Gavagai and TZQQA

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Over at Existential Comics, WV Quine discovers the indeterminacy of cross-generational translation:

After characteristic (but in this context uninsightful) interventions by JL Austin and Sigmund Freud, the text's meaning is eventually delimited by direct action, consistent with Quine's behaviorism. As he wrote in "Indeterminacy of Translation Again", The Journal of Philosophy 1987:

In psychology one may or may not be a behaviorist, but in linguistics one has no choice. Each of us learns his language by observing other people's verbal behavior and having his own faltering verbal behavior observed and reinforced or corrected by others. We depend strictly on overt behavior in observable situations. As long as our command of our language fit all external checkpoints, where our utterance or our reaction to someone's utterance can be appraised in the light of some shared situation, so long all is well. Our mental life between checkpoints is indifferent to our rating as a master of the language.

There is nothing in linguistic meaning, then, beyond what is to be gleaned from overt behavior in observable circumstances.

Note, though, that Quine's "behaviorism" refers only to the nature of evidence, and not to the nature of interpretation, about which BF Skinner recommended that we avoid "any explanation of an observed fact which appeals to events taking place somewhere else, at some other level of observation, described in different terms, and measured, if at all, in different dimensions" ("Are Theories of Learning Necessary", The Psychological Review 1949).


  1. Gavagai and TZQQA • Zhi Chinese said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 6:14 am

    […] Source: Language Gavagai and TZQQA […]

  2. Mark F. said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    I have never been impressed with the gavagai paper. Was Quine asking us to take seriously the idea that some people actually mean "undetached rabbit part" when they say "rabbit"? (Because, after all, there is nothing hypothetical about his scenario. Every baby experiences it.) Why did he not consider the possibility that some hypotheses might be later refuted by the fact that they can't be made consistent with other data?

  3. AntC said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 5:16 pm

    @Mark F You've got it the wrong way round. Accomplished speakers do not actually mean "undetached rabbit part" when they say "rabbit". Quine's claim is that novice listeners might interpret "rabbit" that way, given their initial paucity of contexts of hearing "rabbit".

    Yes Every baby experiences it. But do we as observers see babies' "faltering verbal behavior " w.r.t. "undetached rabbit part"? Perhaps by the time babies (toddlers) are able to falteringly talk about rabbit parts or running-rabbits vs sitting-rabbits, they've refuted a whole bundle of hypotheses about "rabbit"?

    For some hypothesis to be "later refuted" means that it was first formed (however fleetingly). Which is all that Quine is claiming, I think.

    [I did note in the video of Dan Everett's demonstration of Pike's fieldwork methods, he said he'd never encountered Quine's gavagai problem. But that contact is all going on between accomplished speakers (and the fieldworker is accomplished/trained across several languages).]

  4. Paul Kay said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 5:59 pm

    Did anyone else get a jolt from Quine's sentence beginning, "As long as our command of our language fit all external checkpoints…"? Could W.V.O. Quine have made an agreement error? No way! The verb fit heads a subjunctive clause. According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (R. Huddleston and G.K. Pullum), the English subjunctive form is the base (their term is 'plain') form of the verb (hence not fits, the third singular present form); subjunctive verbs occur in three kinds of clauses, in one of which the clause is introduced by one of a shortish list of prepositions mostly expressing a negative, conditional, or modal meaning. (The last three characterizations are mine, not CGEL's). I started at Quine's sentence because as long as isn't on my list of subjunctive-introducing prepositions, although provided, which means pretty much the same thing, is. Just wondering.

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 2:12 am

    Paul Kay: Yes, I noticed that too, and had the same reaction.

  6. Startlingly Idiotic said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

    Genius! Make the language log great again, and crush all dissent.

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