Saturday, November 1, 2014

Critique of Quine's Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), second half

Herein we finally encounter Quine's justification for aiming at sentential translation rather than terms. He says (p. 51):
For consider 'gavagai'. Who knows but what the objects to which this term applies are not rabbits after all, but mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits. In either event the stimulus situations that prompt assent to 'Gavagai' would be the same as for 'Rabbit'. Or perhaps the objects to which 'gavagai' applies are all and sundry undetached parts of rabbits; again the stimulus meaning would register no difference. When from the sameness of stimulus meanings of 'Gavagai' and 'Rabbit' the linguist leaps to the conclusion that a gavagai is a whole enduring rabbit, he is just taking for granted that the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for rabbits and no brief general term for rabbit stages or parts.
He goes on to add the 'fusion of all rabbits' and the universal notion of rabbithood as further confusions. Together, this constitutes Quine's famed idea of "inscrutability of reference." I intend to demonstrate that the significance of this result is suspect.

The wrong turn taken in the argument harks back to the empirical method which Quine has devised for his desired behaviorist empirical method. He grasps from the outset that it will not be sufficient simply to passively observe the native, but rather must interact: "When he can, though, the linguist has to supply native sentences for his informant's approval... otherwise he can do little with native terms that have references in common." He further describes how the linguist might discern assent and dissent. In essence, the overall method is one of a binary probe, intended to add to whatever present stimulation is occurring a further stimulation that elicits from the native a logical truth value.

The appearance of objectivity in this method belies numerous mentalistic assumptions. It requires that the native is willing to cooperate with the linguist, rather than deceive or exhibit a passive unhelpfulness. More specifically, the native must not only respond to inquiries but first learn what constitutes an inquiry from the linguist - a translational process that is not addressed at all by Quine. The method also presumes that the native is inclined to provide distinct and definitive binary responses, rather than equivocal, graded, or otherwise ambiguous utterances. Further and more broadly, it assumes that the native is a human being with the same underlying intellectual capacities as the linguist, including without limitation a similar perceptual system, a facility for identifying similarity of stimuli, and the abilities for and interest in assigning, remembering, and applying verbal symbols to experience.

Why is it reasonable and objective to assume all these things, yet not to assume that "the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for rabbits and no brief general term for rabbit stages or parts"? In particular, why is Quine willing to assume that the native is enough like us to have brief general terms for affirmation and disaffirmation? Perhaps more importantly, if we can make these assumptions, why cannot our empirical method include more sophisticated interactive and ostensive methods? Quine points out (p. 29) that gestures vary among cultures; but in probing to distinguish affirmation from disaffirmation he relies on "the one that is more serene in its effect is the better candidate for 'Yes'." This is simply capricious.

Leaving aside the interesting but far more difficult problem of translation of the language of an extraterrestrial being, whereby we cannot make any assumptions about particular intellectual capacities, motivations, or even the form of transmission of communication, it is both reasonable and necessary to stipulate Quine's assumptions that I have mentioned above. But once we accept that the native is actively cooperating with the translation process, we can also expect certain behaviors from him. First, he is likely to aim to illustrate distinctions using whatever ostensive means are available to him. For example, if rabbit parts rather than rabbits are truly fundamental in his language, he might cook a rabbit, cut it into parts, and spread them out, pointing to each and saying 'Gavagai'. The linguist would take this extra effort as in itself meaningful and contributing to the distinctive meaning of the term. Second, the native is likely to intuitively grasp that simple names for simple objects will provide the easiest foundation for the linguist, just as with children in the native's culture, since he must have learned language in a manner roughly similar to us:

Each of us learns his language from other people, through the observable mouthing of words under conspicuously intersubjective circumstances. Linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name... (p. 1)
Thus, when the native points to a rabbit and says 'Gavagai', but does not go on to provide additional ostensive gestures as distinctors, it is contextually objective to conclude that the native is referring to a whole enduring rabbit rather than a stage, part, fusion, or state of being. Far from being inscrutable, the reference is nearly transparent, not merely in a practical sense, but if we take seriously the necessity of background assumptions, in a logical sense.

In conclusion, Quine's approach to the project of radical translation circumscribes what constitutes objective empirical procedures with an arbitrary and unjustified boundary, then purports to discover epistemic gaps that are in actuality artifacts of his particular choice of boundary rather than general features of language or knowledge.

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