Quine: Emotions and Death

“When one is alone and it is night and so dark and still that one hears nothing and sees nothing but…the slow irresistible approach of the wall of darkness which will eventually engulf everything you love, possess, wish, strive, and hope for-then all our profoundities about life slink off to some undiscoverable hiding place, and [dread] envelops the sleepless one like a smothering blanket ( C.G. Jung)[1]

In this short paper I will discuss Quine’s life, as described in his autobiography, what his description of his life revealed about his psychological attitude; and speculate about how his psychology may have influenced his philosophical outlook. To do this I will demonstrate how key facts about Quine’s life as described in his biography are mirrored in his philosophical system. In particular it will be shown that Quine’s inability to deal with emotions were mirrored by a strange avoidance of any real dealing with emotions in his philosophical theorising.

One notable fact about Quine that becomes apparent when reading his autobiography is his persistent narrow obsessions in things like stamp collecting, and map making when he was younger. This behaviour continued throughout his life as evidenced by his travels which seemed more about ticking off that he had been to a new country rather than something to enjoy for its own sake. Quine even admitted as much:

“I detect two deep traits which the reader will already have divined from my compulsion in childhood to compile, from my preoccupation with political boundaries, from my early collecting of stamps, and later collection of countries, and from my professional concern for mathematical elegance: namely I am orderly, and I am frugal” (Quine: The Time of My Life p. 476)

Another notable feature of Quine’s psychology was the difficulty that he had with dealing with intense negative emotions:

It was settled that Naomi would come to Harvard with me and we would marry. Nothing was said to my parents on the point. This was not from fear of disapproval, but from diffidence over matters of sentiment. Actually I was not eager for the marriage. At one point sitting with Naomi in a car in Portage Path, I even ventured to voice my doubts, but a stronger will prevailed. I tend to shy away from present emotional stress and tend not to consider what stresses the future may bring.” (Quine: The Time of My Life p. 74)

“This book has mainly been a factual account of external things and events as they have impinged on me and I in my faltering way on them. A perceptive reader may, however, have gained from these indices a clearer picture of my drives and character than I myself enjoy; for I have little bent for soul searching. This deficiency was evident in the way I brought peace of mind in 1930 and 1944 at the price of subsequent misery. My way of coping with spells of nostalgia, loneliness, anxiety or boredom over the years has been to escape into my projects. ( Quine ‘The Time of my Life’ p. 475)

While it is not unusual for a person to avoid emotional stressors where possible Quine’s avoidance of negative emotions bordered on the pathological. To marry someone you don’t want to marry as a way of avoiding a difficult talk; indicates that Quine had extreme difficulties in handling emotional stress. It is notable that Quine’s way of dealing with emotions was to avoid the stressful encounters at all costs and to throw himself into his projects. This fact indicates that Quine’s early collecting of stamps, and making of maps may have been a way that he had of coping with childhood trauma. Keeping himself busy on analytic tasks may have helped him deal with aspects of his life that he couldn’t cope with.

This way of coping with stress by throwing oneself into busy work to avoid dealing with trauma is well known clinically. Both existentialists and psychotherapists have discussed this way of coping in detail. Psychoanalyst and Heidegger Scholar Robert Stolorow described this approach as follows:

…Heidegger also uses the term falling to denote a motivated, defensive, tranquilizing flight into inauthentic illusions of the “they” in order to evade the anxiety and uncanniness inherent in authentic Being-toward-death. As I noted in Chapter 4, Heidegger’s discussions of such retreats from existential anxiety closely resemble clinical descriptions of the covering over of traumatized states.” (Robert Stolorow ‘World, Affectivity, Trauma’ p. 84)

Quine’s behaviour throughout his life filling his time up with busy work and aimless moving from place to place could be construed as a way of avoiding emotional suffering and anxiety at all costs. We know from his autobiography that Quine suffered from Anxiety around the time of his divorce and that saw a psychoanalyst for this anxiety. In his autobiography Quine doesn’t go into great detail on the nature of his anxiety nor on why the psychoanalysis was unsuccessful. One of the primary aims of psychoanalysis is to discover how early trauma and relations establish patterns in childhood that unconsciously effect the behaviour of people into their adulthood. Quine who by his own admission tried to avoid any real contact with emotions may have found a process of undergoing psychoanalysis and dragging up intense emotions extremely uncomfortable; cognitive behavioural therapy invented a few years later may have suited Quine’s temperament better. However since Quine didn’t give any indication as to why the psychoanalysis was ineffective it is hard to say for sure why it didn’t work for him. An example of Quine’s aversion to even speaking about emotions was in his description of his first wife Naomi he notes that she was prone to mood swings and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Bi-polar disorder can have a devastating effect on the family of those diagnosed with it as well of those suffering on it. But Quine just vaguely mentions the mood swings and moves on to describe his travels in a dispassionate manner. Obviously no thinker is obliged to describe personal matters in their autobiography; the detail they go into is their own choice. Nonetheless for a reader wanting to know about his life Quine’s brief mention of his emotional experiences being instantly turned into a description of further travels is very strange. Now it is possible that as a committed behaviourist Quine was just writing his book in the externalist manner that his philosophical theories legislated. However it is notable that Quine’s behaviour in his description of his wife’s bi-polar disorder is in keeping with his overall attitude to something with real emotional punch; to move away quickly, and throw himself into busy work, in Quine’s case dispassionately describing places that he had been.

Quine’s attitude to deep emotions can even be seen with his views on poetry. Quine notes:

I am deeply moved by occasional passages of poetry, and so, characteristically, I read little of it. I respond similarly to passages of grand opera, and this is due to the liberto as much as to the music. Otherwise I have a poor memory for fiction, for it resists integration to my system of the world” ( Quine: The Time of My Life p. 476)

Again we see Quine’s attitude towards emotions very clearly; if something evinces strong emotions, it is to be avoided.

Even in Quine’s theoretical work spanning over 60 years he manages to avoid any serious engagement with emotions. Now to some degree this is to be expected Quine’s work on the mathematical logic and set theory is hardly an area congenial to reflecting on emotions. But Quine’s work on naturalised epistemology, on how we go from stimulus to science is an area where one would expect to find some reflection on emotions. Quine did discuss emotions at various different points of his career. Early in his career when lecturing on Hume he briefly discussed Hume’s claim that reason is the slave of the passions. However Quine added little to Hume’s claims on the topic as his primary role was as an expositor of Hume’s ideas. Later in his career he argued that the emotions should be thought of along the lines of sensations (see his The Pursuit of Truth p. 86) and that these sensations should be thought of  as propensities of the human body that could be cashed out in dispositional terms (see ‘Quine in Dialogue’ p. 8). Again we can see that the subjective feeling of the emotion is pushed to the background and it’s physical status and behavioural manifestations are noted. Obviously Quine has to argue in this manner because of his physicalism and his behavioural commitments but it is worth noting that his theoretical attitude to emotions is the same as his attitude in his lived experience; avoid them at all costs and at the very least minimise their impact.

One area where Quine did discuss emotion and it’s psychological manifestation was in his later writing on the Indeterminacy of translation. In his two last books ‘From Stimulus to Science’ and ‘The Pursuit of Truth’ Quine gave empathy a key role in both the child learning his first language and the linguist learning a language of an unknown tribe:

“Empathy dominates the learning of language, both by child and by field linguist. In the child’s case it is the parent’s empathy. The parent assesses the appropriateness of the child’s observation sentence by noting the child’s orientation and how the scene would look from there. In the field linguist’s case it is empathy on his own part when he makes his first conjecture about ‘Gavagai’ for the native’s assent in a promising subsequent situation. We all have an uncanny knack for empathizing another’s perceptual situation, however ignorant of the physiological or optical mechanism of his perception…Empathy guides the linguist still as he rises above observation sentences through his analytical hypotheses, though there he is trying to project onto the natives associations and grammatical trends rather than his perceptions. And much is true of the growing child.” ( Quine: ‘The Pursuit of Truth pp.43-44)

Quine’s discussion of empathy is important as it does seem to be a necessary tool in the child his parents and others in the intersubjective sphere where they can communicate with each other about their shared feelings and their shared world. But Quine’s attitude to this topic was strangely tepid. Emotions play little role in helping child learn about their world; for Quine basic empathy is necessary for the child and adult to triangulate on shared objects of experience but there any discussion of emotion ends. Quine was familiar with the work of people like Piaget on children’s relation to their world and he even expressed admiration for Piaget. However Quine’s description of children avoids any discussion of strong emotions or feelings. This is a big oversight on Quine’s part. We know how intertwined with our emotions are with our cognitive apparatus ( see James 1992, Hurley et al 2011, and Damasio 1994). Obviously Quine didn’t have any access to our contemporary knowledge of the relation between emotion and cognition. Nonetheless as a theorist discussing how a child goes from stimulus to science his not discussing the role of emotions in any detail (even to just explain them away) was extremely strange. This fact cannot be just explained in terms of Quine being a behaviourist. Firstly Quine didn’t deny that sensations, emotions existed; he just argued that they could be cashed out in physicalistic terms. But Quine never discussed what role our emotions played in us developing our theory of the world. Yet Quine went out of his way to explain intentional locutions could be explained away (and the degree that they couldn’t be avoided). Why the asymmetry between how Quine treated emotional states and intentional states. My conjecture is that Quine’s discomfort with dealing with strong emotions in his own life led him to minimize their role in his theoretical study of reality.

I mentioned above that Quine’s express attitude towards emotion was similar to the views which Heidegger critiqued in his ‘Being and Time’ where people immerse themselves in busy work to avoid their relation to anxiety and death. Ironically Quine and Heidegger’s projects have some areas of commonality in that both emphasise the non-Cartesian notion of embeddedness in our environment and our intersubjective ways of dealing with and understanding reality. But despite these areas of commonality there are clear differences between Quine and Heidegger; notably that you won’t find Quine brooding on death, anxiety, and authenticity. It is a legitimate question as to why Quine doesn’t deal with these issues. Quine is a naturalist; who accepts the truth of the proposition that all humans are mortal and hence all humans will eventually die. He noted in his biography that he stopped believing in God and morality at the age of nine.  Quine would presumably been cognisant of the fact that as language using thinking creatures, humans would be aware that they would eventually die and would have an attitude towards this fact. Yet Quine rarely discusses the concept of death in his philosophy. This fact may seem unsurprising given Quine’s philosophical influences and the tradition he was working in. The tradition that Quine worked in involving logical analysis of language etc wasn’t exactly a tradition known for emphasising death. Nonetheless being from the analytic tradition didn’t stop philosophers like Russell, Ayer and Wittgenstein discussing their attitudes towards death. Russell in particular was very articulate when discussing the tragedy of death. Quine on the other hand avoids the issue. By avoiding the issue he avoids the anxious thoughts that can go with reflecting on your death and the death of loved ones; and of course avoids any strong emotional feelings. Death and the limits it imposes on us all has real consequences for how we go from stimulus to science; all our projects for dealing with the world are formed against the background of the limits posed on us by our finite nature. Quine along with Wittgenstein was responsible for breaking with the Cartesian tradition in analytic philosophy of noting our embeddedness in the world and the contingent ways we have of dealing with this world. But his almost pathological avoidance of emotions meant that his philosophical adventure left out half of the picture of how we manage to develop into who we are.

[1] The Jung quote was taken from Robert Stolorow’s ‘World, Affectivity, Trauma’ p. 35


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