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?

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This anthropologist agrees wholeheartedly with the proposition that "they themselves [the anthropologists] may understand much less about their informants than the requirements of getting on in the discipline encourages them to claim." Reality has been reminding me of its truth for years. So I don't think that's my reason for indifference to Quine.

Perhaps if someone could show me where Quine proposes a practical program for, if not overcoming, at least addressing the conundrums to which he points. . . . How do we get from Quine to better understanding of the people whose lives we share and study?
That's great, Amiria. I didn't bring up ethnography directly since I believe that ethnographers' truth claims reflect what they understand human communication in general to be about and, generally speaking, their assumptions fall far from the mark. As a result all ethnographers live with the guilty knowledge that their assertions are usually based on flimsier grounds than they make them appear. This leads to a lack of transparency of evidence, with "field notes" being hoarded privately and rarely released into the public domain. It may also underly the "loss" of fieldnotes by a surprisingly large number of ethnographers of the classical period.

My own fieldwork was undertaken with the Tallensi of Northern Ghana who had been made famous by Meyer Fortes' classical monographs of the 1940s. Encounters in the field are one thing, but he and I tried to compare what we found at an interval of more than three decades. In many cases, I was deliberately following up material he had collected and sometimes published. Fortes was a magnificent fieldworker, as the collection of his field notes in Cambridge University library attests. I was always shamed by his sophisticated command of the language and by his systematic approach to gathering data. I want to share with you an example of the complexity invovled in comparing notes between us. This goes far beyond the usual philosophers' fictional examples.

Fortes wrote an article on "Installation ceremonies" in which the installation of an earthpriest that he witnessed in 1934 featured prominently. The same office was being filled again for the first time since then while I was there in 1967. I had Fortes' ethnographic account in mind while I observed the installation. At one point he remarked that a young girl poured flourwate r over the priest'sback and he made quite a lot about her youth and purity in this regard. I had to take my clothes off to attend the ceremony and I could not take notes on the spot. So the following day I interviewed people who had been there about what had happened. I recalled that at one stage a hulking young man in his 20s splashed the new priest's back with flour water, but there was no young child involved. So this was one of the many questions I took up with informants who were in any case concerned not to let down their clan or segment.

The old and the new earthpriest were from different branches of the clan. Only two of those present this time had been there before, including one of my closest friends from the old priest's family. In brief, one side said that Fortes' account was correct and this new lot didn't have a clue about how to do the ritual right; the other side said the age of the douser didn't matter, but the act of purification did.

I brought all this up with MF. He revealed that the ceremony he "witnessed" took place within three months of his arrival in the field, he didn't yet speak the language and was unwilling to take his clothes off, so his account was based on hearsay. This kind of problem cropped up repeatedly whenever we tried to establish if something had changed over three decades or either of us has got it wrong. It led me eventually to give up Tallensi historical ethnography and concentrate instead on the urban informal economy.

Let me give another more mundane example. I am witnessing a private ritual that has not been performed for some time. We are four: the guy in charge, two of his younger brothers and me. At one point a young man slits a fowl's throat and splatters the blood on an overturned calabash. "Not like that, you fool!", yells the man in charge. "Don't you know you are supposed to put three drops of blood on the calabash?" He of course is the only one present who has seen this ritual before. He may be just asserting his authority or he may remember something from last time. In any case, we all know that in ritual some things have to remain constant while others can be improvised. But which is which and who says so?

If the participants are often confused about what is going on and why, if they differ markedly over who said what and with what effect, how can an ethnographer claim to know what "the Tallensi" do? Fortes himself was acutely aware of this problem. When he wrote his first monograph, The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi (1945), he stressed how chaotic life was in that poor savannah region. To him it was a bloody miracle that the Tallensi had any society at all, given the fundamental disruptions to social life they had to endure. So he wrote the book taking immense care to spell out the names of particular individuals, families and places that he could attach to his observations. The result is so detailed that it is almost unreadable. Over the years, in dispute with Leach and others, his position became ever more abstract. But the truth of his ethnography is to be found in that first book.

I am sorry to have piggy-backed on a discussion of Quine to make these confessions. But the quality of the discussion inspired me to do so. So there must be something in Quine after all or at least in Amiria's ability to bring the thread back to him.
Keith, thanks for offering this rich account, which I will take some time to think through - but in the interests of transparency, I should first admit that in my ignorance I didn't know you did fieldwork with the Tallensi, so my example was actually plucked out of mid-air, as it were (unless the workings of communication are even stranger than we thought!)

In response to John's very sensible question, I find Quine interesting mainly because of his critique of the bases on which (anthropological) knowledge is built, probably more than his solution for addressing that (which is a pretty obvious one as far as anthropologists are concerned - look to what people actually do, rather than trying to infer what they think. In other words, do fieldwork).

Where I think he could help us gain "a better understanding of the people whose lives we share and study" is in encouraging us to reconsider what we do in the field and afterwards, especially with our informants' pronouncements about what it is they are doing and why. Namely, the implications of his argument as I take it are that, instead of searching for the 'meaning behind' the ways in which they 'represent the world' differently from us, we should approach meaning as an artefact of our encounters with them, a sort of jointly-authored (and ongoing) project, if you will (this is of course an insight that has already been reached in anthropology via other routes, though one could argue that its articulation is often even more richly complex than Quine's).

Such an approach would allow us to take our informants' seriously when they tell us that twins are birds, for example, because we wouldn't always be trying but failing to avoid the obvious question begged by the idea of meaning being separate from both its object and its subject(s) ('the world'), which is that of 'who's representation of the world is the best (most accurate, most moral) one?' (for, obviously, 'twins' as we conceive of them can't possibly be 'birds', by anyone's reckoning). Instead, we would realize that when we think people are telling us that 'twins' 'are' 'birds', we might simply not have a clue what they're talking about. We would then set out to discover what sorts of things the things we were translating as 'twins' and 'birds' might be, which necessarily involves venturing into uncertain ontological territory (investigating issues about what is, as well as about being in general), not to mention formidable challenges when it comes to conveying whatever insights we glean to others.

Quine helps us with a few clues as to how we might go about learning (others') ontologies, with his discussion of how babies learn to objectify from their mothers (and probably other examples too). Of course this generates just as many questions as answers - does this involve some sort of attempt to 'go native'? If it's even possible to absorb new ontological assumptions, what does this do to our old ones? Are they supplanted by new assumptions, in a sort of process of conceptual 'survival of the fittest' (as we often assume happens to colonized peoples), or do they transform to fit our expanded experience? If our old assumptions about what is are discarded or transformed in the ethnographic encounter, can we still be anthropologists? (history suggests that at least some ethnographers who went too far down that road ended up well outside the displine).

The point is that insisting on defining people by their propensity to 'represent things' differently often does a violence to their own explanations of (and assumptions about) who they are and why they do what they do. Here Giuseppe's power dynamics (see beginning of this discussion) rear their heads, showing that they were always part of the equation. Because sometimes we want to do violence to those assumptions and explanations, e.g. when they justify 'clitoral circumcision', 'biomedical hegemony' or just good old fashioned 'class oppression' or 'patriarchy' - any of those grittily material concepts that anthropologists like to play with. On the other hand sometimes we don't - sometimes we just want to impress our colleagues with pretty ideas like 'invented traditions', without anyone getting hurt - but they do, because even the apparently inoffensive claim that they 'represent things (in this case the past) differently' involves assuming the epistemological high ground - a perspective from which you can compare their representations (of 'the world') with others', whereas they are merely blinded by their own perspective. One point of the 'multiple ontologies' discussion (at least insofar as I've grasped it so far) is to always bear in mind that you can't step outside of your own assumptions about reality - for instance to compare them with those of others - because they are inseparable from yourself.

The politics are certainly tricky, though - what does this do to our current role as ontological evangelists? Are we willing to give up insisting that people to whom the concept of the anthropos has never occured should acquire and respect this potent notion, for example in the service of arguments about human rights etc.?

John McCreery said:
Perhaps if someone could show me where Quine proposes a practical program for, if not overcoming, at least addressing the conundrums to which he points. . . . How do we get from Quine to better understanding of the people whose lives we share and study?
I didn't think you knew I worked among the Tallensi, Amiria. I picked that ethnographic example to link my general comments about communication as talking past each other to the philosophical questions about fieldwork method that you raised through Quine on intepretation. But there are still quite a few gaps between the ends. What my two posts have in common is that society is much more fragile than we care to admit. Ethnographic authority in its conventional guise reproduces a "social dope" theory where actors' inability to deviate from a norm (at an extreme, rational choice theories that depend on perfect knowledge of markets) is taken as indispensable to that authority. The indeterminacy of conversational exchange finds a counterpart in fieldwork-based ethnography, but in an exaggerated way. I am not a nihilist, but, if a master and apprentice operating at some remove in the same place can't figure out how to reconcile their findings concerning ritual (which is supposed to be especially rigid), what prospects are there for ethnographic comparison? For the object of the exercise is surely not to discover how any given fieldworker can know something, but how their findings can enter reliably into a more general anthropological comparison.
This is indeed a very interesting discussion. Keith beautifully shows how anthropological translation, and even everyday communication, can be a slippery and contingent business.

I see now that I might have been guilty of introducing a dose of Quinean indeterminacy into my earlier post. When I suggested that what might be off-putting about Quine was the scholastic fantasy of his examples, it might have come across as a more general censure on the usefulness of our engaging with philosophical speculations. If so, that wasn't my intention. In my view, anthropologists should be reading philosophers (and, no doubt, vice versa) and the productive results of such engagements are many and varied (Evans-Pritchard reading Levy-Bruhl; Tambiah on Austin; Keith Hart's Kantian reflections, and so on).

As an aside, I was taught by Bruce Kapferer back when he was at UCL, and his enthusiastic appeals on the need for anthropology to treat with philosophy - e.g., his marvellous ethnography Feast of the Sorcerer brings Sinhalese sorcery practices into conjunction with Husserl, Sartre, Deleuze, etc - this was one of the things that made me want to ditch History and take up Anthropology instead. The task of anthropology, as Kapferer likes to say, is to critique our dominant 'metropolitan' concepts. (One of the reasons, incidentally, that I find Amiria's recent co-edited volume so compelling.) But I also recall Kapferer warning of the dangers of 'the Kantian room'; namely, the philosophical fallacy of dreaming up unreal examples.

So, returning to Quine, it may well be that I'm quite wrong about his notion of interpretation. Michael Forster's paper - which I cited earlier - is primarily directed against Davidson's doctrine of interpretation and his famous attack on the idea of 'conceptual schemes', and the idea that, if such conceptual schemes exist, there might be radically different ones. As far as I know, contrary to Davidson, Quine himself did adhere to the notion of conceptual schemes, but Forster argues, when he turns to address the specifics of Davidson's thesis on interpretation, that Quine held to this specific thesis as well. Also - though this is a confession of ignorance more than anything else - it's not clear to me that Quine steers clear of 'belief' as a concept. He co-wrote a whole book on the subject (The Web of Belief, with J.S. Ullian). To be sure, what he means by 'belief' seems not to be some non-empirical matter of 'believed things', but rather assent given to sentences held to be true, but if it is the case that belief in such sentences constitutes the domain of the 'obvious' which the interpreter must attribute to the person interpreted then Hacking's and Forster's objections might still hold.

I realised, as I typed this, that I'm starting to sound pretty scholastic myself!
Blast! I can see that there's no way around it - I'll simply have to get stuck into the mountain of secondary sources on Quine (and anthropology) - but now at least I have some excellent signposts with which to navigate through this vast territory, thanks to the generosity of all participants in this discussion.

Keith has brought us to the crux of the matter, which comes down to "what prospects are there for ethnographic comparison?", for, as he notes, "the object of the exercise is surely not to discover how any given fieldworker can know something, but how their findings can enter reliably into a more general anthropological comparison."

This is the fulcrum of the multiple ontologies discussion as a whole, as I see it, for if we are really to dispose of 'culture', and not continue to use it as an discursive crutch, then we need to figure out what it is exactly that we are comparing. Among the attractions of 'ontologies' to me is that, despite its many shortcomings, it's a term that's still up for grabs in the anthropological lexicon, because people are still trying to figure out what others mean by it - as a 'bridgehead of intelligibility', it's still under construction. Hopefully in the long run we'll come up with something better, but I reckon it'll do for now.

The sort of image that Quine's discussion of translation conjures for me is one of 'assumptions' and 'theories' (for want of better terms) about reality / life / being that we share with other people in our talk and actions - not necessarily with the sort of group that would fit the rubric of 'culture' or 'society', but (often, at least) with those with whom we share various common experiences. The important thing (which makes it crystal clear to me that ontology is more than 'just another word for culture') is that, while we might share some of our ontologies with Jack and Roimata, we are just as likely to share other, quite different ones, with Felicity. For example, Jack might be a committed Catholic and a molecular biologist. Whilst his assumptions about the body of Christ and the power of saint's relics might be shared with Felicity, they are not shared by his colleague Roimata in his department, who is an atheist. Yet Jack and Roimata share insights into the workings of evolution which they hold to be true, and which Felicity is equally convinced are attributable to the hand of God. Furthermore, their ontologies are subject to change - Roimata might have an experience that makes her convert to Catholicism - it could even lead her to lose faith in her cutting edge research, and she might either try to reconcile her new-found Christianity with her conviction in the power of tapu, or use God to empower herself to get rid of it.

A hypothetical example, to be sure, (and a pretty weak one at that, suffering from all the usual 'problem[s] of belief') but there are real ones strewn throughout the ethnographic literature. I'd better go away and work on my own (as well as the sources helpfully recommended by Philip and others, for which I'm extremely grateful).
And yet, despite all my griping, I think the way you want to use Quine seems promising. I absolutely agree with the usefulness of ontology as a way-in to being able to talk about peoples' practices and ways of being which avoids the recourse of reducing these to 'representations' or other such stuff in the head. Oddly enough - given your last example - in my own work on religious conversion, I found myself having to reach for ontology because I was dissatisfied with the prevailing notion (especially in sociology of religion) that conversion is primarily a matter of people changing their 'beliefs'. I'm not sure I have ever heard a so-called convert - even a Christian - describe their transformation in these terms.

Anyway, putting Quine in Polynesia sounds like it could be very interesting.
Such an approach would allow us to take our informants' seriously

Here, I believe, we come to the heart of the matter. In "Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language," my one and only paper published in American Ethnologist (Vol.22, No. 1, February 1995), I approached the matter this way,

I start with a working assumption, nicely stated by Erving Goffman, that applies as well to the presentation of self in ritual as it does to everyday life.

"When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be."

I assume, then, that the healer is doing, in fact, what he seems to be doing: negotiating with demons. He is neither charlatan, preacher, nor pedagogue; nor is he an actor performing a play that he and others know to be fiction. He is what he says he is: a magician, trying to achieve a certain effect in the way he knows best, by magic.

I then set about to analyze how he used language as part of a total ritual performance designed to achieve the end in question, persuading the demons afflicting his client to leave her alone, showing how various theories, Tambiah on magic as performative act, Fernandez on ritual as enacted metaphor, Bloch on restricted syntax as a way of asserting authority, all illuminated various aspects of what I observed and the changes in register and imagery as the ritual process unfolded.

Thus I would add the suggestion that if taking our informants seriously is one part of the puzzle, so is taking seriously what our colleagues have to say. I note that when Keith was working with Meyer Fortes, the situation was one on one, with no third witness to confirm or disconfirm what they said or, perhaps, offer a different account. This is not the situation in which many of us find ourselves today. Earlier in my paper, I addressed that issue this way.

To understand a performance's effects, we need to grasp the "local theories and understandings that inform [its audience's] response." In reading [this text]. . . we want to know the terms in which a Taiwanese Taoist healer describes his performance—and those in which his patients describe it. We would also like to know far more about the problem that brought healer and patient together and occasioned [this] performance. . .The relevant data do not exist. Preoccupied with other matters, I failed to collect them.

What, then, can be done, besides throwing up our hands in disgust? Like a literary historian confronting the text of an ancient play, we lack direct testimony concerning the intensions of actor and audience. This particular text belongs, however, to a literate tradition some thousands of years old, the object of study by numerous scholars. We know a good deal about the performer and how he came to play the role of Taoist healer. Our text is part of a total performance with many nonverbal components, and here the ethnographer did his job. If anything, our danger is that of drowning in relevant facts; the issue is how to use them. How can we distinguish valid discovery from illusion produced by projecting concepts onto the text that have no solid base within the text?

The answers I came up with were taken from Metcalf's study of Berawan prayer, since I, too, was "interested in substantiating my interpretations, in building my case that the systems of meaning I hit upon are more than imposed 'symbolic guesses'." Like Bruce Kapferer, I attemped "a middle way between structuralist/semiotic approaches and the process/performance orientation of Victor Turner." I argued, in conclusion, that

Accounting for sequence as well as type—what linguists call syntagmatic as well as paradigmatic relations. . . adds force to interpretation.

I guess what I'm saying is that the way in which we pose the problem, the lone anthropologist confronting her informant one-on-one, both utter strangers to each other's ontologies, assumptions and ways of thinking, may now be as artificial as the philosopher's constructed examples.
Sorry for these mumbled responses but I came rather late to this one.

I heard Margaret Jolly talking recently about some of these problems of historical interpretation/translation in the Pacific; you might have an English sailor having his 'fun'; a Tahitian girl involved in a kin prestation of some kind; a post-colonial theorist talking about the same events as 'rape'. So I suppose it might be worth specifically talking about what are the objects involved and why we think of them as objects and whether this makes a difference/what it might imply. I.e. perhaps we need more cases of things being translated and the field of relationships in which this is happening.

All these things happen 'at home' when you say 'bunnywunny' and I say 'in vivo experiment'. or even when you say 'tomaato and I say 'tomatto'. I suppose this goes back to the apparently bloodless instance Quine picks on as opposed to the messily implicated ones we like to point to.

I am overwhelmed by deadlines and unfortunately have not much time to contribute to your wonderful discussion. Nevertheless, I am now even more overwhelmed by the desire of asking why you keep leaving out Roy, Latour, Eduardo, Martin and all the others who have been discussing this problem precisely in the terms you describe (i.e. in Eduardo's 'And'; also the example of twins like birds comes right out the last Manchester debate). As editor of Thinking through Things, are you trying to move away from ontological approaches coming from the Continental tradition (the ones that philosophically ground TTT, Deleuze first) and find new sources of inspiration in the analytic tradition ?

Briefly and in layman terms: I personally believe that Quine's gavagai example is wonderful but simply not 'real' for the anthropologist. I began my fieldwork knowing almost nothing of the local dialect but there were always interpretative clues and semiotic hints (faces, expressions, gestures) and I already had a rough 'theory' of how Tibetans categorized 'things', events. I was not landing on Mars or among the Sentinelese of the Andaman (one of the most famous uncontacted 'tribes'). (I actually remember that I told Stephen Hugh-Jones once about Quine's gavagai before leaving for fieldwork and he replied on similar lines, he simply didn't buy it. And I have to say, I always found his Barasana's 'practice theory' enlightening!)

Two brief points:

1) ontological incommensurability and relativism exists (Quine argues for relativism in two dogmas of empiricism) BUT incommensurability is not incomparability. We can still compare languages and ontologies and I am always reminded of that nice chap of Geoffrey Lloyd who wrote that 'no field anthropologist has ever returned from the study of a culture
announcing that he or she could understand nothing.' (You should check his work or even discuss these points with him, his 2007 book on cognitive variations deals with translations and Eduardo and Descola).

2) You may want to leave aside for a moment Quine's focus on language and think about other signs, like IMAGES. I am sure you are familiar with Marilyn's paper on the decomposition of the event, also beautifully revisited by Eric Hirsch in another JRAI articles on Event and Images. Marilyn returns to Sahlins problem of first encounters' events by arguing that what Melanesians saw during their first encounters were images' which operated according to an ontology (she takes this from Roy' Symbols that Stand for themselves') which 'condensed and collapsed within themselves context, ideas and interpretations so that all points of references were obviated (cf. Wagner) by their single form. Maybe you don't want to look at 'linguistic events' only but to the ontologies of other events, including the imagistic ones.

PS. Gavagai is the name of one of the main characters in Umberto Eco's novel, Baudolino. Gavagai talks but is not entirely human since he is a monopod!
Giovanni, I very much enjoy the spirited style with which you enter these debates!

To answer your queries, I personally haven't mentioned Latour, Viveiros de Castro, Holbraad very much here because firstly, their contribution is made clear in the other thread about multiple ontologies over on Philosophy and Anthropology (which has been mentioned several times in this thread), and secondly, because I have read them and am wondering why they don't seem to have much to say on the three related questions I'm particularly interested in here, which are:

a) What happens, ontologically speaking, when 'worlds collide', i.e. in situations of initial, and then protracted, 'cross-cultural encounter'.

b) How do people in 'early contact' situations get anything across to each other in the first place?

c) Once they've established relationships of various kinds, do people's ontologies supplant or merge into one another other, or are novel ones developed, and if so, how does this happen?

I'm therefore looking for (and have received excellent) guidance on where to go next in terms of secondary sources (thanks Huon for pointing me at Jolly).

Marilyn's 1990 article Artefacts of History is in fact where I began my own journey into 'multiple ontologies'. She introduces history into the equation (or, more accurately, raises critical and, as far as I can see, as-yet-unanswered points about how what we conceive as 'history', 'event' etc. might be inadequate concepts to deploy if we want to address how Pacific islanders understood the arrival of Europeans - not to mention what happened afterwards).

And, funnily enough (since you mention him) the latest point on my itinerary is an article I'm writing in response to a paper by Geoffrey Lloyd on 'History and Human Nature: Cross‐cultural universals and cultural relativities', which summarizes and updates points he earlier made in Cognitive Variations and elsewhere. This (co-written with my mother Anne Salmond, who's had a long-standing interest in these issues) will appear along with Lloyd's paper and other responses to it in a forthcoming special issue of Interdisciplinary Science Review (I think other contributors include Latour, Strathern, Viveiros de Castro, Boyer, Ingold, Descola, Ginsburg, Schaffer and others - though this list could be out of date - so we want to make sure we get it right!)

On moving the debate from a grounding in Continental traditions to an analytic philosophical foundation, I don't know enough about these to say whether that would be implied in the argument we're developing (it's certainly not a conscious effort). Could you elaborate?

On incommensurability and incomparability, here's what we have to say (so far) on that particular point:
"Quine argues that the very project of objective ontological comparison is doomed, for: When we compare theories, doctrines, points of view, and cultures, on the score of what sorts of objects there are said to be [for example], we are comparing them in a respect which itself itself makes sense only provincially (1969: p. 6). This does not make ontological comparison impossible – it simply means that such a project can only be approached in one’s own terms. Connections can be forged out of incommensurability, but their shape will ultimately be determined by their author’s (or authors’) assumptions about the nature of the things being compared. In this sense it is correct to say, according to Quine, that different ontologies are absolutely incommensurable, but this does not prevent limited understanding of others’ concepts from being achievable in practice, through attempts at engagement and learning over time".

'How do people...get anything across to each other in the first place?'

Not sure if this is helpful, but Mary Douglas interprets Quine to mean that nothing can get across. To be sure, she is describing the implications of Quine's doctrine for the anthropological interpreter, but if so, this must also pertain to any sort of cross-cultural encounter.

Quine's doctrine, says Douglas, 'leaves us with an empty cultural relativism: each universe is divided up differently, period. From here there is nothing more to say...since we are always forced to speak within the categories of our own language.' ('Self-evidence')

Now, I quote Douglas, not to impugn Quine - for a change! (In fact, I'm not certain that she has represented his position accurately) - I quote Douglas because she takes the view that the only outcome of Quinean relativism is a kind of prison-house solipsism. If the 'categories of our own language' form an already fixed system, then maybe this would indeed be the fatal, incommensurable consequence. But languages are capable of being learned, and languages change.
Thus, as Forster states, against Davidson's theory (and again, I'm making this point not to criticise Quine, but to move the discussion in the excellent direction Amiria indicates in that quote from the forthcoming paper) the idea that other worlds would simply be inaccessible leaves out the possibility that we could 'come to understand radically different conceptual schemes by acquiring quite new concepts'.

In other words - to paraphrase Amiria, above - other ontologies may well be utterly other, but that doesn't mean that such radical gaps are not incapable of being slowly negotiated.

Incidentally, Terry Evens draws on Quine in a paper in Man (1983) 4. I haven't read it, but it looks as though he isn't specifically concerned with Quine's translation theory. Anyway, at least it provides another instance that Quine wasn't completely ignored in anthropology



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