"The indeterminacy of translation is just a special case of the under-determination of theory by evidence." Discuss. 


The quote in the essay's title is an objection to Quine's thesis of the "Indeterminacy of Translation" (hereafter IDT for short) raised by such critics as Chomsky and Searle.  As a criticism of IDT it actually misses Quine's point.  But since IDT is highly dubious on its own merit, this particular criticism is moot.

To understand Quine's thesis of IDT, and the reasons for his claim that IDT is in addition to, and not just a special case of the thesis of the Under-Determination of Theory by Evidence (hereafter UDTE for short), it is necessary to keep firmly in mind the metaphysical and epistemological premises underlying his arguments.  Metaphysically, Quine is Realist.  Epistemologically, Quine is a strict Empiricist. 

The Realist aspect of Quine's logic shows up in his treatment of the thesis of UDTE.  A metaphysical Realist maintains that the truth is evidence transcendent.  No matter how convincingly confirmed by evidence a theory is judged to be, it is always logically possible for new evidence to suggest that the theory is false.  The logical inference methods of induction and abduction, by their nature, project hypotheses about truth beyond the available evidence, and thus possibly arrive at false conclusions.  Theories supported by such logical methods, are therefore always at risk of being falsified.  Both Duhem(1) and Quine(2) argue that since the body of all possible evidence is necessarily always short of the evidence in hand, it is logically possible that there may be two mutually incompatible theories each empirically equivalent to the other on the basis of that evidence in hand.  Yet (at most) only one of these incompatible theories can be true.  There is always the possibility of some new evidence, not yet in hand, that will distinguish between the two theories.  Since the truth is evidence transcendent, the evidence in hand always under-determines any theory of the truth.

The Epistemological aspect of Quine's Empiricism shows up in his conception of a "language".  Quine is a thorough going Verbal Behaviorist in this regard.  Our folk psychology says that what we say is a product of what we believe and what our words mean, and that any theory that attempts to explain our linguistic behaviour will contain mentalistic terms like "believes" and "means".  Against this, Quine argues that for a theory of language to be scientifically respectable, its expressions ought to be defined purely in terms of empirical content -- observable linguistic behaviour.  While mentalistic terms may help to keep our folk theories neat and tidy, any such theory will not explain linguistic behaviour any better than a theory without without them.  In order to develop an empirical theory of meaning, Quine therefore restricts his analysis of language to correlations between external stimuli and dispositions to verbal behavior.  On his view, the objective reality of language and meaning is a matter of a population being disposed to produce certain utterances in response to certain external stimuli.  The stimuli are defined entirely in terms of patterns of stimulations of the nerve endings, and the responses entirely in terms of sounds and sound patterns that the speaker is disposed to emit.  To Quine, a language is "a fabric of sentences variously associated to one another and to non-verbal stimuli by the mechanism of conditioned response"(3).  From such a behaviorist point of view, a language is a social construct consisting of "a complex of present dispositions to verbal behavior, in which speakers of the same language have perforce come to resemble one another"(4)  "[A]cceptance of a sentence is for me, . . . the disposition to assent to it; and for me a disposition, in turn, is a hypothetical state of the internal mechanism."(5)  As a consequence of his behaviorist approach to what constitutes a language, Quine also adopts a behaviorist approach to what constitutes the notion of meaning.  "There is nothing in linguistic meaning, then, beyond what is to be gleaned from overt behavior in observable circumstances."(6) 

In other words, Quine takes "meaning" to be connected with evidence and inference, a function of the place an expression has in one's "conceptual scheme" or of its role in some inferential "language game."  A language is an organic network of sentences.  The peripheral sentences are provided meaning by the behavioral stimulus that elicits their acceptance.  The non-peripheral sentences are provided meaning by their inferential links to other sentences -- peripheral as well as non-peripheral.  Thus, "meaning" in Quineian terms, is a holistic concept.  The meaning of a sentence is constituted by its place within the network.  Moreover, because the inferential links between sentences in the interior and sentences at the periphery are (usually) non-deductive in nature, Quine can treat the notion of meaning for the language as the same kind of "theory" construct as is any physical-scientific theory.  But a Language Theory differs from a scientific theory in that, for a Language Theory, the collective behavioral dispositions of the language using population defines the truth, rather than merely models the truth.

In his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism(7)," and further developed in "Word and Object(8)" and "On the Reasons for the Indeterminacy of Translation(9)", Quine presents his argument for a behaviorist conception of language through the device of the "radical interpreter".  He proposes that a radical interpreter (hereafter RI for short), whose native language is English, is faced with the challenge of developing a translation manual for a newly discovered language (called Jungle).  The RI has to do this without any help from interpreters, or any pre-supposed similarities between languages.  The only evidence the RI has available, therefore, is the behavior of the native speakers of Jungle.  We can idealize this task by supposing that the RI has available all possible behavioral evidence of this sort.  Quine's suggestion is that there is more than one translation manual that could be compiled by the RI that would each be fully consistent with all of this behavioral evidence.  Or, more to the point, any two RIs, working independently, could arrive at mutually inconsistent translation manuals.

"... manuals for translating one language in to another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another. In countless places they will diverge in giving, as their respective translations of a sentence of the one language, sentences of the other language which stand to each other in no plausible sort of equivalence however loose."(10)

Each such manual would provide the translation (in English) of a sentence in Jungle.  Since there is no unique translation manual, the meaning of any sentence in Jungle is thus indeterminant.

"where questions of translation and, therefore, of meaning are concerned, there is no such thing as getting it right or wrong. This is not because of an epistemic gulf between evidence and conclusion, but because there is no fact of the matter to be right or wrong about."(11)

Quine specifically contrasts this IDT thesis from the UDTE thesis that apples to, say, physics. 

"The indeterminacy of translation is not just an instance of the empirically underdetermined character of physics. The point is not just that linguistics, being a part of behavioral science and hence ultimately of physics, shares the empirically underdetermined character of physics. On the contrary, the indeterminacy of translation is additional. Where physical theories A and B are both compatible with all possible data, we might adopt A for ourselves and still remain free to translate the foreigner either as believing A or as believing B.  …  The question whether, in the situation last described, the foreigner really believes A or believes rather B, is a question whose very significance I would put in doubt. This is what I am getting at in arguing the indeterminacy of translation."(12)

Note the point that separates IDT from UDTE.  There is, ex hypothesi, no possibility of additional evidence.  The evidence in hand defines the truth.  This is a verificationist standard of meaning:  the meaning of a sentence turns purely on what would count as the behavioral evidence for its translation.  "A sentence has a meaning, people thought, and another sentence is its translation if it has the same meaning. This, we see, will not do."(13)

Most of the critics of Quine's IDT thesis accept both his Behaviorist and Verificationist premises, as well as his premise (adopted from Frege) that the sentence is the basic unit of meaning.  ("[W]e learn short sentences as wholes, we learn their component words from their use in those sentences, and we build further sentences from words thus learned"(14))  A number of such criticisms, along with Quine's responses, are collected in Word and Objections(15).  For the purpose of this essay, however, of all the criticisms of the IDT thesis, I will deal with only two.

The objection that Chomsky(16) and the early Searle(17) make, the example captured in the essay title, is that Quine is confusing a second level of under-determination as a different sort of indeterminancy.  Chomsky and (the early) Searle argue that for any posited higher-level "emergent" or "supervenient" theory, there will be at least two levels of under-determination.  There will be the level that Quine admits of -- under-determination of the underlying physical theory.  But there will also be the higher level theory, say psychology, which will have its own under-determination.  Evidence at the level of physics is not sufficient to fully determine a theory of psychology.  "As Chomsky once put it, if you fix the physics, the psychology is still open; but equally, if you fix the psychology, the physics is still open."(18)  Unquestionably, there are the two levels of under-determination described by Chomsky and Searle.  But in both cases, Quine would respond, there are facts of the matter: at the higher level, facts of psychology; at the lower level, facts of physics.  The quoted objection in the essay's title misses Quine's point.  It fails to consider that Quine is assuming from the start that there is no psychology involved.  There is only a population's physical dispositions to respond to verbal stimuli by empirically observable behavior.  "A conviction persists, often unacknowledged, that our sentences express ideas, and express these ideas rather than those, even when behavioral criteria can never say which."(19)

"Some critics believe Quine's semantic indeterminacy (indeterminacy of radical translation at home as well as abroad) thesis is true, but innocent, since it is just scientific underdetermination in linguistics. The Quinean reply is that in scientific underdetermination cases there are facts of the matter making claims true or false (whether knowable or not), whereas in semantic indeterminacy cases there simply are not. The critics' rejoinder that there are such facts, studied in linguistics, is met by the final reply that linguistics, either on the whole or in part is riddled with appeals to 'meanings' and is, thereby, as suspect as analyticity and radical translation."(20)

The more telling criticisms of Quine's project, are those that challenge his underlying assumptions.  Over the years since "Two Dogmas", Functionalism has replaced behaviorism in the current orthodoxy as a theory of the mental, and truth-conditional semantics has replaced verificationism as a theory of truth.  The later Searle(21), for example, argues that Quine's conclusion of meaning indeterminacy is a reductio ad absurdum demonstration that a linguistic behaviorist approach to language and meaning is self contradictory.  Searle's argument is that if all there were to meanings were patterns of stimulus and response of a linguistic population, then it would be impossible to discriminate meanings which are in fact discriminable.  If the behavioral dispositions of the community of English speakers is unable to discriminate between "rabbit" and "temporal slice of rabbithood" then it would be indeterminable which concept I was employing when I uttered "rabbit".  Quines IDT argument can thus be seen to be not just about translating from one language to another or even about understanding another speaker of one's own language.  If the argument is valid, then its logical consequence is that there isn't any empirically discernible difference for me between meaning rabbit or temporal slice of rabbithood.  But since I can personally know which concept I am employing, there has to be more to meaning that just behavioral dispositions in the community.  It is only by assuming the nonexistence of intentionalistic meanings that the argument for indeterminacy succeeds at all.

"If the indeterminacy thesis were really true, we would not even be able to understand its formulation; for when we were told there was no "fact of the matter" about the correctness of the translation between rabbit and rabbit stage, we would not have been able to hear any (objectively real) difference between the two English expressions to start with."(22)

What this analysis demonstrates is that, contrary to some critics (and the quote in the essay's title), Quine's Indeterminacy of Translation thesis is not just a special case of the under-determination of theory by evidence.  On the other hand, however, because it relies on the premise of linguistic behaviorism, the thesis can be shown to result in unacceptably absurd consequences. 


Notes & References

(1)  Duhem, Pierre M.;  The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Philip P. Weiner (translator), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1991 (originally published as La Théorie Physique: Son Objet et sa Structure, Marcel Riviera & Cie., Paris, 1914). ISBN 978-0-691-02524-7.

(2)  Quine, W.V.O.; "Posits and Reality" in The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays, Revised Edition, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1976. pp. 246--254.

(3)  Quine, W.V.O.;  Word and Object, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1960. ISBN 978-0-262-67001-2. Pg. 11

(4)  ibid, Pg. 27

(5)  Quine, W.V.O;  "Replies" in Synthese, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 264-322. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/20114641>. Pg 268.

(6)  Quine, W.V.O.;  "Indeterminacy of Translation Again" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 5-10. URL=< http://www.jstor.org/stable/2027132>.

(7)  Quine, Willard Van Orman;  "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" in The Philosophical Review, Vol 60 (1951), Pgs 20-43.  Reprinted in Quine, From a Logical Point of View, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1961.

(8)  Quine, W.V.O.:  Word and Object, op cit.

(9)  Quine, W.V.O.;  "On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 67, No. 6 (Mar. 26, 1970), pp. 178-183, URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2023887>.

(10)  Quine, W.V.O.:  Word and Object, op cit. Pg 27

(11)  Searle, John R.;  "Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Mar., 1987), pp. 123-146.  URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/2026595>.

(12)  Quine, W.V.O.;  "On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation", op cit.

(13)  Quine, W.V.O.;  "Indeterminacy of Translation Again", op cit.

(14)  Quine, W.V.O.:  Pursuit of Truth, Revised Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992. ISBN 978-0-674-73951-2. Pg 37.

(15)  Davidson, Donald & Hintikka, Jaakko (eds.);  Word and Objections: Essays on the Work of W.V.O. Quine, Revised Edition, Springer Publishing, New York, New York. 1975. ISBN 978-9-027-70602-7.

(16)  Chomsky, Noam;  "Quine's Empirical Assumptions" in Synthese, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 53-68. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/20114630>.

(17)  Searle, John R.;  "Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person", op cit.

(18)  ibid.

(19)  Quine, W.V.O;  "Replies" in Synthese, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 264-322. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/20114641>. Pg 276

(20)  Peterson, Philip L.;  "Semantic Indeterminacy and Scientific Underdetermination" in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Sep., 1984), pp. 464-487. URL=< http://www.jstor.org/stable/187494>.

(21)  Searle, John R.;  "Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person", op cit.

(22)  ibid.


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McDiarmid, Ian;  "Underdetermination and Meaning Indeterminacy: What Is the Difference?" in Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 69, No. 3 (Nov., 2008), pp. 279-293. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/40267392>.

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Okasha, Samir;  "Underdetermination, Holism and the Theory/Data Distinction" in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 208 (Jul., 2002) pp. 303-319. URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/3543048>.

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Quine W.V.O.; "The Nature of Natural Knowledge" in Mind and Language, by S. Guttenplan (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1975

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Wikipedia contributors;  " Indeterminacy of Translation" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Indeterminacy_of_translation&oldid=521649313>.


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