Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
Willard van Orman Quine '30, hon. '55

19148 Pg 54
Willard van Ormon Quine, the Harvard professor, one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century, died on Christmas Day at age 92 in Boston after a brief illness.  
Known to his friends as Van, Willard Quine arrived in Oberlin from his family's home in Akron, Ohio, in 1926 after selling his cherished stamp collection to help finance his tuition.

His older brother Douglas had attended Oberlin, so Mr. Quine was somewhat familiar with the campus. Among his new college friends was a group of enthusiastic poker-players, who, while shuffling cards one day, began to discuss their excitement about the philosophy of Bertrand Russell. Mr. Quine, who was captivated, imbued himself in Russell's viewpoints and decided immediately to major in mathematics with a minor in the philosophy of math.

In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, he recalled his four years at Oberlin as "idyllic." His rooming house, filled with kindred spirits, was "an ideal setting in which to wax articulate." Following his sophomore year, he and two friends spent the summer crossing the continent, jumping onto moving boxcars, and spending nights on benches or in prisons. This was the first of the adventures that led to his lifelong insatiable desire to travel.

By the time Mr. Quine retired, he had set foot in 113 countries in five continents. For his 90th birthday, his family took him to North Dakota, the only state of the union he had not visited.

After graduating summa cum laude from Oberlin, the next stop was Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, spurred by the economic uncertainties of the Depression, he completed the requirements for a Harvard doctorate in just two years under the supervision of leading philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Eligible for a yearlong, post-doctoral Sheldon Travelling Fellowship, he married Naomi Clayton '29, and the young couple set off for Vienna, Prague, and Warsaw, meeting the most distinguished mathematicians of Europe. Planning carefully, they returned to Harvard 12 months later with exactly $7 between them.

Mr. Quine was elected as a junior member of the newly formed, prestigious Society of Fellows, which allowed him three years of research. In 1936 he began a teaching career at Harvard that would last for the next four decades. He retired in 1978.

He tried to integrate the rigorous study of logic and language with philosophy to discover what humans can know and how they can know it. Although not all of his peers agreed with him, he was nevertheless considered the world's foremost analytical philosopher, and certainly a luminary of the academic world. Mr. Quine's position was that philosophy was contiguous with science, not a separate, privileged field, that could provide an independent foundation for other areas of study.

His specialty was in mathematical logic and in the meaning of language, and he theorized that what exists is what our best theory says exists. He set out to define the reality of the world and how humans fit into it. The conclusion he arrived at was that a person could only understand the world empirically, or through direct experience of it. He believed that nothing that humans know lies outside the realm of language, and so the theory of knowledge depended upon a theory of language. His paper, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," published in 1951, helped to crumble the barriers between science and philosophy.

Aside from guest lectures on five continents, Mr. Quine left Harvard only once, for four years, to serve in World War II as a Navy officer deciphering communication codes used by German submarines. His facility in languages included not only German, but also French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and a smattering of ten other languages. One of his more than two dozen books was written in Portuguese. His magnum opus was Quiddities, written in a style that was eminently lucid, and, at the same time, lively, elegant, and accessible to the layman. In his 500-page autobiography, he includes a long segment about his friendship with Oberlin classmate and lifelong friend Ed Haskell '28, whom he describes as "ambitious, opinionated, contentious in the classroom, and rather shunned as an eccentric." The author mentioned that he often accepted speaking engagements only for the sake of their frequent reunions.

Mr. Quine typed his manuscripts on a 1927 Remington typewriter he had modified by replacing characters he didn't use with mathematical fractions. When asked why he didn't need the question mark on his typewriter, he replied. "Well, you see, I only deal in certainties."

Among the hundreds of students whom he taught were the mathematician and political satirist Tom A. Lehrer and Theodore J. Kaczynski, later known as the "Unabomber." Mr. Quine is possibly the only philosopher whose name appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. The listing "Quinian" is defined as "Of or pertaining to or characteristic of Willard van Orman Quine or his theories." Many philosophers use "to Quine" to repudiate a clear distinction.

Mr. Quine had a softer side. He enjoyed a very happy second marriage and was close to each of his children; two by his first marriage and two by his 1948 marriage to Margerie Boynton. He loved Dixieland jazz and played the banjo in jazz groups. He also liked Mexican folk songs, Gilbert & Sullivan, and playing the mandolin. A self-taught pianist, he preferred limiting himself to only the black keys.

Mr. Quine was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree by Oberlin in 1955, and held a dozen and a half other honorary degrees. He was recipient of the 1993 Rolf Schock Prize in Stockholm, and the 1996 Kyoto Prize in Tokyo.

Predeceased by his wife and his former wife, he is survived by three daughters, a son, five grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.
--by Mavis Clark

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