W V Quine

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Philosopher whose revolutionary ideas challenged the accepted way we look at ourselves and our universe

Willard Van Orman Quine, who has died aged 92, was arguably the greatest American philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. He revolutionised developments in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language and philosophy of maths.

In 1951, his article Two Dogmas Of Empiricism caused a furore in the philosophical world. It challenged received notions of knowledge, meaning and truth, and exceeded even the extreme empiricism of logical positivism by arguing that logic and maths, like factual statements, are open to revision in the light of experience.

Experience, added Quine, does not confirm or falsify individual statements, but instead confronts an interlocking theory-laden system of statements, which has to be adjusted as a whole. And there cannot be any universally-held system of beliefs, he argued in his major work Word And Object (1960), since the way any theory describes the world is relative to that theory's linguistic background.

Quine revised and clarified such theses in more than 20 books and numerous articles, all written in a distinctive crisp, witty style. He taught at Harvard from 1936 -- becoming a full professor in 1948 -- until his retirement in 1978, and lectured all over the world.

The youngest son of an engineer, Quine was born in "a modest frame house" in Akron, Ohio. He chose scientific courses at his local high school. An ardent stamp collector and list-maker, he was fascinated by etymology, and obsessed with maps and faraway places. His interest in philosophy began when, aged nine, he became worried by the absurdity of heaven and hell, and only stopped being worried about the dangerousness of his doubts when he realised that they might be justified.

Late in high school his brother, already a student at Oberlin College, gave him William James's Pragmatism, which he read compulsively, along with Swami Vivekananda's Raja Yoga. But he always said it was reading Eureka, a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, when aged 14, that first filled him with a desire to understand the universe.

When he went to Oberlin, a fellow poker-player told him about a philosopher of mathematics called Bertrand Russell, and he decided to major in maths, with philosophy of mathematics as a supplement. Quine's years at Oberlin were idyllic. His rooming house, full of kindred spirits, was "an ideal setting in which to wax articulate". His "appetite for cosmic understanding" was sharpened by reading Russell.

In the summer of 1928 he and two friends crossed the continent, jumping on to moving boxcars, and spending nights on benches or in prisons. He also found time, somewhat reluctantly, to marry a fellow-student.

Quine was awarded a scholarship to Harvard, where he did a PhD in only two years. During his first year, Bertrand Russell gave a lecture, and afterwards Alfred Whitehead (who had co-written Principia Mathematica with him) introduced Russell to the young philosopher, leading to an exchange of books and letters. The following year, Quine visited Europe on a travelling fellowship, and met members of the Vienna Circle (the anti-metaphysical Logical Positivists), their British disciple AJ Ayer, and the young Kurt Gödel, who had just produced his renowned incompleteness theorem.

The next three months were "intellectually the most rewarding" of his life -- six weeks in Warsaw with Alfred Tarski and other innovatory Polish logicians, and six in Prague, where, taken up by the prime logical positivist Rudolf Carnap, Quine discovered what it was to be "intellectually fired by a living teacher rather than by a dead book". They conducted endless discussions together in German, and Quine was lent the typescript of the book Carnap was writing, handed to him sheaf by sheaf from the typewriter as Carnap's wife Ina typed it. He became Carnap's "ardent disciple", and although they were to become increasingly combative philosophically, they remained firm friends.

Quine returned to a junior fellowship at Harvard and to the publication of his thesis -- his first book, A System Of Logistics. During the 1930s he developed his ideas in many articles, mainly on logic and set theory (most distinctively propounded in New Foundations Of Mathematics, 1937, and Mathematical Logic, 1940), and on existence and ontology. On What There Is (1948) contained his famous typically succinct formula: "To be is to be the value of a variable."

When Carnap visited Harvard in 1940, Quine and Tarski (also visiting) challenged him on the view crucial to logical positivism that, while most of what we say is verified or falsified by experience, there are some statements (in logic and mathematics) that are necessarily true come what may, by virtue of the meaning of their terms. (This was the only way the positivists could cater for the fact that the latter sort of statements are so obviously incapable of being tested by experience.)

In his seminal Two Dogmas Of Empiricism, however, Quine declared it "folly to seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold contingently on experience, and analytic statements, which hold come what may". By denying the analytic-synthetic distinction, Quine made even the "truths" of logic and mathematics empirical. No longer the central planks around which our beliefs are arrayed, logical and mathematical statements can (in principle) be modified, even abandoned, in the light of experience, as factual statements are.

This was heresy in all philosophical camps. What experience, it might be asked, could lead anyone remotely to query the apparently adamantine logical law of excluded middle (that every proposition is necessarily either true or not true, and each thing either has or lacks any given property)?

Even that law might, said Quine, be revisable as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics, and so might the principle of causality. "Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system [of our beliefs]." For the "totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most causal matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a manmade fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges", so that "a conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field".

But, said Quine, "no particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field", contrary to what empiricists had dogmatically assumed. Locke and Hume had held that the basic ingredients of our knowledge are sensory impressions (or the terms for them). For Bentham and later Frege, and the logical positivists, it was the individual statement, not the individual term, that was to be matched against experience.

Quine argued that "our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body". Since any observation sentence is theory-laden, the "unit of empirical significance is the whole of science".

Later, Quine would argue for a more "moderate holism" in which not the whole of science, but sizeable chunks of it, were the units for empirical revision. And he urged the "maxim of minimum mutilation" in revising. But he always declared that philosophy and science were in the same boat, a boat which, as in Neurath's simile, we are forced to rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. For "there is no external vantage point, no first philosophy" by which to remodel it from outside -- it is never docked and crewless on dry land.

Two Dogmas Of Empiricism established his reputation universally. It was published with other articles in From A Logical Point Of View (the title being suggested by a calypso number of Harry Belafonte's) in 1953, while Quine was Eastman professor at Oxford.

Word And Object (1960) attacked prevailing philosophical theories which see meanings as objects in a museum of ideas, with verbal expressions as their arbitrary, interchangeable labels. Quine agreed with Wittgenstein and with the pragmatist John Dewey that language is a form of behaviour. He introduced the concept of an utterance's "stimulus meaning" -- the set of stimulations which would prompt a person to assent to that utterance.

But, he said, whereas assent and dissent are ascertainable in kindred or culturally similar languages, there is no guarantee that just because the speaker of a radically foreign language ("Jungle") always says "Gavagai" when a rabbit runs past, he means "Rabbit" or "Lo, a rabbit". The word could equally well mean "undetached rabbit-part" or "rabbithood", and a Jungle-speaker's assent or dissent in the presence of assorted stimulations proves inconclusive.

The usual checks against other parts of a language are impossible, since they involve the use of parts of speech, identity concepts, and "if thens", which are also all up for grabs when translating Jungle into English. In such cases of "radical translation", different translators, working independently on Jungle, could thus produce quite divergent manuals of translation, each compatible with the totality of the native-speakers' verbal behaviour, but incompatible with one another. And furthermore, Quine argued, the reason for this is not that we can never know which of these translations is correct.

The "indeterminacy of translation" he had diagnosed also involves "the inscrutability of reference". Since there is no language-independent meaning of "Gavagai" or any other expression, there is no determinate classification of what exists, only ontological relativity: what a theory says exists is relative to the manual of translation it uses.

Quine's prolific output and obsession with travelling continued up to and beyond his retirement. He preferred to learn his audience's German, Spanish, Portuguese or whatever, and lecture in that rather than English. He was distinguished by his openness and generosity to students, acknowledging the "close collaboration" on Word and Object of Donald Davidson, then a Harvard classics student, later to be a renowned philosopher.

Quine is often considered a behaviourist (someone who sees all mental life as nothing more than observable behaviour). Certainly he claimed that behaviourism is essential in linguistics, but he eventually adopted Davidson's anomalous monism, which holds that, although there is nothing over and above the physical, our mental states cannot neatly be identified with our brain states, or subsumed under physical laws.

As for the immemorial problem of how we can know about the world around us, his "naturalised epistemology" relocated the problem as that of how we learn to talk about things. If there is any dualistic split, it is not that between mind and body, but between physical objects, including humans, and the concepts that refer to them.

"I have been accused of denying consciousness," Quine said, "but I am not conscious of having done so." Indicatively, however, his 1985 autobiography, The Time Of My Life, is little more than a travel itinerary, so devoid of emotion and internality as almost to suggest not only that he had neither, but hardly even knew what they might be.

Quine had many friends, a very happy second marriage, loved Dixieland jazz and played the banjo in jazz groups. He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, and a son and daughter from his second, and several grandchildren.

[Willard Van Orman Quine, philosopher, born June 25 1908; died December 25 2000 ]

Jane O'Grady, Saturday December 30, 2000 © Guardian Newspapers Limited