Willard Van Orman Quine: Language Is a Social Art

Willard Van Orman Quine: Language Is a Social Art

June 28, 2021 Off By Felso

The reason words make sense to us is because we are used to using them in ways used by others. There is no connection between words and real things. The social use of language makes words meaningful. Therefore, language is a social being and an art.

Some philosophers argue that language is about the relationship between words and things. But Quine disagrees. According to him, language is not about the relationship between objects and verbal signs, but about knowing what to say and when. In his 1968 essay “Ontological Relativity”, Quine says that language is a social art. Quine suggests doing the following thought experiment:

Suppose we meet some people—possibly natives of another country—who do not speak the language we use. He sits down and suddenly a rabbit appears and one of the locals says “gavagai”. We wonder if there is a connection between the event – the appearance of the rabbit – what the locals call “gavagai”. As time goes on, we notice that whenever a rabbit shows up, someone says “gavagai,” so we conclude that “gavagai” can be safely translated as “rabbit.” However, according to Quine, this is a mistake. “Gavagai” can have many meanings. For example, “Oh look, dinner!” or “Here’s a squishy animal!” it could mean. If we want to determine the meaning of “gavagai” we must use another method. We’ll point to other soft animals (or anything else on the dinner menu) and say “gavagai” and see if that gets approved. But even if we conclude by saying “rabbit” every time “gavagai” is uttered, we still cannot be sure that it is an appropriate translation. “Gavagai” may mean “a group of rabbit pieces” or “hare living in the forest” or “hare or hare”, or even a short prayer when a rabbit is seen.

Therefore, we might think that one solution to finding the exact meaning of the mysterious “gavagai” is to learn the language of others in detail so that we can be absolutely sure of the contexts in which the word is used. However, this will do nothing but double the problem. Because we cannot be sure that the other words we use to explain the meaning of “gavagai” are correct translations.

Quine calls this problem and its troubling implications the “ambiguity of translation”. This ultimately asserts that words have no meaning. The meaning and significance of someone saying “gavagai” comes not from the mysterious connection between words and things, but from our behavioral patterns and the fact that we have learned to participate in language as a social art.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook