WITTGENSTEIN MADE EASY: Do you know what modern philosophy does?


We have no idea: We'll call it a brush with greatness.

In the street-fighting fall of 1967, there we sat, though leaving perhaps about ten minutes early, taking a course in Deductive Logic from Willard Van Orman Quine.

By all accounts, Quine was a giant in his field. (Also, we've never heard anyone say that he wasn't a good, decent person.)

Back in 1999, a survey of philosophy professors ranked Quine's 1960 book, Word and Object, the sixth most important philosophy text of the twentieth century.  

Ten years later, Quine topped even that. In a somewhat similar survey, he was named the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries. This leads to a type of puzzle:

In a survey of philosophy specialists, Quine, who died in December 2000, was rated the fifth most important philosopher in the past two hundred years. But very few people in today's wider world have ever heard his name, and even fewer would have any idea what he said, did, demonstrated, proved, thought about or propounded.

Indeed, very few people could tell you much about any of the philosophers, or philosophy texts, which rose to the top in those two surveys. Very few people have any idea what this academic discipline is really all about.

What's modern (academic) philosophy about? Again, we'll offer a guess:

Very few non-specialists would have any real idea. This strikes us as a somewhat noteworthy state of affairs—and it leads us to further questions:

Does modern academic philosophy possess any social utility? Whatever the answer might be, what are these modern academics actually working on?

What is modern academic philosophy about? What are its possible accomplishments? What re its concerns? 

As we sit here typing today, we ourselves have no real idea. In the case of Professor Quine, we decided to review the basics of his (highly distinguished) career—and when we turned to the leading authority on that topic, this is what we found:

Quine was a teacher of logic and set theory. Quine was famous for his position that first order logic is the only kind worthy of the name, and developed his own system of mathematics and set theory, known as New Foundations. In philosophy of mathematics, he and his Harvard colleague Hilary Putnam developed the Quine–Putnam indispensability argument, an argument for the reality of mathematical entities [11]. However, he was the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not conceptual analysis, but continuous with science; the abstract branch of the empirical sciences. This led to his famous quip that "philosophy of science is philosophy enough" [12]. He led a "systematic attempt to understand science from within the resources of science itself" [13] and developed an influential naturalized epistemology that tried to provide "an improved scientific explanation of how we have developed elaborate scientific theories on the basis of meager sensory input" [13]. He also advocated ontological relativity in science, known as the Duhem–Quine thesis.

His major writings include the papers "On What There Is" (1948), which elucidated Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions and contains Quine's famous dictum of ontological commitment, "To be is to be the value of a variable," and "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951) which attacked the traditional analytic-synthetic distinction and reductionism, undermining the then-popular logical positivism, advocating instead a form of semantic holism. They also include the books The Web of Belief, which advocates a kind of coherentism, and Word and Object (1960), which further developed these positions and introduced Quine's famous indeterminacy of translation thesis, advocating a behaviorist theory of meaning.

A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries...

That overview starts with a statement which will likely sound familiar to the non-specialist:

"Quine was a teacher of logic," it says. That sounds like a subject with which the typical non-specialist will be familiar—but the illusion of familiarity is likely to end right there.

Quine was also a "teacher of set theory," we're told. Few non-specialists will feel that they know what that designation means. Beyond that, we're soon introduced to an array of "famous" statements and findings which very few non-specialists are likely to understand.

We're told that Quine developed "his own system of mathematics and set theory," a system which has its own name. We're told that he and Professor Putnam "developed the Quine–Putnam indispensability argument." It was "an argument for the reality of mathematical entities," whatever that might be taken to mean. 

We're told that Quine "developed an influential naturalized epistemology." Also, he "advocated ontological relativity in science, known as the Duhem–Quine thesis."

He elucidated Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions, offering a "famous dictum of ontological commitment" as he did. He advocated a form of semantic holism, undermining the more popular logical positivism.

In a way which seems almost Onionesque, we're also told that he "advocated a kind of coherentism"—a term which sounds like it might belong in somebody's famous quip.  He further developed his advocacy of coherentism in Word and Object, the book which introduced his famous "indeterminacy of translation thesis."

That stance was unveiled in Word and Object. According to one survey of specialists, it was the sixth most important philosophy book of the 20th century.

The average "educated person" will surely feel that he knows what "logic" is. That said, such people will likely have little idea what any of these other formulations mean, and the notion that Quine advocated a version of  something called "coherentism" may sound like something drawn directly from a college humor text.

What the heck is coherentism? Skillfully, we checked. 

We're not real sure we should have. After a muddy attempt at an overview, we were handed this:


As a theory of truth, coherentism restricts true sentences to those that cohere with some specified set of sentences. Someone's belief is true if and only if it is coherent with all or most of his or her other (true) beliefs. The terminology of coherence is then said to correlate with truth via some concept of what qualifies all truth, such as absoluteness or universalism. These further terms become the qualifiers of what is meant by a truth statement, and the truth-statements then decide what is meant by a true belief. Usually, coherence is taken to imply something stronger than mere consistency. Statements that are comprehensive and meet the requirements of Occam's razor are usually to be preferred.

As an illustration of the principle, if people lived in a virtual reality universe, they could see birds in the trees that aren't really there. Not only are the birds not really there, but the trees aren't really there either. The people may or may not know that the bird and the tree are there, but in either case there is a coherence between the virtual world and the real one, expressed in terms of true beliefs within available experience. Coherence is a way of explicating truth values while circumventing beliefs that might be false in any way. More traditional critics from the correspondence theory of truth have said that it cannot have contents and proofs at the same time, unless the contents are infinite, or unless the contents somehow exist in the form of proof. Such a form of 'existing proof' might seem ridiculous, but coherentists tend to think it is non-problematic. It therefore falls into a group of theories that are sometimes deemed excessively generalistic, what Gabor Forrai calls 'blob realism'.

Intriguing! As a theory of truth, coherentism restricts true sentences to those that cohere with some specified set of sentences. 

By way of contrast, more traditional critics from the correspondence theory of truth have said that it cannot have contents and proofs at the same time, unless the contents are infinite, or unless the contents somehow exist in the form of proof!  So it went as the leading authority unspooled these philosophical concepts!

Each word in that passage is part of the English language. We're not sure that that can be said of the passage as a whole.

None of this has made it easier for us to answer the questions we've posed today. In closing for the day, we will mention this:

Within our gruesome national discourse, we've long had a crying daily need for help with our daily logic. Professor Quine was an undisputed giant in his field—but was his field connected in any way to our daily needs?

Failed logic is found wherever you look as our failing nation slides toward the sea. Have the giants of this field ever noticed this small, minor problem?

Tomorrow: The interests of those he advised


  1. "Each word in that passage is part of the English language. We're not sure that that can be said of the passage as a whole."

    May we suggest an explanation, dear Bob?

    To advance their useless careers, egghead idiots need to produce publications; several publications every year. And so this is what they do: they publish meaningless word-salads. A whole bunch of them.

    See how simple it is, dear Bob?

    1. Meaningless word-salads....you're occasionally good for a laugh, bud.

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  2. "Within our gruesome national discourse, we've long had a crying daily need for help with our daily logic."

    Chomsky and others have already proven that we can never expect clarity or logic from our corporate-owned discourse, created to distract the people from investigating the illegitimacy of corporate domination of our lives. Destroying coherence and spreading trivia, confusion, and ignorance is vital to maintaining their illegitimate power. Why does Somerby remain so obtuse on this vital fact?

    1. >created to distract

      Or could it be that human fallibility simply plays into their hands, and they can simply do nothing? We create our own terrible discourse.

    2. Here we see a perfect example of the results of corporate-media brainwashing: The irrational belief in the powerful as powerless is a major propaganda theme. Millions of people believe this nonsense that excuses the continuation of their illegitimate dominance.

    3. Speaking of Chomsky: ‘Chomsky was attracted to Harvard in part because the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine was based there. Both Quine and a visiting philosopher, J. L. Austin of the University of Oxford, strongly influenced Chomsky’

      Maybe that should cause you to reevaluate your disdain for philosophy just a bit, Gloucon.

    4. Gloucon, what I wrote is that those in power can simply do nothing ~in regards to our broken national discourse~ and human behavior plays into their hands. I did not state they were powerless. Interpreting it that way is quite a leap.

  3. It has taken several decades for Mr Somerby to realize that professional philosophers celebrate and reward those philosophers who are impenetrable. As I said yesterday, I look forward to Mr Somerby's discovery that poets celebrate those of their professions whom no one reads. He might then advise us of his shocking discovery that architects celebrate and reward those who design ugly buildings.

    1. Quick, mmeo. Name a philosopher who isn’t ‘impenetrable.’ Or a poet that everyone reads. Is there massive reading of Shakespeare outside of English classrooms?

    2. Well people occasionally quote Shakespeare in everyday life. He at least provided these phrases which can often convey a lot of information, symbolism and complexity in a short time.

      Whereas I have never heard anyone say "your denoting phrase falls outside of Bertrand Russell's three groups outlined in his Theory of Descriptions"! to provide an extreme example.

      I'm not sure how anything useful could ever come out of that theory. Perhaps in AI programming?

  4. ‘Do you know what modern philosophy does?’

    Somerby apparently thinks that ‘modern’ philosophy has somehow changed compared to ‘old’ philosophy. Actually, philosophy hasn’t changed at all. It is Somerby who changed. For whatever reason, he decided to major in it. Surely after the first year he should have been able to see either that he was suffering from some sort of misconception about philosophy, or he should have seen he didn’t care for it. And yet, he stuck it out for three more years and has spent the following fifty years trashing it.

    His two contentions about philosophy are: 1) philosophers don’t write clearly, or worse still, their writings (and hence their thinking) are meaningless 2) for some reason, he places an unwarranted, unrealistic burden on philosophers above all other groups for the problems of society.

    Number 1 is subject to debate. As with his failure or unwillingness to understand relativity, it’s not implausible to assume that it is Somerby’s failure, not the philosophers.

    But number 2 doesn’t make sense.

    Philosophy professors are not politicians or media figures. Why should they be blamed for the failures of society? Do they bear special responsibility for past upheavals, such as the Civil War? WWII? Their job is to teach students. And there is just as much disagreement amongst philosophers about politics as any other group, so it’s unrealistic to assume that they and they alone would be capable of healing divisions in society.

    Besides, the advanced ideas of Quine and others are meant for professionals, not laymen. They are not taught in general education philosophy courses either.

    As to the social usefulness of philosophy, it should be noted that all science and logic came from philosophy. It was the first academic subject. Physics was originally called natural philosophy.

    So the answer to the question is: modern philosophy does what philosophy has always done.

  5. Regarding contention 2), perhaps Somerby is an atheist and looking to philosophy as a belief system to replace religion. Hence, his disappointment.

  6. "Someone's belief is true if and only if it is coherent with all or most of his or her other (true) beliefs."

    Why, that sounds like everybody, even Trump voters! Or Trump himself, though he's more of an improvisor, and makes shit up as he goes along, believing it's true. Whatever works! For everyone!

    Is this where the idea of cognitive dissonance came into play in modern lingo? Jeez, it could be a lot simpler to explain: The ability of advanced chimps to maintain two conflicting beliefs (even if they don’t know of the the connections that result in the dissonance.) Only a logician can determine that. Amiright?

    Somerby is right, we’re a woefully undereducated nation, not counting our corporate indoctrinations at public schools and Universities. Oh, where are the humanities? Agree also with Somerby, the type of thought tendered by Quine et.al. don’t shed much light on the human condition. Can’t anybody play this game there?

    Apparently not. You have to be special, and speak in tongues, whilst the followers will muddle on just as they always have – just trying to live a good life. As Kurtz wrote, “There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.”

    Glad for the posts Bob,


    1. You cannot jump into the middle of any discipline and expect to participate without knowing the vocabulary and previous knowledge in that field. That is what introductory breadth requirements are intended to provide to college freshmen. That doesn't make anyone "special" but it helps people communicate their ideas effectively.


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  8. This is a hoot!


    1. "with the highest hesitancy among those least and most educated. "

      Note that it does not say that those with the most training in science, much less biology, medicine or virology, are vaccine hesitant. For all we know, those PhDs are in English literature or Political Science.

      So, Cecelia, I wouldn't take that as an endorsement of the anti-vax position by anyone who knows anything. It matters what your area of specialty is and a physicist isn't going to know any more about vaccines than any other idiot on the street.

      So, I'm not sure what you think this proves.

    2. I take it as hilarious because Anonymices put so much stock in “expertise” that the slightest challenge to it is viewed as the barbarians at the gate.

      It’s interesting that people with masters degrees are the least hesitant of the categories listed.

      In that context, consider this:

      “In every year of the SED, the number of doctorates awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields has exceeded the number of non-S&E doctorates, and the gap is widening. “


    3. “ From 1975 to 2015, the number of S&E doctorate recipients has more than doubled, reflecting an average annual growth rate of 1.9%, whereas the number of non-S&E doctorates awarded in 2015 is virtually identical to the 1975 count. As a result of these different growth rates, the proportion of S&E doctorates climbed from 58% in 1975 to 75% in 2015”

    4. Right winger misconstrues study then tries to casually walk it back...nothing to see here.

      They would amuse like a clown if they didn't cause so much death and destruction.

    5. Typical Right-winger. Wants everyone who doesn't play with their feces to think those who do are the smart ones.

    6. That’s no way to talk about PhDs.

    7. Cecelia, what exactly do you think your figures prove? This is a non-sequitur.

    8. It's quite simple:
      1. liberal zombies crave the vaccine, the rest of us decide according to the circumstances. And
      2. most of the liberal zombies are dumb office pencil-pushers.

    9. Yup, those brilliant Trumpbots are smart enough to avoid vaccines because they know they have 5G built in , so they can be controlled by Bill Gates.

      Just as these independent thinkers first claimed COVID was a hoax, then said HCQ would cure everything and now are using animal meds with ivermectin. The more inexpert they are, the more they are going to be right, Putinbot ..

    10. You sound constipated, dear dembot. Health is the most important thing, dear. We wish you a quick recovery.

  9. Somerby seems to think that philosophy has no applications in real life. Today's philosophy graduates tend to become attorneys (especially litigators), ethicists (especially biomedical, where hospitals employ them to weigh in on difficult decisions involving life and death), and may of those who require logic in their work (such as computer scientists) may study philosophy without majoring in it. Some philosophy majors become theologians.

    On our campus, the philosophy department sponsored an interdisciplinary book discussion group using Dawkins' The God Delusion as a text. That was a major bestseller in the US, widely read by the general public, so I do believe that philosophy has some application to real life, even if Somerby cannot see it.

  10. "W. V. O. Quine (1908-2000) did not conceive of philosophy as an activity separate from the general province of empirical science."

    Yet Somerby argues that Quine, because his name is unfamiliar to everyday people, is irrelevant to everyday life. To the extent that there is a relationship between philosophy and science, there cannot be a barrier between the two that renders philosophy moot. Even Somerby cannot argue that science has been irrelevant to progress in science, which has improved both our longevity and our quality of life. Does Somerby think engineers have created all progress? Even engineers don't think that.

    Is Somerby trying to argue that only famous people have made important contributions? That too is foolish.

    I studied Quine in grad school because his ideas were important to my field, cognitive science. Beyond that, his ideas were not only generally useful but specifically provided a theoretical foundation for the methodology used in my dissertation research and later studies. But Somerby apparently thinks that if he doesn't know of someone and most others do not, then that person's work must be unimportant to the world. What kind of logic is this?

  11. "In the street-fighting fall of 1967, there we sat, though leaving perhaps about ten minutes early, taking a course in Deductive Logic from Willem van Orman Quine."

    Harvard University has a policy of requiring even its most eminent faculty to teach undergraduate classes. That doesn't make those scholars less eminent, although Somerby's tone is faintly derisive and thus offensive to those of us who respect Quine. Quine has absolutely contributed more to this world than Somerby.

    Why would he leave any class 10 minutes early? This isn't a ball game. The final 10 minutes is often the wrap-up toward which an entire lecture has been leading.

  12. The US political order is pretty openly chasing people into death trap jobs and who does Daily Howler want to lead us? Physics professors and logicians. Liberals are useless. Do you even hear yourselves?

  13. 'Failed logic is found wherever you look as our failing nation slides toward the sea.'

    Certainly Trumptards such as SOmerby see failed logic whenever they look in mirrors

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