Hi Theorists,

Following on from the discussions of multiple ontologies and perspectivism, I'm trying to build an argument about the incommensurability of ontologies (in plain language, how people's assumptions about the nature of reality prevent them - at least at times - from getting through to each other, e.g. as observable ethnographically in 'first contact' situations, or indeed in much anthropological fieldwork in general).

In particular, I'm interested in how people actually go about forging intelligibility between each others 'worlds' - in whether and to what degree they are able to learn each others' 'ways of seeing' (ontologically speaking) - and what the 'mechanisms' might be for doing that.

In other words, how do people with different assumptions about the nature of reality get on (where and when they do), and how do ontologies change?

Aside from my own ethnography, Quine seems useful, but on the other hand there must be some basic reasons as to why he doesn't seem to feature very prominently in anthropological discussions, despite his own interest in the subject (gavagai's etc.)

So here I'm curious to learn, from your perspectives, what's wrong with Quine, as far as anthropology is concerned?

Views: 1251

Replies to This Discussion

Amiria Salmond said:
The challenges of managing diverse digital forms (sound and video files, images, text - marked up and otherwise) are obvious! I may get back to you on these issues later, if that's okay?

Absolutely, any time. Sounds like a fantastically interesting project you'll be working on.

In that vein, and excuse my presumptuousness, but if you are not already aware, there are several lists and groups that may be helpful in that kind of endeavour. These are groups of people working in digital archaeology in various ways.

Archaeological Computing Listserv
http://listserv.buffalo.edu/archives/archcomp-l.html

Antiquities Computing group
http://groups.google.com/group/antiquist

A new google group working on ontologies used in archaeology. It already has 50 members.
http://groups.google.com/group/caa-semantic-sig/

http://lists.ics.forth.gr/mailman/listinfo/crm-sig

I just recently learned of some of these.
Kemp: "Quine is assuming that meaning must be public, in the following sense: if two speakers A and B were entirely and exactly alike in all their verbal dispositions - their dispositions to speak in various circumstances - then it could not be the case that for any sentence, what A means by it is different from what B means by it."


A couple of thoughts.

1) Re anthropological implications: This is, unless I am much mistaken, the position that Clifford Geertz adopts in criticizing Ward Goodenough and other cognitive anthropologists for conceiving culture in terms of invisible cognitive models instead of visible, public behavior.

2) Re the logic of the argument: The case for cognitive modeling, a.k.a., assumption of hidden programming concealed with the human black box, flips the argument that Kemp advances. If A and B responding in the same way to the same situation is evidence of shared meaning, the frequently observed fact that A and B, who are in all visible respects identical, respond differently to the same situation, implies the existence of an invisible difference between them. Whether that difference is best described in language derived from computer programming, hydraulic metaphors a la Freud, deep structures a la Chomsky, or neurochemistry remains, however, unresolved. Noting that there must be some invisible difference does not constitute a set of useful assumptions about what that difference comprises.
Thanks John,

I don't know enough about Geertz to be able to comment usefully on your proposition, but would love to know what others think.

Your second point is very helpful in clarifying for me why cognitive approaches might not be so useful when it comes to addressing 'multiple ontologies' (though Morten Pedersen did a sterling job of trying to reconcile the two in his chapter in the edited volume Thinking Through Things).
This notion of being in a situation or circumstance is much less straightforward that it might first appear.

As a reasonable premise, we might hold that any two situations that support exactly the same set of facts are the same situation. This has been argued at length by many situation theorists, for example.

Consider two students George and Mary, and their instructor Makeba in a classroom. Makeba is lecturing on the cargo cult while George and Mary sit at their desks attentively observing their instructor. It seems entirely reasonable to say that George, Mary, and Makeba are in the same situation (the situation I just described). The interesting thing though is that George, Mary, and Makeba are not in just one situation. They are in a myriad of situations, large and small. Furthermore, George, Mary, and Makeba are not each in exactly the same set of situations. In fact, there are situations that George is in, that Mary and Makeba are not, situations that George and Mary are in, but Makeba is not, and so on. And these different situations support different facts (though we ought to expect that the facts supported by the different situations are compatible).

As a first matter to be resolved, if we want to be able to know whether Margy, George, and Makeba respond similarly or differently to a situation, we have to know to which of the many situations they actually reacting to, and whether or not they are reacting to the same situation.

If they are reacting to the same situation, then I suggest they must be reacting to a situation that they are both embedded in simultaneously (like in my first example). But this seems a little strange- for an agent to be reacting to a situation which does not in fact take the situated perspective of that agent in account- that is, to situations which are not more or less directly accessible to the agent. The "global" situation in the classroom, in which Mary, George, and Makeba are all constituents, is almost perspectiveless. An individual may react to a concept of such a situation, but such a reaction needn't actually occur in that situation, and so that is a distraction. Rather, it seems reasonable that Mary, George, and Makeba react to the situations that are grounded in their own situated perspectives.

But this raises a further problem- in no way can two distinct individuals be in precisely the same circumstances. At a minimum, either there will be a spatial difference, a temporal difference, or both. Almost certainly there will be a myriad of both gross and subtle differences between any two given actual situations. And, some of these differences might conceivably account for differences in agents' reactions to those situations.

What we seem to mean then when we say that two people react similarly or differently to the same situation, is that they react one way or another to situations of the same type. We might identify a type of situation by giving some kind of condition, e.g. a situation s such that that s supports the set of facts P. >>. Given that we individuate situations by the facts they support, any two situations with that type will either: i) be the same situation, and thus support the same facts, or ii) be distinct situations, and support different facts. Hence, for situation types to be meaningful, situations having that type must be distinct and non-identical.

But if two situations of the same type support different facts, one might reasonably wonder whether some of these differences are relevant to how agents react to concrete situations of the same type. It seems clear that either: i) internally identical agents will react differently to situations of the same type because of hidden differences between those situations, or ii) internally identical agents will react identically to situations of the same type, despite such hidden differences in the concrete type, or iii) internally differentiated agents will react differently to situations of the same type (either because of differences between situations or differences between agents), or iv) internally differentiated agents will react identically to situations of the same type (either because of differences between situations or differences between agents). As John points out, this really doesn't get us very far. We have to pay attention to the particulars of those differences.


John McCreery said:
2) Re the logic of the argument: The case for cognitive modeling, a.k.a., assumption of hidden programming concealed with the human black box, flips the argument that Kemp advances. If A and B responding in the same way to the same situation is evidence of shared meaning, the frequently observed fact that A and B, who are in all visible respects identical, respond differently to the same situation, implies the existence of an invisible difference between them. Whether that difference is best described in language derived from computer programming, hydraulic metaphors a la Freud, deep structures a la Chomsky, or neurochemistry remains, however, unresolved. Noting that there must be some invisible difference does not constitute a set of useful assumptions about what that difference comprises.
This sounds like a very thorough analysis, Jacob, but I'm not sure it gets us any further with Quine. Paying attention to differences in the 'various circumstances' in which A and B find themselves, as well as those between A and B seems very sensible, but actually the 'various circumstances' were part of their differences in Kemp's articulation of the argument. So John's 'inversion' was not actually an inversion, in that it involved separating the situation from its participants.

I think Quine's point (as channeled by Kemp) was that the whole set-up is logically impossible anyway, not least for the reasons you mention (that A and B's differences mean they can never actually 'be in the same situation' as far as their 'verbal dispositions' - or ontologies? - are concerned. So we've taken a lengthy detour but arrived back at the same spot - that you can't separate meanings from their subjects (or indeed their objects).
Jacob, Amiria, kudos to you both. Let's push on a bit, however. At the level of abstraction at which we have been debating, the points you make are spot on. How then, however, do we handle the obvious sorts of situations assumed by status, role, social structures or other similar notions?

Consider, for example, a company of recruits undergoing basic training for the military. They wear identical uniforms, eat identical food, undergo the same training. There are situations in which they are required to respond in a similar manner, e.g., to orders from a drill sergeant or officer. I am not suggesting here that they cease to be individuals. Those in charge of their training will carefully note which are sharp and which are sloppy, which are in better and which in worse physical condition, which appear to be natural leaders, run-of-the-mill or hopeless. Some will embrace while others resist the conformity imposed upon them.

What appears to be happening, however, is precisely the separation of meaning from individuals that we are about to conclude is impossible, the result of processes that have created a set of institutions that appear to exist as social facts independent of the particular individuals involved. Agreements have been reached to treat certain meanings as given and, thus, enforceable.

Does our framework offer alternatives to these traditional accounts? If not, how does it account for the facts they purport to describe?
Quite why Quine is seldom mentioned in anthropological debates is an interesting question. (He does get a brief treatment in Mary Douglas' paper on 'Self-evidence'.) In fact, I have a book by R. Feleppa (Convention, Translation & Understanding: Philosophical Problems in the Comparative Study of Culture, SUNY Press 1988) which wonders why as well, and attempts to address this neglect by bringing anthropology into conversation with Quinean arguments. Unfortunately, like so many of my books, it remains mostly unread, which is, perhaps, not the most helpful admission in a discussion on the anthropological ignorance of Quine!
However, while I am dimly aware that Quine referred to anthropological work on occasion, his thesis on the indeterminacy of translation is played out according to a fanciful jungle encounter between a linguist, a native, and a lot of problematic rabbits. Now, I may well be wrong, but I wonder whether our disciplinary indifference to Quine might not originate from a suspicion of the stagey nature of thought experiments of this kind; that is to say, the ethereal air of scholasticism that sometimes seems to pervade philosophical examples. (One thinks, for instance, of the dissections performed in analytical philosophy of sentences of the type, 'Mary believes that p', and their questionable relevance for anthropology of religion.)
In other words, what I'm suggesting is that the a priorism of Quine's argument might possibly account for the anthropological cold shoulder. Indeed, one might well turn the question around and ask why Quine - and associated thinkers who have probed the problem of translation, such as Davidson - fail to engage with the wealth of anthropological material that addresses this very problem. Quine, if I understand him correctly, is not especially concerned with 'how people actually go about forging intelligibility between each others' "worlds"' - to employ Amiria's excellent phrase. He has a particular concern to explore the hypothetical conditions for the possibility, or not, of translation. But given that a theory of how something might proceed should be able to address actual cases of how something actually does proceed, there might be some value in trying to quiz Quine through the use of actual ethnographic examples. In a potted argument, Hacking shows that the anecdotal examples Quine sometimes adduces for the indeterminacy of translation are, in fact, fictional, and he implies that this raises doubts about the plausibility of the Quinean conception of 'translation' itself.

Anyway, I've rabbited on - or should that be 'gavagai-ed'? - quite enough.


Refs: Hacking, Ian. (2002) 'Was there ever a radical mistranslation?' In, 'Historical Ontology'. (Harvard Univ. Press)
In other words, what I'm suggesting is that the a priorism of Quine's argument might possibly account for the anthropological cold shoulder.

Possibly. But how do people get turned off by the a priorism if they haven't read Quine in the first place? Alternatively, if use of constructed examples is something that anthropologists don't like, why do we like any philosopher? Don't most philosophers use the same approach?

Another possibility: Could it be that after decades of deconstruction and appreciation of the inherent ambiguity and metaphorical quality of most natural language use, what Quine has to say about formal semantics' search for the perfect definition being a fool's errand now seems a bit too obvious to get excited about?
Point well taken. But there is a further difficulty, which, I concede, is more a private suspicion about the usefulness of applying Quine in anthropology rather than a probable explanation as to why anthropologists in general have turned off or never tuned into Quinean theory. It relates to his doctrine of interpretation.
Quine seems to say that for interpretation between, say, a foreign linguist and a 'native' to be carried off successfully, the interpreting linguist must assume that the native shares 'obvious' beliefs. This notion was adapted and expanded by Davidson in his 'principle of charity'. But this principle is, I think, of dubious value because, as Forster remarks, the implication that 'we' and 'they' must share 'obvious' beliefs is that it means 'obvious to us'. It seems to me that interpretation, understood in these terms as a kind of assimilation, is contrary to what anthropological translation should be about. Hacking is pretty cutting on this point: 'Our "native" may be wondering whether philosophical B52s and strategic hamlets are in the offing if he won't sit up and speak like the English'!


Refs:
Forster, M. N. (1998). 'On the very idea of denying the existence of radically different conceptual schemes.' Inquiry 41:2:133-85.
Hacking, I. (1975). Why does language matter to philosophy. (Cambridge Univ. Press).
Philip Swift said:
Point well taken. But there is a further difficulty, which, I concede, is more a private suspicion about the usefulness of applying Quine in anthropology rather than a probable explanation as to why anthropologists in general have turned off or never tuned into Quinean theory. It relates to his doctrine of interpretation.

I have enjoyed this largely erudite and pertinent discussion. I agree that philosophers are a pain when they make up their own unlikely situations rather than work from life. I believe that translation is the highest intellectual function and that it comes into play in every act of communication, not just between so-called languages and even less only when some Hooray Henry is let loose in the jungle.

I start from the premise that none of us can guess at what is passing between another person's ears, with the consequence that communication is a shot in the dark. Most of the time we don't have a clue if we have interpreted another person correctly or managed to get our own message through. So the most impressive feature of human communication for me is the enormous good will that most people bring to keeping the fiction alive that what you said has passed into my head more or less intact.

[An ethnographic aside: I grew up in a society where the women did most of the talking under highly competitive conditions. The way to but in mid-sentence was to say "Yeees!" and then have your own say. It may be that the interrupter knew what was coming, but I believe that most of the time they were more interested in forming their own story than listening.]

So all this talk about whether someone is able to get someone else right is secondary to the fact that we appear to have a tremendous stake in pretending that it is so. Otherwise we would give up in despair.
So all this talk about whether someone is able to get someone else right is secondary to the fact that we appear to have a tremendous stake in pretending that it is so. Otherwise we would give up in despair.

Now that, to me at least, is a brilliant piece of anthropological insight!
I agree with Keith (and Quine, who I think is saying something not dissimilar, albeit in the funny old way of philosophers) that there are a lot of 'leaps of faith' involved in getting through to each other in general (not just when we appear to share no common ground whatever with our interlocuters). Also that, in the absence of any possibility of establishing "whether someone is able to get someone else right" or not (beyond their own accounts) we should interest ourselves instead in "the fact that we appear to have a tremendous stake in pretending that it is so" (i.e. we should consider why and how we maintain the idea that we CAN get through to each other, in life and in anthropology - in other words how we go about building bridgeheads of intelligibility).

On the point so excellently put by Philip, re how Quine's thesis on the indeterminacy of translation "is played out according to a fanciful jungle encounter between a linguist, a native, and a lot of problematic rabbits".

PS: "Now, I may well be wrong, but I wonder whether our disciplinary indifference to Quine might not originate from a suspicion of the stagey nature of thought experiments of this kind; that is to say, the ethereal air of scholasticism that sometimes seems to pervade philosophical examples."

Sure, we anthropologists like to think of ourselves as dealing in 'life on the ground' but, once we start writing up our ethnographies, most of us are just as inclined as our philosophical friends to waft around in the ether - and some of the most best anthropologists regard the whole enterprise as a variety of elaborate thought experiment.

This doesn't stop us from engaging in that sort of empirical one-upmanship we play against philosophers and other 'armchair intellectuals': - "Well that's all very well, but among the [Tallensi / British horse-breeders / Tokyo derivatives market traders] that doesn't hold at all". Now of course there's a serious point behind this, which I also agree with, namely that ethnographic experience - enounters with people who think and do things differently from ourselves - throws up novel and surprising explanations as well as quandaries that might not otherwise occur to our philosophical friends. But let's not forget (unless we want to play the hard-ball game of logic) that one counter-example doesn't necessarily invalidate (though it may usefully re-orient) a line of thoughtful speculation.

Perhaps, to put Philip's suggestion more cynically, anthropologists don't like to be reminded (both by Quine's arguments and the method of their delivery) that they themselves may understand much less about their informants than the requirements of getting on in the discipline encourages them to claim - that even when we share a language with our ethnographic subjects, we very often misconstrue what they are saying in a major or minor way (let alone when we devise elaborate explanations of why they do what they do). And if that point seems too abstract to consider (as John suggests), it may simply be that we spend not enough time in the field and too much in the academy.

Speaking for myself, the (historical) ethnography I'm engaged in (of early encounters between European voyagers and Polynesian islanders) is constantly throwing up examples that are variations on Quine's 'gavagai' theme, so it has an immediacy for me that it probably doesn't for anthropologists who feel they've got a better handle on their informants. So I'd like to do exactly what Philip suggests and try to "quiz Quine through the use of actual ethnographic examples". (The point of this discussion for me is to figure out whether it's likely to be worthwhile doing so).

Secondly, for the last few years I've been living in countries where, upon arrival (and for some time afterwards) I had only the most rudimentary grasp of the local language, making me only too aware of the impasses and leaps of faith involved in my own everyday communication, even when I meet people who speak excellent English. So again, these issues are far from abstract as far as I'm concerned.

Going back to John's query of how Quine can help us understand the kinds of negotiations of status, role, social structures etc. that might go on among a bunch of military recruits and their trainers, the answer is that he probably can't, at least not without considerable extrapolation. This is because, as Philip notes, he is concerned with "the hypothetical conditions for the possibility, or not, of translation", i.e. with the operations of linguistic communications, and is only interested in social behaviour more broadly construed insofar as it is the only angle we have, empirically speaking, on the operations of meaning (which, incidentally, are carried out according to him far from that complex and fertile zone found between Keith's ears).

Re Philip's suggestion that "Quine seems to say that for interpretation between, say, a foreign linguist and a 'native' to be carried off successfully, the interpreting linguist must assume that the native shares 'obvious' beliefs. This notion was adapted and expanded by Davidson in his 'principle of charity'. But this principle is, I think, of dubious value because, as Forster remarks, the implication that 'we' and 'they' must share 'obvious' beliefs is that it means 'obvious to us'."

From the Quine I've read I would be exceedingly surprised if he got trapped in this particular (rather obvious) cul-de-sac, since his whole argument seems to be geared toward removing non-empirically observable factors from the equation of meaning, among which 'beliefs' would surely be among the first things to be scythed. I'm not sure, but I believe Davidson departed considerably from Quine, precisely in this area, so it would be dangerous to conflate their arguments on this point. One of the reasons that Quine's arguments are so interesting (I think) in terms of 'multiple ontologies' is precisely because he's always pointing out the impossibility of achieving ontological metapositions (except, of course, within the terms of one's own ontology(ies)).

RSS

Translate

OAC Press

@OpenAnthCoop

Events

© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service