Word and Object

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Word and Object
Word and Object.jpg
Author Willard Van Orman Quine
Country United States
Language English
Subject Philosophy
Published 1960 (MIT Press)
Media type Print
Pages 294
ISBN 0-262-67001-1

Word and Object is a 1960 work by Willard Van Orman Quine, his most famous book.[1]


Quine emphasizes his naturalism, the doctrine that philosophy should be pursued as part of natural science.[2] He argues in favor of naturalizing epistemology, supports physicalism over phenomenalism and mind-body dualism, and extensionality over intensionality, develops a behavioristic conception of sentence-meaning, theorizes about language learning, speculates on the ontogenesis of reference, explains various forms of ambiguity and vagueness, recommends measures for regimenting language to eliminate ambiguity and vagueness as well as to make perspicuous the logic and ontic commitments of theories, argues against quantified modal logic and the essentialism it presupposes, argues for Platonic realism in mathematics, rejects instrumentalism in favor of scientific realism, develops a view of philosophical analysis as explication, argues against analyticity and for holism, against countenancing propositions, and tries to show that the meanings of theoretical sentences are indeterminate and that the reference of terms is inscrutable.[1]

Indeterminacy of translation[edit]

The denial that anything systematic can be said about the meanings of particular sentences leads to Quine's most famous doctrine, the indeterminacy of translation.[2] Quine uses a thought experiment to illustrate his view on how radical translation works. He places a linguist in an imaginary community with an unknown language called Jungle. It is the linguist's task to make sense of the language by means of radical translation; the linguist must follow a process of observing the natives' utterances in combination with the present situation and environment. If the native utters 'gavagai', and the linguist sees him pointing at a rabbit, he will have a clue to the meaning of the word 'gavagai'. However uncertain at first, the linguist slowly goes through a process of learning 'Jungle' by observing a familiar thing in the surroundings and uttering the native sentences, while querying for assent and dissent. The further away a word from observational reference, say a word like 'bachelor', the harder this method becomes. To learn words like bachelor the native must have sufficient comprehension of other, more basic words, in order to get him there. After a while of gathering native words the translator will be able to form analytical hypotheses, a list of native words hypothetically equated to his own, English words. The goal of the analytical hypotheses is not necessarily forming an exact translation of the word into English - the form the words are given is immaterial, their purpose is not translation of words, but translation of coherent discourse; single words and constructions come up for attention only as means to that end.

Why then is translation indeterminate? Analytical hypotheses, that Quine's linguist has carefully constructed, are only in an incomplete sense hypotheses. This has to do with indeterminacy of reference, the fact that we are not sure if 'gavagai' refers to a rabbit, rabbit ears, or hunting etc., but even more still with the fact that there is no objective criterion or matter to be right or wrong about. Objective valid translation relations between sentences don't exist. The problem is not that we cannot translate, but that there is no objectively right translation. Quine's main point is that we must abandon the idea that the translation of two languages into each other can be exact and that there is only one way to do so.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gibson, Roger F. (1999). Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 767–768. ISBN 0-521-63722-8. 
  2. ^ a b Hookway, C. J. (2005). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 779. ISBN 0-19-926479-1. 
  3. ^ Quine, Willard Van Orman. 1960. Word and Object. New edition 2013. Cambridge/London: The MIT Press. P. 61-71