Graduate Education in 1932

Peter Hylton’s book Quine about the great philosopher W.V.O. Quine brought home to me how much graduate education seems to have changed over the past eighty years. As an undergraduate at Oberlin, Quine was a math major and then:

A result of Quine’s decision to concentrate on mathematics was that his formal study of philosophy, as distinct from logic, was not extensive. As an undergraduate he took two survey courses in the subject, which evidently made little impression. For graduate school he chose the philosophy department at Harvard, largely because Whitehead, co-author of Principia Mathematica, was teaching there (though not teaching logic; his interests had shifted considerably in the twenty years since Principia). At Harvard he spent only two years on his doctorate. The first was spent preparing for the department’s comprehensive examinations and taking courses (including C. I.Lewis’s famous course on Kant). One may well imagine that the haste required to do both of these things in one year would have left Quine little time for real philosophical reflection, and less for the development of even inchoate views of his own. His second year in graduate school was devoted to the rapid completion of a dissertation devoted to Principia Mathematica.

Quine thus began his career with little background in philosophy. He does not seem to have done much work to fill in the gaps. With the notable exceptions of Russell and, especially, Carnap, he is not, in his early work, either reacting against or building upon the work of others. His references to the work of other philosophers are not always signs of any real knowledge or thought about such work.

To be clear, the career in question launched with little background in philosophy was a career as a philosopher. It doesn’t seem like that would fly today.