A man with his ear to the lab door

From Stimulus to Science
February 2, 1996

Willard van Ormand Quine may not be a household name, but he is arguably the most important philosopher of the 20th century. Certainly he is the most influential analytic philosopher alive. From his earliest papers in the 1930s, to this latest book, his 21st, he has dominated the philosophical agenda, not only in his own Harvard philosophy department, but throughout American universities. And if there was a time when analytic philosophy was led by Britain, the centre of influence has now emphatically shifted across the Atlantic.

Quine was born in 1908, and his intellectual career spans the development of analytic philosophy through the century. Before the war the dominant view in the analytic tradition was a kind of phenomenalist idealism, which sought, under the leadership of Bertrand Russell and the Vienna circle, to construct the world out of sense-data. But over the past few decades idealism has been dismissed from the analytic repertoire, and debate now revolves around a naturalist physicalism, which begins with the world as natural science finds it, and seeks a place for humans and their affairs within that world.

Quine's own thought mirrors this trajectory. As a young philosopher Quine visited the Vienna circle, and his early work bears the mark of their phenomenalist concerns. But from the start Quine's writings challenged current orthodoxy, and by the time of his major work, Word and Object (1960), he had comprehensively reworked his early influences and transposed them into a physicalist framework.

On the face of it, idealism and physicalism seem diametrically opposed. It is not obvious how the tradition led by Quine could flip so painlessly from one to the other. But there are continuities underlying this radical turnaround. One is a respect for natural science. This, incidentally, is the main difference between the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy. While both traditions have the same idealist origins, the analytic philosphers have always viewed science as the ally of philosophy, where the continentals see it as a dangerous competitor for intellectual primacy. This has pulled the two traditions in different directions, and in the latter half of this century it has led the analytic tradition towards physicalism. If science now tells us that the world is an essentially physical system, then Quine and others urge that it behoves philosophy to listen, and tailor its arguments accordingly.

Another continuity running through the 20th-century analytic tradition is the use of symbolic logic to structure philosophical debate. Frege and Russell revolutionised our understanding of logical theory around the turn of the century, and since then analytic philosophers, whether phenomenalist or physicalist, have exploited logical tools to highlight the issues and eliminate confusion. Quine has done more than anybody to demonstrate the power of this approach. As well as making important technical contributions to logic in his own right, his logical scrutiny of ontological and psychological discourse has effectively reshaped whole areas of philosophy.

From Stimulus to Science began life as a series of lectures at the University de Girona in Catalonia, and it affords a good overview of Quine's philosophy. It is not long, but it covers most aspects of his work, and conveys a strong sense of his clean, logic-influenced style of thought. Even so, this is perhaps not the book for the non-expert. Quine writes as a philosophers' philosopher, and his preference for the compact epigram over elementary explanation has not diminished over the years. Readers new to Quine will probably do better to start with a secondary source, like Christopher Hookway's Quine (Polity, 1988).

As for professional readers, the book contains a number of points of note. Quine has always been a bold thinker, ready to follow his arguments through to the point of paradox, as in his doctrines of indeterminacy of translation, ontological relativity, and the dispensability of mental idioms. All philosophers in the analytic tradition have learned from these arguments. But most now resist Quine's conclusions, and instead point the finger at some of his unquestioned assumptions. For the most part Quine is still sticking to his guns, but it is interesting that here and there he is ready to offer concessions. The book also contains various logical constructions of characterisic Quinean elegance, together with an appendix on the theory of predicate functors.

David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King's College London.

From Stimulus to Science

Author - W.V. Quine
ISBN - 0 674 32635 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £14.50
Pages - 114

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