What is Ambiguity of Meaning?June 28, 2021
Quine’s criticism of philosophy in its traditional form is not limited to analytical truths. Quine carries the naturalistic perspective to the understanding of language and semantics in general. In the introduction to his article titled “Ontological Relativity,” he mentions Dewey and Wittgenstein’s rejection of the possibility of a particular language. On the other hand, he criticizes himself by saying that Wittgenstein, like Dewey, continues to defend the copy theory of language even though he rejects private language:
In its various forms, copy theory stands close to the main philosophical tradition and present-day common sense attitude. Uncritical semantics is just a museum myth in which the exhibits are meanings and words are labels. Changing language is changing labels. Now the main objection to this view by proponents of the naturalist approach is not that meanings are mental things, which would be a strong enough criticism. The main criticism remains valid even if the labeled display products are not mental ideas but Platonic ideas or even concrete objects to which they are referred. As long as we consider that a person’s semantics are somehow determined in his mind beyond what is inherent in his overt behaviors he may exhibit, semantics is corrupted by a malignant mentality (“Ontological Relativity,” pp. 569-570).
Quine’s emphasis on observable behavior is crucial here. According to Quine, in the language learning process, there is no other source of data that a person can penetrate beyond the behavior of others. Behavioral treatment of meaning has profound consequences. According to Quine, when we adopt a naturalistic understanding of language and a behavior-based theory of meaning, we also give up the specificity of meaning. In other words, there is no longer a definite answer to whether the meanings of two different expressions are the same.
To illustrate this ambiguity, Quine chooses as an example a situation where a linguist is trying to learn a language that we do not know and that is far from our language. We have dictionaries, grammar books, etc. at our disposal. not available. The way to learn the language is the radical method of translation. In this case, we are faced with the behaviors exhibited by our interlocutors who only speak the language. In fact, this situation is not different from the situation of a child learning a language. The only difference is that the person trying to learn a new language, for example, a linguist, has the language he knows.
What the linguist is trying to do in this situation is to create a kind of translation manual based on observable behavior. As an example, Quine describes a situation where a rabbit passed by a linguist and a person speaking the language he was trying to learn. The speaker of the foreign language points to the rabbit and says “Gavagai”. The linguist develops an assumption that this word will correspond to the word “rabbit”. It looks to see if this is repeated in different situations. By inductive inference, he may eventually decide that this word means “rabbit”. According to Quine, he argues that it is not possible to determine from the behavior exhibited whether the speakers of the foreign language actually mean a single rabbit, a part of the rabbit, or a certain place occupied by the rabbit in space-time. Over time, the linguist will learn some other words and ask, “Is this the same as this one?” etc. He states that he can try to clarify this situation with questions, but the same uncertainty applies to these newly learned words. This ambiguity is valid for both the meanings and extensions of words.
Quine then repeats his argument for the mother tongue. There is essentially no difference between learning another language and learning the mother tongue. There is no data beyond the behaviors observed in the hands of a child who has just learned the language. What one of the two speakers of the same language refers to or means when he uses a word is equally subject to ambiguity. For Quine, at the core of the problem lies an ambiguity about the individualization of objects. Since we cannot objectively speak of individuals and individuation by themselves, we have to make a division and individualization within and according to language. However, in doing so, we do not have any more tools than observable behaviors. Ultimately, Quine calls this problem inscrutability of reference.
But if Quine is right, then the ambiguity requires us to accept that there is an ambiguity in the language that each person speaks, beyond simply the inability of speakers of the same language to understand each other. Since a specific language is not possible, there is no way we can overcome this ambiguity when speaking a language.
Quine does not want to get to this point and tries to draw a limit on this uncertainty:
To solve this dilemma, we imagine ourselves at home, in our language with all its predicates and auxiliary tools.