Misling

Hilary Putnam

  • Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary by W.V. Quine
    Harvard, 249 pp, £15.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 674 74351 2
  • Quine by Christopher Hookway
    Polity, 227 pp, £25.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 07 456175 8

The Harvard University Press asked ‘the most distinguished and influential of living philosophers’ (Strawson’s description of Quine, on the dust-jacket) to produce a collection of loosely-connected essays on topics of his choice in a format inspired by Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary – and the result is a remarkable addition to English literature. Quine is not only a great philosopher, but also a master of the English language and a genuine polymath; and the ‘dictionary’ format – more than eighty articles ranging from A (Alphabet) to Z (Zero), and including entries on Belief, Communication, Free Will, Idiotisms, Longitude and Latitude, Marks, Prizes, Latin Pronunciation, Tolerance and Trinity – gives him ample opportunity to write (and, he tells us in the Preface, to have ‘more than half the fun’) about ‘lowlier themes’ than philosophy (which occupies less than half the book). Apart from philosophy, the subjects most fully represented in the book are mathematics, logic and language (including English etymologies, stylistics, and the philology of the Romance languages), but there are also many short essays in which Quine pokes fun or grumbles good-naturedly about various pet peeves. (The essays on Artificial Languages, Extravagance, Mathematosis, Usage and Abuses are wonderful examples.) Perhaps the most charmingly lighthearted essay in the book is the one titled ‘Misling’. Many people have been misled to pronounce ‘misled’ as ‘mizzled’. ‘But the verb misle that is born of that misconception is too pat to pass up, descriptive as it is of the very circumstance that engendered it,’ Quine tells us. ‘Perhaps we can press it into service as a mild word for the restrained sort of deception, not quite actionable as fraud even in Ralph Nader’s day, that has a respected place in enlightened modern merchandising.’ Although Quine steers clear of political themes for the most part, there is one beautifully formulated statement of his conservative creed – the essay on Freedom. An added charm is the not quite self-deprecating humour exhibited by some of the best remarks in the book, as when Quine writes (in the essay on Communication):

Examples taper off to where communication is less firmly assured, as when Hegel writes, ‘Truth is in league with reality against consciousness,’ or I write: ‘Logic chases truth up the tree of grammar.’ I am confident that I grasp and appreciate this message of Hegel’s, and that there are philosophers of logic who grasp mine. But mere acknowledgment, however sincere – ‘I dig you,’ or ‘I read you. Roger and over’ – is not conclusive evidence of successful communication. The Latin pupil gets low marks who says: ‘Oh, I know what it means but I can’t quite put it into words.’

In spite of the immense range of subjects that Quine covers, there are very few errors that I could detect. (The most surprising is the totally wrong statment about quantum physics which comprises the last paragraph of the essay no Discreteness. Time in quantum mechanics is not discrete, and Planck’s constant, in any case, is not in units of time.) Not only is there very little error in this book, but there is much that was discovered by Quine himself (although Quine modestly refrains from saying so), including the beautiful combinatorial equivalent to Fermat’s last Theorem.

If Quine had ‘more than half the fun’ writing the non-philosophical essays in the Dictionary, still the philosophical essays – perhaps because of their very informality – give a remarkably good picture of how Quine pictures the universe, and I must devote much more than half of this review to them. Quine is often considered to have destroyed Logical Positivism, with his rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction and his likening of philosophy to natural science rather than to pure logic; and, indeed, a generation of young ‘scientific realist’ philosophers has been inspired by him to denounce Logical Positivism root and branch. But reading these essays, I must say that I am inclined to class Quine as the last and greatest of the Logical Positivists, in spite of his criticisms of the movement. Not only is the reverential appraisal of the philosophical achievements of modern logic still there – ‘Gottlob Frege, however, seems to have been the first to offer a coherent account of what [the numbers] are,’ Quine writes in the essay on Natural Numbers – but so, I seem to detect, is something of the Positivist picture of the world as a system of ‘posits’.

The External World as a Construction

The greatest work produced during the existence of the Vienna Circle was Carnap’s The Logical Construction of the World, and Quine describes Carnap’s views very sympathetically. (Carnap, Quine tells us in the essay on Things, ‘gave us a masterful scheme or caricature of how the maxim [‘posit the simplest and laziest of all worlds compatible with our observations’] governs our conceptual construction of the world’ (emphasis added). Physical objects are, fundamentally, constructions. Our purpose in introducing them is to store up ‘observation categoricals’ in a logically compact form, where ‘observation categorical’ is Quine’s technical term for a general if-then assertion whose antecedent and consequent describe observable situations, as in ‘Whenever there is a fire at a place and one’s wristwatch shows ten o’clock, then there is smoke at that place when one’s wristwatch shows ten minutes after ten.’

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[*] Carnap on Logical Truth’, Synthese 12 (l960), reprinted in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, edited by P.A. Shlipp (Open Court, 1963).