Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Quine and Lewis on Semantic Relativity

This post is by guest author Timothy Scriven.

In 'Ontological relativity' Quine suggests that the linguist's translation of a term into another language is radically indeterminate. Neither the intension nor the extension of terms can be deduced from behavior alone. In his famous example “Gavagai” might refer to a rabbit, an undetached rabbit part, a time slice of a rabbit or any number of other entities. This under-determination is not merely an epistemological problem (perhaps one we could solve via inference to the best explanation), for if anything is meaning constitutive, it is behaviour.

Quine does concede that the linguist is likely to make certain sorts of translations and not others. Quine says that “Enduring and relatively homogenous object[s]” which “[move] as a whole against a contrasting background” are likely to be selected as the translations for short expressions. We might call this “the rule of moving blocks” (RMB). Surely though there will be other rules that linguists tend to use to resolve indeterminacy, let’s call these rules R collectively.

Imagine a linguist considering lexicons from a variety of languages, and noticing a pattern of R-preserving meanings. For example, languages tend to have words for “Horse” but not “The undetached lower half of a horse”. A linguist might think that they have uncovered a human universal in RMB, and in whatever other rules they may extract. Quine, however, thinks this is purely an artifact of our interests, and the way we do linguistics. Roughly speaking, translations consistent with R rules tend to be more natural.

Quine thinks that
if we are being purely philosophical and bracketing our values and interests, we cannot make a choice between the alternative translations, one of which preserves R as much as possible, and one of which disregards R. Only facts about our interests determine which translation it is best to adopt. Quine says that he would recommend adopting the semanticist’s practice of sticking with R-friendly or natural translations to anyone. But this is only for practical reasons, from what we might think of as a purely theoretical perspective, we’re stuck with massive indeterminacy.

There’s a ruffle in the carpet for Quine’s view that isn’t urged by commentators often enough. Quine sets up a dialectic in which he is being philosophical, refusing to attend to pragmatic interests at least for a while, and considering alternative translations schemas without referring to human interests. The semanticist on the other hand attends to the mucky practical requirements of her field. What she should say is relative to her interests. Not her pecuniary, ethical or emotional interests, but certain cognitive interests- simplicity, tractability etc. No blame falls on the semanticist for this, but the projects of the philosopher and the semanticist are clearly divergent.

How does Quine come to the view that semanticists typically make assignments on the basis of adjoining words to natural things or types? Why, by parsing the semanticist’s language of course. Presumably he reaches his understanding of the semanticist’s language through an interpretive theory, but either this theory is incomplete and does not uniquely select an interpretation, or it is laden with interests. Thus Quine “shows” that linguists interpret relative to a set of pragmatic concerns, but he can only show this by smuggling in pragmatic concerns of his own, inferences about meaning beyond what his cherished behavioral data would permit. There is no strict self-refutation here, but it is surely compromising nonetheless.

Lewis is famous for expounding the view that natural properties play a vital role in fixing meaning (c.f.
'New work for a theory of universals'). For Lewis, it’s not that, as a contingent psychological matter, people tend to refer to natural properties instead of unnatural properties. Instead it’s part of the meaning of “meaning” that translation schemes which are “higher scoring” with respect to certain virtues, like mapping onto natural properties, win out over lower scoring schemas.

At heart, these views have very little separating them. Perhaps this is unsurprising. In my view, Lewis can be read as Quine, with greater respect for Moorean facts.1 Both Quine and Lewis acknowledge the role of something like naturalness in deciding our theories of meaning. Quine just insists that naturalness gets a role for “pragmatic reasons”. When the difference is put so, I think it becomes difficult indeed to give a reason to be a Quinean rather than a Lewisian. One might insist that Quine has one less ontological commitment than Lewis, he doesn’t need to hold there is anything actually like natural properties. But if Quine can do without these properties in his semantics and metaphysics, I think we can reconfigure the Lewisian thesis as simply stating that the correct meaning theory is the competitor that preserves naturalness the best2. as captured by R, without a commitment to any particular ontology.

It is not even clear that there is a material difference between the views. One could talk about the set of meaningsQ and the set of meaningsL. The meaningsQ of a word W are those that are compatible with all available data on F that Quine would consider acceptable. The meaningsL of a word W are those that are compatible with all available data on W that Lewis would consider acceptable. The set of MeaningsL for W will hopefully consist in just one meaning, since, unless there are ties, there will only be one top ranked meaning for each term, accounting for all of Lewis’s ranking criteria. MeaningQ is underdetermined, meaningL is not, so we are inclined to use meaningL.

Timothy Scriven
The University of Sydney 


David Lewis (1983). New work for a theory of universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (December):343-377. 

Quine, W. V. (1968). Ontological relativity. Journal of Philosophy 65 (7):185-212. 

1 Compare for example Quine’s reasons for accepting Platonism, and Lewis’s reasons for accepting modal realism. Of course Lewis is a modal realist, but even this position was reached by trying to respect deep principles of commonsense.

2 Of course there may be other criteria.


  1. 'This under-determination is not merely an epistemological problem (perhaps one we could solve via inference to the best explanation), for if anything is meaning constitutive, it is behaviour.'

    I feel a bit unsure about this. I guess it depends what you mean by 'behaviour'. If this *doesn't* include internal neural happenings, then I can well imagine people (and not just full-blown internalists) objecting to this. Clarifications?

  2. I'm expositing Quine's view there. Personally I wouldn't hold behaviour to be the sole determinant of meaning, though I'd be happy to say it is probably the most important (whatever that means!)

  3. The notion of 'being purely philosophical and bracketing our values and interests' seems like it might be a bit dodgy.

    Couldn't one argue that, even when there is a space of many interpretations available - semantic indeterminacy in some sense - all of these interpretations are such that they are informed by certain values and interests?(Perhaps some of our interests in interpretation are invariant, while others can change and be switched on and off.)