Willard Van Orman Quine

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Passport photo Quine 1975

Willard Van Orman Quine (born June 25, 1908 in Akron , Ohio , † December 25, 2000 in Boston , Massachusetts ) was an American philosopher and logician. Quine is an important representative of analytical philosophy and philosophical naturalism as well as holism . In the field of systematic theoretical philosophy, he is one of the most important English-speaking philosophers of the 20th century. With him the center of the analytical movement shifted from England and the European continent to the USA. His work touches on all core disciplines of theoretical philosophy such as epistemology , philosophy of language , philosophy of science , logic and ontology .

Quine was one of the most important critics of the philosophy of the Vienna Circle . He endeavored to free logical empiricism from its dogmatic elements and to enrich it with arguments from the tradition of American pragmatism . His linguistic-philosophical and epistemological holism is the subject of controversial discussions in analytical philosophy to this day.


Quine was the son of an engineer and a teacher. "Quine" was the family name of his father, "Van Orman" that of his mother, whose ancestors came from the Netherlands. Already in his youth he developed a lively interest in etymology, geography and questions of definition, which lasted all his life, although his interest in philosophy was still weak at school.

In 1926 Quine began studying at Oberlin College, Ohio, and took courses in geology, psychology, French, German and mathematics. Gradually his interests focused on mathematics and logic. In 1930 he completed his studies with a mathematical thesis summa cum laude and earned his BA. He married in the same year and moved to Harvard University , which he never left. From 1930 to 1932 he attended lectures from Clarence Irving Lewis , the logician Henry Maurice Sheffer and Alfred North Whitehead . His first publication appeared as early as 1930, the review of a mathematical textbook. In 1931 he completed his studies with an MA and obtained his doctorate in 1932 with the work The Logic of Sequences: A Generalization of Principia Mathematica on Whiteheads and Russell's Principia Mathematica , with Whitehead himself acting as a mentor.

After Quine met Herbert Feigl in 1932 during his stay in the USA at Harvard and thus gained a closer look at the Vienna Circle , he traveled to Europe as a Sheldon Traveling Fellow from 1932 to 1933. In Vienna he met representatives of the Vienna Circle such as Kurt Gödel and Moritz Schlick . In Prague he heard from Rudolf Carnap , in Warsaw from the logicians Stanisław Leśniewski , Jan Łukasiewicz and Alfred Tarski . A long-lasting friendship developed with Carnap, whose philosophy of logical empiricism he later critically discussed again and again.

After his return to Harvard, Quine was a member of the Junior Fellows in the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1933 to 1936 and was able to devote himself to his research for three years. In 1940 he became an assistant professor at Harvard.

Until the USA entered World War II, Quine mainly worked on logic and set theory. The books A System of Logistic (1934), Mathematical Logic (1940) and Elementary Logic (1941) were created. During the Second World War he served as a cryptologist in the US Navy from 1942 to 1945 . His task was to decrypt encrypted signals from German submarines. During this time he dealt intensively with the concept of analyticity , i.e. the question of whether truth in logic and mathematics is based on conventions .

From 1948 Quine held a position as a full professor at Harvard. In the same year he married for the second time. The marriage, like his first, had two children. A year later he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . Since 1959 he was a corresponding member of the British Academy .

In 1951 his famous essay Two Dogmas of Empiricism appeared , in which he drew a critical balance of logical empiricism. With him he consolidated his reputation in the philosophical world. In 1953 he published his first anthology of essays, From a Logical Point of View, and in the same year he held a one-year visiting professorship in Oxford. There was a more intensive examination of the philosophy of language in conversation with Strawson , Austin and Grice .

Throughout the 1950s, Quine worked on a book that appeared in 1960 under the title Word and Object . It is considered his main work and established his world fame in analytical philosophy. In the following decades he deepened and refined the philosophy presented there and defended it against objections without making any fundamental revisions. He made lecture tours around the world and took part in numerous conferences about his work.

Around 1950 Quine also published some essays on the question of universals , in which he took a conceptualist position .

In 1956 he was appointed to the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard University as the successor to Clarence Irving Lewis. A second one-year guest stay took place in 1973/74. In 1957 Quine was elected to the American Philosophical Society and in 1977 to the National Academy of Sciences . In 1978 he retired from Harvard. In 1980 Quine held the Immanuel Kant Lectures at Stanford University , in which he summarized his current philosophy. In 1990 he gave the Tarski Lectures in Berkeley.

After his retirement in 1978, Quine received numerous awards, including the 1996 Kyoto Prize . His students include Michael Dummett , Wolfgang Stegmüller , Donald Davidson , Jaakko Hintikka , Daniel Dennett , Burton Dreben, Dagfinn Føllesdal , Gilbert Harman and David Lewis .


Quine's work, published during his lifetime, includes 21 books and more than 200 essays. Nine of the books belong in the field of logic. For the most part, these are textbooks and overviews that Quine wrote as the basis for his own courses.

In 1950 appeared Methods of Logic (dt .: Broad logic ), which was designed as a study and textbook on the foundations of modern logic. Quine develops the formal systems of propositional, quantifier and predicate logic in the tradition of Frege, Russell and Whitehead and reflects on fundamental problems within logic and mathematics.

Which appeared in 1953 Aufsatzsammlung From a Logical Point of View (dt .: From a logical point of view ) contains some of the most important works of Quine's ontology and philosophy of language. The greatest attention was aroused by the essay Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1951, Eng .: Two Dogmas of Empiricism ), which can be considered the logical empiricism as the founding document of an immanent criticism and nudged a new development within the analytical philosophy. Quine attacks two beliefs that were widely recognized at the time: epistemological reductionism and the distinction between analytical and synthetic sentences.

In his published in 1960 masterpiece Word and Object (dt .: Word and Object ) examined Quine one of the basic problems of the philosophy of logical empiricism, the connection of our language with the world. In it he addresses all the difficulties that a consistently empirical position is exposed to. Based on the situation in which we learn a language, Quine points out that the language is primarily a social skill and can only be learned by observing the behavior of its speakers. He replaces Carnap's theory of meaning, which differentiated between “extensions” and “intensions” of terms, predicates and sentences, with the term “stimulus meaning”. On the basis of a behavioristic self-image, Quine understands our speech behavior as a reaction to stimuli in our perceptual apparatus.

The contributions to the volume Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969, German: Ontological Relativity and Other Writings ) are closely related to the issues discussed in Word and Object . The title essay Ontological Relativity emerged from the 1969 John Dewey Lectures given by Quine. Following on from Dewey's naturalistic philosophy of language, Quine is directed against “semantic Platonism”, which he identifies with Frege's position, and against “semantic mentalism”, which was represented by the “Californian semantics” school.

In 1974 the work appeared in The Roots of Reference (dt .: The Roots of Reference ), which showed that held from the end of 1971 by Quine Paul Carus lectures. In it he first outlines his behaviorist theory of learning and perception. On this basis he then develops his naturalistic theory, which is directed against the mentalistic conceptions of his predecessors.

The volume The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (1976 [1966], German: Types of Paradox and other essays ) contains 29 essays from the period between 1935 and 1974, which are devoted to linguistic, logical, epistemological and epistemological and ontological topics .

Most of the 24 contributions to the Theories and Things collection (1981, English: Theories and Things ) were created in the 1970s and 1980s. These are mostly philosophical-historical treatises in which Quine deals with the positions of John Langshaw Austins , Lewis Carrolls , Donald Davidsons , Kurt Gödels , Nelson Goodmans , Bertrand Russells and John Jamieson Carswell Smarts .

From Quine's last decade of life, the volumes Pursuit of Truth (1990) and From Stimulus to Science (1995) should be emphasized.


Epistemology and philosophy of science

In the field of epistemology , Quine developed a scientistic naturalism . He regards the outside world as real, in which microphysical redistributions take place permanently. For him, the knowing subject is the subject of empirical science. Perception is mentalistic, but has a physical basis in the sensory receptors. Mentalistic is the tendency of people to behave according to the principle of induction. Learning is nothing more than the formation of habits. According to him, epistemology is a sub-area of ​​empirical psychology in which stimulus reaction relationships are examined behavioristically . Verification and empirical adequacy are the only basis of validity and meaning. Theory of science is therefore a matter of applied science and not an independent discipline.

Development model of empiricism

In his article Five Milestones of Empiricism (dt. Five milestones of empiricism ) provides Quine the development of empiricism since the Middle Ages to the present day as an evolutionary sequence shows that took place in five steps, culminating in his own naturalism. While Quine assigns the first two steps to the philosophical tradition, the last three milestones mark his own path of knowledge.

The first milestone marks the turning away from ideas and mental entities to words ( shift of attention from ideas to words ). According to Quine, this movement can already be found among the nominalists of the Middle Ages, and later again with John Horne Tooke , who criticized John Locke instead of using ideas as the basis of knowledge. The second milestone ( shift from terms to sentences ) set by Jeremy Bentham after Quine includes a certain restriction and correction of this concern. It turns out that a simple word-reality relationship is not so easy to establish. The empiricist now sees himself referred to sentences as carriers of meaning. In the further development of empiricism, this approach too narrow and, in a third step, expanded to a holistic approach ( shift from sentences to systems of sentences ). A further expansion is then no longer possible here, but a deepening inward is possible. The empiricist must be clear about the fact that the newly won unity of knowledge no longer tolerates dualisms - there must no longer be any fundamental distinction between a priori and synthetic knowledge, between natural science and metaphysics. In a fourth milestone is so empiricism to a methodological monism ( methodological monism ). In the end, all that remains is for epistemology to refer back to itself. Since all knowledge has become empirical and fallible, this must also apply to epistemology itself: there is no absolute starting point for knowledge. The empiricism thus relativizes itself, and the epistemology becomes part of the empirical, that is for Quine behavioristic psychology ( naturalism ).


For Quine, the propositions of our theories form a network that is only fixed at the edges by observations ( holism ). Each sentence is exposed to the pull of reality on the one hand and the counter-pull of the system on the other. This double influence is responsible for the fact that we cannot generally assign any separate empirical content to individual sentences and that the same observations can be fully explained by completely different theories. Quine calls this the underdetermination ( underdetermination ) of the system through experience. An observation that contradicts our prediction always contradicts the entirety of our theory. In the event of a system correction, besides the observation data, we are only committed to the internal consistency of our network. Where we put the correction is our business. Every sentence can be recorded, no sentence is immune to revision. Individual sentences can never be justified empirically, only theories as a whole ( Duhem-Quine thesis ). In spite of contradicting observations, we can hold on to certain empirical propositions and instead modify the propositions of logic or mathematics at the center of our theoretical network. Due to pragmatic considerations, however, we have the tendency to change the observation rates at the periphery, since this is associated with the least amount of effort.

Critique of the Verification Principle

Against the background of his holistic approach, Quine in Two Dogmas of Empiricism attacks the empirical thesis that synthetic sentences must always be individually empirically verifiable, since the terms used in these sentences are derived directly from immediate experience. Quine attributes this idea to older philosophers such as Locke and Hume; more recently it has been advocated by Russell and Carnap. Since human knowledge does not have to be understood as a collection of autonomous elements, but as a network of interwoven sentences, individual statements can only be verified with difficulty. The search for an ultimate foundation of knowledge is pointless, since the entire system of human knowledge always comes into contact with experience. Should experience be inconsistent with a particular hypothesis, it would only mean that something in our system needs to be revised; what this is exactly is not directly indicated by experience and has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. What exactly needs to be changed always remains an open question: "Any statement can be maintained as true, whatever happens if we only make sufficiently drastic adjustments elsewhere in the system". For empirically equivalent theories, it is therefore not their validity that is essential, but their efficiency. Because of this view, Quine is also assigned to pragmatism .

Methodological monism

As a consequence of his holism, Quine advocates a methodological monism. This is directed against the distinction made by Kant and adopted by the positivist tradition between analytical and synthetic propositions. Then all meaningful judgments are divided into two classes: the analytical judgments of mathematics, in which the predicate is already included in the concept of the subject ("All bodies are extended") and the synthetic judgments of the natural sciences, in which this is not the case ( "All bodies are heavy"). According to this view, the judgments of traditional philosophy do not belong to any of these classes and are therefore to be rejected as meaningless.

Quine, on the other hand, argues that no dividing line can be drawn between synthetic and analytical judgments. In order to identify synonymy within sentences, the empirical circumstances that accompany the utterance of such sentences are always decisive. In his view, there are two types of analytical statements:

  1. Sentences whose truth depends only on their logical form and the logical particles used in them and are therefore tautologies - like the sentence “No unmarried man is married”.
  2. Sentences that are believed to be true due to the synonymy of the terms used in them - such as the sentence “No bachelor is married”.

The problematic case for Quine is the second, where the term “analytical” depends on the term synonymy. However, this cannot be made understandable by any of the common attempts at explanation:

  • In the naive explanation that two expressions are synonymous if they have the same meaning, the term “meaning” remains unclear. This is not the same as that of the reference, since two expressions can refer to the same object (such as "morning star" and "evening star"), but without having the same meaning. Nor can the concept of meaning be explained with that of definition, since the definition already presupposes synonymity.
  • According to Quine, an older view is to be taken more seriously, according to which two expressions can be regarded as synonymous if and only if they can be replaced by the other “salva veritate” (without changing the truth value) in each context. Against this criterion it can be objected that not all concepts with the same extension have the same meaning. The terms “living beings with a heart” and “living beings with kidneys” actually refer to the same number of individuals; but nobody would claim that the terms are synonymous.

Naturalized Epistemology

In its final stage, according to Quine, empirical epistemology develops into "enlightened empiricism". For him it belongs to empirical psychology, which is committed to a behavioristic approach. The physical human subject is examined in terms of the psychological processes that take place between input (experience) and output (theory). The "Cartesian dream" of laying the foundation for science, which would precede it, is over. The naturalized epistemology is no longer opposed to the questions posed by science.

Five virtues of a hypothesis

In his co-authored with Joseph Ullian book The Web of Belief Quine provides five virtues ( five virtues before) a hypothesis that can lead us most likely to succeed and therefore are regarded as standards for scientific work:

  1. The conservatism ( conservatism ) assumes that a hypothesis is more plausible, the less earlier beliefs must be abandoned because of them. On the one hand, this strategy has inertia on its side and, on the other hand, it is sensible, since a change in the system is more likely to lead to error, the more serious it is. This does not rule out radical changes in principle, only it should only be achieved by a series of small steps, not by a hasty leap.
  2. The modesty ( modesty ) is closely connected with the conservatism. One hypothesis can be considered more modest than another if it is logically weaker (implied by this one without implying it) and, secondly, predicts more ordinary events. The prerequisite here, too, is the assumption that a more sluggish world is the more likely.
  3. The simplicity ( simplicity ) is already a tendency of our perception mechanism that lets us herausabstrahieren each simple elements of a complex diversity. This tendency continues scientifically in our experimental criteria, since the simpler of two hypotheses is usually easier to confirm. Hypotheses that are too complex increase the susceptibility to errors.
  4. The generality stands against modesty, but it is what makes it possible for us to test a hypothesis through repeatable experiments and to go beyond the specific individual case.
  5. The refutability ( refutability ) of a hypothesis is the prerequisite for this is that they even predicts something and is important. A hypothesis can in principle always be holistically immunized against refutation through skillful balancing in our network, but we do not do this if the sacrifice that has to be made to maintain a theory becomes too great.

Observation and language acquisition

The main task of epistemology for Quine is to clarify the relationship between observation and theory. For him, the physical affections of the outer surfaces of our bodies, which "consist in the impact of light rays and molecules on our sensory surfaces", are the "only source of information about the external world"

In order to linguistically refer to objects from the multitude of storming sensory stimuli, these must first of all be individuated, that is, delimited as individual ones and picked out in a recognizable way. According to Quine, this ability is not at the beginning of language acquisition, but is developed gradually. It is a constructive activity: objects have to be placed by objectifying something from the field of perception. Although objects in this sense are posits , Quine recognizes them as existing: sticks and stones are "highly real inhabitants of the most real world".

Quine dispenses with an intermediate realm of the mental, in which a mediation between the input of the stimuli of our sensory organs and the output of the observable speech behavior would take place, since mental objects have unclear identity conditions for him. In this context, he criticizes traditional epistemologists such as Descartes , Berkeley , Hume , Russell and Carnap , who have taken mental entities such as ideas, elementary experiences, sensory data or impressions as the starting point of epistemology, since there is no sense data language of their own that does not refer to the current observation situation goes out.


According to Quine, human knowledge does not start with external physical objects, but with the stimulation of our sensory receptors. According to him, approval of the phrase “There is a rabbit” is induced by a sensory stimulus, not a rabbit. The intersubjective matches in our judgments about the outside world due Quine with neurobiological and evolutionary insights. Natural selection has anchored basic similarity standards in a common gene pool . This ensures that one and the same external object, despite all the individual differences in the sensory receptors, leads to corresponding observational sentences.

Philosophy of language

Quine has decisively shaped the terminology of the analytical philosophy of language. In his philosophy of language, his naturalism turns against the assumption of a fundamental function of language in the constitution of the world or the cognitive process in general. For him, philosophy of language, like physics, biology and social science, is part of our entire theory of the world.

With reference to John Dewey , Quine also understands language first and foremost as a social art and a social institution that we humans acquire solely on the basis of the observable behavior of other people under publicly stated circumstances. Quine excludes the possibility of " private languages " from the outset.


Quine has decisively shaped the contemporary discussion about reference in terms of content and terminology. To a large extent, his philosophical work is permeated by the question of how the referential apparatus of language works. According to Quine, reference is ultimately inexplicable and nonsensical unless it is put into perspective. One of Quine's theses that followed and was most discussed is that of the vagueness of translation . It regards language as a theory which, like all theories, is underdetermined by the empirical data. Quine opposes a mentalistic theory of meaning, according to which the meaning of a word is a spiritual object (e.g. a Platonic idea or a psychological experience). Quine opposes mentalism with a behavioristic semantics, according to which the meanings of expressions can be traced back to dispositions of publicly observable behavior.

Language acquisition

We learn our language by imitating the behavior of our fellow human beings, who in turn acknowledge or correct our attempts. We have learned a word when we use it like the majority of our fellow human beings. But in order to be able to properly imitate the behavior of our fellow human beings, we have to recognize what stimulates them when they use certain expressions. This is relatively easy in those cases in which there is a clear behavioristic scheme of stimulating the senses and expressing a certain sequence of sounds. In many speech situations, however, this assignment becomes increasingly complicated, which is why not every linguistic expression has a very specific, well-defined meaning. The postulation of meanings of linguistic expressions independent of the empirically perceptible behavior of the speaker is rejected by Quine from the start. According to him, the area in which the behaviorist linguist can work successfully is the child's language acquisition. Here it can only refer to external conditions that are intersubjectively accessible.

Translation indeterminacy

Quine advocates relativism regarding the translation process from radically foreign languages. According to Quine, the only way to learn a radically foreign language is to observe the behavior of the speakers of that unknown language. Through observation one will determine certain connections between objects and events in their environment and certain sounds uttered by the speakers. Step by step, you will set up hypotheses about the sounds of the foreign language and make your first attempts at translation accordingly. Quine points out that even at an advanced stage in the interpretation of the foreign language there can be different equal variants in the translation. The question of which one of them is the right one cannot be answered in principle. The same expression in the foreign language can be represented by different expressions that differ from one another, provided that sufficient corrections are made in the rendering of other expressions. These views are summarized in Quine's thesis of the empirical indeterminacy of translation. This means that the empirically verifiable behavior of the speaker is not sufficient to choose between different translation variants.

The "Gavagai" example

Quine explains his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation with the help of the so-called “Gavagai” example. A linguist is faced with the task of translating the previously completely unknown language of a native tribe. The native language bears no resemblance to any known language; Linguists and natives are not linked by any common culture. The only data from which the linguist can proceed are the stimuli that act on the natives and the verbal reactions produced by them. The linguist therefore places himself in a situation in which he is exposed to the same stimuli as a native and observes his linguistic utterances. A hare runs by. The native says "Gavagai" and the linguist writes down the one-word sentence "Hare". The linguist asks the native the question "Gavagai?" In different stimulus situations and observes that the native answers "Yes" in the same stimulus situations in which he would answer the question "Rabbit?" In the affirmative. So he establishes that "Gavagai" and "Hare" have the same stimulus meaning.

However, the stimulus synonymity of the sentences does not guarantee that the terms “Gavagai” and “Hase” have the same extension and the same intention. The term "Gavagai" could e.g. B. refer to rabbits or non-separated rabbit parts or to rabbit phases (temporal rabbit cross-sections). According to Quine, this ambiguity cannot be resolved by pointing, since the same gesture can mean the whole rabbit or the undivided parts of the rabbit. It therefore remains fundamentally indeterminate which entities “Gavagai” really refers to. All translations and analytical hypotheses fit the same observation situations. Quine describes the resulting uncertainty using the term inscrutability of reference .

In order to equate the expression of the native language with one of his mother tongue, the linguist is compelled to develop a system of "analytical hypotheses" which go beyond what is certain on the basis of the behavioral criteria; It is basically possible to derive different translation hypotheses based on the same criteria.

Singular and general terms

Quine attacks the distinction between singular terms that apply to only one object and general terms that apply to several objects, which is customary in the tradition of language analysis. For this purpose, he schematically reconstructs the learning process of a child's mother tongue, which through this process gradually grows into the world of adults who speak a certain language.

Take a child who has just learned some expressions in our language such as B. "Mama", "Water" and "Red". According to Quine, we have no right to assume that the child uses these expressions as referential terms like us. We adults have become accustomed to viewing the child's mother as a complete body that is continuous in space and time; Water, on the other hand, as something discontinuous that is scattered in space and time. For us, red is also discontinuous, but not in the same sense as water: only objects can red, whereas water can only be a very specific substance. According to Quine, however, the expressions of the child are pre-individual and go back to a phase of humanity for which the difference between the singular and the general is irrelevant.


Approach and question

Ontology is one of the main focuses of Quine's philosophy. The article Ontological Remarks on the Propositional Calculus was published as early as 1934, followed by numerous other articles and book chapters on this topic.

Quine is first of all - like the philosophical tradition - about a clarification of the term “being”, which he understands in the limited sense of the assumption or presupposition of a theory. Above all, the ontology has to clarify which entities exist within a theory. Your first question is therefore “What is there?”. Quine does not want to reduce all metaphysical questions to system-internal or pragmatic questions like Carnap for example, because for him the separation of system-internal and system-external questions has become impossible due to his methodological monism.

Quine does not grant the ontology an autonomous domain. It differs from the individual natural sciences only in its generality. Like all science, ontology is fundamentally empirical and revisable. Last "checkpoints" are always sensory data. The task of ontology is, on the one hand, to make the hidden ontological presuppositions of a theory clear in the service of natural science. On the other hand, ontology is not just about a mere explication of implicit assumptions about existence, but rather an active regulation with the aim of the greatest possible simplicity and economy.

With the objects of ontology, according to Quine, we are always dealing with positions that are based on our creativity. Nevertheless, these statements are not completely arbitrary, but are suggested by reality. This applies to scientific objects as well as to everyday objects, myths and poetry.

Ontological obligations

For Quine, the question of what is there cannot be answered directly. They must be replaced by the question of the "ontological commitments" ( ontological commitments we make) in our statements, ie which entities we assume implicitly with them.

Ontological obligations can only be made transparent if the statements are available in “canonical notation”, i.e. in quantor-logical form. Variables are bound or quantified by quantifiers, which equates to an existence assertion. This is the meaning of Quine's well-known slogan "To be is to be the value of a bound variable". Ontologically, we commit ourselves in our statements to those entities that must belong to the range of values ​​of the variables in our true statements.

According to Quine, the objects about which we speak and to which we ascribe existence are ultimately products of our positing ( posit ). This applies to everyday life as well as to science: “In the final analysis, tables and sheep have pretty much the same status as molecules and electrons.” Which entities we assume to be existent is ultimately determined by “considerations of simplicity and pragmatic assumptions with regard to the question of how the comprehensive system will continue to function in connection with experience. ”Nevertheless, ontological theories are not concerned with mere appearance, but are conjectures about the nature of reality.


While colloquial language can find its way around a slurred ontology, for Quine the scientist has to make a decision as to which range of values ​​he wants to allow for his variables. The aim is to find a solution that is as economical, clear and scientifically useful as possible. In Word and Object , Quine only recognizes two types of entities: physical objects and classes.

According to Quine, no entities may be accepted for which no identity conditions can be specified (“no entity without identity”). The condition of an object's identity is related to the individuation principle , which can be different for each type of object. For physical objects, the condition of identity consists in their spatiotemporal localization, whereas classes are identical “if their elements are identical”.

Physical items

Quine is one of the physical objects (things) both bodies and substances. Bodies (tables, rabbits, etc.) are well-contoured and can therefore be counted, whereas substances (milk, wood, sugar, etc.) are amorphous and cannot be counted. Their common property is that their material content extends over a four-dimensional space-time area.

Quine does not distinguish things from events, states or processes like different traditional conceptions. Both things and processes can be divided into time segments. For Quine, the time slices of an object are to be regarded as physical objects. A table is a material content of a space-time area, which can be divided spatially and temporally as desired, whereby further, correspondingly smaller physical objects are created. If you put the table-like time slices back together, you get the original table, which you can imagine as a spatiotemporal “worm”.


Quine only allows classes on abstract entities. He defines it purely extensionally as the set of its elements. In contrast to properties, the concept of class does not contain any dimensional components.

While Quine still professed nominalism in an essay written with Nelson Goodman in 1947 , he withdrew it a little later because science could not do without abstract objects. Physics cannot be operated on a nominalistic basis because it contains mathematics that are "up to their necks in obligations to an ontology of abstract entities".

According to Quine, the ontology of abstract objects (numbers, functions, relations, etc.) can be reduced to classes. The number “12” can be identified with the extension of the predicate “has 12 elements”. She meets z. B. to the class of the apostles as well as to all other classes with twelve elements. Relations can be understood as classes of ordered pairs. The relation “being a brother” should be understood as the class of all ordered couples whose elements are brothers of one another.

The ontological debacle

In the context of his examination of modern physics, Quine breaks with his previous ontology conception in 1976 in the essay “Whither Physical Objects?”. Because of this "ontological debacle" ( ontological debacle ) he turns from then on ontological questions more and more.

Quine sees the problem that speaking of material content presupposes an atomistic concept of matter, which modern physics has made doubtful. In this, the clear assignment of an elementary particle to a certain space-time point no longer seems possible. For Quine, his own concept of the body is no longer tenable. Modern physics forces us to forego the “ground elements” that could function as individuals on the lowest level of the class hierarchy.

According to Quine, physical objects can be described more correctly as coordinate values ​​in space-time domains. For each point in space-time you need four numbers, a quadruple ; an area can be identified with a class of number quadruples. The result is an ontology that renounces the assumption of physical objects and only contains abstract objects, classes. For Quine it is ironic that physics itself forces us to this anti-physical reduction.

Mathematical logic

As a young scientist, Quine was mainly concerned with mathematical logic , but since the late 1940s he turned more and more subjects to epistemology . The theory of types of Bertrand Russell replaced Quine by a method of stratification of set-theoretic formulas. His first set theory from 1937 is not based on Cantor or Zermelo-Fraenkel , but on type theory. You can find them in New Foundations . Quine extended Russell's theory of labeling to include proper names by analyzing them as predicative expressions as well. In 1963 he introduced the concept of virtual classes in his set theory . His best-known contribution to formal logic is an algorithm for minimization, which he developed together with Edward J. McCluskey . H. Simplification of Boolean functions now known as the Quine-McCluskey method .

Fonts (selection)


  • Pierfrancesco Basile: Willard van Orman Quine , in: Pierfrancesco Basile, Wolfgang Röd: The philosophy of the late 19th and 20th centuries. 1. Pragmatism and analytical philosophy . CH Beck, Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-406-31348-6 , pp. 310–326
  • Edward Becker: The Themes of Quine's Philosophy: Meaning, Reference, and Knowledge . Cambridge University Press 2012. ISBN 9781107015234
  • Roger F. Gibson Jr. (Ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Quine . Cambridge University Press 2004, ISBN 978-0-521-63949-1
  • Hans-Johann Glock: Quine and Davidson on Language, Thought and Reality . Cambridge University Press 2003, ISBN 978-0-521-82180-3
  • Paul Gochet: Quine for Discussion: An Attempt at Comparative Philosophy . (Translated by P. Bosch). Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main 1984, ISBN 3-548-35200-6
  • LE Hahn and PA Schilpp (eds.): The philosophy of WV Quine. 3rd edition La Salle (Ill.): Open Court 1988 (The library of living philosophers 18), ISBN 0-8126-9012-5 [with self-written curriculum vitae]
  • Gilbert Harman, Ernie Lepore (Eds.): A Companion to WVO Quine . Wiley-Blackwell 2014, ISBN 978-0-470-67210-5
  • Christopher Hookway: Quine. Language, Experience and Reality , Cambridge 1988
  • Peter Hylton: Quine (Arguments of the Philosophers) . Routledge 2007, ISBN 978-0-415-06398-2
  • Frederique Janssen-Lauret, Gary Kemp (Eds.): Quine and His Place in History . Palgrave Macmillan UK 2015, ISBN 978-1-349-57035-5
  • Geert Keil : Quine. Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, ISBN 978-3-15-020336-1
  • Gary Kemp: Quine: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed) , Continuum 2006, ISBN 978-0-826-48487-1
  • Dirk Koppelberg: The abolition of analytical philosophy. Quine as a synthesis by Carnap and Neurath. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt a. M. 1987, ISBN 3-518-57839-1
  • Henri Lauener : Willard Van Orman Quine. Beck, Munich 1982
  • Murray Murphey: The Development of Quine's Philosophy . Springer Netherlands 2012, ISBN 978-9-400-72423-5
  • Alex Orenstein: WV Quine (Philosophy Now) . Acumen 2002, ISBN 1902683307
  • Edmund Runggaldier : Signs and Signs. Linguistic-philosophical investigations into the problem of reference . De Gruyter, Berlin 1985, pp. 137-217.

Web links


  1. ^ The correspondence is documented in Rudolf Carnap, WV Quine: Dear Carnap, Dear Van: The Quine-Carnap Correspondence and Related Work. University of California Press 1991, ISBN 978-0520068476
  2. Quine took the title from a calypso song sung by Harry Belafonte (cf. Geert Keil: Quine , Stuttgart 2011, p. 9)
  3. ^ Member History: Willard Van O. Quine. American Philosophical Society, accessed January 24, 2019 .
  4. For an overview of the works presented below, cf. Christoph Demmerling : Willard Van Orman Quine , in: Franco Volpi (Hrsg.): Großes Werklexikon der Philosophie . Stuttgart 1999, pp. 1245-1249
  5. The article is in WVO Quine: Theories and Things , Harvard University Press 1981, pp. 67–72. For the presentation of the argument cf. z. B. Ludwig Steinherr : Holism, Existence and Identity. A systematic comparison between Quine and Hegel , St. Ottilien 1996, pp. 15–66
  6. a b cf. WVO Quine: Theories and Things , Harvard University Press 1981, p. 67
  7. a b See WVO Quine: Theories and Things , Harvard University Press 1981, p. 70
  8. See WVO Quine: Theories and Things , Harvard University Press 1981, p. 71
  9. See WVO Quine: Theories and Things , Harvard University Press 1981, p. 72
  10. See WVO Quine: From a Logical Point of View. 9 Logico-Philosophical Essays . Cambridge (Mass.) / London 1980 (2nd revised edition), p. 41: "… our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body."
  11. ^ Willard van Orman Quine: Two dogmas of empiricism . In: From a logical point of view. Nine logical-philosophical essays . Frankfurt am Main – Berlin – Vienna 1979, 47
  12. See WVO Quine: Ontological Relativity and other writings . (Translated by W. Spohn). Stuttgart 1984, p. 115.
  13. WVO Quine: Pursuit of Truth , Cambridge (Mass.) / London 1990, p. 19
  14. See WVO Quine / Joseph Ullian: The Web of Belief . New York 1978 (2nd edition), pp. 66-82
  15. See WVO Quine / Joseph Ullian: The Web of Belief . New York 1978 (2nd edition), p. 79
  16. WVO Quine: The nature of natural knowledge , in: P. Bieri (ed.): Analytical philosophy of knowledge , Frankfurt / M. 1987, pp. 422–435 (here p. 423)
  17. WVO Quine: Naturalism - or: Do not live beyond one's means , in: G. Keil / H. Schnädelbach (ed.): Naturalism. Philosophical contributions , Frankfurt / M. 2000, pp. 113–127 (here p. 126)
  18. ^ Geert Keil: Quine . Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, p. 17
  19. WVO Quine: Naturalism - or: Do not live beyond one's means , in: G. Keil / H. Schnädelbach (ed.): Naturalism. Philosophical contributions , Frankfurt / M. 2000, pp. 113–127 (here p. 114)
  20. See WVO Quine: Word and Subject , Stuttgart 1980, p. 67
  21. Cf. WVO Quine: Naturalism - or: Do not live beyond one's means , in: G. Keil / H. Schnädelbach (ed.): Naturalism. Philosophical contributions , Frankfurt / M. 2000, pp. 113-127 (here pp. 114ff.); WVO Quine: From Stimulus to Science , Cambridge, Mass. 1995, p. 20 ff.
  22. WVO Quine: Ontological Relativity and Other Essays . New York 1969, p. 26ff.
  23. WVO Quine :: Word and Object . Cambridge Mass. 1960, pp. Ix.
  24. For the following cf. Edmund Runggaldier: Signs and Signs. Linguistic-philosophical investigations into the problem of reference . De Gruyter, Berlin 1985, pp. 139f.
  25. "Fair enough; reference is nonsense except relative to a coordinate system "(WvO Quine: Ontological Relativity , in: Ontological Relativity and Other Essays . New York 1969, p. 48)
  26. ^ "Language is a social art which we all acquire on the evidence solely of other people's overt behavior under publicly recognizable circumstances" (WVO Quine: Ontological Relativity and Other Essays , New York 1969, p. 26)
  27. WVO Quine: The Roots of Reference . La Salle 1974, p. 35
  28. Cf. WVO Quine: chap. II Translation and Meaning in: Word and Object . Cambridge Mass. 1960, pp. 26-79; Ontological Relativity in: Ontological Relativity and Other Essays . New York 1969, pp. 29-42.
  29. : "The thesis is then this: manuals for translating one language into another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another" (WVO Quine: Word and Object . Cambridge Mass. I960, p. 27)
  30. For the following cf. Edmund Runggaldier: Signs and Signs. Linguistic-philosophical investigations into the problem of reference . De Gruyter, Berlin 1985, pp. 157-160.
  31. WVO Quine: Ontological Relativity and Other Essays . New York 1969, p. 7
  32. contained in: WVO Quine: The Ways of Paradox and other essays . Cambridge (Mass.) / London 1976 (2nd revised edition), pp. 265-271.
  33. ^ WVO Quine: From a Logical Point of View. 9 Logico-Philosophical Essays . Cambridge (Mass.) / London 1980 (2nd revised edition), p. 1
  34. Cf. Paul Gochet: Quine for discussion: An attempt at comparative philosophy . (Translated by P. Bosch). Frankfurt am Main 1984, p. 124
  35. See WVO Quine: The Ways of Paradox and other essays . Cambridge (Mass.) / London 1976 (2nd revised edition), p. 223
  36. Cf. Geert Keil: Quine . Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, p. 87
  37. ^ Henri Lauener: Willard V. Quine , Munich 1982, p. 128, quoted from: WVO Quine: On Mental Entities , in: WVO Quine: The Ways of Paradox , New York 1966 [1954], p. 210
  38. Quoted from Henri Lauener: Willard V. Quine , Munich 1982, p. 135
  39. WVO Quine: Theories and Things , Frankfurt / M. 1985, p. 130
  40. Cf. WVO Quine: Theorien und Dinge , Frankfurt / M. 1985, p. 24
  41. Cf. WVO Quine: Events and Reification , in: E. Picardi / J. Schulte (Ed.): The Truth of Interpretation , Frankfurt / M. 1986, pp. 123-139 (here p. 132)
  42. WVO Quine: Theories and Things , Frankfurt / M. 1985, p. 128
  43. For the following cf. Geert Keil: Quine . Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, pp. 90-99
  44. Nelson Goodman, WVO Quine: Steps toward a constructive nominalism , in: The Journal of Symbolic Logic 12 (4), pp. 105-122 (1947)
  45. WVO Quine: From Stimulus to Science , Cambridge, Mass. 1995, p. 40
  46. WVO Quine: From A Logical Point of View - From a logical point of view. Three selected essays , trans. by R. Bluhm, ed. by Chr. Nimtz, Stuttgart 2011, Cambridge, Mass. 1995, p. 39
  47. ^ WVO Quine: The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays , New York, 2nd ed. 1976, p. 26, Grundzüge der Logic, Frankfurt / M. 1969, p. 297
  48. Cf. WVO Quine: Word and Subject , Stuttgart 1980, p. 443 ff.
  49. WVO Quine: Whither Physical Objects? . In: RS Cohen et al. a. (Ed.): Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos . Dordrecht / Boston 1976, pp. 497–504 (here p. 503)
  50. For a coherent overview cf. Ludwig Steinherr: Holism, Existence and Identity. A systematic comparison between Quine and Hegel , St. Ottilien 1996, pp. 138–152.
  51. WVO Quine: Whither Physical Objects? . In: RS Cohen et al. a. (Ed.): Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos . Dordrecht / Boston 1976, pp. 497–504 (here pp. 498–499)
  52. WVO Quine: Whither Physical Objects? . In: RS Cohen et al. a. (Ed.): Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos . Dordrecht / Boston 1976, pp. 497–504 (here p. 501)
  53. Cf. Geert Keil: Quine . Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, p. 105
  54. WVO Quine: Whither Physical Objects? . In: RS Cohen et al. a. (Ed.): Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos . Dordrecht / Boston 1976, pp. 497–504 (here p. 502)