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Comment on Donald Davidson

Author(s): W. V. Quine
Source: Synthese, Vol. 27, No. 3/4, Intentionality, Language, and Translation (Jul. - Aug.,
1974), pp. 325-329
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20114927
Accessed: 02-04-2018 03:26 UTC

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I've been enjoying the past 45 minutes or so in the same way all of you
have, because it's equally new to me. I had no idea what was coming.
Professor Davidson was overly generous in stressing the degree to which
I might deserve credit for all this. If we think of it another way around,
the extent to which I agree, that is very considerable indeed. But there are
surprises here, things I certainly can't claim for myself. The whole idea of
comparing the problem of belief versus meaning with the problem, in
decision theory, of separating preference from expectations, is certainly
a new and stimulating idea.
I might mention several things in this paper that please me particularly.
For one thing, it seems right to give a central role to what Davidson calls
'holding to be true', because this is just what one is getting at when one
uses the method of query and assent, which seems the central track to
learning a language, whether a foreign language as a field linguist or one's
mother tongue as a small child. Imitation is all very well up to a point,
but people aren't constantly volunteering observation terms or observa
tion sentences to fit their surroundings. Very soon you have to take the
initiative, even the child does, or the parent does, in volunteering sent
ences and asking the parent or child for assent.
The problem of separating meaning from belief is one that struck me
as very central. I've felt that there is no hope, in general, of separating
communitywide beliefs into truths that belong to the meanings of the
words and truths that one would like to think of rather as universally
shared collateral information. Towards the end of Davidson's paper he
put this point in an interesting way, which I certainly go along with:
belief is invented. The notion of belief is invented to take up the slack
between the individual and the community. Where the notion of belief as
against meaning is really doing its work is where people disagree in their
beliefs. Otherwise, there is no telling what the difference is.
If there is no separating these things, then the parallelism isn't complete
between the meaning-versus-belief problem and the expectation-versus

Synthese 27 (1974) 325-329. All Rights Reserved

Copyright ? 1974 by D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht-Holland

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326 W. V. QUINE

preference problem in decision theory, because there, thanks to Ramsey's

device, one can make that separation. Or perhaps one does make the
separation here, too ; perhaps it is merely the difference between individual
beliefs that aren't communitywide and the ones that are communitywide.
What I want to see pursued further, to see how it develops, is the pro
ject of simultaneously exploring belief and meaning by determining the
speaker's preferences as to what sentences are true. When we get away
from some rather limited sentences, pretty much at the observation level,
I'm not sure how that's going to proceed.
A point where I certainly agree, and have taken the line myself, is in
accepting the T-sentences whenever they are true rather than requiring
that they be provable. This worries people sometimes; they feel this is
going to be a funny truth-definition, because you're applying truth to
these very T-sentences that are supposed, when taken collectively, to
explain truth. Well, yes, but then the T-paradigm isn't supposed to be a
definition anyway. And, on the other hand, if you insist rather that the
T-sentences be not only true but provable, then you're having to make
some sort of a decision as to what counts as necessary rather than con
tingent; you're having to make some such division among the sentences
of the meta-language. I feel that one doesn't have to have a dichotomy
like that in order to understand the language. One has to know what count
as sentences. One would like to know truth-conditions. One doesn't have to
have a separation between the empirical law and the postulate.
I like taking the theory of truth as basic, or as basic as one can, in the
matter of exploring meaning. This is something, of course, that's been
said by Davidson in a number of papers and that I've come to appreciate
more fully for that reason. One reason I like it is that it fits the centrality
of the sentence. What matters basically is what one takes as true, rather
than what one takes as synonymous with what. The latter I'd like to see
explained by derivation rather than taken as somehow intuitively given.
As Davidson pointed out, Tarski's truth construction can't be carried
through until we've decided what to count as quantification, or the equiv
alent referential apparatus, in the object language. I argued in Word and
Object that even that much in the way of recognition of devices in transla
tion depends on analytical hypotheses and is not unique. Davidson said
he thought it unlikely there would be more than one way of doing this in
translation; he thought we would be lucky to find even one way. My

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expectation has been that if there is one way there are many. I'm inclined
now to be a little more tentative on that point, because I think about sub
stitutional quantification. From the point of view of radical translation,
substitutional quantification is in very good shape; not perfect, but in as
good shape as the truth-functions. There's a little gap already in the cases
of conjunction and alternation. An observer could master conjunction,
up to a point, by observing that people are disposed to assent to the con
junction in all and only those circumstances in which they are disposed to
assent to each component, and that people are disposed to dissent from
the conjunction in all the circumstances in which one is disposed to dissent
from at least one component. But that still leaves a little bit of indeter
minacy. Namely, if one is disposed neither to assent to nor to dissent
from either component, then there are cases where one is still disposed to
dissent from the conjunction and others where one is not. There's a dual
zone of indeterminacy in the case of alternation and there are correspond
ing zones of indeterminacy in the case even of substitutional quantifica
tion, both universal and existential. Those zones would be filled by
developing a more inclusive theoretical manual, getting systematically
into the language and sorting things out in what seems to be the simplest
way. Still, mere observation of linguistic behavior affords a good start
in substitutional quantification. Moreover, it is significant that substitu
tional and objectual quantification are for many purposes indistinguisha
ble. So maybe one should be more hopeful about the near-uniqueness of the
manual up to the point where the truth definition can be brought to bear.
Notice that this still doesn't touch the question of ontological relativity.
You can have decided what to count as quantifiers, what to count as
variables or the equivalent, and still have considerable latitude of choice
as to what the values of the variables are going to be, especially if they are
abstract objects. Bodies are not so bad; you can resort to ostensi?n and
adopt certain reasonable restrictions on it, excluding what I've called
deferred ostensi?n. But other values of the variables, things other than
physical objects, are not thus specifiable. So we have not eliminated in
determinacy of reference even when we have spotted the quantifiers. But
that's all right, for you don't need to know the values of the variables in
order to get the truth definition. That is to say, you can have two different
truth-definitions, both ? la Tarski, both of them proceeding via an in
ductive definition of satisfaction, both of them delivering the same totali

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328 W. V. QUINE

ty of expressions as true, and yet the values of the variables, quantified

over in the course of defining the satisfaction relation, can be different.
This point emerged a few years ago in a conversation with Davidson. Onto
logical relativity is not going to be an obstacle to developing a theory of
Now the principle of charity. (The phrase is due to Neil Wilson, by the
way, not to me.) What about the imputation of falsity and error? This is
an important problem in translation. To start with, we take everything as
true that the native says. After a while we reach a point of confidence or
sophistication where we start giving him the lie. When we are justified in
doing that, what is happening? Is it just a matter of overruling our in
formant in order to get a simpler grammar or a simpler manual of transla
tion? I think there's more to it than that. I think we're doing some applied
psychology, that we're thinking: How would this man have learned his
own language? How likely is it that he as a child (and his compatriots
likewise) would have picked up a language that had such funny complex
twists when translated over into English? Are there such discontinuities
in the native language as to make that plausible? How would he learn it,
from the point of view of conditioned reflexes and the rest? How likely
is it rather that he thought it was snowing when it wasn't, and that what
he saw was just some dust from the roof top?
Conversely, even in the case of someone speaking our own language
we sometimes decide that he is using a word differently. We translate it
into our idiolect in a heterophonic way, because it's psychologically like
lier that he learned our language with a funny little quirk there than that
he should be wrong on some obvious point that we may have been dis
agreeing about.
Towards the end of his paper Davidson proposed assuming that the
speaker is always right, in order to separate belief from meaning, until we
have enough of a system so we can start including error. I'm wondering
how he means that system to develop: according to applied psychology?
The T-sentence for Karl's example 'Es schneit' hinges on observationality.
We can settle the truth of that T-sentence as well as we can settle the
translation of'Es schneit' into 'It's snowing': we find the circumstances in
which the thing will be said. But when we get off to sentences remote from
observationality we're going to have the problem of indeterminacy of

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Finally, I'm puzzled over Davidson's doctrine of the irreducibility of

the mental. Of course I seconded Brentano, at one point in my own
writing, on the irreducibility of intentional discourse to proper scientific
discourse. But I took an attitude unlike Brentano's. He thought the
irreducibility showed we needed a science of intention; I thought it so
much the worse for intentions. But how far does this irreducibility go? I
was thinking in terms specifically of propositional attitudes, where you
have subordinate sentences and the phenomenon of referential opacity.
Is this irreducibility quite another thing from indeterminacy of transla
tion? These are different things, since apart from propositional attitudes
we still have indeterminacy of translation over extensional theoretical
physical statements. I guess there's no disagreement on that as far as one
goes along with indeterminacy of translation.

Harvard University

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