Hi Linguists,

I'm trying to build an argument about the incommensurability of ontologies (by which I mean how people's assumptions about reality are - at least at times - mutually unintelligible) e.g. as observable ethnographically in 'first contact' or early contact situations.

In particular, I'm interested in how people actually go about forging intelligibility between each others 'worlds' - 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 ontologies change?

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

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

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One reason why he doesn't figure much in linguistic anthropology may be because of his commitment to an extensionalist account of meaning, which we certainly do not share. Likewise his physicalism. It's often unclear whether or not his arguments still hold, when certain of his important premises are abandoned

You should check out the use Elizabeth Povinelli makes of the radical translation arguments in The Cunning of Recognition. That seems very much like the direction you're interested in.

Also, hmm, I think there may be some cloaked Quinean things taken for granted in linguistic anthropology. Silverstein, after all, was a Quine student at Harvard, and I remember seeing well-thumbed copies of all of Quine's books on his bookshelf.
I first read Quine at the suggestion of the syntactician James McCawley, and at that a very different work, WvOQ's "Two dogmas of empiricism". McCawley was working through a research program that challenged the distinction between analytic sentences (basically true because of the meaning of the words) and synthetic (true by virtue of the state of the world). It wasn't until after graduate school that I read "Word and object" and was struck by its deep relevance both to ethnography and to understanding the nature of linguistic/cultural communities. It has been a mainstay of the courses I teach ever since.
There are several points that I emphasize when I discuss it, both extensions and caveats. One is that the circumstance that Quine is describing through a thought experiment, that is, radical translation, is one that is almost never achieved by ethnographers (I am hedging, and the word “almost” probably shouldn’t be there) because no matter how remote a locale, we make extensive (but untheorized) use of translation chains. Even so, there is a sense in which radical translation *does* model the problem of coordinating representations and participation frameworks among individuals involved in social interaction, face-to-face or otherwise; a “radical translation begins at home” (and purely extensionalist) model of semantics was developed by Donald Davidson, and a number of his papers point to the possibility of modeling the process empirically. Indeed, very little suture is needed to bring it into dialogues with empirical research on face-to-face social interaction, and it would go a long way in explaining ritualized openings. (I once discussed this with Davidson and he thought it sounded reasonable and suggested that I do it, but I have other things on my plate.)
For me the most interesting implication of Word and object was Quine’s discussion of the role of obligatory grammatical categories in structuring [culturally and linguistically specific] ontology, and this has been explored by Jane Hill and I, John Lucy, and Dedre Gentner—among others—in various neo-Whorfian papers. (And of course, it is the centerpiece of Quine’s summary of “Word and object,” “Ontological relativity”—published in the Journal of Philosophy, I think.) But the specific claim in which it was wrapped, “entification begins at home,” has not fared as well, and scholars working in cognitive development, such as Ellen Markman and Susan Gelman have shown experimentally that it is wrapped in a set of innate dispositions in concept formation.
As to Quine’s extensionalism, I don’t think it has especially hindered his uptake by linguistic anthropologists because on the whole I don’t think we’ve reckoned seriously with the semantic models out there--linguistic, psychological, or philosophical—enough for it to mean terribly much. Personally I would welcome bringing Quine into our discussions, albeit with appropriate updates to the framework.
Finally I agree with Adam Leeds about the "cloaked Quine" in linguistic anthropology. Time to uncloak.
Thanks Bruce, you've evidently spent much more time with Quine than most of us participating in the discussion on the same theme which has taken off over in Theory in Anthropology (I went fishing on both groups).

It would be brilliant if you had time to comment on the various points elaborated there, in light of your expertise - perhaps you can correct some of our more imaginative interpretations of the arguments?




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