Van Orman Quine was born in Akron, Ohio. He studied mathematics and philosophy
at Oberlin College and gained his doctorate at Harvard with a thesis on 'The
Logic of Sequences', one of his supervisors being Whitehead. He spent some time studying mathematical
logic in Vienna, Prague (where he met Carnap), and Warsaw before returning to
teach at Harvard in 1934. He was appointed full professor and Senior Fellow
there in 1948. He was Visiting
Professor at Oxford in 1953-4 and Wolfson Lecturer in 1973-4.
PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE AND LOGIC
 On matters of existence and reality Quine
argues that only those
entities should be admitted for which strong and appropriate criteria can be
given [see Ontology sec. 2]. In the case of theoretical terms of language
and logic he tends
therefore to try to explain intensional ideas (sense, meaning, propositions,
identity, synonymy, analyticity, and the like) in terms of extensional ones
(for example, reference and truth) [a]. Indeed his tendency is to dismiss such
intensional notions altogether in so far as he considers any importation of
them into our theories as leading to circularity and obscurity. It is in the light of this attitude that we
can understand (1) his treatment of the analytic-synthetic distinction, and (2)
what he calls 'regimentation' of our language.
distinction. Quine calls this "the
first dogma of empiricism" [see 'Two dogmas
of empiricism']. Traditionally (at least
since Frege) a distinction has been made between logically necessary and
logically contingent statements. The
former are ('broadly') analytic, the latter synthetic. But this class of 'broadly' analytic statements can be
subdivided into (a)
logical truths and (b) 'narrowly' analytic statements these latter being always
true by virtue of substitution on the basis of definitions, which in turn
depend on synonymy. Quine rejects this
notion of narrow analyticity [b]. Consider these
examples: (a) No unmarried man is
married; (b) No bachelor is married. The first is a logical truth and remains
so whatever we may substitute for 'married' the logical particles ('no',
'is') being unchanged. The second is not
a logical truth but can be made into one by the substitution of a synonymous
term (say, 'unmarried man') for bachelor'. But then how are we to understand the intensional concept of synonymy?
We cannot appeal to definitions, for (with the exception of stipulative and
nominal definitions) definition presupposes synonymy. Nor can we appeal to the
idea of inter-substitution without a change of truth-value in all contexts,
because to say the truth of 'It is
necessary that all bachelors are bachelors' is unchanged by the substitution of
'unmarried man' is to reason in a circle; 'necessary' here means 'analytic'.
Indeed, underlying Quine's arguments here is a wider consideration: his dislike
of what he calls the 'referential opacity' of modal contexts and quantification
into opaque contexts (examples of modal terms are 'necessary' and 'possible').
This can be illustrated by his argument in 'Reference and Modality'. The substitution of the number of planets,
(in the true statement 'The number of planets = 9') for '9' in the true
statement '9 is necessarily greater than 7' results in a false statement 'The
number of planets is necessarily greater than 7'. Likewise the formal rendering of '9 is necessarily greater than 7' as '(∃x)(x is necessarily greater than 7)' makes no sense unless we
suppose objects to possess properties essentially (de re necessity as against de dicto necessity) a position the
nominalist Quine finds unacceptable. Indeed, he regarded modal logic in general as being pseudo-logic [c].
He does nevertheless allow a minimal sense to synonymy and
analyticity as defined in terms of observable sensory stimuli (behaviour and
dispositions). [See Word and Object.] Inter-subjective stimulus-synonymy is sameness of stimulus meaning for
a given speaker; while a sentence is stimulus-analytic if he would assent to it
after every stimulation [d]. A socially stimulus-analytic sentence is then
one which is stimulus-analytic for
nearly every speaker of the language, if not all. That there are these minimal allowable senses
of the terms is assumed in Quine's discussion of radical translation. By this he means the translation of the
language of a previously unknown and isolated tribe. This would have to start, he says, by
considering sentences (rather than individual words) which relate directly to
stimulus conditions. To explain this he
distinguishes between occasion sentences ('It hurts', 'His face is dirty') and
standing sentences (for example, 'Each year crocuses come out'). To assert the former we require stimuli each
time we observe the relevant subject. But in the case of the latter, once we have given our assent (having
looked at the crocuses) we do not need to observe again. Now suppose we go to this community whose
language we do not understand and observe the circumstances in which a native
says Gavagai in the presence of a rabbit. To know whether he means rabbit, rabbithood, a particular segment of the
rabbit, and so on, we need to frame 'analytical hypotheses'. But
because there can be more than one set of such hypotheses that fit the native's
speech dispositions (that is, to respond to the relevant stimuli) have no way
of determining which is the right one. This is consistent with his general thesis that reference is indeterminate in the sense that the
facts of our linguistic behaviour can be mapped in a variety of ways. (And this is one reason why senses cannot be
admitted; for they fix references without regard to circumstances contrary to
the flexibility of our linguistic behaviour) [e]. Thus Quine posits his indeterminacy of translation thesis, from which he draws the conclusions (1)
that any statement can be
regarded as true independently of empirical observation provided
appropriate adjustments are made elsewhere in the conceptual scheme to which
the statement belongs; and (2) that therefore the traditional distinction between analytic and
synthetic statements cannot be sustained [f]. Conversely, for Quine, it is also
the case that identity statements, for example, 'Hesperus is Phosphorus'
or 'Cicero is Tully', while true are not necessary truths, on the grounds that the
discoveries of these identities are empirical and that therefore the statements
are contingent [g].
Regimentation of language ['On what there is']. If
identity conditions stated in intensional terms are unclear or inadequate, as
Quine claims, then how are we to deal with abstract entities? His solution is to eliminate them from our
discourse. He not only replaces all proper names by definite descriptions, but also goes on to eliminate all other singular terms
(pronouns, demonstratives, and the like), replacing them by logical devices
such as quantifiers, variables, and identity [h]. Thus 'Socrates' in 'Socrates was
Greek' becomes 'The x which socratizes'; and 'Socrates was Greek' turns into
'There is just one x which socratizes, and whatever socratizes was Greek'. In logical symbolism: G(ιx)Fx) = df. (∃x)(Fx &(y)(Fy → y = x) &Gx) (where 'F'
stands for 'socratizes') and 'G' stands for 'Greek'. This regimentation and reconstruction
of natural language from within (essentially to 'improve' it), through the
application of the techniques of formal logic [i], has
important implications for Quine's ontology and his theory of knowledge.
 According to Quine, "to be is to be the
value of a variable" ['On what there is']. By this he meant that as a consequence of
regimentation and the eliminability of abstract entities the question of what
actually exists in the world becomes the question what satisfies the quantified
variables. It is these, he says,
which carry 'ontic commitment'. Furthermore we can
choose how far to go with elimination according to the things that need to be
done in philosophy. In his early work his philosophy tended to be
characterized by a preference for concrete, physical objects over 'abstract'
entities as 'unactualized possibilities'. We can do without abstract objects if their jobs can be performed
without obscurity by, say, sense-data, physical objects, and classes. (Likewise
to explain human action we can, if we wish, eliminate references to 'purposes'
or 'intentions'; while the resolution of conditional statements into statements
about dispositions also enables us to do without modal operators. Dispositional statements are then to be
understood in terms of statements about the physical objects to which the
dispositions are attributable.) Nevertheless he finds room for mathematical
'entities'; and [from 'Two dogmas of empiricism' onwards] he shows increasing tolerance of abstract entities
in general if they can be seen to have a useful role to play [a]. The ideas required by science, for example, are regarded as real as any
physical entity. And he eventually came
to reject his earlier acceptance of phenomenalistic conceptual schemes.
Regimentation, together with Quine's views on the indeterminacy
of translation, leads further to his concept of ontological
relativity. If there are
different sets of analytical hypotheses to account for the matching of any one
language with another, it must follow that there can be different theories and conceptual schemes
consistent with the empirical evidence in a given context [b]. We cannot therefore say that the 'real'
world will be represented correctly by one particular conceptual scheme.
Indeed, to compare different schemes presupposes a theoretical background which
itself may be but one of many, alternatives.
Quine's ontology is thus hierarchical and allows what he calls
'semantic ascent'. By this means the
move away from talk about putative objects or ideas to talk about the very
language we use for the purpose. As
philosophers we may well
start out front everyday or 'ordinary' language, but we can revise and
restructure it, dispensing with certain concepts to suit our explanatory needs;
and we can thereby move 'up' through the hierarchy of languages [c] from
the 'everyday' way of looking at things, through natural sciences, to
mathematics and logic, and finally ontology depending on how much generality
and abstraction we are prepared to allow.
THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
 A second 'dogma' of empiricism rejected
by Quine is the reductionist view espoused by some logical positivists that
meaningful statements can be translated into logical constructs out of terms
which refer to immediate sensory experience, and which are taken to constitute
verification of synthetic statements. Indeed the second dogma, he thinks, is basically identical to the
first. The idea that any given true statement in isolation
consists of a linguistic component and an extra-linguistic factual component is
nonsense. (Analytic statements are
limiting cases which have no factual component and are confirmed
vacuously.) Our statements about the
world can be confirmed or invalidated only 'holistically, as a "corporate body" [a]. As he
The totality of
our knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history
to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and
logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges ['Two dogmas of empiricism'].
For Quine epistemology
is to be naturalized, as a consequence of which many traditional
philosophical issues may appeal to scientific facts and empirical explanations. There is thus no clear distinction between knowledge, science, and
philosophy. At all levels of the semantic ascent what we can be said to know must
depend on what entities we have chosen to admit into our conceptual
schemes. Philosophy is simply more
general [b]. Nevertheless, although he
thinks of physical objects not as defined in terms of experience but as
"irreducible posits" comparable epistemologically to the gods of Homer, he
remains essentially an empirical physicalist. He regards the conceptual scheme of 'science' (in its widest sense) as a
tool for making predictions on the basis of past experience, and the
postulation of physical objects rather sense-data as a basis for successfully
achieving a coherent and systematic structure out of our experience. There is thus a strongly pragmatic flavour
about his epistemology.
Quine was probably one of the most important
American philosophers of the twentieth century. Initially influenced by Carnap's logical positivism he worked out over
many years a comprehensive physicalist and pragmatic philosophy which combines
vision with great analytical power. Its
most notable features include a sustained attempt to eliminate intensional
terms in favour of extensional terms. This can be seen in particular in his rejection of the
analytic-synthetic distinction. His
dislike of 'referential opacity' led him also to attack efforts to formalize
modal terms, which he saw as requiring acceptance of de re essentialism. Quine made radical use of Russell's logical
techniques to achieve 'regimentation' of ordinary language; and he regarded
quantified variables as carrying ontological commitment'. In his later work he advocated an appeal to
socially observable stimuli as the basis of his physicalism and account of
meaning. And in his holistic ontology,
implicit in a modifiable hierarchical 'semantic ascent', he made no clear
distinction between science and philosophy.
As might be expected, criticism of Quine's work comes primarily
from 'linguistic' philosophers (whether of the 'informal' or 'systematic'
varieties). Formal objections have been
made of the viability of claims to eliminate linguistic terms and of his
alleged obscuring of the distinction between formal and informal logic. Many critics would say that Quine's attack on
the analytic-synthetic distinction, powerful though it may be, has failed; and
that intensional terms have a legitimate function in everyday discourse; no
circularity is involved if they are accepted as interdependent. It is said also that he exaggerates the
difficulties of intertranslatability; sufficient clarity can be achieved in
normal discourse and ambiguities avoided. Indeed it is questionable whether Quine's concerns about this issue are
consistent with his appeal to, in effect, a common pool of socially observable
stimuli and with his attribution to language of an informational role. Another serious objection is perhaps that it
is arbitrary and presumptious to suppose that ontology is governable by what
one chooses to eliminate by logical techniques. Moreover, Quine himself seems to equivocate about his belief in the
existence of abstract entities. Do they
'really' exist? Or is it just a matter
of ontic commitment determined by what is 'useful'?
Quine: 'On what there is' (1948); 'Two dogmas of empiricism' (1950); 'Reference and modality' (1953 originating
from earlier essays) [These, and other, essays are reprinted in From a Logical Point of View (1953)]; Word and Object (1960); The Roots of Reference (1973).
G. Kemp, Quine: A Guide for the
P. Gochet, Ascent to Truth: A Critical Examination of Quine's Philosophy.
C. Hookway, Quine.
Orenstein, W. Quine
Collections of Essays
D. Davidson and J.
Hintikka (eds), Words and
Objections: Essays on the Work of W. V.
R. Gibson (ed.), The
Cambridge Companion to Quine.
P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of W. V. Quine.