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11 - Quine on the indeterminacy of translation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Michael Morris
Affiliation:
University of Sussex
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Summary

Key texts

W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 1960), ch. ii; ‘On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation’, Journal of Philosophy, 67 (1970), pp. 178–83.

Introduction

We've seen that Quine's and Davidson's insistence on the centrality of radical translation or interpretation to our understanding of language is an expression of a fundamentally scientific attitude to language. In Quine's case, this formed part of a concerted and longstanding attack on traditional conceptions of meaning. At each end of the central decade of his philosophical career, he produced dramatic claims about meaning which have continued to seem profoundly sceptical – though Quine himself didn't see them in quite that way. In ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (first published in 1951), Quine attacked the use, within empiricism, of the traditional notion of analyticity, which is bound up with the idea of sameness of meaning. In Word and Object (first published in 1960), he advocated what he called the indeterminacy of translation, which again calls into question the extent to which it makes sense to speak of sameness of meaning.

These two challenges to traditional conceptions of meaning have had rather different histories. The first (the attack on analyticity in ‘Two Dogmas’) remains quite widely accepted, particularly in the United States. It has shaped, and continues to shape, the whole conception of their subject held by many philosophers in the English-speaking world.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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