Jun 252018

Today is the birthday (1908) of Willard Van Orman Quine, a US philosopher and logician squarely in the analytic tradition, and certainly one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Western philosophy is every bit as technical as Western science, so I am going to have to struggle to explain Quine’s influence. Quine worked first in symbolic logic and then moved into the philosophy of language and of meaning. These are all areas that fascinate me, but can seem like a gigantic waste of time because they have zero practical application except to amuse and confound smart people.

Quine grew up in Akron, Ohio, where he lived with his parents and older brother. His father was a manufacturing entrepreneur (founder of the Akron Equipment Company, which produced tire molds) and his mother was a schoolteacher. He received his B.A. in mathematics from Oberlin College in 1930, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1932.  Apart from a stint away during World War II, lecturing on logic in Brazil (in Portuguese) and deciphering coded messages for military intelligence, Quine spent the remainder of his life at Harvard.

Quine started his academic career working on formal logic, which is the area where Bertrand Russell worked to establish rigorous foundations of mathematics. This gets us quickly into an extremely technical field, so I will content myself with saying that the vast majority of people think that mathematics is about as solid as it gets, yet it is not. If you accept certain basic propositions, such as 2 + 2 = 4, all is well with the world. Once you accept certain basic propositions, then you can build the vast edifice of mathematics. But proving that 2 + 2 = 4 is not only difficult, it is impossible. Sure, you can take 2 apples and add another 2 apples, and you have 4 apples, but that is an empirical demonstration, not a proof. Can you prove that 2 +2 = 4 without apples or any other objects? Can you even define what 2 is, or, more importantly, what a number is? Are numbers real things, or simply convenient abstractions? Russell used formal logic to find answers to these questions, and failed. Quine wrote three textbooks, and numerous academic papers on formal logic, and taught the subject for his entire career. He also wrote Mathematical Logic showing that much of what Russell’s Principia Mathematica took more than 1000 pages to say can be said in 250 pages, and in the last chapter examines Gödel’s incompleteness theorem https://www.bookofdaystales.com/kurt-godel/  and Tarski’s indefinability theorem.  In highly informal terms I will tell you that Gödel proved – definitively – that mathematics inevitably contains statements that are true, but cannot be proven to be true, and Tarski showed that truth in mathematics cannot be defined. Some of the greatest mathematicians in the world proved, beyond question, that mathematics rests on foundations that have to be accepted because they cannot be proven. Any different from building a religion on a spiritual force whose existence cannot be proven?

Quine then extended his investigations concerning logic into discussions concerning language. In particular he was led to doubt the tenability of the distinction between “analytic” and “synthetic” statements which was commonly made in the philosophy of language. Analytic statements are true simply by definition. For example, “Bachelors are unmarried men.” Synthetic statements are true or false because of facts in the world, “There is a black cat sitting on the mat.” Quine’s chief objection to analyticity is with the notion of synonymy (sameness of meaning). An analytic sentence substitutes a synonym for one half of the statement.  The objection to synonymy hinges upon the problem of collateral information. We intuitively feel that there is a distinction between “All unmarried men are bachelors” and “There have been black cats”, but a competent English speaker will assent to both sentences under all conditions because such speakers also have access to collateral information. In the case of black cats this collateral information has to do with the historical existence of black cats. But Quine maintains that there is no distinction between generally known collateral information (such as the existence of black cats) and conceptual or analytic information needed to agree that bachelors are unmarried men. One of the common questions used to elucidate this position is: “Is the pope a bachelor?” Quine argues that there is no distinction between those truths which are universally and confidently believed and those which are necessarily true.

Quine may be best known in some circles for his thoughts on the indeterminacy of translation. Can we ever be sure that we understand what a person speaking another language is saying?  As an anthropologist, this question interests me greatly, but where I part company with Quine is that he uses thought experiments based on imaginary languages, but anthropologists of language can address his concerns more directly using real languages. Quine’s investigations hinge on ontological relativity, that is, the idea that for any empirical observation there are multiple explanations (theories).

Let us consider statements in English first. What do words refer to? Quine says:

How can we talk about Pegasus? To what does the word ‘Pegasus’ refer? If our answer is, ‘Something,’ then we seem to believe in mystical entities; if our answer is, ‘nothing’, then we seem to talk about nothing and what sense can be made of this? Certainly when we said that Pegasus was a mythological winged horse we make sense, and moreover we speak the truth! If we speak the truth, this must be truth about something. So we cannot be speaking of nothing.

We already have a conundrum here because it is difficult enough in English to agree concerning what words are referring to. The problem is compounded when you try to translate sentences in another language into English, because you have to take into account what words refer to in another language as well as what they refer to in English. Quine’s thesis is that no unique interpretation of a foreign language is possible, because a ‘radical interpreter’ has no way of telling which of many possible meanings the speaker has in mind. Quine uses the example of the word “gavagai” uttered by a native speaker of the unknown language Jungle upon seeing a rabbit. A speaker of English could do what seems natural and translate this as “Look, a rabbit.” But other translations would be compatible with all the evidence he has: “Look, food”; “Let’s go hunting”; “There will be a storm tonight” (if the locals have superstitions about rabbits and storms); “Look, a momentary rabbit-stage”; “Look, an undetached rabbit-part.” Some of these might become less likely – that is, become more unwieldy hypotheses – in the light of subsequent observation.

Frankly I find all of this ruminating quite pointless. Yes, it’s certainly true that there is slippage of meaning when translating one language to another. Nuances are perpetually lost in all manner of ways, and there are dozens of ways in which mistakes can be made. But anthropological field linguists have been dealing with such problems for over a century, and somehow they manage to come up with grammars and dictionaries for new languages that can be used to develop fluency. The fact that there is always going to be a degree of uncertainty (indeterminacy) is neither news nor earth shattering.

I had lunch with Quine and a number of other luminaries of the philosophical world back in the 1970s when he was attending an annual conference at my university. The group was talking about the philosophical problems associated with language acquisition and even then, as a raw doctoral candidate in anthropology, I was perplexed as to why he and others were speculating about issues that were being addressed more fruitfully by neuroscientists, anthropologists and the like. It made me think that Western analytic philosophy was sheer speculating – at great length – about ideas in a vacuum. This tradition leads to some fascinating mind puzzles, but ultimately has no value for me beyond exercising my brain. This was perhaps not the best conclusion to reach given that I was married to an analytic philosopher of language at the time.

Quine spent 70 of his 92 years at Harvard, so a Harvard recipe is in order on his birthday. One with a small linguistic twist seems in order, so I thought of Harvard beets. If I told you we had Harvard beets for dinner what would you think? Were the beets grown at Harvard? Or are they cooked in a style common to Harvard? Or what? This is a simple question in the philosophy of language concerning modifiers. How do we know that baby shoes are shoes for babies, but crocodile shoes are made out of crocodile skin, not shoes for crocodiles (any more than baby shoes are made from baby skin)? We can be reasonably sure that Harvard beets are beetroots cooked in some fashion, but what does the modifier “Harvard” refer to? The simple answer is that it is a way of cooking beets in a sweet and sour sauce, but why Harvard? Why not Princeton or Chicago? For that question there is no answer. Cookbooks say that “Harvard” refers to the crimson color of the beets, and crimson is the university color for Harvard. That is a terrible answer because by that token, beets cooked in any fashion, or eaten raw, could be called Harvard beets because they are all crimson. Anyway, this recipe calls for roasting beetroots and then preparing a thick sweet and sour sauce for them.

Harvard Beets


1 ½ lbs medium-sized fresh beets
⅓ cup sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup water
1 tbsp unsalted butter


Brush excess dirt off the beets, trim the tops and roots leaving about 1” and do not break the skin. Wrap them in foil and bake them for 1 hour in a 400˚F oven. Remove them from the oven and let them cool to the touch. When they are still a little warm, cut off the tops and roots and peel them. Then cut them in cubes.

Mix the sugar, cornstarch, vinegar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking until thickened. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter.

Add the beets to the sauce and heat them through gently over low heat. Serve warm.