August 30, 2004

Incommensurability and indeterminacy

Many of the intellectual themes of the 20th century deal with barriers to understanding or failures of communication.

The various forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis say that cultures, languages and individuals habitually frame the world differently, and may even express ideas that are fundamentally incommensurable. All the same, the practice of linguistic and cultural anthropology implied that an insightful observer can stand back and learn to understand the differences, and can even explain them successfully to the rest of us, as Whorf famously did with the Hopi conception of time.

Later in the century, there were some significantly more pessimistic views. Never mind, for now, the post-modern conviction that the whole notion of a world of objective facts is incoherent. I'm thinking of Willard Van Orman Quine, who belonged to a tradition completely antithetical to the post-modernists, but who argued in Word and Object (1960) for the indeterminacy of translation.

A 1995 paper by Nick Bostrom explains Quine's idea like this:

The thesis is that divergent translation manuals can be set up between natural languages such that they all are compatible with empirical facts but nevertheless diverge radically from each other in what sentences they prescribe as translations of sentences in the foreign language. Each manual works individually, but they cannot be used in alternation: the fusion of two of these manuals does not in general constitute a manual that is compatible with all empirical facts. The sentences (or anyway many of them) which the divergent manuals correlate to a foreign expression stand in no form of equivalence to each other, however loose.
The thesis of indeterminacy of translation is not that it is hard to find out what foreign sentences mean, or that the evidence available to us, finite beings as we are, is always incomplete. It is rather that there isn't anything there to be found: meanings, interlinguistic well-defined meanings, do not exist: there is no fact of the matter as to which meaning a foreign sentence has of the alternatives attributed to it by the rival manuals.

From Quine's writings one gathers that the thesis of indeterminacy of translation is a protest against the uncritical appeal to meanings and analyticity that characterised the logical positivists. Quine speaks of the notion of meaning as a stumbling-block cleared away. The indeterminacy thesis paves the way for Quine's philosophy of science and of mathematics, whose back bone is semantic holism[.]

On the face of it, indeterminacy of translation seems logically incompatible with Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativism. Quine says that there are many translation manuals that are equally valid but radically different -- but if two languages are even partly incommensurable, then there are no complete translation manuals at all. And if you can't say how sentences match up across languages, then how can you say that two languages "predispose [different] choices of interpretation"? However, in a vaguer sense, I think that indeterminacy and incommensurability are intellectual companions of a sort. Both theses reflect the view that cognitive structures reflect the structure of (individual and cultural) experience, and that such experiences can be very, very different.

This vaguer sort of connection may be the only one that we really have. Bostrom's abstract begins:

The state of the art as regards the thesis of indeterminacy of translation is as follows. Very much has been said about it, most of which is based on misunderstandings. No satisfactory formulation of the thesis has been presented. No good argument has been given in favour of the thesis. No good argument has been advanced against it.

I wouldn't go this far with respect to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I think it's fair to say that like chess or contract bridge, such ideas are better viewed as motivation for interesting interactions than as problems to be settled once and for all.

[As evidence that Nick Bostrom is a smart and clear-thinking person, read his article from Plus Magazine showing that "Cars in the next lane really do go faster." It has no direct connection with the topic of this post, but it introduces an important idea in a particularly clear way.]

[And I'll mention again that Robert Quine of the Voidoids was W. V. O. Quine's nephew, in case you missed it the first time.

Only time can write a song that's really really real
The most a man can do is say the way its playing feels



Posted by Mark Liberman at August 30, 2004 07:59 AM