Matja˛ Potrč


Some of my memories on Willard van Orman Quine


Just a couple of days into a new millenium I learned that on December 25, 2000, Quine died in Boston. He was 92 years old. The boundaries of his life stayed within the century the philosophy of which he most decisively marked. In my eyes, Quine is the continuator of the Middle European tradition, which he marked with his decisive personal imprint.

            This is an occasion to write about some influences that Quine's work exercised on me. I first read some parts of Quine's book Word and object, and then some of his papers on epistemology naturalized. Together with a student of mine, I worked on translation of the second chapter, including discussion of stimulus meaning. I do not think that this Slovene translation was ever published. But the former student is now my colleague. I arranged for the publication of Word and object with a publisher in Ljubljana. Valter Motaln wrote a thesis on Quine, and I arranged for its publication as well. Again, both of these projects failed to materialize. But at the time, we had some presentations of Quine's philosophy in our discussion groups. The book Word and object I could borrow from the library. But finally I purchased my own copy while I was a student of Stegmüller in Munich in early eighties.

            For the first time I heard Quine deliver a lecture at Sorbonne in Paris in seventies. The topics was reification, the story about the genesis of our relation to objects. Now I realize that Quine's skepticism about taking objects too easily left a lasting mark upon my own thought. One of the phases that the child's development passes through figures conceiving of entities in terms of stuff. "More milk, more mama" are typical expressions by the help of which the situation may be rendered. The main idea was that objects are not what is primarily given. Things turn out to be much closer as related in their nature than is the usual opinion. This conception was due to Piaget's research on child development. Another idea was that objects should recede in their importance in respect to language. This means that objects might not be metaphysically primary, and that to great extent they result from construals of language and thought.

            Quine's paper on "Two dogmas of empiricism" was a standard reading in Zadar, where I started my career as a teacher. One important idea in this paper was the distinction between analytic and synthetic. Another important idea was conceiving the border between scientific theories and empirical evidence as being rather indeterminate. This was the beginning of the large tradition of holism, as presented later by Fodor and LePore.

            These were also the heydays of radical translation and indeterminacy of interpretation theses. They were further developed by Donald Davidson, marking the prevalence of the philosophy of language at the time. Radical translation puts you into the situation where you have to build the vocabulary of a hitherto unknown tribe exclusively on the basis of the accessible input that does not include any semantic or syntactic information. These are just data arriving at your sensory surfaces, which mirror changes in the surrounding world. This behavioral background is interpreted as paired with linguistic expressions, such as "Gavagai". The hypotheses about the meaning of linguistic expressions are gradually extracted by passage through several bahavioral tests in various circumstances. But whatever one might do, the interpretation ultimately remains indeterminate.

            Following my study of Brentano, Meinong and Veber, with their idea of building an ontology starting with basic elements, I became interested in Quine's treatment of what he calls stimulus meaning. This is an empiricist thesis. It builds an interpretation starting with the information from immediate data impinging on our sensory surfaces. I became interested in Quine's book The roots of reference, and I believed shaving found some similarities between this and Christoper Peacocke's work. I sketched a larger project which I dubbed two levels theory. The idea was that the primary elements build a supervenience basis for higher ontological or cognitive construals, such as properties or meanings.

            Reading the book The time of my life soon after its appearance, I was struck by Quine's description of his visit to Dubrovnik some years before. He describes the marvelous time he had there with bunch of American colleagues, such as for example Donnellan. He also wondered about the reasons for total absence of local philosophers. Reading all this made me mad enough that I decided to visit Dubrovnik Inter University Center as often as possible. And I did. First I delivered papers at several symposia. In the process I became acquainted with Cathy Wilkes, and finally Pappas invited me to become a course director. All these activities of mine were initiated by my reading of Quine’s report about what was happening in Dubrovnik.

At a point in time, I was invited by Ernie LePore to assist at the Quine San Marino conference, a memorable event. Quine was there and without any fatigue he discussed his work during all the available time. Then a couple of years ago, I took part at a Karlovy Vary conference, dedicated to the work of Quine. I wrote a paper for this occasion and presented it to him. Quine commented on the paper. I had privilege to have some discussion with him in the park, in presence of his wife. Later I wrote an objection to his presentation of objects, pointing out that his proposal may be circular. I received an answer from Quine, a letter, where he tried to reject my fear of circularity.

The last time I saw Quine was at the occasion of the Boston world congress. He read his paper, introduced by Ernie LePore and preceeded by Davidson’s talk. Paper was on topics of stimulus meaning and about the continuity of information coming from our senses with what is going on in our scientific theories. This topics was already central at the time of Karlovy Vary, and some people would say it was characteristic for Quine’s entire philosophy. Although Quine’s presentation was clear, it was obvious that his body was beginning to be too feeble as to give occasion to his thought to develop further.

In 1996 I spent a year as a Fulbright scholar with Terry Horgan in Memphis. Eventually we started to collaborate, and later, on the occasion of our trip to Reno, we had one of those long discussions where some new ideas get articulated. I remember that the whole thing started with Quine’s construal of posits, an idea on which I insisted. Objects are not mind-independently real, they are rather posits introduced by our language and thought. Discussion joined some of Terry’s previous work, and it resulted in an ontological view that we now call blobjectivism. Recently we published a paper on this topics, posits playing an important role in the story about indirect correspondence.

In September 2000 I had occasion to spend a month in Vienna. I dedicated myself to the study of some aspects concerning Vienna circle. As I learned more on Carnap, Schlick and Mach, I also had to come back to Quine’s self presentation concerning his relation to Carnap. I did not bring many books with me to Vienna, but some of them were Quine’s. My idea was that there exists some important relation between Vienna circle and between Brentanian tradition, and that all of this may be somehow related to Quine. Deep inside myself I was certain that Quine is the biggest continuator of the Middle European philosophy as it existed in twenties and thirties. In order to find out my own local roots, I would have to come back to Quine repeatedly. Surely Quine is an empiricist and my inkling always was in this direction. Although recently under Horgan’s influence I begin to be more skeptical about epistemicism.

Much is left to be said, but let me finish just with some additional remarks. During some time, I was teaching elementary logic using a textbook by Quine.  I remember that my esteem of Georges Rey rose as he told me that for a while he was Quine’s assistant, although at the time he also told me that he was not really supportive about Quine’s ideas anymore. I never really was a specialist on Quine, but it is just impossible to escape him. I believe something around ten of my published papers deal to various extents with Quine.

As far as I can judge, Quine was a master in his writing and in the language that he used. Literature is somehow close to my taste and to my family tradition. And I like to travel and to cross the borders, just as he liked to. But my voyages are much more limited than were his. In this respect as well, Quine stays somebody we all should learn from.