Referential Inscrutablility, Perception, and the Empirical Foundation of Meaning

Philosophy Research Archives 9:535-569 (1983)
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Abstract

W.V.O.Quine’s doctrine of referential inscrutability (RI) is the thesis that, first, linguistic reference must always be determined relative to an interpretation of the discourse and, second, that the empirical evidence always underdetermines our choice of interpretation--at least in principle. Although this thesis is a central result of Quine’s theory of language, it was long unclear just how much force RI actually carried. At best, Quine’s discussions provided localized examples of RI (e.g., ‘gavagai’), supplemented merely by arguments for the (in principle) constructability of more general referentially divergent manuals. In defense of Quine, Gerald Massey provides a method for generating large-scale referentially divergent manuals for a complex language. I argue that, while Massey’s rival manuals do meet Quine’s translational criteria, they are demonstrably inferior to their commonsensical “homophonic” competitor. This result provides a clear indication of seminal deficiencies in Quine’s behaviorial approach to the theory of language. Next I argue that Quine’s acceptance of standard assumptions about the nature of perception strongly influences the shape of his semantical theory. Finally, I suggest how an alternative to the standard account of perception might provide grounds for a more adequate understanding of language.

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