TUESDAY, AUGUST 17, 2021
But first, our own brush with greatness: Yesterday, we learned of another survey.
We'd checked in with the leading authority of the life and work of the late Willard Van Orman Quine, a Harvard philosophy professor of long standing, and also of high renown.
In the street-fighting fall of 1967, we took, or largely pretended to take, Quine's one-semester course, Phil 140: Deductive Logic. We'll only tell you this:
The grade we were unaccountably given kept us out of Vietnam. Disaffection could carry a hefty price back in those street-fighting days!
In 1999, Professor Lackey asked 4,000 philosophy professors to identify the most important philosophy texts of the 20th century. As we showed you yesterday, Professor Quine's 1960 book, Word and Object, earned sixth spot on that survey's list, with you-know-which book ranking first and described as "a runaway winner:"
The most important philosophy books of the 20th century:
1) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
2) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
3) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
4) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
5) Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica
6) W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object
7) Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity
8) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
9) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
10) A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality
It occurred to us that we knew almost nothing about Professor Quine's life and work—and so, we decided to check with the leading authority on the subject. We were struck by a certain aspect of that authority's overview—but for now, let's just consider this statement:
"A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries."
Another survey had been taken, this time in 2009! As it turns out, this second survey was conducted by Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog.
We can't find an account of this second survey's methodology. Based on what we've been able to discover, we aren't sure that this survey was actually restricted to "analytic philosophers" (a subset of the larger group), or even to philosophy professors at all.
That said, the survey was conducted by Professor Leiter, and sure enough! When we checked, we saw that Professor Quine had been ranked fifth—and that you-know-who had triumphed again:
The most important philosophers of the past 200 years:
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein
2. Gottlob Frege
3. Bertrand Russell
4. John Stuart Mill
5. W.V.O. Quine
6. G.W.F. Hegel
7. Saul Kripke
8. Friedrich Nietzsche
9. Karl Marx
10. Soren Kierkegaard
As best we can tell, Professor Leiter had made no attempt to ensure that his respondents were a representative sample of some larger group. Still, there we see a second survey, conducted within the world of academic philosophy, in which respondents, whoever they may have been, named Wittgenstein as king of the roost—in this case, as the most important philosopher of the past two hundred years!
This survey was taken in 2009. Coupled with Lackey's earlier effort, it seems to call Professor Horwich onto the carpet.
Four years later, in 2013, Horwich would claim that the philosophy academy had largely thrown the later Wittgenstein under the bus. He made his claim in this essay at the The Stone, the New York Times' philosophy blog.
We've cited Horwich' intriguing essay on several occasions in the past. Within the next few days, or perhaps within the next week, we expect to do so again.
Basically, Horwich said that the later Wittgenstein's work undermined much of the traditional philosophy canon. As such, it undermined much of the work favored by philosophy professors. For that reason, Horwich said, professors had begin to disregard, even perhaps to mock, Wittgenstein's later work.
By the time we saw Horwich's essay, we'd been wondering about that possibility for several decades. We persist in thinking that, at least in theory, his thesis makes good sense.
That said, here were two surveys in which large numbers of philosophy professors placed Wittgenstein at the top of the pile! Setting Horwich's claims to the side for now, we return to the capsule summary of Professor Quine's highly-regarded work.
Without any question, Professor Quine was seen as a giant in the field. Even as we acknowledge that fact, we think the overview of his work has a slight sideways feel:
Willard Van Orman Quine (June 25, 1908 – December 25, 2000) was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century." From 1930 until his death 70 years later, Quine was continually affiliated with Harvard University in one way or another, first as a student, then as a professor. He filled the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard from 1956 to 1978.
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."...
His major writings include the papers "On What There Is," 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...
Quine received his B.A. summa cum laude in mathematics from Oberlin College in 1930, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1932. His thesis supervisor was Alfred North Whitehead. He was then appointed a Harvard Junior Fellow, which excused him from having to teach for four years.
At Harvard, Quine helped supervise the Harvard graduate theses of, among others, David Lewis, Gilbert Harman, Dagfinn Føllesdal, Hao Wang, Hugues LeBlanc, Henry Hiz and George Myro.
Quine's thesis supervisor was Alfred North Whitehead! Whitehead finished fifth and tenth on the "most important books" list, but let's set that to the side.
As we read that overview, we had a certain reaction. We were struck by the fact that, while Quine seems to be viewed, within the academy, as one of the most important philosophers of the past two centuries, a general reader will have no idea what any part of that overview might mean.
Quine is said to have offered "a famous quip"—a quip the average person won't likely be able to recognize as a quip of any kind. He's said to have offered a famous thesis—a famous "indeterminacy of translation thesis," in which he "advocated a behaviorist theory of meaning."
In a passage which sounds almost Onionesque, Quine is even said to have advocated a position or belief referred to as "coherentism." Rather, he's said to have "advocated a kind of coherentism," an almost Onionseque construction which seems to suggest the existence of several varieties of this comically-named philosophical mystery meat.
Quine "was famous for his position that first order logic is the only kind worthy of the name," this overview said. Presumably, he was famous for that only within the academy. Elsewhere, would anyone have any idea what such a position entails?
Outside the academy, does anyone have any idea what any of that overview means? Meanwhile, there sits Wittgenstein once again, listed as king of all he surveyed. Does anyone outside the academy have even the slightest idea what he may have said or done to merit his high rank?
In the coming weeks and months, we'll be advocating a certain alternate view. We'll advocate the view that there's a highly worthwhile type of logic known as "Daily Logic"—a type of logic largely honored in the breach. We'll also advocate for this view:
It's in part for lack of this daily logic that our failing nation has long been miserably failing, as it continues to do today.
To appearances, the world of academic philosophy walked away from the world of daily affairs many years ago. Tomorrow, we'll click one link in the Quine overview, allowing us to offer more thoughts on this unfortunate subject.
We suspect that Professor Horwich is right. But for now, as the surveys keep rolling in, his thesis will just have to wait.
Tomorrow: An astonishing list of specialties, plus additional brushes with greatness