–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Course Notes: W.V.O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity” (1968)

by | Feb 29, 2024

The thesis of Ontological Relativity – that 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 (1960) 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 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 robust 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 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’.

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 Gödel 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 Gödel number. Reference would seem now to become nonsense not just in radical translation, but at home.

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.