Monday, July 29, 2013

Quine's indeterminacies

W.V.O. Quine's writings were key to the development of American philosophy in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. His landmark works ("Two Dogmas of Empiricism," "Ontological Relativity," and Word and Object, for example) provided a very appealing combination of plain speaking, seriousness, and import. Quine's voice certainly stands out among all American philosophers of his period.

Quine's insistence on naturalism as a view of philosophy's place in the world is one of his key contributions. Philosophy is not a separate kind of theorizing and reasoning about the world, according to Quine; it is continuous with the empirical sciences through which we study the natural world (of which humanity and the social world are part). Also fundamental is his coherence theory of the justification of beliefs, both theoretical and philosophical. This theory was the source of John Rawls's method of reasoning for a theory of justice based the idea of "reflective equilibrium." This approach depended on careful weighing of our "considered judgments" and the adjustments of ethical beliefs needed to create the most coherent overall system of ethical beliefs.

There is another feature of Quine's work that is particularly appealing: the fundamental desire that Quine had to make sense of obscure issues and to work through to plausible solutions. There is sometimes a premium on obscurity and elliptical thinking in some corners of the intellectual world. Quine was a strong antidote to this tendency. (John Searle makes similar points about the value of clarity in philosophical argument in his comments on Foucault here.)

Take "Ontological Relativity" (OR), the first of the Dewey Lectures in 1968 (link). The essay articulates some of Quine's core themes -- the behaviorist perspective on language and meaning, the crucial status of naturalism, and the indeterminacy of meaning and reference. But the essay also demonstrates a sensitive and careful reading of Dewey. Quine shows himself to be a philosopher who was able to give a respectful and insightful account of the ideas of other great philosophers.
Philosophically I am bound to Dewey by the naturalism that dominated his last three decades. With Dewey I hold that knowledge, mind, and meaning are part of the same world that they have to do with, and that they are to be studied in the same empirical spirit that animates natural science. There is no place for a prior philosophy. (185).
In OR Quine refers to a key metaphor in his own understanding of language and meaning, the "museum myth" theory of meaning. "Uncritical semantics is the myth of a museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels. To switch languages is to change the labels" (186). Against the museum myth, Quine argues here (as he does in Word and Object as well) for the indeterminacy of "meaning" and translation. The basic idea of indeterminacy of translation, as expressed in WO, comes down to this: there are generally alternative translation manuals that are possible between two languages (or within one's own) which are equally compatible with all observed verbal behavior, and yet which map expressions onto significantly different alternative sentences. Sentence A can be mapped onto B1 or B2; B1 and B2 are apparently not equivalent; and therefore Sentence A does not have a fixed and determinate meaning either in the language or in the heads of the speakers. As Quine observes in his commentary on his example from Japanese concerning the translation of "five oxen", "between the two accounts of Japanese classifiers there is no question of right and wrong" (193).
For naturalism the question whether two expressions are alike or unlike in meaning has no determinate answer, known or unknown, except insofar as the answer is settled in principle by people's speech dispositions, known or unknown. If by these standards there are indeterminate cases, so much the worse for the terminology of meaning and likeness of meaning. (187)
Returning to the extended example he develops of indeterminacy of translation around the word "gavagai" that he introduced in Word and Object, Quine notes that the practical linguist will equate gavagai with "rabbit", not "undetached rabbit part". But he insists that there is no objective basis for this choice.
The implicit maxim guiding his choice of 'rabbit', and similar choices for other native words, is that an enduring and relatively homogeneous object, moving as a whole against a constrasting background, is a likely reference for a short expression. If he were to become conscious of this maxim, he might celebrate it as one of the linguistic universals, or traits of all languages, and he would have no trouble pointing out its psychological plausibility. But he would be wrong; the maxim is his own imposition, toward settling what is objectively indeterminate. It is a very sensible imposition, and I would recommend no other. But I am making philosophical point. (191)
In "Ontological Relativity" Quine takes the argument of the indeterminacy of meaning an important step forward, to argue for the "inscrutability of reference." That is: there is no behavioral basis for concluding that a given language system involves reference to this set of fundamental entities rather than that set of fundamental entities. So not only can we not say that there are unique meanings associated with linguistic expressions; we cannot even say that expressions refer uniquely to a set of non-linguistic entities. This is what the title implies: there is no fixed ontology for a language or a scientific or mathematical theory.

These are radical and counter-intuitive conclusions -- in some ways as radical as the "incommensurability of paradigms" notion associated with Thomas Kuhn and the critique of objectivity associated with Richard Rorty. What is most striking, though, is the fact that Quine comes to these conclusions through reasoning that rests upon very simple and clear assumptions. Fundamentally, it is his view that the only kinds of evidence and the only constraints that are available to users and listeners of language are the evidences of observable behavior; and the full body of this system of observations is insufficient to uniquely identify a single semantic map and a single ontology.

(Peter Hylton's article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a good job of capturing the logic of Quine's philosophy; link.)

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