What's in a Word?

Suppose you meet a previously un-contacted native tribe and begin trying to learn its language. Every once in a while, tribal members point to a rabbit and say "gavagai." You come to assume that "gavagai" means "rabbit." But what if you're wrong? What if it means "undetached rabbit part" or "temporal stage of a rabbit"? How would you know? Am I blowing your mind yet?

If you're not stoned, probably not. But 10 years ago, I was a college student bewitched with the problems of philosophy, and Willard Van Orman Quine was blowing my mind as I first read his so-called indeterminacy of translation thesis. To this day, I remember the shawarma roasting in the no-longer-extant Turkish takeout joint on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge where I first cracked open Quine's key book, Word and Object. Back in Cambridge several months ago, I tried to stop by the place, only to find that the building had been demolished. But I could still taste the hummus. And the metaphysics.

And, oh, what a metaphysics it is. We teach a child to read through such expedients as writing the letters "c-a-t" beneath a picture of a cat. Thus do kids learn that "cat" is the word for a cat.

It's tempting (and conventional) to imagine language working neatly through such correspondences. Each word refers to some object in the world; each sentence describes a fact. Quine's somewhat fanciful speculations on radical translation serve to undermine this account of meaning. Language is a social phenomenon, and languages are social practices with no guarantee of such direct correspondences. Quine observes that if we hear of a place where the local inhabitants describe pelicans as their half-brothers, it would be foolish to interpret this as a sign of profound genetic misunderstanding on their part. Instead, we see that their words don't quite line up with ours, and a concept exists that somehow refers to half-brothers and pelicans alike.

As I later learned, these attacks on the correspondence theory of truth fundamentally parallel arguments flying under the banner "postmodern," developed in continental Europe, then later imported into American humanities departments. But Quine's version of these notions, arising in the more arid context of Anglophone philosophy and the so-called analytic style, looks and feels quite different. Once you're a few chapters in, mathematical notation starts to creep onto the page. The problems of set theory are discussed, the difference between existential and universal quantifiers is relevant, and Quine's background as a logician is kept front and center.

To some, it would be an unusually dull way of presenting an up-to-date view of language. To me, the rigor and carefulness are essential in making the counterintuitive points come to life.

And in stark contrast to the postmodernists, the association between radical politics and the revisionist views of language and truth is gone. The book is utterly free of any social or political implications, any notion that reforming our epistemology is the key to achieving justice. Instead, having wrecked the traditional foundations of empiricism, Quine sets about to rebuild them.

The philosophical upshot, truth be told, I no longer really care about. And I suspect the author would approve. A surprisingly large portion of the best works of analytic philosophy is essentially dedicated to the proposition that one shouldn't spend one's time worrying about analytic philosophy.

But I'm a writer, and I find a certain inspiration to this day in what is perhaps a poetic reading of Quine's ideas.

Those of us who try to describe the world for a living aren't just poor handmaidens of those who try to uncover the truth about it. Nor are we all, as Plato had it, dupes gazing at shadows, unable to perceive the real light projected from behind us. Rather, the process of description is the process of discovery. Language and science are, together, a joint process of discovery. Quine uses the phrase "ontic decision" to bypass the traditional question of what kinds of things are "real" as opposed to merely nominal. As he puts it, "The quest of a simplest, clearest overall pattern of canonical notation is not to be distinguished from a quest of ultimate categories, a limning of the most general traits of reality." To paraphrase loosely -- no doubt a bit too loosely for the tastes of one of the most precise writers I've ever read -- a writer's search for better, clearer, more concise descriptions of what we know is fundamentally of a piece with the searches for new knowledge.

There were, of course, no full-time professional bloggers when Word and Object was published, but to me, Quine's words still work as a credo and justification for a form of media that's oft-derided as merely parasitic.

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