Assess Quine's arguments for the view that there is no such thing as meaning. 


The essay title actually misrepresents Quine's position with regards to meaning.  Quine does not argue that there is no such thing as meaning, or that sentences cannot be meaningful.  What Quine argues against is the ontological concept of "meanings" that supposedly explain why sentences are meaningful.  Quine argues that sentences can be meaningful, without having a separate entity called a "meaning" attached to them.  

To understand Quine's arguments for the view that there is no such thing as "a meaning", it is necessary to keep firmly in mind his metaphysical and epistemological starting points.  Metaphysically, Quine is Realist.  Epistemologically, Quine is a strict Empiricist. 

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.

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"(1).  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"(2)  "[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."(3)  As a consequence of this 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."(4) 

". . .we now have before us the makings of a crude concept of empirical meaning.  For meaning, supposedly, is what a sentence shares with its translation; and translation at the present stage turns solely on correlations with non-verbal stimulation."(5)

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 in Quine's view 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" to Quine 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 as the same kind of "theory" construct as is any other scientific theory. 

This is where the Metaphysical Realist aspect of Quine's logic makes itself felt.  A metaphysical realist maintains that the truth about the world is evidence transcendent.  No matter how convincingly confirmed by evidence a scientific theory is judged to be, it is always logically possible for new evidence to suggest that the theory is false.  The 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 methods, are therefore always at risk of being falsified.  Both Duhem(6) and Quine(7) argue that since the body of the evidence in hand is necessarily always short of all possible evidence, 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. 

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.  Quine thus views a Language Theory in anti-realist terms.  Meanings are not ontological entities out there to be discovered -- things about which we may be mistaken.  The meaning of a sentence is constructed from the role the sentence plays in the organic network of sentences that is the language.  The meaning of a sentence is something we cannot be mistaken about.  Our linguistic behavior defines the meaning.

In his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism(8)," and further developed in "Word and Object(9)" and "On the Reasons for the Indeterminacy of Translation(10)", Quine presents his argument for a behaviorist conception of language through the device of the "radical translator".  He proposes that a radical translator (hereafter RT 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 RT has to do this without any help from interpreters, or any pre-supposed similarities between languages.  The only evidence the RT has available, therefore, is the behavior of the native speakers of Jungle.  He idealizes this task by supposing that the RT has available all possible behavioral evidence of this sort.  Quine's argument is that there is more than one translation manual that could be compiled by the RT that would each be fully consistent with all of this behavioral evidence.  Or, more to the point, any two RTs, 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."(11)

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."(12)

There is no fact of the matter because the meaning of any sentence is determined by its place within the organic network of sentences that is the language.  And Quine's argument is that there is more than one way to construct such a holistic networked sentence meaning fully consistent with all the contributing evidence.  There is, ex hypothesi, no possibility of additional evidence.  The evidence in hand defines the truth, and Quine claims that is more than one possible truth that the evidence can be construed to define.  "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 thesis about meaning accept both his Behaviorist and Verificationist premises, as well as his premise (adopted from Frege) that the sentence is the basic unit of meaning.(14)  A number of such criticisms, along with Quine's responses, are collected in Word and Objections(15).  The more telling criticisms of Quine's project, however, are those that challenge his underlying assumptions.   

For the purpose of this essay I will mention just two such challenges.  The later Searle(16)  argues that Quine's conclusion of meaning indeterminacy is a reductio ad absurdum demonstration that a 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".  Searle shows that Quine's argument can 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. 

"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."(17)

Searle's position, therefore, is that Quine's argument for the nonexistence of ontologically distinct meanings begs the question.  It is only by assuming the nonexistence of intentionalistic meanings that the argument for indeterminacy of meaning succeeds at all.

The second challenge questions the concept of "a language".  If the meaning of any sentence is determined by the place of the sentence within the organic network of sentences that is the language, then one of the problems faced by anyone attempting to comprehend meaning is establishing the extent of the "organic network of sentences that is the language". 

As quoted earlier, Quine's view of "a language" is of a social construct consisting of a complex of like behavioral dispositions.  Quine, a language externalist, denies that languages are entities whose properties supervene on the internal states of the individual language user.  But the challenge facing Quine's RT is to establish the boundaries around which body of utterances of which native population constitute utterances of Jungle (the new and unfamiliar language).  There are two kinds of problems here.  The RT may be faced with two distinct language populations living together.  (Is American English the same language as British English?  And what about bilingual residents of Quebec who switch easily between English and French -- sometimes in the same sentence?)  Or the RT may be faced with two populations speaking the same language but with sufficiently distinct accents that they are (to some extent) mutually incomprehensible.  (Anyone trying to communicate with a "Help Desk" person located in India, knows what that feels like.  Can an Oxford don fully understand Cockney?)  Based solely on the kind of empirical evidence that Quine will admit, the RT will have no basis except language to separate the two populations, and no basis upon which to separate the two languages.  And since two is just the start of the logical possibilities, even a holistic approach will not suffice.

Michael Dummett follows the tradition of Frege, Wittgenstein, and Quine in arguing for the existence of an externalist conception of language.  Dummett writes "The natural choice for the fundamental notion of a language, from the viewpoint that sees language as a practice, is a language in the ordinary sense in which English is a language, or, perhaps, a dialect of such a language."(18)  In reply, Chomsky argues:

"The concept of language that Dummett takes to be essential involves complex and obscure sociopolitical, historical, cultural, and normative-teleological elements.  Such elements may be of some interest for the sociology of identification within various social and political communities and the study of authority structure, but they plainly lie far beyond any useful inquiry into the nature of language or the psychology of users of language."(19)

Robert Stainton takes Chomsky's logic as it applies to the problem of individuating languages, and extends it to the problem of individuating words.  Given that the only empirical evidence available is the audio quality of a string of phonemes (or the written or visual equivalent), there is just as much of a challenge with regards to individuating the words being interpreted/translated as there is with regards to the language(s) involved. 

"Because there is no objective way to individuate/count words (across or within a 'dialect'), and because what makes something a shared, public word, if there really were any, would need to appeal to 'ought' rather than 'is', the Chomskian concludes that there aren't really any 'public words'."(20)

If this Chomsky inspired criticism of Quine's project is valid, and I can see no reason why it is not, then Quine does not have a unique existent language within which an organic network of sentences can provide the meaning for some particular utterance.

What we are left with is a set of symbols (whether spoken, written, or otherwise) that are employed by an "utterer" (to generalize between speaker, writer, etc.) with the intention of communicating some ideas (thoughts, concepts, propositions, whatever) to an audience.  The communication succeeds only if the audience somehow associates with those symbols an idea sufficiently close the one intended by the utterer.  Quine is right that there is no external objective ontological entity called "a meaning".  But he is wrong to assume that this does not mean that when a symbol is employed to communicate an idea to an audience, there is not "a meaning" in the mind of the utterer, and "a meaning" in the mind of the audience. 


Notes & References

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

(2)  ibid, Pg. 27

(3)  Quine, W.V.O;  "Replies" in Synthese, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 264-322. URL=<>. Pg 268.

(4)  Quine, W.V.O.;  "Indeterminacy of Translation Again" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 5-10. URL=<>.

(5)  Quine, W.V.O.;  Word and Object, op cit. Pg. 32.

(6)  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.

(7)  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.

(8)  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.

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

(10)  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=<>.

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

(12)  Searle, John R.;  "Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Mar., 1987), pp. 123-146.  URL=<>.

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

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

(17)  ibid.

(18)  Dummett, Michael: "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs: Some Comments on Davidson and Hacking" in Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, E.Lapore (ed.), Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford England, 1986, ISBN 978-0-631-14811-1. Pg 473.

(19)  Chomsky, Noam & Smith, Neal;  New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. 2000. ISBN 978-0-521-65822-5.

(20)  Stainton, Robert J.;  "Meaning and Reference: Some Chomskian Themes", The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Language, Ernest Lepore & Barry C. Smith (Eds.), Clarendon Press, Oxford, England, 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-955223-8. Pg 920


Bergström, Lars;  Davidson's Objections to Quine's Empiricism. URL=<>.

Bradley, M.C.;  "Kirk on Indeterminacy of Translation" in Analysis, Vol 36, No 1 (Oct 1975), URL=<>. Pgs. 18-22.

Bradley, M.C.;  "Mind-Body Problem and Indeterminacy of Translation"  in Mind, New Series, Vol 86, No 343 (July 1977). URL=<>.

Bradley, M.C.;  "More on Kirk and Quine on Underdetermination and Indeterminacy" in Analysis, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Jun., 1978), pp. 150-159. URL=<>.

Dummett, M.;  "The Significance of Quine's Indeterminacy Thesis" in Synthese, Vol 27 (1974), Pgs. 351-397. URL=<>.

Hintakka, Jaakko;  "Behavioral Criteria of Radical Translation" in Synthese, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 69-81. URL=<>.

Kirk, Robert;  "Davidson and Indeterminacy of Translation" in Analysis, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan., 1985), pp. 20-24. URL=<>.

Kirk, Robert;  "More on Quine's Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation" in Analysis, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Mar., 1977), pp. 136-141, URL=<>.

Kirk, Robert;  "Underdetermination of Theory and Indeterminacy of Translation" in Analysis, Vol. 33, No. 6 (Jun., 1973), pp. 195-201, URL=<>.

McDermott, Michael;  "Quine's Holism and Functionalist Holism" in Mind, New Series, Vol. 110, No. 440 (Oct., 2001) pp. 977-1025. URL=<>.

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

Nerlich, Graham;  "Quine's 'Real Ground'" in Analysis, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Oct., 1976), pp. 15-19, URL=<>.

Newton-Smith, W. & Lukes, Steven;  "The Underdetermination of Theory by Data" in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 52 (1978), pp.71-91 & 93-107. URL=<>.

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

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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

Quine, W.V.O.:  "On Empirically Equivalent Systems of the World" in Erkenninis, Vol 9 (1975), Pgs. 313-328. URL=<>.

Quine, W.V.O.;  "Comments on Newton-Smith" in Analysis, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Mar., 1979), pp. 66-67. URL=<>.

Smith, Peter;  "Kirk on Quine's Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation" in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 27, No. 6 (Jun., 1975), pp. 427-431, URL=<>.

Stainton, Robert J.;  Words and Thoughts: Subsentences, ellipses, and the Philosophy of Language, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England, 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-925038-7.

Stroud, Barry;  "Conventionalism and the Indeterminacy of Translation" in Synthese, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 82-96. URL=<>.

Wikipedia contributors;  " Indeterminacy of Translation" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.


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