Dogmas". Thus the most important heir of Quine-qua-logician was Quine-qua-philosopher, and this makes us all - even the least technically-minded among us - heirs at one remove of that major twentieth-century logician, W. V. Quine.
-John P. Burgess, April, 2001
Remarks for the Memorial Celebration of the Life and Philosophy of W.V. Quine
Quine's New Job Description for Philosophers
There is a great deal to celebrate in the life and work of Van Quine. His writing had a profound effect on logic, the philosophy of logic, and logic pedagogy, on the philosophy of language, on epistemology, on the philosophy of science and on metaphysics. It seems safe to predict that historians of philosophy will generate a substantial library of books and articles analyzing and assessing Van's contribution to each of these areas. And while it is impossible to know which part of Quine's rich intellectual legacy historians will regard as the most important and the most enduring, it is my guess that it will not be any his arguments, nor will it be any specific doctrines. Rather, I think, Quine will be regarded as a central figure, indeed perhaps the central figure, in transforming the discipline of philosophy itself. Because of Quine, those who come after him can do philosophy and be philosophers in a new way. And that, I believe, will be the most enduring of Quine's many accomplishments.
To explain this sea change in the way philosophers (some philosophers) can and do practice their craft, it's useful to remind ourselves of some of the central views of the logical positivists - views that dominated philosophical discussion a half century ago, when Quine was a young man.
One of the main themes of positivism, which emerged in the politically and socially tumultuous period between the two World Wars, was that things had gone very wrong in many parts of the intellectual world. Many philosophers, psychologists, theologians and political theorists were talking nonsense, and far too often it was dangerous nonsense. To expose and undercut this nonsense the positivists proposed an account of meaningfulness: To be meaningful a sentence had to be analytic (or contradictory), like the sentences in math and logic, or verifiable by experience, like the sentences in well behaved empirical sciences such as physics and chemistry. Everything else was nonsense - "metaphysical nonsense" as undergraduates of my generation often said dismissively.
But there was an obvious embarrassment for philosophers who advocated this doctrine - it threatened to undermine their own livelihood. Since only a few philosophers proved theorems and fewer still did experiments or gathered empirical facts, how could they avoid the accusation that they themselves were talking nonsense?
The solution, for much of the English speaking philosophical world, was to locate legitimate philosophy squarely on the analytic side of the positivist dichotomy. Meaningful philosophy was analytic, and the principle job of philosophers was conceptual analysis.
Now, famously, Quine's critique of analyticity and sentence by sentence reductionism helped to demolish the verificationist account of meaningfulness. But unlike many other critics of verificationism, Quine also offered a new job description for philosophy - a new vision of the honest work that philosophers could do in a post-positivist world where the analytic / synthetic distinction (and thus analytic conceptual analysis) could no longer be taken seriously. Philosophy, Quine maintained, was continuous with the sciences. What philosophers could contribute to the work of the sciences was typically toward the more theoretical or conceptual end of the scientific spectrum. And philosophers, more often than their colleagues in the science departments, could afford the luxury of taking a broader view and reflecting on how theories in different disciplines fit together. But while the emphasis and the level of theoretical abstraction might distinguish this sort of philosophical work from the work typically produced by scientists, there was no difference in status between the sciences and this kind of philosophy; philosophy, done well, Quine insisted, just is science.
Some philosophers, I am quite sure, found this to be a threatening idea. For if philosophy is continuous with the more theoretical reaches of sciences, if there is nothing special and distinctive for philosophers to do, then philosophy as an autonomous discipline disappears. But others found this idea wonderfully liberating and exhilarating. And out of that sense of exhilaration a new way of being a philosopher has gradually emerged.
In looking at the sciences, philosophers in the Quinean tradition did not have to restrict themselves to analyzing concepts or evaluating arguments or working out the logic of confirmation. Rather, they could develop new concepts and new theories - empirical theories - and test these theories in just the way that scientists themselves did, by seeing how well they comported with the empirical facts that other researchers had reported.
During the last 25 years, this new, "naturalistic" philosophy has had a profound impact in many areas of philosophy including the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of language and linguistics and more recently the philosophy of biology. But no where has Quine's vision of philosophy made more of an impact than in the philosophy of psychology and the philosophy of mind. In that area people who took up Quine's call to integrate philosophy into the sciences - people like Jerry Fodor, Gil Harman, Dan Dennett and John Searle - have inspired a whole generation of younger philosophers whose work is so thoroughly interdisciplinary that they collaborate comfortably with colleagues in science departments and publish their work in science journals or in the new genre of "interdisciplinary" journals like Cognition, Mind and Language, and Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The existence of this work, and in some cases the existence of the journals that publish it, are an extraordinary testament to Quine's vision. Another indication of the success of Quine's new way of being a philosopher is the many flourishing centers of Cognitive Science, like the one that Ernie LePore so ably directs at Rutgers, in which philosophers play a central role.
Van Quine was a man with a deep respect for history and tradition, and were he to hear these comments he no doubt would insist that this new way of being a philosopher is actually a very old way that had simply been pushed out of the main stream by the positivists and the conceptual analysts (with a little help from the Kantians). Descartes, after all, was an important contributor to the scientific debates of his day. Berkeley made important contributions to what today would be called perceptual psychology, and William James was simultaneously one of America's greatest philosophers and one of most important psychologists of his day.
On my view there are some notable (and ironic) parallels between Quine and Descartes. Both of them played an important role in changing the way philosophy was done; both of them attempted to contribute to the sciences and - here is the irony - both of them bet on the wrong horse in the scientific sweepstakes of their day. Quine's contributions to psychology and psycholinguistics, in Word and Object and elsewhere, were very much embedded in the Behaviorist tradition, and that tradition, it has become increasingly clear, is not a productive one. In some distant possible world in which Quine would agree with what I have just said he would, no doubt, also remind us that betting on the wrong horse is always a risk in doing science. And that risk is one of the things that makes doing philosophy in Quine's way both challenging and exciting.
Quine as a Writer
My comments, so far, have been focused on Quine's influence on the practice of philosophy. But I would also like to add a few words on his influence as a writer of philosophy. For even those who disagree with his doctrines and his view of philosophy would agree that he was one of the greatest philosophical writers of the 20th century. His clear, graceful, carefully crafted prose, his passion for words and his extraordinarily inventive word play have been a model for countless philosophers and students of philosophy, myself included. Though none of us can bring it off with Quine's brilliance or his playful precision. How could one offer a better explanation of the distinction between de re and de dicto desires that to contrast a desire to own some particular sloop anchored in the harbor with a desire that would be fulfilled by "mere relief from slooplessness."
A Personal Note
Finally, with your permission, I would like to close on a more personal note. In his autobiography Quine describes himself as a man who is rather suspicious of the emotions and allows himself only a few. I did not know Van well enough to have any view about his emotional life. But I do know he was capable of extraordinary warmth and kindness, always (in my experience) accompanied by his precise and inventive eloquence. Let me illustrate with one brief example. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Christmas Eve of 1973, my wife, Jude, and I had our first child, our son Jonah. In due course we sent out birth announcements, including one to Quine who had gotten to know Jude at the end of the extraordinary Summer Institute that Gil Harman and Don Davidson ran at Irvine two and a half years earlier. Unbeknownst to us, Quine was in Oxford at the time, and the birth announcement must have been forwarded to him there. For a few weeks later a small package arrived in the mail. It contained a beautiful baby spoon crafted by an Oxford silversmith. Much more precious to us over the years was the note that accompanied the spoon. The brief message, I have long thought, captured both the sweetness of the man and his seemingly endless capacity for thinking of things in unexpected ways. It read:
"Warmest congratulations. If the blessed event occurred after 5:00 p.m. Ann Arbor time, it was already Christmas in Bethlehem."