Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908--2000

07 Mar 2001 10:43

American logician and philosopher; perhaps the most eminent analytical philosopher of the late 20th century; a student of Whitehead, and largely in the spirit of the Logical Positivists, with a good dose of pragmatism mixed in; teacher of Daniel Dennett (whom I hope to see become the most eminent analytical philosopher of the early 21st century).

Quine's logical armamentarium was unrivalled, and he deployed it on behalf of some of the most peculiar notions one could hope to run across, such as the infamous Quine-Duhem thesis (that no theory can ever be refuted). This tendency led Dennett to coin the verb "to quine", meaning "to deny a distinction others feel to be obvious." Quite unfairly, he supplemented his logical artillery with rhetorical sappers, in the form of one of the most elegant prose styles ever to flow from the pen of an American author; he could be a character in Jack Vance. He calls to mind excruciatingly formal suppers from ages now past when the fish-knife was de rigueur and where a scandalized hush would greet any lapse of punctillio. Or rather, one of the exceedingly refined diners at those suppers, for whom the proper use of the fish-knife is automatic, second nature and almost first; for one of the qualities of Quine's writing is that he makes everything, not least his minute clarity and precision, seem easy, obvious and spontaneous. (Try doing this talking about anything in the world, never mind the concept of "ordered pair".)

For all that, it's astonishing how long it can take me to finish one of his books. --- My brother would be very upset if I neglected to mention that Quine went to Oberlin.

See also: Evolutionary Epistemology, Scientific Method