Philosophy W.V.O. Quine
Gary Kemp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0005


Willard Van Orman Quine (b. 1908–d. 2000) was the main agenda setter in post–World War II philosophy of language and related fields. He was also a highly active logician; if his views on formal and mathematical logic did not shape the field in quite the same way as his work on language, epistemology, and metaphysics, the latter largely sprang from his work on logic and the related domain of the foundations of mathematics. His doctoral thesis (“The Logic of Sequences,” 1933) attempted to clean up and generalize yet boil down the great Principia Mathematica of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1910, 1927). Quine’s subsequent works—including A System of Logistic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), Mathematical Logic (1940, 1951; Quine 1951, cited under Quine’s Monographs), “New Foundations for Mathematical Logic” (1937, 1953, 1961; Quine 1961, cited under Logic and Set Theory), and Set Theory and Its Logic (1963, 1969; Quine 1969, cited under Quine’s Textbooks)—developed more refined and original ideas on largely the same topics. In philosophy he is known most generally for his commitment to extensionalism, which—for scientific purposes—rules out as inadmissible that two expressions could have the same truth-value or extension or refer to the same object yet not be interchangeable in containing sentences without affecting the truth-values of the containing sentences. Closely related are his celebrated criticisms of the unexplicated reliance on the concepts “meaning,” the “a priori,” and “analyticity” among empiricist philosophers; pressed harder, Quine believed, those notions cannot support the edifices empiricists had envisaged. A scientifically rigorous attitude toward language shows that the notion of the meaning of a sentence, in the intuitive sense that sustains the idea that two correct translations of a given foreign sentence must be in some clear sense be equivalent, must be discarded; meaning in that sense is “indeterminate.” In metaphysics, specifically ontology, he is celebrated for formulating a clear and seemingly rigorous test for ontological commitment in his “On What There Is” (1948; Quine 1961, cited under Ontology): existence is equated with being the value of variable in the first-order predicate calculus. Less well known but equally interesting are his later views concerning the question of what exists; he held that certain considerations undermine the idea that there is a single answer to the question “What is there?” Finally, the notion that epistemology should be “naturalized” and more generally that philosophy itself should be thought of as taking its place within natural science has caused considerable commentary and indeed controversy.

General Overviews

Book-length attempts to grapple with Quine’s philosophy as a whole are relatively few in number. Yet as Burton S. Dreben points out, when it comes to Quine, it seems as though one has to understand all of it before one understands any of it. Easily the most thorough yet most readable is Hylton 2010a; it serves as both an introduction to Quine and a philosophical interpretation that anyone writing on Quine will have to be aware of. Hookway 1988 provides a sympathetic but sophisticated critical analysis of the principal aspects of Quine’s philosophy. Kemp 2006, Orenstein 2002, and Gibson 1988 also present Quine’s views sympathetically and with care. Gregory 2008 (cited under Critical Commentary) explores in-depth and interestingly what in retrospect seems clearly to have been the main strand in Quine’s philosophy, his particular brand of naturalism. Kirk 1986 challenges the most notorious Quinean doctrine, his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, but argues that it is not a supporting member of his philosophy in the way often supposed. Gibson 2004 contains excellent essays by leading scholars on the principal aspects of Quine’s philosophy. For a short, article-length introduction and overview, a good place to look is Hylton 2010b.

  • Gibson, Roger. Enlightened Empiricism: An Examination of W. V. Quine’s Theory of Knowledge. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1988.

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    Gibson provides a well-informed analysis of Quine’s naturalized theories of knowledge and language.

  • Gibson, Roger, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Quine. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521630568E-mail Citation »

    An excellent collection of essays written expressly for the volume by several of the top expositors of Quine: Richard Creath, Raffaella de Rosa and Ernest Lepore, Dreben, John J. Fogelin, Dagfinn Føllesdal, Peter Hylton, Daniel Isaacson, Robert Kirk, and Joseph Ullian.

  • Hookway, Christopher. Quine: Language, Experience, and Reality. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988.

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    A book that manages to be a concise and sympathetic introduction to the main lines of Quine’s thought and its development, yet certain critical responses are explored also.

  • Hylton, Peter. Quine. Arguments of the Philosophers. London: Routledge, 2010a.

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    This is likely to be the main work of Quinean exegesis for some time to come. Although for graduate students and above, it presupposes very little philosophy, yet it digs deeply into the Quinean corpus, including some of its little-visited regions that are shown to be vital. It provides a uniquely comprehensive and judicious view of Quine’s philosophy.

  • Hylton, Peter. “Willard Van Orman Quine.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2010b.

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    A brief, readable, but informative overview of all the basics of Quine’s philosophy by an authority.

  • Kemp, Gary. Quine: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, 2006.

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    A short book suitable for undergraduates that nevertheless covers in an unfussy manner all the basics of Quine’s philosophy.

  • Kirk, Robert. Translation Determined. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thoroughgoing and intricate book that attempts to argue that translation is not indeterminate but that this conclusion is compatible with other famous Quinean doctrines.

  • Orenstein, Alex. W. V. Quine. Philosophy Now. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

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    A straightforward, concise introduction to Quine.

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