Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Comparison Between Quine and Russell

W. T. Jones offers an interesting overview of Willard Van Orman Quine’s philosophy in Chapter 13 of his A History of Western Philosophy (Volume V: The Twentieth Century To Quine and Derrida). In the last section of the chapter, he compares Quine with Bertrand Russell.

Here’s an excerpt:
There are many close affinities between [Quine’s] position and that of Russell. They were not only both leading figures in the development of modern logic, they also both employed the methods of logic to deal with fundamental philosophical issues. In particular, they both employed logical analysis as a device for eliminating—as far as possible—unwanted abstract, or otherwise peculiar, entities. In this respect, Quine’s “On What There Is” can, in a large part, be read as a continuation of the project launched by Russell in “On Denoting.”  
But even if Russell and Quine often make a similar use of logical methods in dealing with ontological issues, their positions are profoundly opposed in other important respects. Most significantly, they have opposed views concerning meaning. Along with other classical analytic philosophers, Russell thought that it made sense to inquire into the meaning of a specific proposition. Propositions expressed in ordinary language may be vague or ambitious, and their grammatical form may disguise their logical form, but, still, there was nothing wrong in asking what an individual proposition meant, and it was the business of the philosopher to answer just such questions. Logical atomism is the clearest example of philosophy operating under these assumptions.  
Quine, in contrast, is wholly opposed to an atomistic conception of propositional meaning. The logical atomist believed that, down deep, determinate meanings can be found. The persistent theme in Quine’s writings is indeterminacy—indeterminacy of reference translation, indeterminacy of  translation, and so on. In place of the radical atomism found in the writings of Russell and the early Wittgenstein, Quine embraced an equally radical version of holism.  
According to W. T. Jones, the innovation that Quine brought to philosophy consists of his combination of momism (with its strong indeterminist implications) with austere commitments to an extensionalist logic and a physicalist ontology. Jones says that no other analytic philosopher before Quine has thought of developing such a combination. 

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