[quickphilosophy] Quinean Indeterminacy

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 20 Sep 2010 20:46:19 -0000

Thanks, Ron.

--- In quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, Ron Allen <wavelets@...> wrote:
> 1. Quine gives no examples of translation indeterminacy.

I think he'd settle for the ones you give below.

> Â
> 2. If I can't ever understand what "gavagai" or "dieseldown" means,
from a native speaker of the languages that contain those words, then I
also can't ever understand what "rabbit", for example, means from a
speaker of English. Without a criterion for telling a priori what words
are deterministically translatable from those that are not, it follows
that I don't understand any words in my own language.

That seems to me a bit exaggerated:  while indeterminacy does apply to
one's own language, I believe Quine would argue that it doesn't follow
from that that one can't understand the words therein.  That would only
follows pursuant to a particular, non-Quinean view of what it means to
understand, a view I think he's say was dependent on synonymy.  Anyhow,
here's the wikipedia article on the subject:

The indeterminacy of translation is a thesis propounded by 20th century
analytic philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. The classic statement of
this thesis can be found in his 1960 book Word and Object, which
gathered together and refined much of Quine's previous work on subjects
other than formal logic and set theory. The indeterminacy of translation
is also discussed at length in his Ontological Relativity (1968).

In these books, Quine considers the methods available to a field
linguist attempting to translate a hitherto unknown language. He notes
that there are always different ways one might break a sentence into
words, and different ways to distribute functions among words. Any
hypothesis of translation could be defended only by appeal to context,
by determining what other sentences a native would utter. But the same
indeterminacy will appear there: any hypothesis can be defended if one
adopts enough compensatory hypotheses about other parts of the language.

Consider Quine's example of the word "gavagai" uttered by a native upon
seeing a rabbit. The linguist could do what seems natural and translate
this as "Lo, a rabbit." But other translations would be compatible with
all the evidence he has: "Lo, food"; "Let's go hunting"; "There will be
a storm tonight" (these natives may be superstitious); "Lo, a momentary
rabbit-stage"; "Lo, an undetached rabbit-part." Some of these might
become less likely ? that is, become more unwieldy hypotheses ?
in the light of subsequent observation. Others can only be ruled out by
querying the natives: An affirmative answer to "Is this the same gavagai
as that earlier one?" will rule out "momentary rabbit stage," and so
forth. But these questions can only be asked once the linguist has
mastered much of the natives' grammar and abstract vocabulary; that in
turn can only be done on the basis of hypotheses derived from simpler,
observation-connected bits of language; and those sentences, on their
own, admit of multiple interpretations, as we have seen.

Indeterminacy of translation also applies to the interpretation of
speakers of one's own language, and even to one's past utterances. This
does not lead to skepticism about meaning ? either that meaning is
hidden and unknowable, or that words are meaningless. However, when
combined with a (more or less behavioristic) premise that everything
that can be learned about the meaning of a speaker's utterances can be
learned from his behavior, the indeterminacy of translation may be felt
to suggest that there are no such entities as "meanings"; in this
connection, it is highlighted (or claimed) that the notion of synonymy
has no operational definition. But saying that there are no "meanings"
is not to say that words are not meaningful or significant.

Quine denies an absolute standard of right and wrong in translating one
language into another; rather, he adopts a pragmatic stance toward
translation, that a translation can be consistent with the behavioral
evidence. And while Quine does admit the existence of standards for good
and bad translations, such standards are peripheral to his philosophical
concern with the act of translation, hinging upon such pragmatic issues
as speed of translation, and the lucidity and conciseness of the
results. The key point is that more than one translation meets these
criteria, and hence that no unique meaning can be assigned to words and

> Â
> 3. The only language I could be speaking, assuming now that I actually
speak a language, is my own private language.

I think Quine would deny that follows.

> Â
> 4. Suppose X is trying to translate Y's word y. X thinks that it means
x1. Q, however, is monitoring X's effort, and says, no she's wrong. X
now suggests it means x2. But Q says no. X continues to guess and Q
continues to point out that the meaning of Y's word y differs in some
sense from the guesses x1, x2, x3, ... made by X. This seems possible.
But, how can Q be justified in denying all the time that X misses the
semantic mark? It could only be that Q understands the meaning of y and
Q understands the meaning of x1, x2, ..., and Q knows that none ofÂ
x's carries the same semantic content as y. There could be word in X's
language that semantically matches y, or there could be no word in X's
idiom that correspends. Q still has to know one or the other of these
things to be justified in denying all matches. In other words, there is
someone who can translate from Y's language into X's language.

I don't see why that follows, myself.  Quine just takes a behaviorist
view of these matters.  It's not that Q knows that X is mistaken, he
just believes she is based on the results of his experiments.  He finds,
e.g., that "gavagai" couldn't mean "rabbit then" because native speakers
seem to assent to "gavagai" being applied to a rabbit now.

>So, if we suppose that there is someone who can plausibly
>  deny determinacy of translation, then there is no indeterminacy of

If that were true, there'd be a paradox if ANY case of alleged
indeterminacy were true.  Surely you don't want to suggest that it can
never occur?  Let me see you translate my word "briffle": I'm prepared
to answer any question you have about what it means, and believe when
you think I have it I will be able to provide (a la Goodman) a
definition that is consistent with all my answers and yet significantly
different from any you come up with.

>That is, Budd is correct to say that translation indeterminacy is
incoherent. If, on the other hand, we posit no such Q (and there isn't
any more; may he rest in peace), then translation >indeterminacy may be
possible. We just haven't got any examples.

Again, I appreciate your response, but I don't really see that the case
has been made.

> Â
> (This is an elaboration of Searle's argument against Whorf.)
> Â

I should probably just read that myself instead of pestering y'all to
regurgitate it. What's the cite?



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