Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Quine, Willard Van Orman (1908–2000)
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Quine, Willard Van Orman (1908–2000)

Quine, Willard Van Orman (1908–2000)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052444-0793

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W. V. O. Quine was born on 25 June 1908 in Akron, Ohio, the second of two children of Cloyd Robert Quine and Harriet Ellis Van Orman Quine. He graduated with a BA summa cum laude in mathematics from Oberlin College in 1930. Quine completed his MA in 1931 and PhD in 1932 at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on “The Logic of Sequences: A Generalization of Principia Mathematica,” under the direction of Alfred North Whitehead . He was then awarded a Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, which took him to Vienna, Warsaw, and Prague.

Quine and his first wife Naomi Clayton, whom he married in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1930, departed for Vienna in August, where Quine attended Moritz Schlick’s lectures and meetings of Schlick’s discussion group, the logical-postivist Vienna Circle; he there met A. J. Ayer, Kurt Gödel , Karl Menger, Hans Hahn, and Hans Reichenbach . In Warsaw he worked with Alfred Tarski . In 1931, while in Prague attending lectures by Rudolph Carnap , Quine learned from Whitehead that he had been elected to the first class of the Society of Fellows at Harvard; as a junior fellow, for three years he received financial support without any duties. His first child, Elizabeth, was born on 28 August 1935, and a second daughter, Norma, was born on 25 May 1937.

At the end of his term as a junior fellow in 1936 Quine started a three-year instructorship in philosophy at Harvard. In 1941 Quine was promoted to associate professor. Quine entered the US Navy in October 1942 as a lieutenant, working in radio intelligence in Washington, D.C., deciphering codes used by German submarines. He was discharged in late 1945 with the rank of lieutenant commander and returned to Harvard in February 1946. He and his wife were divorced in 1947; on 2 September 1948 he married Marjorie Boynton. Also, in 1948 he was promoted to full professor of philosophy and appointed a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows. His son, Douglas, was born on 20 December 1950. Quine’s fourth and last child, Margaret, was born on 1 February 1954.

In 1956 Quine was appointed Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy, and held that position until retiring in 1978. He received numerous honorary degrees, including University of Oxford (1953), Oberlin College, (1955), Ohio State University (1957), Washington University, (1966), University of Chicago (1967), Temple University (1970), and University of Cambridge (1978). In 1996 Quine received the Kyoto Prize in Creative Arts and Moral Sciences. His wife Marjorie died on 14 April 1998. Quine died on 25 December 2000 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Quine was one of the most important and influential philosophers of the twentieth century. He will be most remembered as an American philosopher and logician who worked within the analytic tradition of empiricism. He reacted against some of its underlying assumptions, developed a naturalistic conception of philosophy, and formulated an extremely complex position in the style of traditional systematic philosophy. His literary output was prodigious in such areas as mathematical logic, set theory, the philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of logic.

His early contributions were to logic. Quine’s first two books, A System of Logistic (1934) and Mathematical Logic (1940), both aimed to improve on the symbolic and mathematical logic developed in Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. From May to September 1942, he was a visiting professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and adapted his lectures for the Portuguese book O sentido da nova lógica (1944). His Methods of Logic was published in 1950. A revised edition of Mathematical Logic appeared in 1951. He then published From a Logical Point of View (1953), a collection of nine “logico-philosophical” essays, all but one of which were previously published. The title was recommended by his Harvard colleague Henry D. Aiken , after they had heard Harry Belafonte perform the calypso song “From a Logical Point of View” in a Greenwich Village nightclub. Two essays in the volume, “On What There Is” and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” are classics of analytic philosophy.

Quine became internationally known in 1951 with his article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” This essay, perhaps the most important and influential essay ever written in analytic philosophy, challenges widely accepted principles of logical discussion. It is not possible, he claimed, to validate individual statements by checking each against our experiences. Often labeled as the “Duhem–Quine” Thesis, this view holds that new experiences can only test an entire system of thought, which led to Quine’s rejection of the two dogmas of empiricism: the analytic–synthetic distinction and reductionism. By the former doctrine, Quine means the view that declarative sentences separate into analytic sentences – those that are true or false solely in virtue of their meanings – and synthetic sentences – those that are true or false in virtue of both their meanings together with how the world is. “All bachelors are married” is an example of a true analytic sentence; “All bachelors are nervous” is an example of a false synthetic sentence. Reductionism, as Quine intended it, is the view that for each synthetic sentence there is associated with it exclusive confirming and Disconfirming experiential conditions. The logical positivists endorsed both of these doctrines, along with the semantic thesis of verificationism, according to which a sentence is cognitively meaningful just in case it is either verifiable or analytic.

The positivists hoped to defend empiricism by showing that every meaningful synthetic sentence either has an experiential content or reduces to sentences with an experiential content. Sentences of logic and of mathematics, however, are analytic: they are necessary solely on the basis of their meanings. Quine denied both of these dogmas without, however, rejecting empiricism. A major part of his research program was devoted to elaborating and defending empiricism detached from these two dogmas.

In 1960 Quine published his most famous and influential book Word and Object. This book was at the center of discussion in the philosophical world of analytic metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language for many years after being published, and continues to generate new and animated discussion. In the justly famous chapter 2 of Word and Object, Quine imagines a field linguist trying to translate the language of a faraway tribe; he dubs this exercise “radical translation.” While a rabbit runs by, one native utters “Gavagai.” In like situations, the linguistic uses “Lo, a rabbit” and so, the field linguist posits that “Gavagai” translates (means the same as) “Lo, a rabbit.” If she learns that the native assents to, and dissents from, “Gavagai” in just those circumstances where she assents to, and dissents from, “Rabbit?”, then this evidence supports her translation of one expression for the other.

Most sentences are, of course, not so directly connected to sensory stimuli. Translating these less sensory (or observational) sentences requires what Quine calls “analytical hypotheses.” One of Quine’s more controversial doctrines is that different analytical hypotheses while yielding distinct translations might nevertheless both equally well facilitate communication. The doctrine can be put even more strongly: there is no (possible) evidence that can distinguish among these diverse analytical hypotheses. This doctrine is Quine’s so-called “indeterminacy of translation” – the view that no single correct translation exists. No one analytical hypothesis can be singled out as the correct one as long as all can be fit together in effective communication.

In Word and Object, Quine also discusses language acquisition and the genesis of reference, defending the view that before being proficient with a language a child must first learn a cluster of interrelated grammatical particles and constructions, such as pronouns, numerals, the is of identity, and so on.

In 1963 Quine published Set Theory and Its Logic. Three years later he published two collections, Selected Logic Papers and The Ways of Paradox, and Other Essays. Another collection, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, appeared in 1969. In 1970 he and J. S. Ullian coauthored The Web of Belief, a brief tract on scientific method, and Quine published Philosophy of Logic. Quine’s dissatisfaction with his account of language learning in Word and Object later produced The Roots of Reference (1974), in which he speculates about how children acquire their referential apparatus.

While Quine’s early interests were in the foundations of logic and mathematics, later in his career, however, his research turned to epistemological questions about how we acquire scientific knowledge and why it works as well as it does for us. He tagged his position “naturalized epistemology.” Naturalism rejects the view that scientific knowledge is justified on extra-scientific grounds. Quine set as an ideal the replacement of philosophy by science. Naturalized epistemology becomes the scientific investigation of the acquisition of science.

Quine defends naturalism on the basis of two other doctrines that he embraced, namely, “holism” and “unregenerate realism.” According to the doctrine of holism (the denial of reductionism), not every single sentence of a scientific theory is associated with a unique set of confirming and disconfirming experiences; therefore, you cannot separate sentences into those that are true in virtue of how the world is, and into those that are true solely by virtue of their meanings alone. By an unregenerate realism, Quine means that scientific knowledge is continuous with commonsense knowledge, and so, we cannot raise global doubts about such knowledge. An unregenerate realist sees that the skeptical challenge confronting science must arise from within science; and so, the reasons for rejecting science are just further scientific claims.

Empiricism, for Quine, is the view that both the scientific evidence and the meanings of words ultimately must rest upon our senses. He is not an introspective empiricist in the manner of John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, or the early Carnap. Rather, Quine’s empiricism is externalized. Since Quine holds that scientific theories are statable as distinct sets of sentences, and that the evidence for, and the meanings of, these distinct sets of sentences are ultimately sensory, he naturally infers that the evidential basis for science is best evaluated from the standpoint of language acquisition. To say that the evidential basis for science is best evaluated from the standpoint of language acquisition Quine means that in learning the meaning of any given sentence, what one must learn is exactly what evidence there is for the truth of that sentence. According to Quine, language acquisition should be studied behavioristically. The advantage of his empiricism over the earlier introspective one is that language learning, on Quine’s account, becomes as a matter of course both public and amenable to investigation by intersubjective techniques.

Quine’s answers to the central epistemological questions – how is scientific knowledge acquired and why does it work so well? – begins with his philosophical naturalism. This naturalism is the doctrine that the best theories of science and, in particular, of learning are those according to which children are endowed with a capacity to acknowledge and collect recurrent salient sensory stimuli. Because children are also innately disposed to babble and to imitate the speech of adults, and also because they are amenable to behavioral conditioning, and behavioral reinforcement largely from adults very soon has them responding to concomitant nonverbal stimulus conditions by producing the appropriate strings of linguistic sounds. The rabbit races by and the child thereupon utters the words “There goes a rabbit” while at the same time pointing out a rabbit, and thereby elicits the child’s assent. The observation sentences of a language can be acquired by the simple method of ostension: when a rabbit is present, a parent notices the rabbit and then notices that the child sees it as well. While pointing at the rabbit, the parent then elicits “Rabbit.” The child imitates the parent’s utterance with her own utterance of “Rabbit.” The parent then positively reinforces the child’s utterance. Occasionally, the child employs the expression “Rabbit” even when no rabbit is present; inasmuch as the parent negatively reinforces these utterances, the child tends not to use “Rabbit” when rabbits are not present. The psychological mechanism that lies behind these instances of language acquisition – namely, inductive generalization over observed similarities – is the familiar and simple one of conditioning.

Once a child has mastered several observation sentences that are directly pitched to concurrent nonverbal stimuli, then she can learn the “nonobservation sentences” that are not tied to concurrent nonverbal stimuli. These sentences obviously form the bulk of the entire language. In order to master a nonobservation sentence a child must learn how to segment whatever observation sentences she has already learned into short recurrent patterns – that is, she must learn how to segment such sentences into words. So, as it were, the unstructured string “Theregoesarabbit” becomes the segmented sentence “There goes a rabbit.” Eventually, according to Quine, the child obtains the referential apparatus – the is of identity, quantification, and so on – and thereby, the child is able to learn much of the common-sense knowledge about the world that surrounds her. Talk of ordinary objects, as Quine likes to say, is close at hand, and then science is not far behind. Theoretical sentences inherit whatever empirical content they carry via the diverse connections that they carry with the observation sentences of the language. In only a matter of time, then, the child goes beyond behavioristic conditioning and induction in order to acquire language that surpasses observation sentences.

Because the theoretical sentences receive their empirical content from their diverse connections with observation sentences, if any given observation which is implied by an hypothesis together with relevant background assumptions fails to materialize, there will be plenty of distinct alterations that can explain away the incongruity. According to Quine, there is no recipe for deciding what to do in such cases.

By Quine’s holistic account of natural knowledge, the apparent necessity of logic and mathematics is explained by their centrality to one’s web of belief and not by their being analytic (true by definition). Their centrality is demonstrated by the great degree of disruption to one’s web of belief that would ensue if some logical or mathematical truth were given up as false.

Quine calls the desideratum that the least possible modification is to be done to one’s web of belief the “maxim of minimum mutilation.” Still, sometimes the drastic step of denying a general principle, or even a logical or mathematical “law,” will have to be taken. He cites the example of how quantum mechanics can be accommodated to one’s web of belief if one is prepared to relinquish the law of excluded middle – this is the law that sates that every proposition is either true or false.

Quine argues for his empiricism naturalistically: he argues for it, that is, on the grounds of natural science: the only evidence for science, ultimately, is the activation of our nerve endings. So, on Quine’s view, natural science and empiricism dovetail to support one another. According to natural science, empiricism is true, and according to, natural science is justified. According to Quine this does not mean that science is infallible; rather, its current reliance on a physicalist ontology and on an empiricist epistemology might very well some day slip. For all we know, it might be the case that one day science comes to countenance within its ontology disembodied spirits in addition to the physical objects and it might also be the case that one day science admits extrasensory as well as sensory perception into the theory of knowledge.

During the 1980s Quine published Theories and Things (1981), The Time of My Life: An Autobiography (1985), and Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary (1987). In 1990 he published Pursuit of Truth, in which he clarifies various views on meaning, reference, and knowledge. His last book was From Stimulus to Science (1995). Prior to the publication of this book, Quine had disagreed with the logical positivists, in particular, with Carnap, about whether applied mathematics had any empirical content. Carnap held the view that mathematics lacks any empirical content even though it is necessarily true; Quine had held that applied mathematics has empirical content and that it is only contingently true. According to Quine, mathematics acquires whatever empirical content it has by virtue of being associated with a collection of distinct sentences which themselves carry empirical content. For example, “5 + 7 = 12” acquires whatever empirical content it has by being connected to other statements that have empirical content. The sentence seems necessary because of its deep centrality in our overall conceptual scheme and its distant remoteness from our sensory experience. In From Stimulus to Science, Quine finally came to agree with Carnap that mathematics lacks empirical content altogether.

In August 1999, at the World Congress of Philosophy in Boston, references to Quine’s philosophy were commonplace. Participants from as far away as Novosibirsk, Beijing, and Bombay, from all over Eastern and Western Europe, from the Middle East and Africa, from South and Central America were completely comfortable discussing, for example, the indeterminacy of translation, the inscrutability of reference, the underdetermination of theory, ontological relativity, radical translation, and naturalized epistemology; all are originally Quine’s terms. What was most striking was that each time a Quinean thesis was mentioned, the speaker just assumed everyone present would understand what was being discussed. It is hard to imagine a greater testament to the substance and durability of a philosopher’s achievements. Quine’s work has become part of the philosophical canon, and it is here to stay.


A System of Logistic (Cambridge, Mass., 1934).

Mathematical Logic (New York, 1940; 2nd edn, Cambridge, Mass., 1951).

Elementary Logic (Boston, 1941; 2nd edn, New York, 1965).

O sentido da nova lógica (São Paulo, Brazil, 1944).

Methods of Logic (New York, 1950; 2nd edn 1959; 3rd edn 1972; 4th edn, Cambridge, Mass., 1982).

From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, Mass., 1953; 2nd edn 1961).

Word and Object (Cambridge, Mass., 1960).

Set Theory and Its Logic (Cambridge, Mass., 1963; 2nd edn 1969).

The Ways of Paradox, and Other Essays (New York, 1966; 2nd edn, Cambridge, Mass., 1976).

Selected Logic Papers (New York, 1966; 2nd edn, Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, 1969).

The Web of Belief , with J. S. Ullian (New York, 1970; 2nd edn 1978).

Philosophy of Logic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970; 2nd edn, Cambridge, Mass., 1986).

The Roots of Reference (La Salle, Ill., 1974).

Theories and Things (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

The Time of My Life: An Autobiography (Cambridge, Mass., 1985).

Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, Mass., 1987).

Pursuit of Truth (Cambridge, Mass., 1990; 2nd edn 1992).

From Stimulus to Science (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

Other Relevant Works

Quine’s papers are at Harvard University .

Dear Carnap, Dear Van: The Quine–Carnap Correspondence and Related Work , ed. Richard Creath (Berkeley, Cal., 1990).

Quintessence: Basic Readings from the Philosophy of W. V. Quine , ed. Roger F. Gibson, Jr. (Cambridge, Mass., 2004).

Further Reading

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Barrett, B., and Roger F. Gibson, Jr., eds. Perspectives on Quine (Oxford, 1990).

Davidson, Donald, and Jaakko Hintikka, eds. Words and Objections: Essays on the Work of W. V. Quine , 2nd edn (Dordrecht, 1975).

Dilman, Ilham. Quine on Ontology, Necessity, and Experience: A Philosophical Critique (Albany, N.Y., 1984).

Føllesdal, Dagfinn, ed. Philosophy of Quine , 5 vols (New York, 2000–2001).

Gibson, Roger. Enlightened Empiricism: An Examination of W. V. Quine’s Theory of Knowledge (Gainesville, Fla., 1988).

Gibson, Roger, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Quine (Cambridge, UK, 2004).

Gochet, Paul. Ascent to Truth: A Critical Examination of Quine’s Philosophy (Munich: Philosophia, 1986).

Hahn, E., and Paul A. Schilpp, eds. The Philosophy of W. V. Quine (La Salle, Ill., 1986; 2nd edn 1998). Contains Quine’s autobiography and bibliography.

Harding, G., ed. Can Theories be Refuted? Essays on the Duhem–Quine Thesis (Dordrecht, 1976).

Hookway, Christopher. Quine: Language, Experience, and Reality (Stanford, Cal., 1988).

Kirk, Robert. Translation Determined (Oxford, 1986).

Lauener, Henri. Willard Van Orman Quine (Munich, Germany, 1982).

Leonardi, Paolo, and Mario Santambrogio, eds. On Quine: New Essays (Cambridge, UK, 1995).

Nelson, Hankinson, and Jack Nelson. On Quine (Belmont, Cal., 2000).

Orenstein, Alex. W. V. Quine (Princeton, N.J., 2002).

Orenstein, Alex, and Petr Kotatko, eds. Knowledge, Language, and Logic: Questions for Quine (Dordrecht, 2000).

Romanos, D. Quine and Analytic Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1983).

Swoyer, Chris, and Robert W. Shahan, eds. Essays on the Philosophy of W. V. Quine (Norman, Okla., 1978).