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The Passing of Willard Van Orman Quine

By Iftekhar Sayeed  Posted by Iftekhar Sayeed (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 1 pages)   1 comment
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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.

 Keats, in his poem 'Lamia', lamented that
...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.

 Again, in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, the doctor explains the suicide of Jude's son from an earlier marriage and his murder of the children from the second in terms of the "will to live" giving way "to the will not to live". Hardy had been immensely influenced by Schopenhauer's gloomy, pessimistic philosophy. Schopenhauer regarded man in somewhat Spinozan terms, not as being led by his passions so much as by an external Will; man suffers from the illusion of being led by the intellect. One day, he predicted, the will to live will be substituted by the will not to live, and that will be the consummation of man's destiny. Perhaps Schopenhauer had foreseen the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Nietzsche, too, maintained that man was an irrational creature driven by the urge to power. It is difficult to demarcate Nietzsche the philosopher from Nietzsche the poet. And, of course, he has inspired a whole generation of writers. A well-known use of his ideas was made by Jack London in The Sea Wolf, the depiction of a 'superman' who ran a ship manned by criminals and outcastes. Ayn Rand has applied Nietzschean ideas to economics in her novel Fountainhead. In more recent times, Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher who turned down the Nobel Prize, married philosophy and literature in his own writing. His slogan "Man is condemned to be free" ran a considerable risk of being trivialized through overuse. In his 'Existentialism and Humanism' he addressed the major philosophical concerns of non-philosophers. In the absence of divine guidelines, how should we act? How is every man responsible for the creation of values that define Man? What is the meaning of anxiety? Notice that all the philosophers mentioned are European, none Anglo-American, whereas the writers who used their ideas were of all nations. In fact, the great Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition in philosophy militates against a poetic deployment of the subject. The tradition that began with Locke and Hume continued through Russell and down to Quine. It is interesting to be able to learn from Russell that numbers are "logical fictions", and dazzling to study the virtuoso intellectual demonstration of the thesis, but one can hardly base a novel on the subject!   This kind of philosophy really appears to have clipped the angel's wings. 
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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