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Definition: Quine, Willard Van Orman from Philip's Encyclopedia

US philosopher. He was professor of philosophy at Harvard (1948-78). Quine regarded philosophy as a branch of natural science. In Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1951), he argued for a holistic approach to empiricism, abandoning the analytic-synthetic distinction made by Immanuel Kant. In Word and Object (1960), Quine put forward the notion of the indeterminancy of translation. See also logical positivism


Summary Article: Quine, W. v. O. from Philosophy of Science A-Z

American philosopher, perhaps the most influential American philosopher of the twentieth century. His books include Word and Object (1960) and Pursuit of Truth (1992). He blended empiricism with elements of pragmatism. He defended naturalism, which he took it to be characteristic of empiricism, and denied the possibility of a priori knowledge. In ‘Truth by Convention’ (1936), he repudiated the view that logic was a matter of convention. In ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (1951), he went on to argue that the notion of analyticity is deeply problematic, since it requires a notion of cognitive synonymy (sameness of meaning) and there is no independent criterion of cognitive synonymy. Quine went as far as to question the very idea of the existence of meanings. In his work during the 1950s and 1960s, he advanced a holistic image of science, where there are no truths of special status (necessary or unrevisable). What matters, for Quine, is that a theory acquires its empirical content as a whole, by predicting observations and by being confronted with experience. Then, should the theory come to conflict with experience, any part of the theory may be abandoned, provided that the principle of minimal mutilation is satisfied. He put forward five virtues that a scientific theory should have: conservatism, generality, simplicity, refutability and modesty. But the methodological status of these virtues was left unclear. Naturalism, for Quine, licenses his scientific realism. He never doubted the existence of unobservable entities and took it that their positing is on a par with the positing of most ordinary physical objects. They are both indispensable in formulating laws, the ultimate evidence for which is based on past experience and the prediction of future events.

See Analytic/synthetic distinction; Convention; Duhem–Quine thesis; Neurath’s boat; Platonism, mathematical; Underdetermination of theories by evidence; Universals

Further reading
  • Orenstein, Alex (2002), W. V. Quine, Chesham: Acumen.
  • Quine, W. v. O. (1960), Word and Object, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • © Stathis Psillos, 2007

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