Quine’s claptrap on ‘radical translation’

by pieterseuren

In Chapter 2 of his Word and Object (MIT Press, 1960), the very highly respected American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quin, who lived from 1908 to 2000 (also lambasted in my blog “Parameters and values in language” of May 17th), proposes the thesis of what he calls the indeterminacy of radical translation. It amounts to the rather abstruse,  highly abstract and unverifiable claim that very different sets of stimuli may provoke the same set of “dispositions to verbal behaviour” in various speakers. In Quine’s behaviouristic perspective, which is never open to doubt but considered rock-bottom truth, this means in practice that there is never a guarantee that speakers understand each other properly or correctly. This in turn means that it is impossible to learn fixed meanings for words or expressions in any language. Each speaker has his or her own private stimulus-speech associations while the dispositions to speech in given circumstances may be identical or near-identical. Linguistic interaction is, therefore, basically unreliable. This weird thesis should be seen in the light of Quine’s overall drive to show the untenability of any cognitive notion of ‘meaning’ and especially ‘sameness of meaning’ or ‘synonymy’, and thus of the Kantian notion of analyticity (see in particular p. 75 of Quine’s Chapter 2). Needless to say, this drive has been unsuccessful.

To make his point more palatable to the common reader who does not share Quine’s privilege of sitting at the Olympian High Table of the Gods of Philosophy, he reformulates his point thus (p. 27): “The same point can be put less abstractly and more realistically by switching to translation. The thesis is then this: manuals for translating one language into another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another.” (That the “translation manuals” themselves will have to be in some language, which will then again be of indeterminate meaning, is silently passed over.) Then, to make his point crystal clear, he limits himself (p. 28) to “radical translation, i.e., translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people”, thereby placing himself in the position of a field linguist who has to do without any interpreter and has to rely only on his personal contacts with what Quine calls the “natives” concerned.

Thus, in his newly found quality of armchair field linguist, he concludes that it is per se impossible to decide, when, for example, a ‘native’ utters the sounds Gavagai as a rabbit scurries by, whether this means ‘Lo, a rabbit’, or ‘Lo, an undetached part of a rabbit’, referring, say, to the rabbit’s left ear, or ‘Lo, a rabbit time slice’, and so on (pp. 51-2). It might even mean something like ‘spring has come early this year’, or whatever. Even asking the ‘natives’ to assent or dissent to a question, say “Gavagai?”, will not help because there is no universal way of signifying assent or dissent. Posing as a connoisseur, he says (p.29): “Gestures [for assent or dissent, PAMS] are not to be taken at face value. The Turks’ are nearly the reverse of our own.” The only exception Quine is prepared to make is for observation sentences in a scientist’s laboratory (it won’t do, of course, to do away with science). In this regard, he says (p. 44): “For there is scope for error and dispute only insofar as the connections with experience whereby sentences are appraised are multifarious and indirect, mediated through time by theory in conflicting ways; there is none insofar as verdicts to a sentence are directly keyed to present stimulation.” Here we see neopositivist behaviourism in full action.

Quine is serious about this, no mistake about it. He claims that in actual life there is indeterminacy of meaning, especially when we hear a foreigner speak (p.76): “We are always ready to wonder about the meaning of a foreigner’s remark without reference to any one set of analytical hypotheses, indeed even in the absence of any; yet two sets of analytical hypotheses equally compatible with all linguistic behavior can give contrary answers, unless the remark is of one of the limited sorts that can be translated without recourse to analytical hypotheses.” Or take the final sentence of this chapter by our moonlighting linguist (p. 79): “It is ironic that the interlinguistic case is less noticed, for it is just here that the semantic indeterminacy makes clear empirical sense.” I could give further baffling quotes to this effect, but that would become boring.

The whole American philosophical establishment was led by the nose for decades, busily discussing this Quinean claptrap. Yet it had no effect on the work done by real field linguists, or, for that matter, on any recent linguistic theory of meaning or translation. And why? Because, contrary to what Quine said, semantic indeterminacy makes no empirical sense whatsoever. Quine raises an issue that does not exist. Misunderstanding a foreigner’s speech, or, for that matter, the speech of a compatriot, may have a variety of causes, among which insufficient knowledge of the language used, but in no case do we need Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of meaning to trace the cause of the misunderstanding. The whole thesis is tendentious claptrap, dressed up in ponderous but hollow rhetoric, with no observable empirical consequences and, thank God, no influence at all on the world of linguistics (which is claptrap-ridden enough as it is).

The best one can make of it is that Quine’s ramblings show the basic untenability of the positivist-behaviourist dogma, as it leads to absurd consequences: reductio ad absurdum. By Quine’s reckoning, semantic indeterminacy should block any effective process of language acquisition, whether by young children, students, foreign workers or linguistic field workers. In fact, however, despite intermediary stages of semantic uncertainty, the end product is, on the whole, fully and sanely determined: normally, we understand each other perfectly well, only too well in some cases. And we can learn to do so in any arbitrary language, whether native or foreign. There simply is no ‘indeterminacy of radical translation’. Rather than deny the reality of things, one should acknowledge the inadequacy of the philosophical basis that makes one draw absurd conclusions and revise the underlying philosophy.

The real problem is: how do we manage semantic determinacy, given the fact that the perceptible input that should make it possible heavily underdetermines the result? This is a real question, and a big one, that has occupied the minds of serious philosophers and linguists for centuries. It is now ever more widely being agreed that the answer must lie in the assumption of a powerful, innate machinery in the human mind that makes it exclude a priori all kinds of weird hypotheses about possible meanings, such as the hypothesis of ‘undetached rabbit part’ or ‘rabbit time slice’. This machinery is, for example, strongly object-oriented: nature discovered the functionality of object-oriented programming long before computer science did. It is this functional object-orientedness that excludes undetached rabbit parts or rabbit time slices as possible reference objects. Moreover, humans, like any other animate species, are natively equipped with a mechanism for the recognition of conspecifics, which makes them project their own emotions and cognitive structures and processes onto conspecifics. This mechanism, though unknown in its nature and workings, is what forges societies and causes perfect mutual understanding. Our real task is, therefore, to investigate that mechanism, not to deny it.

Let me add a little personal note. In the early 1970s, Quine spent a few months at Oxford, where he gave a series of lectures and seminars, which I, as a lecturer in linguistics at Oxford, mostly attended. I was struck by the fact that he opened every lecture with some sort of mantra: “In reference to my theory of truth and satisfaction, and to my theory of the indeterminacy of radical translation, …” and then proceeded to give his lecture. I thought this extremely odd, as if he was saying grace to himself, an arrogance I had never before witnessed but which was of a piece with his overall rather ridiculous arrogant manner and his pompous rhetoric. I remember saying to myself “this man is a fraud”, and I have never since seen any reason for dismissing that thought. It’s all gavagai (being conspecifics, you will infer what I mean by that term here).