The significance of quines indeterminancy thesis

They both denied that there are distinctive philosophical methods or issues and they conceived of philosophical inquiry as continuous with other sorts of inquiry, principally scientific inquiry for Quine, while Davidson took a wider view.

2006.08.19

For Quine, philosophical theories are to be assessed in the ways that scientific hypotheses are, and good philosophical method is continuous with good scientific method. This led him to reject two basic principles accepted by almost all philosophers in the previous century and a half. First, Quine rejected any sharp distinction between "a priori" truths that can be known just by thinking about them and the sorts of theoretical principles characteristic of scientific theories susceptible to empirical testing; viz.

Quine rejected any important distinction between definitional truths and other allegedly more substantive truths. In effect, he rejected the sort of distinction between "analytic" and "synthetic" truths endorsed by almost all prior philosophers from at least Descartes and Kant forward, and still accepted by many contemporary philosophers. In science, definitions come and go.


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An acid may be defined at one time in terms of effects on litmus paper, at another time as a "proton doner," etc. The same point holds for ordinary words. At one time, a bachelor might be defined as an unmarried man, but that is not enough to settle, for example, whether the Pope is a bachelor, something most people are on reflection reluctant to accept even if they agree the Pope is an unmarried man.

Even when it is possible to equate one expression with another, this does not yet distinguish a widely held assumption from a definitional truth. Are tigers four legged by definition? Or is that a substance biological truth about their nature? For those who follow Kant in thinking that a large part of philosophy consists in analyzing key concepts in effect, in teasing out their definitions , Quine's criticism if legitimate is fundamental and devastating.


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  • The significance of Quine's indeterminacy thesis!
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Quine and Davidson were especially concerned with language but harbored very different attitudes toward ordinary non-specialized language. Quine argued, in opposition to some of the ordinary language philosophers of midth Centuryphilosophers who thought the best philosophical method relied on intuitions about ordinary usagethat there can be no logic of ordinary linguistic usage.

For him, logic required a special regimented notation, just as arithmetic, algebra, or calculus does, and philosophical questions about the nature of the world must be addressed within such a regimented language rather than in one or another natural language like ordinary English or German.

On the other hand, Davidson argued that there can, and perhaps must, be a logic of ordinary language. Quine himself wrote a widely used and influential logic textbook, Methods of Logic , in which he discussed how to represent ordinary language arguments in a regimented logical notation. Quine wrote a great deal about method in linguistics and about translation of one natural language into another. He took it to be a mistake to suppose there are meanings, if meanings are treated as special things, entities in the mind, perhaps.

He argued that the basic issues about meaning in linguistics can and should be raised without using the noun meaning. Instead of specifying which expressions have meaning, we can specify which are significant. Instead of asking when two expressions share the same meaning, we can ask when they are synonymous. Translation seeks synonymous expressions in different languages. Reflection on the possible evidence for translation led Quine to the radical and surprising conclusion that translation is not determinate. According to his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, there are always many equally good but mutually incompatible ways to translate sentences of one language into those of anotherwith nothing to choose among them.

Similar reflection suggested to him that reference was also indeterminate, which led to Quine's thesis of ontological relativity. To take one of his famed examples, if we can interpret a speaker to be talking about rabbits, we can also equally well interpret the speaker to be talking about the property of being a rabbit, or about undetached rabbit-parts, etc.

2. Quine’s Naturalism and its Implications

Nothing in nature will distinguish these different ontologies or translations. The first is indeterminacy of reference : some sentences can be translated in more than one way, and the various versions differ in the reference that they attribute to parts of the sentence, but not in the overall net import that they attribute to the sentence as a whole.

Quine On

Indeterminacy of reference is akin to a view of theoretical entities put forward by Ramsey: that there is no more to such an entity than the role that it plays in the structure of the relevant theory. The second kind of indeterminacy, which Quine sometimes refers to as holophrastic indeterminacy, is another matter. Here the claim is that there is more than one correct method of translating sentences where the two translations of a given sentence differ not merely in the meanings attributed to the sub-sentential parts of speech but also in the net import of the whole sentence.

This claim involves the whole language, so there are no examples, except perhaps of an exceedingly artificial kind.

About Quine on Meaning

We have already discussed the issue about the link between Quine's view about translation and Kuhn's incommensurability thesisi; see the posts : Where dows Kuhn talk about intension of concepts? Kuhn's view about The Incommensurability of Scientific Theories is greatly influenced by Quine's philosophy, but Kuhn still holds at the possibility of "interpreting" old scientific concepts the phlogiston in the context of new theories where these concepts have no reference.

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Home Questions Tags Users Unanswered. Differences and similarities between Kuhn and Quine about the indeterminacy of translation Ask Question. Asked 1 year ago. Active 1 month ago. Viewed times. About Thomas Kuhn's semantic incommensurability: Early on Kuhn drew a parallel with Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of translation a, ; c, Bird, ] In which sense "Quine denies that the translated expressions do have a sense"?

Long comment For Quine, see Indeterminacy of Translation : The general claim of the indeterminacy of translation is that there might be different ways of translating a language which are equally correct but which are not mere stylistic variants. Sign up or log in Sign up using Google. Sign up using Facebook. Sign up using Email and Password.

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