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Can Theoretical Underdetermination support the Indeterminacy of Translation? Revisiting Quine's ‘Real Ground’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2010

Sophie R. Allen
St Peter's College, Oxford


It is commonly believed that Quine's principal argument for the Indeterminacy of Translation requires an untenably strong account of the underdetermination of theories by evidence, namely that that two theories may be compatible with all possible evidence for them and yet incompatible with each other. In this article, I argue that Quine's conclusion that translation is indeterminate can be based upon the weaker, uncontroversial conception of theoretical underdetermination, in conjunction with a weak reading of the ‘Gavagai’ argument which establishes the underdetermination of the sense and reference of subsentential terms. If underdetermination is considered to be a widespread phenomenon in science, or in inductive reasoning more generally, then the Indeterminacy of Translation will be widespread too. Finally, I briefly consider two issues concerning the scope of this conclusion about the Indeterminacy of Translation: first, whether the argument presupposes behaviourism; and second, whether indeterminacy is restricted to the case of radical translation. I argue that the answer to both these questions is negative, and thus that the thesis of semantic indeterminacy remains relevant to those who disagree with Quine about some issues concerning the nature of mind and language.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2010

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1 Quine, W. V., Word and Object (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1960), Chapter 2Google Scholar. All citations will refer to the 18th edition (1992).

2 ‘On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation’, Journal of Philosophy 67 (1970), 178.

3 Most critics focus upon Quine's later, stronger version of the underdetermination thesis which he advanced to counter criticism of the original version. See Section 2, especially footnotes 18 and 24.

4 Given its subject matter, it is perhaps not surprising that Quine's account of translational indeterminacy, and his arguments for it, have been interpreted by different philosophers in a wide variety of different ways: on one hand, if Quine is correct about the indeterminacy of translation, this confusion is only to be expected; and, on the other, if he is not, a certain amount of confusion is inevitable anyway, given the vast literature his views generated and the ways in which Quine himself revised his arguments, both for the sake of defending his conclusion that translation is indeterminate and in order to defend the consistency of the indeterminacy of translation within the broader framework of the rest of his philosophical system.

5 Word and Object (Op. Cit., note 1), Chapter 2.

6 Ibid., 27.


7 Here, the notion of meaning is used fin an intuitive sense in order to argue against the commonly held view that sentences can have determinate meanings and the ‘ill-conceived notion within traditional semantics, namely, sameness of meaning’ (Quine, W. V., ‘Indeterminacy of Translation Again’, Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987), 10CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

8 There are two prima facie difficulties here. The first, raised by Jaakko Hintikka, is that assent and dissent cannot be determinately recognised in order to begin the radical translation procedure (‘Behavioural Criteria of Radical Translation’ in Words and Objections: essays on the works of W. V. Quine, Donald Davidson and Jaakko Hintikka (eds.) (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969)). Since this worsens the plight of the radical translator, I will not consider this point further here and will accept Quine's claim that the translator must make conjectures about the Native's signs or words of assent and dissent, and that, ‘if he is wrong in guessing these signs, his further research will languish and he will try again’ (‘Indeterminacy of Translation Again’ (Op. Cit., note 7), 6). The second difficulty pertains to what is involved in equating stimulus situations; since these are defined relative to the stimulation of an individual's nervous system, a Quinean cannot mean this to be a case of literal identification and so some other account must be sought. This matter troubled Quine, but it would be something of a digression to investigate his attempts to solve the problem, since it arises out of his commitment to some form of behaviourism. (See Pursuit of Truth, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990; revised edition 1992), 40–45.) In section 4, I will consider whether commitment to Quinean behaviourism is mandatory for those who support the indeterminacy of translation.

9 Word and Object (Op. Cit., note 1), 51–57.

10 Ontological Relativity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 55–62.

11 Ibid., 34–38.


12 In practice, it would also be extremely unusual for interpreters to work independently, rather than their conferring, standardizing and thus, in effect, unifying their disparate manuals by fiat. This factor explains, in part, why translators and interpreters rarely encounter the phenomenon whch Quine highlights, even if it does exist. Moreover, conferences and research exchanges serve a similar standardizing purpose among scientists who work in areas in which new vocabulary is frequently required, so their experience is not generally one of semantic disagreement either. These points seem to be overlooked by Dorit Bar-On who presents the experiences of actual translators and interpreters as a criticism of Quine. (See ‘Indeterminacy of Translation – Theory and Practice’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (1993), 781–810.)

13 See section 3 for further discussion of this point.

14 Chomsky, Noam, ‘Quine's Empirical Assumptions’, in Words and Objections, Davidson, Donald and Hintikka, Jaakko (eds.) (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969)Google Scholar. I will discuss Chomsky's other main objection concerning Quine's behaviourism in section 4.

15 Ibid., 66.


16 ‘Reply to Chomsky’, in Words and Objections, Donald Davidson and Jaakko Hintikka (eds.) (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969). This theme continues in ‘On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation’ (Op. Cit., note 2).

17 Poincaré, Henri, Science and Hypothesis (London: Walter Scott Publishing, 1902), Chapter 4Google Scholar.

18 ‘On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation’ (Op. Cit., note 2), 180.

19 Quine's strengthening the underdetermination thesis provoked a torrent of philosophical criticism, including Bar-On, Dorit, ‘Semantic Indeterminacy and Scientific Underdetermination’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 67 (1986), 245263CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boorse, Christopher, ‘The Origins of the Indeterminacy Thesis’, Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975), 362387CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hockney, Donald, ‘The Bifurcation of Scientific Theories and the Indeterminacy of Translation’, Philosophy of Science 42 (1974), 411427CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jaggar, Alison, ‘On One of the Reasons for the Indeterminacy of Translation’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 34 (1973), 257265CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I remain unconvinced by some of these criticisms but, since I disagree with the need for Quine's stronger version of the underdetermination thesis, I will not pursue this issue here.

20 See, for example, Kirk, Robert, ‘Indeterminacy of Translation’, The Cambridge Companion to Quine, Gibson, Roger F. (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 170172Google Scholar.

21 Here the theories are to be construed as ‘global systems of the world’ accounting for all possible observations.

22 Pursuit of Truth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 99–101.

23 ‘Three Indeterminacies’, in Perspectives on Quine, R. Barrett and Roger F. Gibson (eds.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 13.

24 See, for example, Lars Bergström, ‘Underdetermination of Physical Theory’, The Cambridge Companion to Quine (Op. Cit., note 20), 101–104.

25 Kirk, Robert, ‘Underdetermination of Theories and Indeterminacy of Translation’, Analysis 33 (1973), 195201CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘More on Quine's Reasons for the Indeterminacy of Translation’, Analysis 37 (1977), 136–141.

26 Even Quine thinks that Kirk's counterexample works. See Kirk, ‘More on Quine's Reasons for the Indeterminacy of Translation’ (Op. Cit., note 25), 141, footnote 1.

27 Commentators on Kirk's counterexample usually take this approach. See, for example, Peter Smith, ‘Kirk on Quine's Real Ground’, Philosophical Studies 27 (1975), 427–431; Bradley, M. C., ‘Kirk on Indeterminacy of Translation’, Analysis 36 (1975), 1822CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Kirk also does not appear to think that there are any options apart from denying the indeterminacy of translation.

28 ‘Comment on Bergström’, in Perspectives on Quine, Op. Cit., note 23, 53.

29 For example, the translator may decide that her account of which phonemes Native contains (that is, which sounds make a difference to meaning) is not broad enough, if a large number of Native words turn out to be homonyms. For instance, early attempts (by English speakers) to translate and write Inuktitut failed to distinguish between the ‘k’ sound and the glottal ‘q’, and the sounds ‘n’ and ‘ng’, resulting in an unusually large number of homonyms.

30 See, for example, Evans, Gareth, ‘Identity and Predication’, Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975), 343363CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 If the ‘argument from below’ is construed in this way as resulting from weak theoretical underdetermination, then Quine was right to call the ‘argument from above’ as being his real ground for the indeterminacy of translation, since the former is just the occurrence of theoretical underdetermination in linguistics. However, as will become clear, I do not think that he required strong theoretical underdetermination to state his case as he could have relied on the overlap of weakly underdetermined theories in physics and linguistics to do so.

32 This difficulty mirrors one in the philosophy of science concerning whether enquirers holding two (or more) radically distinct scientific theories will ultimately ‘converge’ towards a single true theory. I have argued previously that I do not see a non-question-begging, naturalistic reason for this convergence. See Allen, Sophie R., ‘Deepening the Controversy over Metaphysical Realism’, Philosophy 77 (2002), especially 534–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 In practice, of course, one cannot assume that one's interlocutor is a physicalist, but this simplifying assumption is permissible since it will serve to make radical translation somewhat easier, since it will limit the range of Home terms onto which the Native theoretical terms can be mapped.

34 This interdependence of belief and meaning had enormous influence on the work of Donald Davidson. An alternative analogy to the equation-solving one might be the epistemic situation described by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (or, ‘indeterminacy principle’) according to which the greater the precision with which the position of a fundamental particle is determined, the lesser the precision with which its momentum can be measured (and vice versa).

35 ‘Indeterminacy of Translation Again’ (Op. Cit., note 7), 8.

36 ‘Indeterminacy of Translation Again’ (Op. Cit., note 7), 9.

37 Op. Cit., note 22, 48–9.

38 Kirk argues that the indeterminacy thesis is trivial if it is merely based on the Native's dispositions to verbal behaviour, as Quine originally said. In order that it is not, he continues, we must also take the Native's higher-order dispositions to revise his theory in the light of conflicting evidence into account. But it is difficult to see how we are to find out about these higher-order dispositions, except with the help of the underdetermined translation manual that the translator accepts and so mistakes in the latter will also be carried over into our attempts to determine what these higher-order dispositions are. See Kirk, ‘Indeterminacy of Translation’ (Op. Cit., note 20), 156–159 and 170.

39 I will address a potential difficulty concerning indeterminacy of translation in the domestic case in the next section.

40 I have argued elsewhere that theoretical underdetermination is a widespread phenomenon and extends to talk of ordinary traits of ordinary bodies which would leave much of everyday language affected by indeterminacy. See Op. Cit., note 32 for arguments which imply this.

41 Even assuming that I am right in my interpretation of Quine, I can only guess at Quine's reasons for introducing strong theoretical underdetermination as the real ground for the indeterminacy of translation. It may arise from an initial failure to recognise the conflation of the indeterminacy thesis with the thesis of general theoretical underdetermination. This was perhaps motivated by the worry that there may be some substance to the charge of Chomsky and others that the indeterminacy of translation is merely a special case of the weak underdetermination of any theory by observation (see Op. Cit., note 14). ‘Translation’ is a crucially ambiguous term: it is both an activity (the concern of linguists) and the product or output of that activity (as in ‘That book is a translation of Carnap's Der Logische Syntax der Sprache’). Chomsky appears to conflate Quine's theses, concerning a thesis about the underdetermination of theories or translation manuals (weak theoretical underdetermination) with the resulting indeterminacy of the products of those translation manuals (the indeterminacy of translation). He misses the point that the former is the method by which we produce the latter and that the two theses are applicable over distinct domains—weak underdetermination applies to the mapping rules and analytical hypotheses of the translation manual while the indeterminacy of translation concerns its output—and thus takes himself to be vehemently defending the legitimacy of his own discipline as suitable subject of empirical enquiry. Quine's overzealous reply, with the introduction of strong theoretical underdetermination, unwittingly gives weight to the objection which it does not deserve. In later work, Quine is more careful to distinguish the ways in which ‘translation’ can be understood. See Pursuit of Truth (Op. Cit., note 22), 48–9, quoted in the previous paragraph but one. There are other diagnoses of what exactly the misunderstanding is between Quine and Chomsky. See, for example, George, Alexander (‘Whence and Whither the Debate Between Quine and Chomsky?’, Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986), 489499)CrossRefGoogle Scholar who concentrates about where their disagreement would lie were Quine talking about the translator/linguist constructing a Chomskian universal generative grammar, rather than the more empiricist linguistic paradigm of Bloomfield and Boas which I take Quine to be interested in. I have no idea whether I am right, George is right, or neither of us are, but I do not take his account to be mutually incompatible with mine except regarding some trivial issues.

42 ‘Whence and Whither the Debate Between Quine and Chomsky?’, Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986), 489–499.

43 ‘Linguistics and Philosophy’ in The Ways of Paradox (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, revised edition 1976), 57.

44 Presuming here that Native is a human language. Even if Chomsky is correct about innate grammar, I think it is plausible that there may be languages whose speakers do not possess this feature (although they may have another innate mechanism). Chomsky would deny these were ‘languages’ by definition, although I think we could be presented with persuasive evidence against his view; evidence of a complex and creative communication system, for instance, whose speakers clearly did not share any innate mechanisms with human beings.

45 See for example, Schick, Karl, ‘Indeterminacy of Translation’, Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972), 818832CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Dagfinn Føllesdal has also sketched some ideas on this subject (in Perspectives on Quine, Op. Cit., note 23, 107–109) although I do not know whether he has pursued them elsewhere.

46 ‘Indeterminacy of Translation’, Op. Cit., note 45, 828.

47 ‘Radical Interpretation’, Synthese 27 (1974), 331–344; ‘New Work for a Theory of Universals’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1983), reprinted in Properties, D. H. Mellor and A. Oliver (eds.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

48 The former approach is typified by Fregean semantics, the latter by the work of Katz, Jerrold, including Semantic Theory, (New York: Harper and Row, 1972)Google Scholar; ‘Analyticity, necessity, and the epistemology of semantics’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (1997), 1–28.

49 See, for instance, the semantic externalists such as Kripke, Saul (‘Naming and Necessity’, in Semantics of Natural Language, Davidson, D. and Harman, G. (eds.) (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1972), 253355)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Donnellan, Keith (‘Proper Names and Identifying Descriptions’ in Semantics of Natural Language, Davidson, D. and Harman, G. (eds.) (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1972), 356–79)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Putnam, Hilary (‘Is Semantics Possible?’ reprinted in his Mind, Language and Reality: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 139–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’in Language, Mind, and Knowledge, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science VII, K. Gunderson (ed.) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975), 131–193). Raatikainen, Panu has recently argued that the indeterminacy of translation can be avoided by taking the externalist route ‘On how to avoid the indeterminacy of translation’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 43 (2005), 395414CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, Putnam (in conversation) has said that he meant his externalism to be independent of whether entities which determine meaning such as ‘natural’ kinds objectively exist; this might significantly limit the utility of his account of meaning in avoiding the indeterminacy of translation.

50 I have discussed the justification of some of Lewis's claims elsewhere. See Op. Cit., note 32.

51 Op. Cit., note 20, 168.

52 One might not require semantic rules in addition to syntactic ones, if one maintains that semantics is supervenient on syntax.

53 If a speaker's acquisition of the language falls short of his gaining knowledge of the same semantic and syntactic rules as other speakers, then indeterminacy of translation will affect this case too on an epistemological level: the speaker's translations, and hence his knowledge, of the meanings of another's language will be indeterminate, although ontologically speaking determinate meanings exist.

54 One might be able to get rid of this difficulty by presupposing that a very large amount of the conceptual structure of language is innate, thus that the meanings that each speaker learns are so constrained as to rule out underdetermination of their language acquisition. I am rather doubtful that this strong nativist assumption could be made plausible, especially since it would have to be strong enough to rule out underdetermination (thus precluding indeterminacy) while being weak enough to permit the explanation of the wide range of semantic and syntactic differences between languages and the numerous cases of misunderstanding and linguistic error which occur even in homophonic translation.

55 Even when a child's language use is corrected by another more fluent speaker, there is no guarantee that it will be corrected in favour of standard usage.

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