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Willard Van Orman Quine; Renowned Philosopher

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Willard Van Orman Quine, one of America’s preeminent thinkers, whose analysis of language and reality had wide influence in the world of philosophy, has died.

The Edgar Pierce professor emeritus at Harvard, Quine died on Monday at a Boston-area hospital after a brief illness. He was 92.

Quine’s clear thinking and fluid writing style earned him his own word in the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “Quinean” appears in the 1987 supplement to the dictionary. It means “of, pertaining to or characteristic of Willard Van Orman Quine or his theories.”

Quine’s lifelong work focused on age-old philosophical questions, such as: what is the world and how do human beings fit into that reality?

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“The idea of reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar--that’s what we have in science,” Quine said in an interview some years ago with the Associated Press.

Initially Quine’s career work was as a mathematical logician. His first five books were devoted to logic, but he abandoned that pursuit in 1953 and moved on to the philosophy of language, acquiring a wide reputation. From there Quine crossed into the realm of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge.

Quine developed a new type of philosophy, which he called naturalized epistemology. He claimed that epistemology’s only legitimate role is to describe the way knowledge is actually obtained. So, according to Quine, its function is to describe how present science arrives at the beliefs accepted by the scientific community.

In what is perhaps his most noted book, “Word and Object,” Quine “stressed that what we perceive and what we take others to perceive plays a crucial role in language learning and language use. This is a key point on Quine: Semantics and epistemology are intimately intertwined,” wrote Dagfinn Follesdal, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo and an expert on Quine’s work.

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Quine was born June 25, 1908, in Akron, Ohio. His father founded a heavy-equipment company and his mother was an elementary school teacher. As a boy he left the Congregationalist religion of his parents because he found its doctrines, especially life after death, “implausible.”

“What kind of evidence could there be?” he later said. “I was a little bit nervous--after all it was sinful to lose one’s faith. But that didn’t bother me much or long, because I thought, if this is all nonsense, then so in particular is that.”

As a boy, Quine also loved cartography and stamp collecting, which he translated in his adult life into a zest for world travel, visiting 118 countries and every state.

He graduated from Oberlin College in 1930 and earned his doctorate from Harvard just two years later, one of the fastest in the school’s history. He started teaching philosophy at Harvard in 1936 and never left, except for four years in the U.S. Navy decoding messages from German submarines during World War II. He spoke at least six languages and often read philosophical works written in the language of the author.

Quine retired in 1978 from a teaching career in which his pupils had included, not only influential philosophers, but also the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer and Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber.

After his retirement Quine continued to do active work in philosophy, attending conferences and publishing papers.

He wrote 22 books that have been translated into numerous languages and studied by scholars around the globe. In addition to “Word and Object,” other noted books include the autobiographical “The Time of My Life,” and a collection of essays called “Quiddities.”

Throughout his career, Quine composed manuscripts by hand and then polished them with scissors, paste, tape and a 1927 Remington typewriter, which he modified by replacing characters he didn’t use with mathematical fractions.

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Once asked why he didn’t need the question mark on his typewriter, he replied, " Well, you see, I deal in certainties.”

He is survived by three daughters and a son.


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