Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Searle, Kripke, and Quine's indeterminacy thesis (Part 1)

I first encountered Quine's argument for the indeterminacy of translation in a class at Berkeley last year on the theory of meaning. I feel somewhat more confident in tackling this problem after having read Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, which presents a similarly sceptical argument in the guise of a novel re-working of Wittgenstein's rule-following considerations from the Philosophical Investigations. In particular, I have a firmer understanding of precisely why Searle's response to Quine doesn't quite work.

Searle's response is in the time-honoured tradition of philosophical foot-stamping, which is in itself not a bad thing - much of the best philosophy involves reminding ourselves of the bleeding obvious in interesting and nuanced ways. Searle's strategy is to remind ourselves that we obviously know what we mean from the first-person perspective - that is, when we loosen Quine's artificially behaviouristic constraints on the thought experiment. Now I think that Searle is entirely right about this. Surely nothing could be more certain than the fact that when I say 'rabbit' I mean 'rabbit', not 'rabbit stage' or 'undetached rabbit part'. The tricky part is trying to work out from whence this certainty derives. We can look in one of two places: 'inside' the head, for some kind of self-interpreting mental fact that fixes meaning; or 'outside' the head, in normatively structured social and linguistic practices. Searle opts for the former, but Kripke's WRPL brilliantly shows such an attempt to ground meaning in mental states are doomed to fail.

More on this in a follow-up post.


Brandon E. Beasley said...

I'm not sure that Kripke's book on Wittgenstein brilliantly shows anything except his complete and utter lack of understanding of the Philosophical Investigations. ;)

Daniel Lindquist said...

It doesn't strike me as right to describe the indeterminacy of translation as a "skeptical argument"; I think Davidson is right that it's a trivial doctrine, analogous to measuring the temperature in Kelvin or degrees Fahrenheit. But I'll wait for the follow-up before saying any more.

Brian S. G. Blackwell said...

To Brandon Beasley - indeed. Is this a criticism of Kripke, sir? ;-)

To Daniel Lindquist - I tend to read Quine as a contemporary heir to Hume. Perhaps the indeterminacy thesis is not a sceptical argument as such, but it has the flavor of Humean scepticism about it (e.g. demolishing a philosophical notion to which we are deeply attached, and replacing it with something that feels a little impoverished by comparison).

Shawn said...

I agree, Searle's response seems to be missing something. I'll take a stab at explaining why. When translating, in the sense of Quine, from one language to another, you are just trying to preserve truth given linguistic behavior. There are lots of connections between words and sentences, connections I will call inferential. The inferential connections form a structure throughout the language. Translation can be taken as mapping one structure into another in a way that preserves as much that is relevant to truth as possible. Quine can map other people's inferential structures to his own in such a way that when they say "rabbit" their utterance gets mapped to "rabbit foot" in Quine's language. If Searle wants to know what he means by "rabbit" he has a mapping to his own inferential structure that maintains all of the structure, namely the identity map, which would send "rabbit" to "rabbit." I'm not sure if that delivers enough certainty though. There could be arcane translations from your language into your language that are not as tidy.