Re: [quickphilosophy] Quinean Indeterminacy

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 20 Sep 2010 17:24:26 -0700 (PDT)

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 
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.

--- On Mon, 9/20/10, walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx> wrote:

From: walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx>
Subject: [quickphilosophy] Quinean Indeterminacy
To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Date: Monday, September 20, 2010, 1:46 PM


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 sentences.

> 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 of 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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