[quickphilosophy] Re: Quinean Indeterminacy

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 21 Sep 2010 13:43:45 -0000

--- In quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, Ron Allen <wavelets@...> wrote:
> Hi Walter:
> Thanks for the wikipedia entry.
> OK, so if the field linguist can't translate the newly discovered language, 
> then how does a baby learn the newly discovered language of English any 
> better? That's the point.
> In what language on Earth do the speakers not have words that can express 
> "and", and, for that matter, can never express "and"?
> If Quine is just pointing out the banal observation that we sometimes don't 
> understand the nuances, well, yes, then, that's right. But so what? If I 
> don't understand the precise nuance of 'simpatico', it doesn't follow that 
> there's indeterminacy of translation between English and Spanish, even if I 
> am the first to discover the hitherto unknown language, Spanish. I go along 
> using the term and eventually apply it to a ticket seller at the opera. My 
> companera points out to me that he isn't really simpatico to me, because I 
> really don't know him well enough and long enough to be able to say that, and 
> I don't rely on him for emotional comfort, and so forth. No, the guy just 
> sold me a pair of good seats for a steep price.
> I think by the wiki article, Quine's point devolves into imprecision and 
> nuance, not meaning indeterminacy. As Wittgenstein pointed out, language is a 
> social endeavor, and the aberrations of the individual do not count against 
> the observed practice of the community. Where there is a community of use, as 
> Grice and Strawson insisted, it's reasonable to talk of meaning. If there's a 
> community of 'gavagai' users, then there's a meaning for the term, and it can 
> be translated, and it can support supervening notions of synonymy and 
> analyticity.
> The devolution of Quine's thesis makes it an empirical matter. Empirically, 
> we have no substantive examples of translation indeterminacy. When, in the 
> last 400 years, has someone come up and said, "wow, here we've been 
> translating 'chien' as 'dog', when it really means 'well-trained dog'" or 
> something like that? Well, never. Watered down, it washes away. Clean and 
> dry, it's got some fundamental problems, close to what Budd was pointing out. 
> But, yeah, you're right: it's a theory only a behaviorist could love.
> Oh, I don't have a text reference for Searle against Sapir-Whorf. It was a 
> comment he made in class at Berkeley. Again, basically, what could be an 
> example? If someone has a different world view than me because of their 
> different language, how could I possibly describe their world view? All I can 
> do is use my own.
> Thanks!
> --Ron

What your response suggests to me is that you and Quine aren't using 
"understand" and "indeterminacy" in quite the same ways--that is, there's a bit 
of indeterminacy happening right here.  Quine doesn't deny that English 
speakers understand each other--or that languages may be usefully translated.  
He agrees with you that they often do an can; but these activities take place, 
in his view, in spite of indeterminacy.  

OTOH, you seem to be saying that if there is indeterminacy, there can be no 
understanding, which, as I mentioned in my last post, suggests that you take 
grasping synonymys to be part and parcel of understanding.  For Quine there is 
no such thing as synonymy, but there is often understanding, so the latter 
couldn't require the former.


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