THE INDETERMINACY THESIS AND ONTOLOGICAL RELATIVITY

(from Milton Munitz, Contemporary Analytic Philosophy, pp. 375-380)

We now move on to examine other aspects of Quine's views about ontology-particularly the matter of conceptual relativity. There is a close interconnection, in Quine's philosophy, between his views on the nature of language and his conception of the enterprises of ontology and science. One cannot give an account, he would say, of what there is without at the same time paying special attention to the terms used in giving the account of what there is, that is, to the conditions, mechanisms, and possible limitations involved in the use of language itself.

Quine's approach to language is that of an empiricist and behaviorist. He stresses the need for a thorough empirical study of the behavioral and publicly observable responses of individuals under particular nonverbal and verbal stimulations in the course of learning a language. The pattern of these stimulations and responses gets channeled into specific speech dispositions, and constitutes the basis for claiming that someone has acquired mastery.of a particular language. At the same time, for all the, emphasis Quine gives to the requirement of an empirical orientation for a study of language, he recognizes, precisely as the result of this orientation that we have no direct access to `things themselves'. Our access is always filtered through, and inevitably colored by, the distinctive characteristics of one or another set of linguistic tools. The empiricism and 'behaviorism that characterize his approach to understanding the phenomenon of language become the very ground for his adoption of relativism, pragmatism, and holism, as qualifying all claims to knowledge in the domains of ontology and science. (This latter feature of Quine's philosophy is what I have been calling 'Quine's version of a severely modified Kantianism'.) Because Quine, through his empirical studies of language, is aware of the plurality of languages, the social dimensions of language sharing, and the psychogenetic factors involved in acquisition of language-mastery, he has given emphasis to certain distinctive theses identified as `the indeterminacy thesis 'and the doctrine of `ontological relativity'. We turn next to a brief examination of these ideas.

Quine uses the metaphor of `the myth of the museum' to describe a common misconception of the role of language. According to it, language provides the labels for `meanings' as mental entities, but since the labels can be switched, the referents-like the exhibits on display in a museum case-are unaffected by and indifferent to any change of labels. Quine protests this 'museum myth' conception of language.

Uncritical semantics is the myth of a museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels. To switch languages is to change the labels. Now the naturalist's primary objection to this view is not an objection to meanings on account of their being mental entities, though that could be objection enough.' The primary objection persists even if we take the labeled exhibits not as mental ideas but as Platonic ideas or even as the denoted concrete objects. Semantics is vitiated by a pernicious mentalism as long as we regard a man's semantics as somehow determi ate in his mind beyond what might be implicit in his dispositions to overt behavior. If is the very facts about meaning, not the entities meant, that must be construed in terms of behavior.

When. . . we turn toward a naturalistic view of language and a behavioral view of meaning, what we give up is not just the museum of figure of speech. We give up an assurance of determinacy. Seen according to the museum myth, the words and - sentences of a language have their determinate meanings- To discover-the meanings of the native's words we. may have to observe his behavior, but still the meanings of the words are supposed to be determinate in the native's mind, his mental museum, even in cases where behavioral criteria are powerless to discover them for us. When on the other hand we recognize with Dewey that "meaning . . . is primarily a property of behavior," we recognize that there are no meanings, nor likenesses nor distinctions of meaning, beyond what are implicit in people's dispositions to overt behavior. For naturalism the question whether two expressions are alike or unlike in meaning has no determinate answer, known or unknown, except insofar as the answer is settled in principle by people's speech dispositions, known, or unknown. If by these standards there are indeterminate cases, so much the worse for the terminology of meaning and likeness of meaning.

If, following Quine, we replace the museum myth of how language is learned and functions with a more responsible, empirically based account, we should be led toacknowledge the presence of elements of indeterminacy and re ativity; in some form or degree, in every use of language from the most commonplace and ordinary tothe most sophisticated, technical, or recondite.

By `indeterminacy' in general we shall understand that even underthe most carefully controlled conditions of providing certain particular, publicly given stimuli, it will not be the case that different linguistic responses in the face of those stimulations can be discovered to match each other completely in meaning or reference. There will always remain the possibility of an element of indeterminateness, of `surplus' interpretation, which would be impossible to detect and capture in the attempt to go from one linguistic response to another in the face of the same stimuli. Another way of putting this is to say that there is an `empirical slack' in our adoption and use of language and belief, that these are underdetermined by sheer observational or sensory experience. Quine's favorite way of illustrating what he means by `indeterminacy' is to point to the indeterminacy of translation in going from one language to another. To make this clear he takes not the ordinary case of translating from one familiar language to another (say from French to English), but the extreme case of what he calls radical translation. This is the kind of challenge experienced by a field linguist who must translate the language of a "hitherto untouched people."

To see what such indeterminacy would be like, suppose there were an expression in a remote language that could be translated into English equally defensibly in either of two ways, unlike in meaning in English. I am not speaking of ambiguity within the native language. I am supposing that one and the same native use of the expression can be given either of the English translations, each being accommodated by compensating adjustments in the translation of other words. Suppose both translations, along with these accommodations in each case, accord equally well with all observable behavior on the part of speakers of the remote language and speakers of English. Suppose they accord perfectly not only with behavior actually observed, but with all dispositions to behavior on the part of all the speakers concerned. On these assumptions it would be forever impossible to know of one of these translations that it was the right one, and the other wrong. Still, if the museum myth were true, there would be a right and wrong of the matter; it is just that we would never know, not having access to the museum. See language naturalistically, on the other hand, and you have to see the notion of likeness of meaning in such a case simply as nonsense .
What this comes to can be put into terms of the notion of constructing a manual of translation from some foreign language, N, into one's own language, E. The principle of the indeterminacy of translation asserts that one may construct two different manuals of translation, each of which is acceptable, and in accordance with which a sentence of N will be translated into a sentence of E, and yet such that the sentence in N as translated into distinct sentences of E will have different truth-values, according to whether one uses one manual rather than the other. However, it would be impossible to establish that one of these manuals of translation is right and the other wrong!

To illustrate this situation, Quine considers the case of a field linguist and a native both of whom are confronted by the same stimuli.

A rabbit scurries by, the native says 'Gavagai', and the linguist notes down the sentence `Rabbit' (or 'Lo, a rabbit') as tentative translation, subject to testing in furthercases. So we have the linguist asking `Gavagai?' in each of various stimulatory situations, and noting each time whether the native assents, dissents, or neither.'
The indeterminacy of translation arises, and qualifies any manual of translation the linguist may wish to construct, due to the following circumstance:
A whole rabbit is present when and only when an undetached part of a rabbit is present; also when and only when a temporal stage of a rabbit is present. If we are wondering whether to translate a native expression "gavagai" as "rabbit" or as "undetached rabbit part" or as "rabbit stage," we can never settle the matter simply by ostension -that is, simply by repeatedly querying the expressions "gavagai" for the native's assent or dissent in the presence of assorted stimulations. Thus consider specifically the problem of deciding between "rabbit" and "undetached rabbit part" as translation of "gavagai:" No word of the native language is known, except that we have settled on some working hypothesis as to what native words or gestures to construe as assent and dissent in response to our pointings and queryings. Now the trouble is that whenever we point to different parts of the rabbit, even sometimes screening the rest of the rabbit, we are pointing also each time to the rabbit. When, conversely, we indicate the whole rabbit with a sweeping gesture, we are still pointing to a multitude of rabbit parts. And note that we do not have even a native analogue of our plural ending to exploit, in asking "gavagai?" It seems clear that no even tentative decision between "rabbit" and "undetached rabbit part" is to be sought at this level.38
Quine makes clear that even if one were to marshall various techniques and resources for reducing the zone of indeterminacy, that indeterminacy, in some degree or form, could not be eliminated altogether. It will always be possible that in going from one language (or conceptual scheme) to another there will not be a unique and complete match of translatability that could be brought about by a single manual of translation. This unavoidable residual indeterminacy of translation has, for Quine, a general philosophical significance. That significance consists in his stress upon what we may call the thesis (or principle) of conceptual relativity. It underlies the account he gives of the notion of ontological relativity:

One way in which Quine makes clear the idea of conceptual (or ontological) relativity is by comparing what is involved in using some particular language (or conceptual scheme) as a `frame of reference' in terms of which meanings and referents are specified, to what is involved in determining the position and motion of a body by using a frame of reference (a coordinate system) to specify locations of position or displacements. Thus we cannot, in the case of location of bodies, assign some absolute position or series of displacement positions if it is thought (erroneously) that such `absolute' specifications can be accomplished without making use of any frame of reference or coordinate scheme, conventionally chosen. Instead we must adopt some frame of reference, with its arbitrarily chosen `origin of coordinates' and grid of coordinates. Relative to the Sun, for example, the Earth is in such and such a position, or moving along such and such an orbit; relative to the fixed walls of my room, I walk about in it, and so on. In the same way, the first step in understanding the notions of meaning and reference is to realize that the means we use to convey these is relative to some specific, arbitrarily or conventionally chosen linguistic frame of reference, and cannot be accomplished in an absolute way, that is, by hoping to escape from and dispense with their use altogether.

It is meaningless to ask whether, in general, our terms "rabbit," "rabbit part," "number," etc., really refer respectively to rabbits, rabbit parts, numbers, etc., rather than to some ingeniously permuted denotations. It is meaningless to ask this absolutely; we can meaningfully ask it only relative to some background language. When we ask, "Does `rabbit' really refer to rabbits?" someone can counter with the question: "Refer to rabbits in what sense of `rabbits'?" thus launching a regress; and we need the background language to regress into. The background language gives the query sense, if only relative sense; sense relative in turn to it, this background language. Querying reference in any more absolute way would be like asking absolute position, or absolute velocity, rather than position or velocity relative to a given frame of reference. Also it is very much like asking whether our neighbor may not systematically see everything upside down, or in complementary color, forever undectectably.39
Of course, the question can immediately arise whether, if we arbitrarily adopt some frame of reference-spatial, linguistic, or whateverwe are not able to subsume(translate, place, re-express) the given frame within some other one, and whether in realizing that we can we are not thereby launched into an infinite regress.Quine's reply is that we avoid such an infinite regress only by realizing that if it is spurred on by the hope to find some final, absolute, and uniquely correct restingplace, this is an illusory hope or search. There is no such ultimate, absolute frame.
We need a background language, I said, to regress into. Are we involved now in an infinite regress? If questions of reference of the sort we are considering make sense only relative to a background language, then evidently questions of reference for the background language make sense in turn only relative to a further background language. In these terms the situation sounds desperate, but in fact it is little different from questions of position and velocity. When we are given position and velocity relative to a given coordinate system, we can always ask in turn about the placing of origin and orientation of axes of that system of coordinates; and there is no end to the succession of further coordinate systems that could be adduced in answering the successive questions thus generated.

In practice of course we end the regress of coordinate systems by something like pointing. And in practice we end the regress of background languages, in discussions of reference, by acquiescing in our mother tongue and taking its words at face value.

Very well; in the case of position and velocity, in practice, pointing breaks  the regress. But what of position and velocity apart from practice? what of regress then? The answer, of course, is the relational doctrine of space; there 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. ...

What our present reflections are leading us to appreciate is that the riddle about seeing things upside down, or in complementary colors, should be taken seriously and its moral applied widely. The relativistic thesis to which we have come is this, to repeat: it makes no sense to say what the objects of a theory are, beyond saying how to interpret or reinterpret that theory in another. Suppose we are working within a theory and thus treating of its objects. We do so by using the variables of the theory, whose values those objects are, though there be no ultimate sense in which that universe can have been specified. In the language of the theory there are predicates by which to distinguish portions of this universe from other portions, and these predicates differ from one another purely in the roles they play in the lawsof the theory. Within this background theory we can show how some subordinate theory, whose universe is some portion of the background universe, can by a reinterpretation be reduced to another subordinate theory whose universe is some lesser portion. Such talk of subordinate theories and their ontologies is meaningful, but only relative to the background theory with its own primitively adopted and ultimately inscrutable ontology

There is no "absolute fact of the matter." In the case of accomplishing reference, Quine expresses this as the doctrine of the "inscrutability of reference"; there is nothing to "scrute" independently and apart from the use of some conceptual (linguistic) scheme of referring devices. At best we may attempt to `translate' one background `theory' or arbitrarily chosen and adopted conceptual scheme into another, but there is no guarantee that these are strictly equivalent to one another, i.e.,that the symbols chosen by one scheme have a unique match or corresponding symbol in another language, in the way in which the mathematician or physicist cantranslate the symbols of one coordinate frame into those of another, within some commonly accepted background language or theory, by means of a system of transformation equations.