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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Jill Johnston, administrative associate, Department of Philosophy (650) 723-2547;

Stanford scholars to speak at symposium in remembrance of influential philosopher

Willard van Orman Quine, who died Christmas Day in Boston at the age of 92, played a crucial role in shaping philosophy during the 20th century. Although he spent his career at Harvard, his work touched philosophers around the globe.

Five Stanford philosophy professors are scheduled to speak at a symposium in Quine's memory at 2:15 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26, in Room 41 of Jordan Hall (Building 420). A reception will follow at the Faculty Club. The event, sponsored by the Stanford Philosophy Department, is free and open to the public.

Speakers will include Stanford philosophy Professors Julius Moravcsik, Patrick Suppes and Grigori Mints, as well as Solomon Feferman, a professor of mathematics and philosophy. There will be a videotape of Dagfinn Føllesdal, a former student of Quine's who divides his time between Stanford, where he is the Clarence Irving Lewis Professor of Philosophy, and the University of Oslo in Norway. Donald Davidson, a leading philosophy scholar who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley and was a student of Quine's, also will discuss the significance of Quine's work and share some personal recollections.

"It was Quine who made me choose philosophy as a profession," Føllesdal said. Quine's "radical thoughts about ontology, epistemology and communication have repercussions within all major areas of philosophy."

Mints, who lived much of his life in Soviet Russia, was not permitted to travel to the United States when Quine was publishing his most important work. Although he never met Quine, Mints recalls that the Harvard professor influenced his "work very strongly from the very beginning."

"I think he was one of the most significant American philosophers after 1935, and a very important logician," said Mints, who will discuss Quine and the modalities at the symposium. "When he was interested in something, it was always controversial. It was always something important. And if it was a philosophical question, it continues to be important."

Feferman, the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, agrees.

"His work is significant in bringing out discussion and controversy," Feferman said. Quine made unique contributions to logic in his efforts to find the simplest and most elegant foundations for mathematics, according to Feferman, who plans to speak on Quine's logic and philosophy of mathematics.

Moravcsik, remembering Quine as an outstanding debater, recalls that he was "the undisputed champion" of the traditional after-dinner conversations at Oxford University. "He could outwit and refute anybody," he added.

Moravcsik also noted that Quine was an excellent writer: "He wrote really beautiful English prose. At the time, it was a rarity among Anglo-American philosophers, and still is." Moravcsik will discuss Quine's philosophy of language.

Quine was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1908. He earned his doctorate at Harvard and spent his entire professional life there.

According to Føllesdal, early encyclopedias classify Quine as a logician even though he was later considered a general philosopher.

Over a period of more than 60 years, Quine published scores of articles and more than 20 books on a broad variety of areas, including logic, set theory, the philosophy of mathematics, ontology, epistemology and ethics. His best-known works are Mathematical Logic, Word and Object, The Philosophy of Logic and The Roots of Reference.

"The impact of his general philosophy puts him in the same camp as that of the American pragmatists," Moravcsik said. "He denied that there was any fundamental difference between what scientists do and what philosophers do."

An area that Quine persisted in studying throughout most of his career -- and which probably stands as his main contribution to philosophy -- deals with the relationship of communication and language to how people understand the world.

In his 1960 book Word and Object, Quine "stresses that what we perceive and what we take others to perceive plays a crucial role in language learning and language use," Føllesdal said. "This is a key point to Quine: Semantics and epistemology are intimately intertwined."

For more information about the symposium, call the Philosophy Department at (650) 723-2547 or visit its website.


By John Sanford

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