I recently heard that the American philosopher Quine died.
Could you summarize his views and relate his position to other philosophers of the 20th century?
This is a particularly tricky question. The reason I say that is because it seems the more I read of
Quine the more of an enigma he seems to become. Additionally Quine's bibliography is vast and
broad. I shall do my best to cover Quine's most prominent areas of thought.
Willard Van Orman Quine (1908) — known as Van to his colleagues and friends — most certainly
was one of, if not the most influential analytic philosophers of the 20th century. His interests were in
the philosophies of science, mind, language, epistemology, metaphysics, mathematics and logic. And
although these areas within philosophy appear quite diverse, Quine approached them with a rare
'across the board' consistency. The glue, if you like, that underpins his ideas is the thesis of
naturalism, that is Quine rejects foundationalism — everything we know, Quine argues, we know via
sense experience and there is no 'first philosophy' upon which science or anything else is founded. It
is from science itself that we will know what there is in the world and how we know what there is.
These are the primary questions Quine (and philosophy in general) is interested in, ontology and
epistemology respectively. "What ever evidence there is for science is sensory evidence ... and all
inculcation of meanings and words must rest ultimately on sensory evidence" (Quine, 'Epistemology
The obvious choice of philosophers to contrast Quine with and also perhaps of most influence to
Quine I expect would be Rudolf Carnap. In 1940 Quine, Tarski, Russell and Carnap were all at
Harvard, an exciting time in philosophy. Carnap had written his Introduction to Semanticsand during
a presentation Quine (and Tarksi) famously took issue with Carnap in regard to the concept of
'analyticity'. This was a significant turning point for Quine which led him to write his perhaps most well
read and controversial paper 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' (1951).
In 'Two Dogmas' Quine rejected the two foundation stones of positivist empiricism, that is, the kind of
empiricism that Carnap, Popper, Schlick, Reichenbach and many other philosophers of science in the
first half of the 20th century took almost for granted. The two dogmas were the analytic/synthetic
distinction and reductionism. Briefly, Kant proposed a distinction between truths of an analytic nature,
these are truths by definition, or truths known a priori(without experience) for example, 'no bachelor
is married'. Synthetic truths by contrast were said to be contingent or accidental, or in philosophical
terms a posteriori(empirical). Quine's example in 'Two Dogmas' of what we would usually consider a
synthetic statement is 'Brutus killed Caesar'. This statement we know is true. However, if the world
had been different in certain ways it may have turned out to be false. It is a matter of empirical fact
that Brutus killed Caesar.
The reasons Quine offers for rejecting this distinction are not easy to grasp especially for a beginner
to philosophy (and even to myself who has been studying for some years). Perhaps the easiest way
to explain is to let Quine do the talking, he says:
Thus one is tempted to suppose in general the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a
linguistic component and a factual component. Given this supposition, it next seems reasonable that
in some statements the factual component should be null; and these are analytic statements. ... That
there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical
article of faith.
'Two Dogmas of Empiricism', 1951
The reductionism Quine rejects is the idea that the individual sentences that form a scientific theory
can be confirmed or disconfirmed (or "falsified" à la Karl Popper). This was also extremely
influential stuff from Quine. It led on to what is known as the Quine-Duhem thesis, the idea that
scientific statements 'face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but as a corporate body'.
What Quine started here was the philosophical doctrine known as Holism. The popular thought prior
to Quine's holism was that induction could be justified through empirical facts, that is the regularities
of the world (and universe) make up what we know as the laws of nature. Quine argued however that
scientific experiment (particularly in physics) was so theory-laden that it was impossible to isolate
which part of them belonged to the theory and which to the empirical 'facts'.
There is a lot more to be said about Quine's holism as well as his naturalism but Quine's writings are
so vast and broad, he has written at least 20 books and something like a couple of hundred published
journal articles. Since we are doing a brief and readable summary of Quine there is one more large
and controversial area of Quine that needs to be mentioned.
Tarski was perhaps first philosopher to suggest that semantic consistency couldn't exist for a
universal language. What does this mean? Basically the impossibility of a consistency of meaning
across languages. Quine took on board Tarski's ideas and developed what is known as the
indeterminacy of translation thesis. This idea is developed in chapter two of Quine's famous book
Word and Object.What Quine does here is argue that we attribute meaning "holophrastically" — for
example, we might argue that to understand what 'dog' means you need to understand stuff about
'fur', 'barks', 'chases cats', etc. Put simply, I think the idea Quine is getting at with indeterminacy of
translation is that there are great number of central beliefs about most every "concept" with no
general rules as to how we decide which belief content fits into a particular contextual situation. We
would be hard pushed to disambiguate between what a word literally means and what its contextual
implications are in any systematic way. Quine seems to want to say that translation is not determined
empirically or by the totality of facts nor by the totality of truths about nature. To quote Quine, "There
is no fact of the matter".
Cameron, thank you for your question, it certainly challenged me, Quine's ideas are difficult at the
best of times but for anyone who loves philosophy Quine is an interesting, enigmatic and provocative
character. I genuinely felt sad at his passing on Christmas day last year. If you'd like to read some
Quine, Word and Objectis perhaps his 'opus', From a Logical Point of Viewis a great collection of
essays which includes 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism'. if you are a beginner to philosophy The Web of
Beliefis a great easier read covering a variety of topics and touching on some classic "Quinian"