Master’s Voice

Stuart Hampshire

  • The Time of My Life: An Autobiography by W.V. Quine
    MIT, 499 pp, £21.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 262 17003 5

This is a most unusual book. It is the autobiography of a philosopher who has been as widely and deeply respected as any English-speaking philosopher now alive. Professor Quine is enjoying a vigorous and productive retirement after many years’ teaching at Harvard. His tone here is jaunty, and he expresses steady enjoyment of almost everything that has happened to him along the way. In the age of P.G. Wodehouse there used to be an adjuration, typically shouted from a touchline of schoolboys: ‘Buck up there, Smith.’ Professor Quine has been enormously, almost monstrously bucked up, according to his own account. He strides through this century of war and massacre with scarcely a sideways glance at its more discouraging features. The book is unusual because this record of unqualified success, of unflagging good cheer, does not have the effect on the reader that might have been expected: irritation. On the contrary, there is a charm that is increasingly felt as one reads on to the present day.

The charm comes from a game of half-conscious deceit, part of which is incidental to autobiography as a literary genre and part of which is peculiar to Professor Quine and his idea of self-knowledge and of self-revelation. Anyone who publishes an autobiography to some degree necessarily strikes a pose, takes a line, and launches himself into a chosen style of self-consciousness. One of the well-known styles, which might be called the anti-Rousseau style, is that of the practical, outward-looking, factual, no-nonsense fellow, who recalls that he had a job to do and who straightforwardly describes how he did it. Actors, admirals, sportsmen and mountaineers sometimes affect this anti-Rousseau mode when they reach retirement and feel the urge to tell their story. But for a philosopher there are problems, in that this style does not come as naturally to him as to a sportsman or an actor. In the first place, philosophy is scarcely a job in the sense required, and an explanation might be expected in an autobiography of why the author wanted to be a philosopher at all. Professor Quine traces his vocation as a philosopher, and specifically as a logician, to a life-long passion for rational economy. Like Leibniz’s God, he has always wanted to show the greatest possible number of rational consequences as flowing from the smallest possible number of rational principles. But this is no good as an explanation either of this book or of his performance as a philosopher. Any scientist or mathematician has this ambition in virtue of the nature of explanation itself, which precisely consists in retracing the path of Leibniz’s God. Some more specific explanation is needed which will fit the particular case.

In spite of his formidable reticence, and his distaste for unnecessary confessions, Professor Quine discloses a fact about himself which I think provides the true explanation, both of his becoming a philosopher and also of this severely factual autobiography. He likes to write, and he has had this desire from his very early years. The pleasure he takes in writing explains some of the charm of this book; it communicates itself to the reader as a form of literary zest, a bubbling over of the pleasure in forming sentences which shall be sufficiently dense with hard information. He writes that he had periods of boredom and block during the composition. I suspect that these arrests were due to feeling that the context required some form of confession, rather than just the factual description of an itinerary in a new country visited, or the flat record of a colloquium or conference, or guidebook comments on the architecture of various exotic places. He is a dedicated traveller, and he has kept an exact record of the number of countries he has visited, with some glee including San Marino and Luxembourg, which usefully inflate the number – one more frontier to cross. In another country and another time he could have been a sporting dean in the Church who found his favourite reading in Wisden and Bradshaw. The record is what counts for him, and the hard facts on paper compose l’expérience vécue, free from all speculation about what might have been and therefore about why’s and wherefore’s. Counterfactual possibilities he finds tiresome and irrelevant. He is not interested in exchanges of opinion, particularly on political topics. He remarks that he agreed with General Alexander Haig’s political opinions when he met him, but he otherwise leaves imprecise and undecidable topics out of the account. The exhilaration of reading him comes from his own communicated enjoyment of his very honourable batting average, and his related enjoyment of getting the figures down on paper – my cricketing metaphor for many books and articles published and translated into scores of languages, many papers read to colloquia, many conferences attended, many countries visited, many honorary degrees conferred.

Given this love of recorded fact, of maps and numbers, of every kind of guidebook truth, why then philosophy? First, because philosophy issues immediately in written essays, unlike mathematics and, generally speaking, natural science. He has been an immensely prolific writer, and at least one of his essays, with the title ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (1951), will endure as a classic of its genre: written in compressed and powerful prose, it marks a turning-point in modern philosophy. An early essay, ‘Truth by Convention’ (1936), has the same quality of succinctness, combined with power and richness of content. When he hits a nail on the head, as he does in both these essays, he takes an obvious pleasure in driving it in with three or four massive knocks, not tapping it repeatedly while hoping for a cumulative result, as most of us do.

Alongside this literary bravura, there is another motive evident in these pages, which I suspect swept him into philosophy, in spite of his love of atomic facts and of elementary geography. The motive is very far from being peculiar to him. He likes to build his own theoretical structures, and he was born into a philosophical generation which not only permitted but strongly encouraged innocent theory-building: ‘innocent’ in the sense of being un-metaphysical, strictly logical and formal, and therefore fully independent of Church and State, and, equally, of God and Nature. As a young man, he went to Vienna to study with the accessible members of the Vienna Circle, the fathers of logical positivism, and particularly with Rudolf Carnap, author of ‘The Logical Construction of the World’. Carnap built an abstract model of genuine – that is, scientific – knowledge, which would reveal its foundations in the records of observation and experiment. The metaphor of foundations and of the edifice of knowledge was very important to Carnap’s project, which was a sophisticated development of Russell’s empiricism. Russell had also throughout his writing life looked for the secure foundations of natural knowledge. But Carnap’s sophistication, fiercely rejected by Russell, was the suggestion that these foundations were not fixed by nature, but needed to be conventionally fixed by us in pursuit of theoretical coherence and elegance.

Several choices are open to us in philosophical theory-building, and a principle of tolerance, acknowledging alternatives, would displace the metaphysical system-buildings of earlier times, with Russell firmly relegated to the past. Carnap and the Vienna Circle intended to topple metaphysics from its throne with the gentle mockery implied by the principle of tolerance. We may make our comprehensive and philosophical theories of the world as we choose, subject to the constraints of consistency and economy. The natural sciences within their specialised domains are constrained by their experiments and their observations. Philosophers should acknowledge that they are answering purely formal questions, questions about linguistic and notational conventions, about the most perspicuous ordering of propositions, rather than questions of substance with a reference to the external world. This claim, still maintained by Nelson Goodman, originally depended upon a sharp distinction between analytic propositions, whose truth is a function of the meaning of the terms involved, and synthetic propositions, which need to be verified in experience.

Professor Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ undermined this distinction, undermining it from within, since he was, and remains, a famous radical empiricist and a famous enemy of metaphysics of any traditional kind. The logical positivist programme of analysis of natural knowledge has never looked the same since, and the generations of philosophers younger than Professor Quine have turned in other directions: towards philosophical theories of language and of language acquisition, towards a more detailed and substantial philosophy of science, towards philosophical ethics, towards careful expositions of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. As this book recounts, Quine has continued magisterially along his own path, pursuing principally a curiously self-contained discipline with the traditional name of ontology. It is a self-contained discipline, a case of art for the sake of art, because the constraints on its theories are devised and imposed by the theorist himself. The constraints are not derived from the physical sciences or from ordinary observation of the external world or from human psychology or anthropology or even from the structures of natural language. They come from the image of a philosophical and ideal language, which is to be supremely elegant and economical in its existential presuppositions. Ontology resembles an old-fashioned game of Solitaire, in which you eliminate one glass ball after another by a regular procedure of reduction, hoping to be left at the end with just one ball at the centre of the board. In the development of ontology, the hope is that the one ball left at the centre might stand for numbers or for sets, with every other type of entity eliminated. Balls representing properties and regions of space and particular times probably ought to have been removed at an earlier stage, if the right moves have been made in the right order: or this is the hope.

Philosophy, conceived as ontology in this contemporary sense, is evidently very attractive to someone who loves above all things to be master of his own intellectual house, or house of cards, and who also loves to write books. In his autobiography Professor Quine fully displays, and implicitly acknowledges, both these loves. In his free speculations about existence, controlled only by the conventions of contemporary logic, he does not need to pay attention to the untidy transactions of Nature, as disclosed in physics and biology, or to the conventions of actual grammars, in so far as they have not been converted into the canonical forms which he has chosen as fitting for ‘the language of science’. One can have a stern and spare ontology, as I have described with some exaggeration, or one can relax the logical constraints a little and be left with a wider range of acknowledged types of entity in one’s universe. The pleasant feature of this kind of philosophy is that one remains in principle always master of the material. There will be no disconcerting accidents and inexplicable happenings.

Professor Quine has had distinguished followers in this line of speculative inquiry, in this pure and detached philosophy. But among the heirs of logical positivism, and in analytical philosophy generally, there is now a contrary movement which attaches philosophy to positive knowledge and to the natural and moral sciences. Philosophy divides itself according to this conception into substantially specialised sections of itself, as philosophy of law, philosophy of language, philosophy of physics, philosophy of the social sciences, and in each area the specific problems of philosophical interest arise from the detailed changes and variations in the kind of knowledge under consideration. The philosophical faith is that God is in the details, and that a philosopher can only be useful, at this stage in history, if he knows what the details are. So within Anglophone analytical philosophy the old contrast between the pure and abstract and formal approach to some system of reality, the Platonic persuasion, on the one hand, and, on the other, an attention to the concrete details and manifold varieties of knowledge comes up again as a conflict. Philosophers of the anti-Platonic persuasion are never complete masters of their material because they cannot be sure what problems will turn up next. In this respect, they are in the same position as an experimental scientist and an original mathematician, or, even more obviously, as a historian or linguist. By the tone and style in which it is written, and by the selection of incidents recorded, this autobiography helps to explain why Professor Quine has needed to have an assured and entire mastery of his domain.