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Sunday, September 28, 2014


During my walk this morning, I found myself thinking back many decades to my undergraduate days and the effect on me of studying, when I was so young, with Willard van Orman Quine.  I have already told a number of stories about Quine in my Autobiography, so I shan't rehearse them here, but as I neared the end of my walk, I recalled the great opening paragraph of Quine's famous essay, "On What There Is," whose laconic style so perfectly captured Quine's character.  For those of you who do not know the essay, here it is:

"A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity.  It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: 'What is there?'  It can be answered, moreover, in a word -- 'Everything' -- and everyone will accept this answer as true.  However, this is merely to say that there is what there is.  There remains room for disagreement over cases, and so the issue has stayed alive down the centuries." 

I wonder sometimes whether I was not influenced, as a young undergraduate, by this bare style in my own writing.  Later in the same essay, when he is discussing the views of an imaginary philosopher whom he calls "Wyman,"  [to contrast him with Mr. X], Quine says that Wyman's "over-populated universe" [which has in it possible entities as well as actual entities] "offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes."

This naturally reminded me of Eric Erickson's fascinating observation that people have styles in dreaming -- some of us always have Technicolor dreams stuffed full of images and events, while others have spare Black and White dreams, regardless of the meaning of the dreams.

The Quine opening paragraph also reminded me of other striking opening lines -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  And of course the most famous first line in all literature:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

My mind, like that of Tristram Shandy, being prone to digression, I soon found myself thinking of favorite lines from movies, and since we leave in just seven days for Paris, I thought quite naturally of Casablanca.  Casablanca offers not one but three immortal lines along with a fourth that does not actually appear in the movie.  "We'll always have Paris" is the signature line of the movie, but "Round up the usual suspects" runs a close second, giving us the name of the great Kevin Spacey movie.  And then, of course, there is the last line of the movie, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."  The line that does not actually appear is "Play it again, Sam."

Humphrey Bogart's closing remark to Claude Raines reminded me of my personal favorite last line of any movie.  It comes from Men in Black.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have just defeated a giant intergalactic cockroach, played with brilliance in an over-the-top performance by Vincent D'Onofrio.  Jones and Smith are getting ready to leave Flushing Meadow with Smith's new love interest and future Woman in Black Linda Fiorentino when a call comes in of trouble with some planet somewhere.  Jones says, "Call Dennis Rodman."  Fiorentino asks, "Is he from there?" and when Jones says yes, Fiorentino delivers the great throwaway last line:  "Not much of a disguise."

Tha-tha-that's all folks.


David Auerbach said...

Then there's the great last moment (not a line) in Duck Soup. The Marx Bros. are busy hurling detritus, including food, at the Sylvanian troops; the great Margaret Dumont rises to sing the Freedonian national anthem (Hail Freedonia...). One measure and a one beat comedic pause and the brothers turn to pelt her, and patriotic fervor, with rotten fruit.

I'm a great fan of the ideal of clarity; I think it is the cardinal virtue of my kind of philosophizing. It's both something I was predisposed to as well as inculcated with. Hume, more than Quine, stands out in the clarity sweepstakes. Quine's clarity was often deceptive, allowing some terrible arguments to go down smoothly.
Kant isn't clear, but after clarification it seems that there's something of interest left. And that was your project. With Hegel, I think you think, after you add the eggs white to the Hegel stock, simmer and remove the raft the pot is empty.

I've made myself hungry.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I completely agree about Hume. I would kill to be able to write a single paragraph of the TREATISE

C Rossi said...

Professor Wolff (or should I say "Grandpa" after your detecting a direct line of intellectual descent from you to me through Andrew Levine; on whom more below): It's wonderful to hear a Quine story and Erickson's connection between disposition and exposition, even in dreams. Quine had a way (as do you) of writing around a theme in simple terms and stories (but with great erudution and wit) until the circle closes and the thought is there diamond hard. One of my favorite books is Quine's "Quiddities," which consists of delightful short essays (like blog posts) on subjects organized only by his concerns and crotchets and the alphabet. The subjects range from Fermat's last theorem ("Let me begin...with a lot of news about the square on the hypotenuse"), tertiam non quid ("there is much to be said for it, and much against."), and various oddities of language (gender, language drift). About politics, he is especially quiet. I always assumed that he was a high church (though not a believer), Midwestern, straight-backed, stoic conservative. A delightful book.

My favorite movie line is from the 70s classic Chinatown (as close to real tragedy as we get these days) in which the evil Noah Cross is told that he's respectable and responds: "'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

I'm sorry that you weren't able to access Andy Levine's video. He has a very interesting piece in Counterpunch on the Fear of the Caliphate in which he makes some sharp distinctions between a nation and a state (a creation of the modern age and capitalism). It's here: Andy is one of the best teachers I've ever had; he's done a lot of work on religion, and his lecture on Feuerbach was thrilling.
I'm glad you liked the Pushkin piece on Mozart/Salieri.

Ludwig Richter said...

Oh, yes. I remember reading and enjoying "On What There Is" when I studied up for my IB Theory of Knowledge class in 2009. I've only read a smattering of Quine, but my favorite opening line, which isn't really an opening line, comes from Pursuit of Truth, where for epigraphs he juxtaposed a quote from Plato (wish I knew the Greek) with:

Save the surface and you save all.


David Auerbach said...

The cleverest φ-book title I know is J.L. Austin's Sense and Sensibilia.

Warren Goldfarb said...

in the late 1950s J.L. Austin and my late colleague Roderick Firth were planning a book of opposing views in epistemology that they hoped to title Price and Prejudice (after H.H. Price, the stalwart of English sense-data theory).