Willard Van Quine was born 25 June 1908 in Akron, Ohio, USA. He studied at Oberlin College and Harvard University before studying at Prague under Rudolf Carnap. Quine received an M.A. from Oxford and a Ph.D. from Harvard (1932) in philosophy. He completed his doctorate in two years, his PhD thesis being sponsored by Alfred North Whitehead. Quine wrote:-
In 1932 - I already had my PhD and was married to my first wife - I had a traveling fellowship. That was a great year. We used up our resources very accurately - I had $7 when we got back to America. Then I came back to Harvard as a Junior Fellow in 1933.
Quine was appointed onto the staff at Harvard in 1936. He wrote about his teaching in those times:-
What I enjoyed most was more the mathematical end than the philosophical, because of it being less a matter of opinion. Clarifying, not defending. Resting on proof. I taught first in both departments, but my appointment was in the Philosophy Department. I taught Mathematical Logic and Set Theory as well as a general course of Logic in Philosophy. Harvard was good about letting me teach my own interests. I gave a course in Philosophy of my own choosing, my own ideas, for concentrators.
He spent a time in the Navy during World War II, decrypting messages from German submarines off the coast, returning to Harvard. Writing of his work decrypting messages he wrote:-
The Germans had a replica Enigma breaking complicated ciphers. Each day they had a different setting on the machine. We had to get it the hard way, by intercepting a message from a submarine that gave direction finders. We would know, say, from the preceding day's message he had been sent on a refueling rendezvous, so a good guess was that some word would be 'refueling.' Then if our men could fit the word, they could get the setting for the whole.
He became Pierce professor of philosophy there until he retired in 1978. At present he is an emeritus professor of philosophy and mathematics at Harvard and he still commutes daily to his corner office in Emerson Hall.
He is known for his work in mathematical logic. Symbolic logic represented for Quine the framework for the language of science. He modestly said:-
I do not do anything with computers, although one of my little results in mathematical logic has become a tool of the computer theory, the Quine McCluskey principle. And corresponds to terminals in series, or to those in parallel, so that if you simplify mathematical logical steps, you have simplified your wiring. I arrived at it not from an interest in computers, but as a pedagogical device, a slick way of introducing that way of teaching mathematical logic.
Quine developed a new type of philosophy, which he called naturalized epistemology. He claimed that epistemology's only legitimate role is to describe the way knowledge is actually obtained so, according to Quine, its function is to describe how present science arrives at the beliefs accepted by the scientific community.
Among Quine's publications are in logic, metaphysics, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of logic. They include A System of Logistic (1934), Mathematical Logic (1940), Elementary Logic (1941), From a Logical Point of View (1953), Word and Object (1960), Set Theory and Its Logic (1963) and Philosophy of Logic (1970).
The 1996 Kyoto Prize for Creative Arts and Moral Sciences focused on the field of philosophy and made the award to Quine as one of America's pre-eminent 20th century philosophers. His achievements were summarised as:-
We may therefore say that the many theses and arguments of Dr. Willard Van Orman Quine have become the center of debate for modern epistemology and ontology as well as philosophy of language and philosophy of science in general. He has created a profound, powerful influence without which it would not be possible to understand the current state of philosophy.