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indeterminacy of translation


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The doctrine of Quine unveiled in ch. 2 of Word and Object, that the totality of subjects' behaviour leaves it indeterminate whether one translation of their sayings or another is correct. Since there is nothing more than the totality of behaviour to fix one interpretation as the true one, the very notion of a determinately correct interpretation, or equivalently a single meaning that their sayings have, is undermined. Quine argued for his thesis ‘from below’ by pointing out that consistently with what we see of someone's linguistic behaviour the individual terms they utter may be given different interpretations, and that these could ramify to infect the whole language (see inscrutability of reference). He also argued ‘from above’, saying that in the case in which two different theories are each adequate to the whole of experience, the question of which one a subject really holds seems to lapse. At different times more weight was placed on one or other of these arguments, but each has found its critics. Perhaps the most puzzling implication of the view is that in one's own case the meaning of terms becomes indeterminate, so that there is no real truth of the matter whether one uses the word ‘cat’ to refer to cats or to do something quite different. This seems hard to square with an understanding of oneself as capable of thought at all. Quine believes that you can avoid such a catastrophic conclusion by what he calls ‘acquiescing’ in one's natural language, but again critics have doubted whether this meets the difficulty. The doctrine of the indeterminacy of translation has, however, been widely influential. It is the focus of many debates about the reality of psychological states, and may be said to represent the analytic tradition's version of the general mistrust of determinate meaning that is characteristic of postmodernism.

Subjects: Philosophy


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