Course Notes – W.V.O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Well, I got bogged down in the last weeks of finals and grading and was unable to release these Course Notes in a timely fashion.  Readers will be pleased to hear that after a substantial review session, the students in my Knowledge and Reality course were able to pull off some respectable final exams.  For a taste of what these poor young people found themselves confronted with, here is a copy of the review questions:

  1. In “On What There Is,” Quine says that we cannot determine what exists on the basis of what we have names for. Give a brief summary of his major points on this issue.
  2. On Quine’s view, what is the relationship between a scientific theory and an ontology?
  3. Thomas Hofweber says that it is very easy to translate an “ontologically innocent” statement into an explicitly quantificational one. Give two examples of this.
  4. Hofweber wants to deny that even explicitly quantificational statements always imply ontological commitments. Discuss his reasons.
  5. In class, I said that the initial impetus to make a distinction between essential and accidental properties was a desire on the part of the Ancient Greeks to make sense of the concept of change. Explain.
  6. What is one significant problem in saying that being for writing is an essential property of markers but being brown is an accidental property of markers?
  7. What is the difference between a de dicto and de re interpretation of a modal statement?
  8. What is Quine’s argument against reading essences off of de re modal statements?
  9. Why can’t we simply translate ‘gavagai’ – as presented in “Ontological Relativity” – as meaning ‘rabbit’ or as referring to rabbits?
  10. What is the difference between saying that the interpretations of ‘gavagai’ are underdetermined with respect to the linguistic evidence and saying that they are indeterminate, with respect to that evidence?
  11. In “Ontological Relativity,” what does Quine mean by an “analytical hypothesis”?
  12. Briefly discuss how the indeterminacy of translation leads Quine to full-blown ontological relativity.
  13. In Ways of Worldmaking, Nelson Goodman writes: “the issue between monism and pluralism tends to evaporate under analysis.” What does he mean by this?
  14. What does Goodman say would have to be the case for all the myriad “world versions” to be versions of one, “real” world?
  15. Goodman says that one of the ways in which we create world versions – and parts of world versions – is by way of composition and decomposition. What does he mean by this?
  16. In “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” Donald Davidson maintains that we cannot even entertain the notion of a completely untranslatable language – or of a completely incommensurable conceptual scheme. He offers two basic reasons.  Give a brief summary of each.
  17. Davidson argues that the “scheme/content” distinction cannot be coherently made. What are his reasons for thinking this?

__________

Today I want to talk a little bit about Quine’s “Ontological Relativity,” which was of particular interest to my Knowledge and Reality students, this semester, giving rise to quite a lively classroom discussion.

The thesis of Ontological Relativity – that ontology (what exists) is relative – is only intelligible if one first understands Quine’s arguments for the indeterminacy of translation, presented in great detail in his book, Word and Object, and rehearsed briefly in the early sections of “Ontological Relativity.”

Quine takes as a methodological assumption that our only real evidence with respect to what a person is talking about or means when he speaks is his observable behavior and the speaking environment.  He is thus, a kind of linguistic behaviorist, although it is not clear – at least not to me – that this essentially evidential behaviorism is refutable along the lines of Chomsky’s take-down of B.F. Skinner’s more substantial version of the doctrine.

Quine asks us to imagine a “radical translation” scenario, in which we are confronted with a foreign language that has never been translated before and for which there are no bilinguals.  We are trying to understand a particular utterance, ‘gavagai’, that is spoken on a number of occasions, by people in the village we have been visiting.

After a good deal of controlled observation, we conclude that ‘gavagai’ is uttered when and only when a rabbit is present.  The question, Quine then asks, is whether we would be justified in translating ‘gavagai’ as meaning rabbit or as referring to rabbits?

The problem is that whenever a rabbit is present, undetached rabbit parts are also present, as well as a time-slice-of-rabbit – a “rabbity moment.”  These (from our perspective) perverse translations are equally consistent with the totality of the available evidence, and it would seem that there is no further evidence that we might discover, which would narrow them down to one.  Even acts of ostension – pointing – will not help, as every time one points at a rabbit, one is also pointing at undetached rabbit parts and rabbity moments.  The reference of terms is thus, ultimately, “inscrutable,” and translation is consequently indeterminate.

‘Rabbit’, ‘Undetached rabbit parts’, and ‘Rabbity moment’ are extensionally equivalent – that is, they pick out the same portion of the spatio-temporal world.  Where they differ is with respect to their principle of individuation, which is to say that they represent different ways of slicing and sorting the things in the world.  It is tempting to think, then, that if we could just figure out which principle of individuation the speaker is employing – if we had a warranted “analytical hypothesis” regarding the speaker’s slicing and sorting and use of logical and grammatical particles, we could give a single, determinate translation for ‘gavagai’.  It’s also tempting to think that we could figure this out, if we could ask the native questions like “Is this gavagai the same as that one?” and “Is there one gavagai or two?” the answers to both of which would help us with regard to choosing or ruling out “rabbity moment” as a translation.

Quine sees no hope along these lines, but not for the obvious reason that if we aren’t even to the point of being able to translate ‘gavagai’, we certainly are in no position to ask complex questions about counting and sorting.  This would render the problem a purely practical one, but for Quine the problem is both conceptual and deep: namely, the analytical hypothesis itself is subject to the indeterminacy of translation.

[I]f one workable over-all system of analytical hypotheses provides for translating a given native expression into ‘is the same as’, perhaps another equally workable but systematically different system would translate that native expression rather into something like ‘belongs with’. Then when in the native language we try to ask ‘Is this gavagai the same as that?’, we could as well be asking ‘Does this gavagai belong with that?’ Insofar, the native’s assent is no objective evidence for translating ‘gavagai’ as ‘rabbit’ rather than ‘undetached rabbit part’ or ‘rabbit stage’. (p. 190)

This is why Quine maintains that the indeterminacy of translation does not just apply to alien languages, in radical translation scenarios, but “starts at home.”  Our own speech is subject to it.  For there is nothing in my own speech behavior and speaking environment that recommends one analytical hypothesis —  and thus, one determinate translation – over another, equally well-supported one.  Thus, whether by ‘rabbit’ I mean rabbits, undetached rabbit parts, or rabbity moment, is itself indeterminate.

The transition from this indeterminacy of translation to ontological relativity is smooth and seamless.  For if there is no difference between referring to rabbits, undetached rabbit parts, or rabbity moments, other than a system of counting and sorting, then what material difference could there be between being a rabbit, undetached rabbit parts, or rabbity moment?

We seem to be maneuvering ourselves into the absurd position that there is no difference on any terms, interlinguistic or intralinguistic, objective or subjective, between referring to rabbits and referring to rabbit parts or stages; or between referring to formulas and referring to their Godel numbers. Surely this is absurd, for it would imply that there is no difference between the rabbit and each of its parts or stages, and no difference between a formula and its Godel number. Reference would seem now to become nonsense not just in radical translation, but at home. (p. 200)

At this point, Quine takes his lead from the relativistic treatment of position and velocity.   Imagine that you and I are looking at two people, from opposite sides of the room.  I ask you whether person A is to the right or the left of person B.  You answer “to the left,” while I say “to the right.”  Who is correct?  Well, it depends.  Given a certain frame of reference, person A is to the right of person B, but given another frame of reference, person A is to the left of person B.  The totality of the evidence is consistent with both answers, with the only thing differentiating them being the frame of reference.

In the same vein, given a certain way of sorting and counting and given certain logical and grammatical particles, we can speak of rabbits or their parts or their existence at a particular moment and over time.  Given those things.  And we can imagine other ways of sorting and counting and other sorts of logical and grammatical particles, which would make it possible to speak of things in a very different way.  But it makes no sense whatsoever to ask what there is really — whether there really are rabbits or undetached rabbit parts, or rabbity moments – just as it would make no sense to ask whether person A is really to the left or right of person B.

This is why Quine says that there  isn’t much point to talking about what the objects of a theory are.  Rather, we should focus on the ways in which one kind of talk about objects is interpretable in terms of another kind of talk about objects.  What is interesting are the equivalent – mutually interpretable —  ways of speaking about the world, not any one of those ways, in particular, as no one of those ways is privileged in any meaningful sense.

[T]here is no absolute position or velocity; there are just the relations of coordinate systems to one another, and ultimately of things to one another. And I think that the parallel question regarding denotation calls for a parallel answer, a relational theory of what the objects of theories are. What makes sense is to say not what the objects of a theory are, absolutely speaking, but how one theory of objects is interpretable or reinterpretable in another. (p. 201)

References:

W.V.O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 65, No. 7. (Apr. 4, 1968), pp. 185-212.

https://faculty.unlv.edu/rwilburn/Ontological%20Relativity.pdf

W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960).

https://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/kk3n/80-300/quine-wo.pdf

B.F. Skinner, “Verbal Behavior,” William James Lectures, Harvard University (1948).

http://www.behavior.org/resources/595.pdf

Noam Chomsky, “A Review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” in Leon A. Jakobovits and Murray S. Miron (eds.), Readings in the Psychology of Language (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 142-143.

https://chomsky.info/1967____/

Categories: Course Notes

11 Comments »

  1. Thank you for the discussion of the Quine I most admire; that is, Quine at the top of his form and, beneath the professionalism of his language, at his most radical as a thinker.

    It is one of the most difficult concepts to get our minds around, that the world we know is only known through the concepts our minds generate (or that are communicated to us by others). Since these concepts are generally constructed via some linguistic or otherwise systematized communication processes, it follows that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is really largely a knowledge of what we say about the world. Even if I kick a rock (ala Sam Johnson), this experience will only make sense through my signifying response to it in a given context. Even expressions like ‘ow!’ or ‘ouch!’ can be seen to be some responsive effort to make sense of the experience; i.e., announcement that a painful event/sensation has occurred.

    We’ve all had the experience of feeling some tinty sting on our arms; we slap at it reflexively. What is it? I pull my hand away, and there on the palm is a flattened body with broken wings, and I say, ‘oh, a bug.’ But if I pull my hand away and there is no flattened body on it, there still arises some thought in mind, such as ‘oh, probably a bug.’ And it is probably a bug, but that doesn’t matter – more important is recognizing that whatever it was, I have made sense of it by interpreting it and expressing this interpretation. And if it never happens again, and I never find any further evidence that it was a bug, yet a bug it will be in my memory.

    I confess that I am something of a classical (i.e., traditional or Medieval) Nominalist – I’m sometime unsure that we know anything ‘out there’ at all, except that it exists (but I’m also something of a Pragmatist, so this doesn’t really cause me any loss of sleep). But one doesn’t have to go so far as Nominalism, one need only go as far as Quine, to see that any claim we can make of the world beyond ourselves is thoroughly mediated by the system of the language by which we make the claim, and thoroughly dependent on context – not only the context of the particular world in which we speak, but the the context of the language we speak itself, and all the social reality that requires we admit.

    Nobody really wants the sloppy, childlike relativism that some self-proclaimed ‘post-Modernists’ espouse – even they don’t want it, since it would make their proclamations and espousals nonsensical. But relativism is not all one thing, it’s available in various types and to varying degrees. Dealing with any relativism in a useful manner requires considerable though, caution, and care.

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  2. And yet, and yet…we know prelingual infants acquire an idea of persistence of objects (and identity), along with cause and effect and 20-30 related concepts (Spelke’s “core knowledge”, as Kant didn’t call it)

    “Humans evidently are not the only creatures to represent objects as spatiotemporally continuous bodies…capacities to represent objects have been found in infant animals…numerosity…natural geometry [a la Descartes]”

    So, although there might be thinkers that have taken up the nominalist position, they will not have lost the concept of strung-together-rabbity-moments that gives rise to no more than 500 calories per serve when you catch and eat it. It’s not just words.

    Here’s my sentence for ontological translation: “the captain reported there were 28 souls on board.”

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  3. davidlduffy,

    Nominalism is a position taken regarding the problematic relationship between universals and particulars. This relationship can only be worked through in language.

    It should be noted that there are certainly signifying practices other than language; but there can be no experience with reality that does not engage – and hence is not mediated by – signifying practices. (An infant reaching for the mother’s breast is signifying something, and reaching for what signifies to it.) Whether infants have ‘concepts’ seems irrelevant, or badly phrased. That an infant responds to the world reliant on persistence of objects hardly means that it has a concept of persistence of objects. This seems to beggar the very concept of a concept.

    It should be noted that one of the questions you inadvertently raise is whether knowledge is equatable with to Justified True Belief; because I’m not sure that the notion that it is makes any sense outside of language, since analysis of a ‘justified true belief’ requires formulation into claims in a language system.

    I noted parenthetically that my Nominalist position( concerning universals) did not cause me loss of sleep because I am also something of a Pragmatist. In pragmatism, knowledge need not be equitable to JTB. Reliability, as ground for responding to the world, often seems to have a stronger claim.

    It should be noted that Quine is not a Nominalist in any strong sense, but he is something of a Pragmatist. He seems to be discussing why it is that our theories can be reliable, even when their presumed foundations are found to be weak. (This seems to have been a concern of his late as well as early.).

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  4. Hi EJ. I was not the one using the term concept and knowledge (you can google Spelke’s papers), but I think it a pretty limiting concept if the term “knowledge” can’t be used to describe those mental states of non-human animals that allow them to make reliable deductions about practical matters. You’ll know that literature on animal cognition.

    As to language and knowledge, I’ll just reiterate Haldane’s quip about bee language as “a propositional function with four variables, translated as follows. ‘There is a source of food smelling of A, requiring an effort B to reach it, in direction C, of economic value D”’. Although the common vocabulary is fixed genetically and small, utterances are “rule-governed; sensitive to hive exigencies; responsive to environmental conditions and changes; symbolic in representing states of affairs distant in space and time; and performative…”, and theoretically there are infinite possible utterances. Humans can translate to and from by using a mechanical bee and watching the dance.

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  5. ejwinner

    “And it is probably a bug, but that doesn’t matter – more important is recognizing that whatever it was, I have made sense of it by interpreting it and expressing this interpretation.”

    It may not matter to you but it matters to me. Maybe I am misunderstanding you, but you seem to be committed to some kind of idealism (I see that you are writing elsewhere about Hegel). I tend to think along the lines that if it was a (certain kind of) bug then I might get fever symptoms down the track, that sort of thing. A pricky feeling minus the bug would not lead to this particular possible outcome (malaria or whatever). It’s the mosquito, not the idea of the mosquito that carries the disease, and that’s what I’d be focusing on.

    Also I tend to agree with davidlduffy here about terminology (‘concept’, ‘knowledge’).

    We live in a linguistic world but we also live in the world other animals live in and in the world described (or modelled) by biology, physics and other sciences.

    You are using the notion of signifying very broadly. I would prefer to focus on the different systems of signification and communication rather than on signification per se. Obviously natural language and other human systems like mathematics are far more developed than animal or insect systems. The baby/breast example would presumably share many features with non-human animals.

    “… [T]he world we know is only known through the concepts our minds generate (or that are communicated to us by others). Since these concepts are generally constructed via some linguistic or otherwise systematized communication processes, it follows that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is really largely a knowledge of what we say about the world.”

    You hedge by using the words ‘generally’ and ‘largely’ but I think this is a distorted view nonetheless. It all comes back to what you mean by ‘concept’. Maybe the terminological issue is a substantive issue here.

    I would want to say that not all thinking (or understanding or knowing) is linguistic. I know that philosophers generally want to maintain a clear distinction (divide?) between brain processes and thoughts, between brain and mind, and I think perhaps this lies behind the desire to restrict the concepts of ‘concept’ and ‘knowledge’ to linguistically-mediated concepts.

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  6. (1 of 2)
    Mark,

    “When a naturalistic philosopher addresses himself to the philosophy of mind, he is apt to talk of language. Meanings are, first and foremost, meanings of language. Language is a social art which we all acquire on the evidence solely of other people’s overt behavior under publicly recognizable circumstance. Meanings, therefore, those very models of mental entities, end up as grist for the behaviorist’s mill. Dewey was explicit on the point: ‘Meaning… is not a psychic existence; it is primarily a property of behavior.’” – W.V.O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”

    We seem to be getting our apples and oranges confused. Let me see if I can clarify.

    My original comment was to Dan’s OP. Then davidlduffy seemed to reply to that directly (the reference to Nominalism), without considering that what I wrote was a response, or considering the OP as source of the issue. Now you seem to be making a similar move. Again, the background here is Quine.

    Quine, like most philosophers in the post-Positivist/Analytic tradition, is primarily concerned with ‘knowledge’ as it results from theory construction and its justification – that’s what Logical Positivism was intended to accomplish.

    So to introduce questions about what infants ‘know’ or whether other animals ‘know’ without language, is to confuse the issue Quine is addressing.

    If we’re talking about ‘concepts’ as higher order representations that can be articulated – which is clearly what Quine is talking about – then if someone wants to interject bees or infants into such a discussion, misunderstandings are sure to proliferate. If we discuss concepts as mere representation, I would still have a problem asserting these as somehow innate in all animals, since I can’t imagine a bee needing to ‘re-present’ what is in fact immediately present to it.

    I used the term “signifying” exactly to avoid getting into a technical distinctions between signifying systems. But I will introduce one other technical term which may be of use, which is that of Charles Sanders Peirce: interpretant. The interpretant to a sign is primarily composed of responses to the sign, which may be conceptualization or may be some form of action or speech-act, or some inner sensation; and this certainly has much to do with Quine’s thinking as Dan represents it here, given its obvious relationship to behaviorist thought at the time of Quine’s original composition. If we think in terms of signification and how various organisms respond to signs, we can avoid the dangers of ascribing language to a bee, and still have a means of addressing how bees interact with their environment and each other in significant ways. And we can also avoid the trap you seem to be worrying about, of conceiving of our entire existence as somehow fundamentally linguistic. We are the language speaking animal, but we have other non-linguistic significant interactions with each other and the environment.

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  7. (2 of 2)

    Pragmatism is a post-Idealist philosophy (Peirce was taught to recite Kant’s First Critique – in German! – at an early age; Dewey was an avowed Hegelian until WWI). Idealism makes a claim actually similar to Logical Positivism, that knowledge is primarily or wholly the result of theory construction, and thus must be articulated linguistically. * Pragmatism begins with the recognition that this cannot be the case. (And I would argue that Quine, while not a Pragmatist in a strong sense, and certainly no Peircean, is engaging in a critique of the Positivist form of that presumption.)

    So the question may come down to whether what we know needs be communicated in language, or whether some other form of signification can be rich enough to inform our responses to the world.

    But that does not mean we can be free of signification all together. The sting on the arm is a sign; what I say of it is an attempt to understand its significance, as response to it. If (assuming the scenario that I cannot see or find the bug or bug-parts) I come down with symptoms (signs) of malaria, that will enrich the signification of my response, and will also point to (sign) the species of bug that stung me. None of this need be predicated on the understanding that there is an inherent ‘bugness’ (some universal bug-hood) in the bug, the theory of which I must be familiar with before I form a proposition concerning it. And that is what I see as the real issue here.

    —–
    * This falls into the Nominalist trap: if all knowledge is theoretical, and all theories concern universals, and all existent entities are individuals, then the most we can say we know is our own theories, since individuals are not universals, but universals need to be constructed to account for them.. Unless, that is, we allow that knowledge is not all one thing and that there is not only one way of knowing. I’m glad that my doctor has a theory of malaria that can be relied on should I come down with it, so I can get properly treated. But I know I was stung, and what that felt like, without any theory to account for it. The interpretation of it is, however inevitable, as making sense of the matter, and certainly necessary if I become sick and need to articulate to a doctor what I think happened.

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  8. Hi EJ. I like all your points, but I suppose I move away from the implicit model in much philosophy that there are these autonomous rational individuals constructing theories of the world de novo, as opposed to the more distributed situation where a species or population is engaged in the process of applying inherited knowledge, testing if in fact it is still knowledge (“justification through works” ;)). So, knowledge is primarily or wholly the result of theory construction, in other animals these have been constructed by the action of evolution – we can articulate some of them linguistically. A market is one structure that contains and provides emergent knowledge that arises from interactions between the individual participants.

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  9. ejwinner wrote:

    “… Now you seem to be making a similar move. Again, the background here is Quine.”

    I know. But I have problems with Quine (and his gavagai) and I didn’t really want to get into all that.

    “Quine, like most philosophers in the post-Positivist/Analytic tradition, is primarily concerned with ‘knowledge’ as it results from theory construction and its justification – that’s what Logical Positivism was intended to accomplish.

    So to introduce questions about what infants ‘know’ or whether other animals ‘know’ without language, is to confuse the issue Quine is addressing.”

    Maybe so, but I was responding to your claims. Besides, Quine’s main focus was scientific knowledge and that is certainly not the focus of many of the philosophers (like Dan in fact) who are drawing on Quine’s ideas.

    “I used the term “signifying” exactly to avoid getting into a technical distinctions between signifying systems. But I will introduce one other technical term …The interpretant to a sign is primarily composed of responses to the sign, which may be conceptualization or may be some form of action or speech-act, or some inner sensation… If we think in terms of signification and how various organisms respond to signs, we can avoid the dangers of ascribing language to a bee, and still have a means of addressing how bees interact with their environment and each other in significant ways. And we can also avoid the trap you seem to be worrying about, of conceiving of our entire existence as somehow fundamentally linguistic. We are the language speaking animal, but we have other non-linguistic significant interactions with each other and the environment.”

    Right. But I would also want to reject the notion (which I learned from philosophers as an undergraduate) that all thought is language-based. (To some extent this relates to terminology, to how you define ‘thought’ etc.. See my first comment.)

    “… So the question may come down to whether what we know needs be communicated in language, or whether some other form of signification can be rich enough to inform our responses to the world.”

    I think I see what you’re saying…

    Regarding that sting on the arm you say that what you say about it “is an attempt to understand its significance, as response to it. If (assuming the scenario that I cannot see or find the bug or bug-parts) I come down with symptoms (signs) of malaria, that will enrich the signification of my response, and will also point to (sign) the species of bug that stung me. None of this need be predicated on the understanding that there is an inherent ‘bugness’ (some universal bug-hood) in the bug, the theory of which I must be familiar with before I form a proposition concerning it. And that is what I see as the real issue here.”

    I get the general gist – I am familiar with the arguments which philosophers have been making. But I am not comfortable with some of the assumptions (or early steps in the argument).

    It is obvious and uncontroversial however that any common noun involves abstraction. ‘Rover’ refers to a particular object, but ‘dog’ is a (useful in some circumstances) abstraction. We put similar things together for convenience and use common nouns and adjectives and verbs as a basis for predicates: ‘is a bug’, ‘is an anopheles mosquito’, ‘is annoying’, ‘is dangerous’, etc..). So you could see a noun as a convenient means of generalizing: the statement, “Dogs are loyal creatures,” can be seen as a manageable way of saying that you can trust Rover, you can trust Lassie (of course you can!), you can trust Snowy, and so on…).

    If I was working these ideas through I would want to see how they fitted in with model theoretic semantics. And also how they related to French conventionalism, and the idea of the convenience or usefulness of particular ways of dividing things up. You are following certain other historical lines of thought, and I am certainly not dismissing them, but nor am I entirely convinced on some points.

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  10. Mark:

    Of course not all knowing is linguistic. Knowing-how is performative. But knowing-that is linguistic, by definition (that-clauses creating intensional linguistic contexts.)

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  11. Mark English wrote:

    Besides, Quine’s main focus was scientific knowledge and that is certainly not the focus of many of the philosophers (like Dan in fact) who are drawing on Quine’s ideas.

    ————————————————————————

    The inscrutability of reference/indeterminacy of translation applies to terms in ordinary language as well as to scientific terms. Indeed, the argument’s strength lies precisely in the fact that Quine thinks it applies to our own idiolects.

    Just to be clear: these Course Notes, like “This Week’s Special”, are intended to introduce general, educated readers to important, technical work in philosophy, in an accessible manner. And though I will always present this work in its best possible light, I am not advocating or promoting the views contained in it. On this issue, I am torn, as I find Davidson’s critique — which I will be doing next — very powerful.

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