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Greg Frost-Arnold

Thanks for posting this! This is actually extremely helpful for something I am trying to write this year.

I just wanted to add a little bit of further detail that is probably not widely known.

1. It is potentially slightly misleading for Quine to say that his "flirtation" with nominalism was that "fleeting." In the Quine archive, there is a personal notebook that covers most of the 1930s (it's 300 pages long). In it, we see that he's trying to be a nominalist in the later 30s. Here are 3 examples:
- Nov. 26, 1935; ‘Philosophical Background of the Conceptual Calculus’:
Quine describes an idea that “amounts to showing that objects higher in type than individuals never need to be assumed to exist at all; it is therefore nothing more nor less than a logical validation of nominalism, a solution of the problem of universals.”
- Nov. 21, 1937; ‘Nominalistic Logic’
- May 5, 1938: ‘A Semantic Interpretation of Logic’:
“In view of the ambiguous position assumed by Cantor’s Theorem in the light of my liberalization of the theory of types (see “On Cantor’s Theorem,” JSL 1937), we are perhaps justified in reopening the question of the nominalistic identifiability of classes with terms (expressions).”

Anyone interested in this material should look at Paolo Mancosu's excellent 2008 article, “Quine and Tarski on Nominalism”, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, vol IV, pp. 22-55.

Now, of course, one could reply "Oh, this is just the 'reluctant' part of Quine's reluctant Platonism." And that may well be defensible. But Quine was actively working to refute Platonism for a decade -- and that, to me, goes beyond mere reluctance (analogy: Imagine a Canadian citizen who spends a decade trying to overthrow the Canadian government. Is that person really well-described as a 'reluctant Canadian'?).

2. In that same notebook, in entries from early 1940, Quine outlines a book project/proposal for (what he calls) "Neo-Pythagoreanism." All that exists is the natural numbers. The Löwenheim-Skolem theorem is enlisted to reduce the natural sciences to arithmetic. This is of course a platonism in the philosophical sense of admitting abstract entities, but it is not Quine's familiar, public, set-theoretic Platonism.

Finally, I have a question that I don't know how to answer. Why does Quine give up his nominalism after a single publication? Massive reduction projects are often huge, and require a sustained amount of work (Principia Mathematica, the Aufbau for a smaller example). What convinces Quine that nothing has a good chance of working, after just a single short article in JSL?

Eric Schliesser

Greg, thank you for your very helpful comments. (I'll reflect on all of them.) As a methodological rule: I am inclined to be very cautious about autobiographical statements if they are understood as history. I find them more informative if understood as how an author (e.g., Quine) wishes to be seen or remembered late in life.

Greg Frost-Arnold

Thanks! I agree 100% with that methodological rule: working on archival material from the 40s, and comparing it to Carnap and especially Quine's autobiographies written decades later, has convinced me that autobiographical remarks are not to be trusted.

Christopher Stephens

Thanks for posting this. Not surprising, I guess, that even in 1996 Quine still seems to think Carnap's internal-external distinction is the same as the analytic-synthetic one he criticizes (otherwise its hard to make sense of the last sentence of the letter).

Douglas B. Quine

It is wonderful to see the historical connections that experts find in the Quine archives. I'm glad to be helping these documents see the light of day again.

Russell Marcus

Thanks, Eric, for posting this great piece. And thanks, Greg, for your contextualizing comment. I think that Quine's claims to be a reluctant platonist merely flirting fleetingly with nominalism are utterly consistent with his work, despite the ten-year plot to overthrow the sets. And so the question about why he gave it up so quickly is kind of a non-question. His approach was always toward austerity (until perhaps near the end as he describes it), given his preferences for desert landscapes (i.e. parsimony and simplicity as methodological principles). His method persistently entailed wanting to see how much mathematics was really needed (indispensable) to our best theories. So, for instance, Quine (or a Quinean) could want to see whether logic (or metalogic) really requires sets even with the background understanding that our physics (and so our one big theory) does.

More interesting to me is the way in which he connects platonism with his "commitment criterion." The criterion is often presented (and read) as neutral in the platonism/nominalism debate (as in the neutrality at the end of "On What There Is"). But I've long suspected that the relationship, at least for Quine, is closer.

By the way, Greg, is that early neo-Pythagoreanism the same one that comes out in "Whither Physical Objects" (and one other place I'm forgetting right now)?

Seth Edenbaum

The problem of art for philosophy, and philosophers, is that artists don't mind at all if their art is seen as "of their time". That statement does no damage to their egos, or their reputation.
Wallace Stevens was "a mid 20th century American poet". Referring to WVO Quine as "a mid 20th century American philosopher" opens up a lot of questions. Art can age well or badly. Truth isn't supposed to age at all.

Quine's philosophy owes as much to American Puritanism as to logic.

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