THURSDAY, AUGUST 19, 2021
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 . 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" . He led a "systematic attempt to understand science from within the resources of science itself"  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" . 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