We know the story, but it won't hurt in its retelling. Bertrand Russell and Rabindranath Tagore were out on a peripatetic spin when they both espied a church. Attracted by the music, the latter wanted to step inside. Russell refused to slacken his pace and made the characteristic reply, "I want to keep my intellectual sky clear of mystical clouds."
Willard Van Orman Quine, a devotee of Bertrand Russell, would probably have used stronger language. One of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, he passed away on December 25th, 2000. That most of us hardly noticed his passing is eloquent of the kind of work he did. Imagine that Russell, after his Principia Mathematica, had written none of the stuff that made him popular – imagine no History of Western Philosophy, or Conquest of Happiness, or, above all, no Marriage and Morals (which won him the Nobel Prize). Most of us would have been oblivious of his existence. Imagine such a destiny, and Quine's quiet exit explains itself.
He was a giant in the world of philosophy. He questioned ancient philosophical distinctions that had been respected and observed since the time of Leibniz and Kant. Most famously, he denied the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. (Readers who have no taste for philosophical esoterica can move on to the next paragraph.) "No unmarried man is married" is a statement one cannot deny; however, Quine maintained, it was not the same statement as "No bachelor is married". To convert the latter into the former would require 'bachelor' and 'unmarried man' to be synonymous. Most of us do regard them to be synonymous; Quine denied that there was any such thing as synonymy itself! In denying the existence of synonymy, he denied analyticity, and gave rise to a new infinitive "to quine" – meaning, to deny distinctions.
Quine's very greatness raises some questions about the nature and relevance of philosophy today. There was a time when philosophers grappled with fundamental questions about life and death. Does life have meaning? Are human beings free? How should we lead our lives? The rise of the philosophy of logical analysis, at least in the Anglo-American world, has put paid to this sort of speculation.
...There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:We know her woof, her texture; she is givenIn the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings...
Science, philosophy's former self, had stripped nature of all mystery. The romantic reaction was in part a reaction against knowledge – especially, scientific knowledge. A similar backlash against philosophy may be on the ascendant. Today, the complaint is more likely to be against the kind of philosophical work being done, rather than against philosophy per se.
To take an example from popular literature, consider the title of Somerset Maughm's 'Of Human Bondage'. It comes straight from Spinoza's Ethics. Spinoza spoke of human freedom and human bondage, and, in the novel, a character observes of Philip Carey that 'he was a contented slave to his passions'. This was a Spinozic observation; human beings are slaves to their passions, but they can be free if only they would consider their finite misfortunes from the eternal point of view, sub specie aeternitatis. "The free man thinks of nothing less than of death, but his wisdom is not a meditation on death, but on life." All this is not to deny that Spinoza's work is fraught with immense technical complexity. But the point is that the technical difficulty does not vitiate everyday interest.