W V Quine

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Philosopher who shone among thinkers of the English-speaking world by challenging some of their most deeply rooted assumptions

Professor W V Quine, who has died aged 92, was one of the foremost philosophers of the last half-century.

He made his name internationally in 1951 with an article, Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In it he challenged widely accepted principles of logical discussion. There was no point, Quine said, in trying to validate individual statements by checking each against our experience. New experiences modify our whole system of thought.

In this respect Quine's ideas had a parallel in the structuralism of a new generation of linguists and anthropologists. But Quine approached things from the direction of symbolic logic. His first love had been Bertrand Russell, who with A N Whitehead had published Principia Mathematica (1910-13). Quine took to mathematical logic like a duck to water.

To his mind, just as possible worlds can be constructed in mathematics so they could as easily be knitted from logical statements about the real world. Add or modify an axiom in a mathematical system and the whole structure falls into a new shape. So why not see what happens if one removes the inviolability of axioms in the logical treatment of reality?

Even the principle of non-contradiction was not inviolate. This axiom, that something cannot be true and not true at the same time, had been preserved as a necessary tool even by logical positivists. Quine was demanding they should see how things stood if it were jettisoned. Quine's contemporaries had been used to regarding statements as true by virtue of one of two criteria. Either they conformed empirically to the evidence of the senses (synthetic statements). Or they were true by virtue of the terms in which they were defined (analytic statements). Quine refused to allow a distinction between the two types.

Another fascination for Quine, who prided himself on his ability to speak several languages, was the difficulty of translating terms from one language into another and proving at the same time that the translation meant the same thing. He was taken by the idea of words having significance only as a kind of behavioural response within a whole culture.

Later he modified the requirement of taking into account a whole system of thought. He advocated instead a kind of moderate holism, to limit consideration of a system to one interlinked section. He also applied a sort of Ockham's Razor -- "the maxim of minimum mutilation" -- to the amount of fiddling with a system that a logician is justified in undertaking .

One effect of Quine's sheaf of subversive challenges was to make metaphysics -- a system of abstract, universally valid thought -- impossible. That had been pretty much the case for logical positivists of the English-speaking world in any case. But for Quine a system of thought must be scientific in the same way as the empirical sciences; it was just too bad if as a result behaviourism had to be applied to the way we reason in order to see how it functions. But at least Quine insisted on a rigorous methodology in logic itself. His thought has been of great use not least to those who strongly disagree with him.

Willard van Orman Quine was born the son of an engineer in Akron, Ohio, on June 25 1908, the second of two brothers. His first enthusiasm was for maps and philately; later he sold his stamp collection in order to finance his education. But he retained a fascination with collecting and making patterns of the particular.

In 1926 Quine enrolled at Oberlin College, near Cleveland, Ohio, to read mathematics. Two books given to him by his mother, Principia Mathematica and a volume by the 19th-century philologist W W Skeat, pointed the way to his future. In 1930 he began to study philosophy under Whitehead at Harvard. Two years later, he won a travelling scholarship which took him to Vienna, Warsaw and Prague, where he worked with Rudolf Carnap, a practising logical positivist. Back in Harvard in 1933, he became a junior fellow, and in 1936 began his long teaching career at the university.

He found that he preferred the mathematical to the philosophical aspects of his subject, "because of it being less a matter of opinion", and acknowledged Harvard's generosity in allowing him to concentrate on his special interests. Quine's Harvard career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served in the Naval Reserve. Part of his work was to decipher codes being used by German submarines.

When the article Two Dogmas of Empiricism was republished in the book From a Logical Point of View in 1953, Quine was in Oxford for a year as a visiting professor. Oxford philosophy at the time was hospitable to logical positivism; A J Ayer's popularising Language, Truth and Logic had come out in 1936. Quine not only had first-hand experience of the Vienna School and of muscular discussions with Carnap in Prague and Harvard, but he had picked up logical positivism and shaken it just as it had seemed to have begun to run out of excitements. Quine had now become a star in the English-speaking world and he remained one for the rest of his days.

His other books include A System of Logistic (1934), Elementary Logic (1941), The Philosophy of Logic (1970), The Roots of Reference (1974) and Pursuit of Truth (1990). His autobiography, Time of My Life (1985), gave nothing away; but Quiddities (1985) caught the spirit of the man, with his partiality for word-play and his deadpan humour. He always tapped out his books on a 1927 Remington.

Quine loved travelling. For his 90th birthday his family took him to North Dakota, the only state in the union which he had not visited. He set foot in 118 different countries, and saw several others from aeroplanes or (as he put it) "from the side". He married first, in 1930 (dissolved 1947) Naomi Clayton; they had two daughters. He married secondly, in 1948, Marjorie Boynton, who had worked with him on breaking German codes; they had a son and a daughter.

(Filed: 01/01/2001) © Telegraph Group Limited.