A Short Take on the Indeterminacy of Meaning

The American philosopher Ernest Lepore (1950-) put the case that if the (general) indeterminacy of meaning thesis (which is broader than — and a consequence of — the indeterminacy of translation and the indeterminacy of reference theses) were the case, then

“you and I mean different things when we say ‘dog’”.

The (perhaps) counterintuitive and/or dismissive response to that statement is to ask this question: Is that really such a bad thing? Indeed do the implications of Lepore’s statement actually amount to much?

Ask yourself what it means — yes, means — when someone states the following:

You and I mean the same thing by the word “dog”.

Of course we can both say that we both mean dog by the word “dog”. However, that won’t get us very far. (This is somewhat like Alfred Tarski’s seemingly vacuous T sentence. Namely: “The sentence ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.”)

Lepore’s claim (i.e., “you and I mean different things when we say ‘dog’”) wouldn't seem quite so outlandish if we were referring, instead, to a word like “democracy”. Thus:

You and I mean different things when we say “democracy”.

Most of us would happily accept the fact that what different people mean by the word “democracy” may be — or even will be — different (if only to varying degrees). So why couldn’t the same — or something similar — also be the case with the word “dog”?

Of course the word “democracy” is an abstract noun; whereas the word “dog” is a concrete noun. But does that difference really make much of a difference? Sure, it’s easier to refer to — or pick out — a dog than it is to do the same with democracy. Yet that ease of referring to — or picking out — a dog with the word “dog” doesn’t necessarily mean that you and I mean the same thing — or exactly the same thing — when we use that word. Both you and I always — or nearly always — successfully pick out (or refer to) dogs with the word “dog”. Again, it doesn’t follow from this that we do so because we mean the same thing by the same word.

Does it matter, for example, that you think of — or simply mean — creatures with wagging tails, and I think of — or mean — canine animals when we use the word “dog”? (Of course we may not even rely on any explicit — or conscious - definitions at all when we use the word “dog”.) Yet despite these (possible) differences, both you and I both still successfully refer to — or pick out — the same things when we use the word “dog”.

All this may even be true if we take W.V.O Quine’s well-known example of rabbits. The American philosophy Michael J. Loux (1942-) put it this way:

“If there is indeterminacy in our use of the term ‘rabbit,’ [or ‘dog’] it is an indeterminacy that is somehow rabbit-involving [or dog-involving]. While it may be indeterminate whether a given individual’s use of the term ‘rabbit’ [or ‘dog’] involves a reference to three-dimensional enduring substances, their temporal parts, their undetached spatial parts, their fusion, or some universal they instantiate, all the alternative reference assignments that are admissible here are tied together by being, in some rough sense, all rabbit-centered [or dog-centered].”

Alternatively, perhaps we don’t really mean anything when we use the word “dog”. Or perhaps it’s our causal and/or historical connections with dogs (i.e., rather than our internal meanings) which really matter. In addition, perhaps you (in homage to Quine again) pick out dog-parts, temporal dog-slices or doghood with the word “dog”; whereas I — being the sensible person that I am — pick out… dogs when I use the word “dog”.

Lepore goes on to say that

“this line of argument leads to such surprising claims as that natural languages are not, in general, inter-translatable”.

According to Lepore, Quine believed this. Yet Quine could speak fluent German — so how could he have believed this?… Of course I’m being slightly rhetorical here.

What Quine did believe is that the (in his own words) “facts of the matter” about, say, German meanings aren’t kept complete and intact in any translation. That’s because there are no facts of the matter when it comes to translation and therefore to meaning! (All of this is well captured in Quine’s paper ‘Ontological Relativity’.) That’s primarily because there can be no one-to-one correspondence between the language of translation and the object language — and that’s not only the case when it comes to “alien speakers”. Again, that’s primarily because there’s nothing determinate to translate — and therefore no determinate translation — in the first place. And this isn’t only because of the banal reason — among others — that there are certain German words which don’t (really) have an English translation (at least not a precise one). It’s because there are no abstract meanings, meanings as mental items or even meanings simpliciter — to correctly (or incorrectly) translate in the first place.

Quine himself argued that all we actually have (or need?) is “stimulus-synonymy” (as well as behavioural-response synonymy) when it comes to the translation of alien utterances. And that’s also the case — if to a lesser extent — when it comes to German speakers and even to our fellow English speakers! As for a circumscribed translation, even if all the physical and behavioural facts are available, various translations — perhaps indefinitely many — will always be possible. Thus it will be our choice of which “translation manual” to use — and that will largely determine the translation. Thus no single translation will capture the true meaning better than any other translation. Again, that’s because there’s no true meaning to capture. That said, perhaps some translations will be better or worse than others (say, for pragmatic or other reasons). We may — or will — also need to adopt the principle of charity when it comes to translating other speakers. Still, these qualifications (if that’s what they are) of the indeterminacy of meaning thesis may be hard to argue for.

The only way it would be possible to capture the true meaning of any utterance would be if there were true meanings to capture in the minds of the speakers of another language. Yet there are no such things — as Ludwig Wittgenstein and others have forcefully shown. (See the Private Language argument.) Indeed even if there are such private mental items, then how can we — as third parties — gain access to them? Thus the only way we can access them is when the translated person overtly expresses them. (Quine often used the words “overt behaviour”.) Consequently, if there’s no missing part when it comes to such behavioural expressions (in that they don’t really lose anything of the mental meanings), then perhaps such mental meanings can be entirely dropped from the picture. And that’s because such a (private) mental meaning (or item) will be a (to use two of Wittgenstein’s phrases) “wheel without a function” and a “beetle in a box”.

Lepore himself goes on to admit that the people he calls “mitigated holists” needn’t be too concerned with meaning indeterminacy in that to them

“a notion of similarity of meaning (of mental content) somehow replaces the notion of semantic identity”.

Thus perhaps we simply don’t require any identity of meanings in order to understand other people when they use the same words we use. And we especially don’t require it when an alien speaker uses a word which we believe is his own word for, say, dogs. However, if we can’t have identity of meaning, it can now be asked why we can have similarity of meaning. Perhaps if meaning identity isn’t available (or possible), then neither is meaning similarity. A further question is:

What would count as similarity of meaning and how would that in itself solve the problem of the indeterminacy of meaning?

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