Ruth Barcan Marcus and quantified modal logic

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Analytic philosophy in the mid-twentieth century underwent a major change of direction when a prior consensus in favour of extensionalism and descriptivism made way for approaches using direct reference, the necessity of identity, and modal logic. All three were first defended, in the analytic tradition, by one woman, Ruth Barcan Marcus. But analytic philosophers now tend to credit them to Kripke, or Kripke and Carnap. I argue that seeing Barcan Marcus in her historical context – one dominated by extensionalism and descriptivism – allows us to see how revolutionary she was, in her work and influence on others. I focus on her debate with Quine, who found himself retreating to softened, and more viable, versions of his anti-modal arguments as a result. I make the case that Barcan's formal logic was philosophically well-motivated, connected to her views on reference, and well-matched to her overall views on ontology. Her nominalism led her to reject posits which could not be directly observed and named, such as possibilia. She conceived of modal calculi as facilitating counterfactual discourse about actual existents. I conclude that her contributions ought to be recognized as the first of their kind. Barcan Marcus must be awarded a central place in the canon of analytic philosophy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)353-383
Number of pages31
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Philosophy
Issue number2
Early online date8 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2022


  • Ruth Barcan Marcus
  • W.V. Quine
  • direct reference
  • modal logic
  • modality


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