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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: February 2013

1 - W. V. Quine: Word and Object

Summary

Western philosophy since Descartes has been marked by certain seminal books whose concern is the nature and scope of human knowledge. After Descartes's Meditations, works by Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant are perhaps the most familiar and enduringly influential examples. Quine's Word and Object (1960) does not conspicuously announce itself as an intended successor to these, but that is very much what it is. And after Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, it is among the most likely of the philosophical fruits of the twentieth century to attain something like the prestige of those earlier works (setting aside the century's great achievements in pure logic and immediately related areas). Yet unlike so many of those earlier works, Quine's book has the rare virtue in philosophy that it is possible, for readers here and now, to entertain seriously the possibility that its principal claims are literally true.

But there are significant barriers to seeing Word and Object in this way. First, Quine's way of addressing the signature questions of epistemology and metaphysics may strike one as both indirect and narrow-minded. In fact, one would be forgiven for supposing this to be a book simply about language, and a rather surprising one to have issued from a philosopher. For Quine's approach to language is in many ways utterly empirical; he discusses the learning of words – including such philosophically unimpressive words as “ouch” – and then most famously the problem of translation.