Quine’s best book Word and Object was recently republished with a new foreword and an informative preface about how Quine imagined he might update the material. Patricia Churchland works hard to situate the book in the appropriate historical milieu as a beneficial disruptive influence on philosophy, while Dagfinn Follesdal highlights how the themes of the work ought to be considered as germinal and ultimately improved on by the later Quine. The combination of these two voices allows us to see Quine’s masterpiece as both progressive and oddly primitive. With this in mind I want to review the argument of the book with an eye to the hinted improvements.
Language and Truth
You were once ignorant and couldn’t communicate. Later you had learned some rudimentary linguistics and much later again you came to master classical mechanics. Quine’s initial goal is to tell a story about how we get our modest beginnings to become the fully fledged citizen scientists. The proposal is to treat communication as a coordination game practiced with varying degrees of skill. Practice allows us to bring our assertive judgements into alignment by means of triangulating on objective recognisable stimuli. Red things are seen and consistently so described, pains are experienced and consistently suffered as such. In both cases we observe the reactions of others and act to be seen reacting. Eventually we become confident that objects in the world are the sources of our common experience, some are even deserving of names. The contentious point of this story involves how we move from understanding demonstratives and names which we come to appreciate directly by correlation and observation, to appreciating the full details and semantic functions of more complicated grammatical constructions. Follesdal suggests that the later Quine would argue for a common biological inheritance which guides our habit forming practices. We are prone to certain kinds of phonetic constructions, and liable to certain kinds of inductive extrapolation, both consciously and unconsciously. These capacities, commonalities and limitations provide a reliable guide and orientate us, as a species, about the same kind of stimuli. Nevertheless our focus is underdetermined to the point that predictable use is insufficient to uniquely isolate meaningful intent. Similar remarks apply to the isolation of true facts. Our working theory of the world is only ever provisional and can be amended in the same way that our operative semantic theory of language will be updated to account for deviance and innovation. The open question is how well are we equipped by our biological inheritance? How much of theory do we get to revise?
Translation and Meaning
The question, better put, is to what degree can we come to understand an alien language? Are we suitably adaptive that the employment of a coordination game is an appropriate basis for us to make inductive leaps about patterns of mind? Can I, when encountering you, assume that you share my focus on food? Can I fairly suppose that when you speak you speak of steak? Quine proposes the thought experiment of radical translation in which we a face a native of a impenetrable wilderness and seek to play the anthropologist. Can we, by means of repeated experiment elicit affirmative judgements about the correct use of the native’s language? We experiment on repeated instances of analogous occasions, isolated roughly in terms of location, context and duration. The constraints are subtle, for consider how long after an observation it makes sense to comment on the occasion. We cannot expect communicative impact if we delay overly long or pre-empt the event in question. With this in mind we attempt to map our frame our reference to the one employed by the native, all the while knowing that communicative success is only measured by degree of systematic predictive success and pragmatic considerations of appropriate dialogue. However such a measure of success renders it impossible to achieve a perfect mapping, and this motivates the rejection of the idea of meaning as an absolute, thereby rendering translation an impossible ideal.
Such a conclusion seems radical but the prohibition does not prevent the attainment of a functional understanding of the native’s intent. Although we shouldn’t assume that perfect translation occurs in the limit of functional coordination, since this idealises in the wrong way. There is no analogue of the considerations that would apply because we beg the question if we assume the limit exists, and that we can come “nearer to” the ideal. All candidate translation will always have a number of close neighbours which are mutually exclusive, comparably effective and hence not obviously “nearer” to the ideal. Any translation scheme will be based on more or less impure data where indicative correlations can result from the unimagined wealth of information understood by the native during an experiment. Seemingly extraneous information is ignored by the anthropologist therefore making him liable for error if the information is important for the native. We cannot guarantee that our interests always align and so any translation can suffer from irrelevant skew. Better to say that we reify the meaning of a given utterance from its repeatable role in communication, and that our system tracks an evolving usage rather than tries to pin down a fixed meaning.
Strategies for adopting a given scheme will seek to limit the exposure to impure data, maximise considerations of charitable interpretation, and achieve reliable correlations. Estimates of data purity and charitable interpretations are unavoidably at the discretion of the anthropologist. Ensuring that the meaning of an utterance is underdetermined in so far as the anthropologist is prone to mistake. Errors are best minimised by a robust conception of the native’s belief structure.
In an effort to characterise the belief structures of a native Quine argues that we ought to charitably construe their language in such a way as to attribute them basic logical competence. We may attempt to identify the truth-functional logical particles (and, or, not, etc…) by means of short experimental utterances which test the recursive capacity of the language vis a vis particular operator-like phrases. There are difficulties which emerge in fixing the translation of the categorical since any particular such description of a crowd could elicit affirmation for reasons of graded exactitude or an unappreciated vagueness in description or quantification. Some cultures might count up “1, 2, …. many”; the capacity for numeracy does not imply interest or rigour. Similarly, the identity relation amongst sets cannot be reliably preserved via translation since any candidate-copula may be deployed in a manner which equates sets in light of the context if the “semantic criterion makes demands beyond extension” alone. The concern is wholly general but the illustrative example involves how Lois Lane has differing expectations of Superman and Clark Kent. Imprecision in identification underwrites semantic ambiguity and as a result the hypothetical intra-linguistic analyticity relations are subject to underdetermination. We may always achieve assent as a qualified endorsement of our experimental usage without ever appreciating the tautological tenor or fortuitous contingency of an assertion. A translation will only be acceptable if we can accurately surmise the intensional impetus of the native’s linguistic usage without relying on wholly linguistic cues. Without knowing about what our native might believe or intend we cannot know what they mean, or in particular what exactly they’re talking about. In a slogan – the inscrutability of reference follows from the inscrutability of mind. We must deny the latter to mitigate the former, and even then the benefit is only slight as we extend to considerations of derivative meanings, relative clauses and abstract concepts.
The cumulative effect of observed vagueness in language prompts the Quinean anthropologist to beat a retreat and seek refuge in formalism. The hope is that the austerity and simplicity of logical language is such as to allow effective coordination by means of regimentation.
Regimentation versus Convergence
At this point a tension emerges. The argument stands to promote the conclusion that communication is impossible, which seems like a reductio of the initial position. However, Quine takes the opposite approach. He suggests that we ought to divest ourselves of the tradition that seeks understanding of others. Better to tie ourselves to simple technical device of first order logic to more effectively teach the native our “tongue” – insisting on reductive regimentation to avoid ambiguity as best we can. Replace ambiguous attributive claims with clear existential commitments to avoid conflation of reality and fiction. The advantage of using this language is that we can then focus on building an unambiguous extensional semantics. We would only seek objective reference for linguistic terms, undistracted by overt abstraction. In effect the insistence on short recursively applicable descriptive clauses is tantamount to a collaborative forging of a new language open to its own natural, but appreciable, evolution.
The problem is that this approach concedes too much and underestimates the positive impact of rational restrictions in the interpretive effort. We don’t need to limit ourselves to a descriptive vocabulary to achieve rough convergence. The point is illustrated nicely by Dennett’s imaginary crossword. Suppose we start with one clue and one problem. The solution space for the cross word is not infinite but it is vast, now overlay a second problem on the first and the solution space shrinks. Overlay another problem on the second, and a fourth intersecting the third and the first and the solution space becomes smaller again. Language considered as an interpretive challenge is like this crossword. It presents a problem space iteratively narrowed by the search for compatible interpretations with an increasing range of clues for each problem. Clues come in the form of behavioural instincts and observed signals. We gradually accumulate so many signals for some narrow class of linguistic utterances that their interpretation becomes beyond doubt. Compatibility concerns force our hand with regards to the rest of language. This model of language learning relies on the cooperative dynamic of the teacher and the student, which in turn supposes a picture of human interaction where one can appreciate the intent of the other. This is not unreasonable, so why resort to reductive regimentation?
The Flight from Intension
The main object of Quine’s argumentation is to undermine the Platonic notion of meaning, the “myth of the museum” wherein meanings are fixed. This Platonic abstraction can offend certain sensibilities and aesthetic instincts as the Platonic theorist advocates for the existence of an abstraction for which there is no direct evidence. Similarly the Platonist may argue for the existence of a proposition which is the meaning variously expressed by a class of sentences ( e.g. the proposition [3 is greater than 2] is expressed by both sentences “3 > 2” and “2 < 3”). But there is no reason to suspect we grasp propositions independently from the understanding we derive from utterances in use. Quine suggests that the idea of a Platonic proposition is an abstraction from the natural “that-_____” clause of linguistic usage. In order to convey a truth “that-” where is the state of affairs underlying an expression “” it seems we must posit an absolute communicable thought. However, this idealises the mind in the wrong way. It segments our understanding along linguistic lines when there is no such thing as absolute linguistic content.
Further confusing the picture is the tendency to attribute beliefs in certain propositions to other people. Quine fears that the entire process of belief attribution presupposes the existence of robust discernible propositions. In other words belief attribution belies a false exactitude. Exemplary of this concern is the possible failure of Leibniz’s law. You may believe that Superman can leap a building in a single bound but doubt that Clark Kent can, even though both claims express the same proposition. Hence, taking belief attribution seriously allows for a failure of classical logic because modal logics of belief undermine the classical law of identity which underwrites Quine’s regimentation project and hopes for extensional semantics. We have argued above that Quine’s regimentation project is unneeded to achieve workable translations, so the concern for classical logic is far less persuasive than he took it to be. However, the preservation of our intensional idiom may be questioned for its scientific rigour and unavoidable circularity:
To accept intentional usage at face value is, we saw, to postulate translation relations as somehow objectively valid though indeterminate in principle relative to the totality of speech dispositions. Such postulation promises little gain in scientific insight if there is no better ground for it than the supposed translation relations are presupposed by the vernacular of semantics and intention. – p202
A concern to regiment scientific description with a robust canonical notation may plausibly motivate retreat to the austerity of formal mathematics and logic. However if the achievement of “scientific insight” is key, it is no more clear that the stripped down model of the world minus belief relations and intentional idioms adds any insight. Better to say it focuses on a third-person description which leaves out scientifically valuable considerations of social science and psychology. At best this seems to demarcate the scientific and non-scientific by means of an somewhat arbitrary aesthetic principle. This last remark is marginally unfair but not wrong. Quine’s approach to belief attribution is a systematic consequence of his suspicion of modal locutions broadly. Judgements of possibility and necessity are often intractable and rarely have a reliable role in empirical science. Is the number of planets necessarily odd, or merely possibly odd? Are humans essentially rational or just contingently irrational? These questions are a scholastic maze into which philosophers disappear unmourned. So while Quine’s historical aversion to modality and belief attribution is doubly motivated, it’s still wrong. Follesdal’s preface indicates that the later Quine was intending to reevaluate the role of beliefs and intentional idioms in his thoughts on modality. Developing, ultimately, the insight that talk of propositional attitudes and belief attribution is indispensable for the practice of coordination games vital for language learning. The great insight of Quine’s indeterminacy thesis is that the “problem of quantifying into propositional attitude idioms from the outside requires that I master two perspectives on the world with their different individuations, and that I be able to correlate at least some of the individuals in one of these worlds with individuals in the other….[c]ommunication and translation are a matter of correlating not just two world perspectives but two perspectives on the same world.”
Scientific insight as Ontic Decision
The methodological concerns which underwrite Quine’s ontological scruples can now be clearly seen to weigh heavily on his approach to belief attribution. In particular case studies of formalisation in mathematics are taken as positive instances of regimentation which improved communicative effect. The formulation of calculus with infinitesimals and mechanics with ideal objects serve to show that science can be formalised with un-empirical abstractions. However the subsequent development of calculus in terms of limits and sparser ontological commitments is seen as an improvement, minimally as an aesthetic improvement. Any benefits of the traditional formulation may be preserved so long as we acknowledge the equal accuracy of the paraphrase in terms of limits. Discussions of the problem in either lexicon are perfectly valid – distinctions need only be made with regard to their simplicity and the degree of communicative effect in a given audience. Avoidance of ambiguity allows communication with any audience, so the motivation for regimentation is tied to ultimately to a concern for teaching and communicating. Consequently Quine can argue that you may repudiate the older theory due to its extraneous ontological commitments as against the stream-lined, paired down novel theory. Theories which admit ambiguous contradictory ontologies of inconsistent beliefs, meanings and propositions are to be repudiated just when a better alternative is discovered.
Theory in philosophy doesn’t always age gracefully but good prose in philosophy is rare, so the genuine joy of first encountering this stylist is hard to exaggerate. The insistent force and aesthetic of Quine’s philosophy is beautifully articulated in this work; his inimitable exactitude and evocative candour is crisply reproduced by MIT Press. The ideas on first blush were invigorating, but seen in the rear view are humbling. The genius and breadth of Quine’s considerations are vast and whether or not you buy into the view of the later Quine as characterised by Follesdal, you will find Word and Object rewarding. Even if you repudiate the older Quine his arguments still resonate.