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Posted on October 1st, 2012, by

The indeterminacy of translation is a thesis proposed by 20th century analytic Willard Van Orman Quine. The classic proposition of this thesis can be discover in his 1960 book Word and Object, which collected together and improved much of Quine’s early works on topics other than formal logic and set theory. The indeterminacy of translation is also argued at length in his Ontological Relativity (1968). In these books, Quine thinks the means available to the area linguist trying to translate until the present strange language. He points out that there are always various methods one might break a sentence into words and various methods to divide function among words. Any hypothesis of translation could be vindicated to appeal to context, by conclusive what other sentences and a native would express. But the same indeterminacy will come there any hypothesis can be vindicated if one takes over enough compensative hypotheses about other pieces of the language.

Quine’s argument against the idea of linguistic rules and knowledge

Word and Object

Premise 1: Radical Translation (Indeterminacy of translation)

Premise 2: Since radical translation fails, attribution of linguistic knowledge is misguided.

Radical Translation (Premise 1)

The problem with the idea of signification as semantic competence on the piece of the talker, is that to all appearance to make us go from a notice of deportment to some internal structure. Yes it is not well-marked that either (1) that there are internal rules main 1 and 2 that the access we appear to have (self-examination) is an excellent procedure what is practically there. To be conservative, we could attempt to distinguish signification properly in terms of deportment, without using self-examination or other subjective methodology. To know the word rabbit is to show certain deportment in the presence of rabbits. Along these lines Quine attempt to explore signification in terms of something he names stimulus meaning.

To recovery of a man’s recent language from his currently observed answers is the job of the linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out permeate and translate until the present strange language. All the real information he has to continue is the forces that he notices striking on the natives’ surfaces and the noticeable deportment, vocal and otherwise, of the native. Such information proves significations only of the most objectively empirical or stimulus-connected variety.

Guess you had to write the grammar for a language which has never been displayed to outside world. How would you begin?

No knowledge from a synchronized culture

No resemblance between root verbs

No translation of basic terms (yes, no)

Quine: To begin you would need to make some suppositions.

The easiest expressions to find out are those relevant to a physically illustrated situation, one in which the talker can answer to the linguist’s hypothesis about what their expressions suggest. The situation Quine chooses is one in which native speaks the word gavagai just as a rabbit goes rushing by. This would seem to be easiest of all cases, and yet Quine displays that it is more involved than one might consider.

Stimulus synonymy of the occasion sentences Gavagai and Rabbit does not even assure that gavagai’ and rabbit’ are coextensive terms, terms true of the identical things. For consider gavagai’. Who knows but what the things to which this term refers are not rabbits finally, but mere stages or short temporal segments, of rabbits? In either result the stimulus situations that prompt consent to Gavagai’ would be the identical as for Rabbit’. Or possibly the things to which gavagai’ refers are all sundry pieces of rabbits: again the stimulus import would note no difference. When from the similarity of stimulus import of Gavagai’ and Rabbit’ the linguist arrives at a conclusion that a gavagai is a whole sturdy rabbit, he is just presuming that the native is enough like us to have a brief common term for rabbits and no brief common term for rabbit stages or pieces.

  1. Lo, a rabbit.
  2. Lo, a stage of a rabbit.
  3. Lo, brief temporal segments of a rabbit.
  4. Lo, undetached rabbit parts.
  5. Hand me my bow and arrows.
  6. I sure am hungry.

More experience with the native might help you rule out fixed translations. (If the talker is keeping in the arms his own bow and arrows, the statement cannot be translated as #5.) One of the first things the linguist would have to do is to know the significations of yes and no.

Suppose Quine’s explanation of the word gavagai’ expressed by a native upon seeing a rabbit. The linguist could carry out what seems normal and translate this as Lo, a rabbit. But different translations would be compatible with all the sign he has. Lo, food; Let’s go hunting; There will be storm tonight; Lo, a momentary rabbit-stage; Lo, an undetached rabbit-part. Some of these might become less appropriate- that is, become more bulky hypotheses-in the light of following notice. Others can only be left out by querying the natives. An affirmative response to Is this the same gavagai as that earlier one? Will except momentary rabbit stage, and so on. But these questions can be only inquired once the linguist has learnt thoroughly much of the natives’ grammar and abstract vocabulary; that in turn can only be carried out on the base of guess came from more elementary notice-linked bits of the language; and those sentences; on their own, admit of multiple interpretations, as we have observed.


This sample seems to display that one cannot learn the signification of one word in seclusion from all others.

Holistic definition of meaning

This view of meaning can be deduced from the verifications view of signification and the logical positivism when united with Quine’s holism.

Premise 1: Verifications: the signification of a sentence is determined by its way of confirmation.

Premise 2: Confirmation is holistic. Therefore, meaning is holistic. It’s not about words or sentences but only whole language.

Argument against linguistic rules and knowledge

There is no probable situation that can induce us to choose one rule over another. There is nothing preventing linguist from coming at more than one incompatible system. The linguist in the situation of radical translation cannot arrive at the one true grammar of the language in question.


Indeterminacy of translation also refers to the explanation of talkers of one’s own language, and even to one’s past utterances. This does not head to skepticism about signification-either that signification is covered and inconceivable, or those words are senseless. On the other hand, when united with a (more or less behaviouristic) premise that everything that can be found out about the signification of a talker’s utterances can be found out from his deportment, the indeterminacy of translation does suggest that there are no such entities as significations, since the idea of synonymy has no operational explanation. But saying that there are no significations is not to say that words are not significant or expressive.

Quine gainsay absolute criterion of right and wrong in translating one language into another; rather he assumes a pragmatic position toward translation. A translation can be compatible with the behavioural evidence. And while Quine does accept the existence of standards for excellent and unacceptable translations, such standards are peripheral to his philosophical interest with the act of translation, depending on such pragmatic emergences as speed of translation, and clearness and terseness of the results. The key feature is that more than one translation sees these standards, and consequently that no unique signification can be appointed to words and sentences.


The best method to take in Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation is via naturalistic empiricism that motives it. Linguistic deportment is a natural phenomenon to be taken in by the ways that we refer to different natural phenomena sample: economic or mechanical deportment. Any doctrines accomplished by these ways must itself be confirmed by allusion to objectively testable experiment. All of this seems very banal, but it already takes a step away from an entirely intuitional approach to language. The intuitional approach comes from Russell, who certainly impressed Quine more than anyone except Camap. Russell’s own opinion about language (in the On Denoting period i.e. c. 1905-1918) was itself protest against idealism. The idealists under authority of Kant had spoken that one can never have unmediated approach to reality: experience is always offered us via the lens special ideas (for Kant these were categories) Russell supposed vice versa that one can have direct awareness of one’s experience-one’s sense data and he named this relation acquaintance. The relation carried out an important part in his epistemology, and also in his semantics. The important building blocks of language were words; their important relation to reality that of reference. The problem about language, from Russell opinion, was intentional. How is it that words or ideas succeed in being reality? Russell supposed that

acquaintance offers the response: Every proposition which we see must be created wholly of components with which we are acquainted. (Problems of Philosophy 58) Thus relation of aboutness goes that of identity: your thoughts just are things they are about; they are your thoughts by virtue of your acquaintance with them. Now from empirical opinion this whole access receives two things wrong. First: from that aspect the alleged phenomenon of aboutness is as yet out of focal point. Just look at what we observe when we observe a community of language-talker: just suppose of it in the scientific spirit with which one might approximate the workings of a machine. There is nothing there but prototypes of deportment (the utterance of, writing down of, response to, sentences). No doubt making of sentences might contain systematically with the talkers’ environment but we have so far understood no reason to speak that sentences are about the environment any more than we can speak that money is about commodities.

Second: the main unit of signification is not the word but the sentence. On this point Quine succeeded Frege, who said as much with his noted Context Principle. But Quine’s variant of the Principle can be observed to flow from his empiricism. When, free of any prejudices about what sort of thing we are watching, we watch some stranger tribe’s linguistic deportment, the items of linguistic deportment that create a difference are the productions not of words but of sentences (though this may contain such one-word or two-word sentences as Fire! or Lo, Rabbithood). The phonetic string cat bursts at first to have no more stand-alone meaning in The cat sat on the mat than it does in catatonic. With this background we may think Quine’s conversation of radical translation in Chapter 2 of Word and Object.

Radical translation is the process by which an English anthropologist looks for to see the language of a culture wholly alien to his own. Why is radical translation important? Because it simulates progress by which we may discover linguistic signification in among impeccable objective empirical information. As much of the everyday idea of linguistic signification as creates empirical sense ought to be recoverable by the radical interpreter. How then will the interpreter go? The utterances first and most certainly translated in such a case are ones keyed to give incidents that are plain to the linguist and his

informant. Thus the linguist might note that the interpreter expresses the sentence Gavagai when a rabbit occurs past his field of view. It is a short step from that for a linguist to ask Gavagai? on one reason or another. If on all and only rabbit-involving incidents the interpreter either expresses Gavagai or consents to Gavagai? We have the straightest indication probable for interpreting the sentence Gavagai as one that heralds passing rabbithood. But how can a radical interpreter understand what to consider as consent on the part of the native, that sample a rising intonation at the end of a sentences is a method of asking that sentence? At this step it is no more guess which may be checked partly by the straight ways that Quine himself reports and partly indirectly by its being piece of a system that finally gives more or less smooth interpretations and exact prophecies of the native’s deportment (WO s7: 29-30; for an attack on Quine at just this

point see J. McDowell, Anti-Realism and the Epistemology of

Understanding in his Meaning, Knowledge and Reality 338-9).

We can consequently appoint signification, of a kind, to the rabbit-heralding sentence Gavagai. The meaning is its affirmative stimulus meaning: just that set of total neural stimulations that urge consent on the native’s part to the matter Gavagai? or that extract an utterance of Gavagai all by themselves. (WO s8: 31; for the prompt/elicit distinction see WO s7: 30).

Line here that there is no reason other than the bare causative one in which Gavagai can be spoken to be about rabbits or the stimulations that they induce. All we are speaking is this: the utterance Gavagai or consents to Gavagai? has this distinguishing sort of neural excitation as its reason, just as you would speak of the behaviour of a machine.

So far we have thought the signification of sentence of the native’s language in accordance with the structure at s5 above. But nothing in our method has yet decided the reference of the word gavagai. Does it connect with rabbits, or rabbit stages (temporal slices of rabbits), or undetached rabbit parts, or some leporiform part of the scattered totality of rabbit? Nothing in the native’s deportment can yet decide this query. A rabbit stage will make just the identical neural stimulations and therefore just the identical verbal deportment as a rabbit. We consequently have no reason to appoint either rabbits or rabbit-stages as the mention of gavagai if that is construed as a singular term, equally if it is construed as a predicate we have as yet no cause to appoint as its extension the set of rabbits, the much larger set of rabbit stages, or the much smaller set whose single member is the occasional totality of rabbit.

The Gavagai instance is possible Quine’s most noted and possible also the most unappreciated. There is so far no indeterminacy in the signification of the sentence. Gavagai (always denoted by Quine with a capital initial letter). The signification of the sentence (i.e. its affirmative stimulus signification) just is a set neural stimulations. It is as definite as can be. What is so far unsettled is the reference (if any) of the word gavagai. Here we observe the sources of Quine’s theory of the inscrutability of reference. The later theory is quite distinct from, and less conjectural than the thesis of indeterminacy of translation of sentences (see The Reasons for the Indeterminacy, J.Phil 1970: 182).

I do not suppose that the notion of meaning is so puzzled that we should desist using it, indeterminacy of translation is at worst of a modest degree. Significations will do more good than hurt, especially if we are conscious that in special among the more abstract parts of conversation there might be some arbitrariness in the assignment of logistic significations to sentences. Quine’s argumentation may satisfy to awaken us of this condition. I am not in sympathy with those philosophers who utilize reasonings found on the doctrine of classical semantics, its mentalistic side, to underestimate the philosophical significance current developments in neuroscience. I consider that just as Carnap’s philosophy was in some sense followed by Quine’s, so may Quine’s find its transfigured continuation in neurophilosophy. The naturalization of epistemology and semantics, and even ethics and aesthetics, are to be followed in terms of neural networks and other ideas from the

converging lines of research in the cognitive and brain sciences.

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