Quine held that the meaning of words was indeterminate. The reasons he holds this view all seem to have in common a certain aspect; the indeterminacy that occurs occurs within what might be called 'material' modes.

For example, it is held that there is an indeterminacy in the reference of our words because the words of a sentence can be rearranged in such a way as to refer to something different than was previously, but despite this the original meaning of the sentence can nevertheless be maintained. This shows that the relation between the reference of our words and the meaning of the words therein is ambiguous.

While this is true, it is also clear that the ambiguity exists predominantly from a certain view, namely a view that considers the words and their manner of reference to be the determining factor of clarity in speech. What Quine's analysis shows then is that insofar as we view words themselves to be the standard of meaning, meaning is indeterminate.

What Quine's analysis does not show is that we should hold words to be the standard of meaning. We could just as well insist that since meaning just is determinate, meaning cannot be wholly material. Indeed, this is precisely the consensus of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which long ago realized that the material, consistently changing stream of our experience was in itself incommunicable (requiring the power of rationality to abstract more universal natures from the said individual experience).

As thomist Robert W. Schmidt writes in his "Domain of Logic According to Saint Thomas Aquinas", "The object proportioned to the nature of our intellect is thus seen to be the truth of material and sensible things, which by reason of their materiality are not knowable as they exist. They can become intelligible only by abstraction from that materiality."

So the question is as follows: What is to stop someone from viewing Quine's indeterminacy of translation as proof that the materialistic behaviorism which compels the equation of meaning and belief with words and sentences is insufficient to properly account for determinate meaning? Furthermore, what is to stop someone from, with the Aristotelian-Thomist, holding that the fact that materiality is unknowable, incommunicable, and indeterminate is reason to make a distinction between our individuating 'sense knowledge' and our more determinate and communicable 'cognitive knowledge', which is the true subject-matter of logic?

  • Could you please sharpen a bit your question. It would be helpful to illustrate your theses about Quine, Aristotle and Thomas by some precise references. What are their own words and terms? Thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Apr 2, 2016 at 6:29
  • @JoWehler Yeah, no problem. Just give me a tick and I'll jump on it.
    – Ovid
    Apr 2, 2016 at 13:46
  • Regarding your last paragraph, I believe they would more over find it "non-informative", pure matter has no quality within the Thomistic-Aristotelian framework.
    – virmaior
    Apr 3, 2016 at 2:36

1 Answer 1


I see two separate issues here, the determinateness of meanings and Quine's behaviorist route to rejecting it. While the latter is indeed subject to much criticism it is not conjoined at the hip to the former.

I would trace the idea that meaning "just is" all the way back to Plato, and it endured through Aristotle, Ockham, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and Husserl. But the origin of it always was uncritical acceptance of folk psychology, and cognitive science has advanced quite a bit in the last century, while philosophy ended its centuries long affair with ultimate grounds and certainties. After phenomenological analyses of "embodied embedded" cognition and Wittgenstein's arguments against private language the burden shifted to the proponents to explain how these extra-linguistic determinate meanings are learned and communicated without mindsight, innate ideas, rational intuition, pre-established harmony, universal a priori, or absolute Geist. "Just is" is no longer acceptable.

So the first question is not whether words express meanings ambiguously, but rather whether there is anything determinate there at all to be so expressed. That is the position of common sense and folk psychology, but folk lore happily assigns corporeality to rainbows too, and Quine is certainly not alone in believing that the idea falls apart upon analysis. That is why he takes the recourse into behavior and language, to have a firmer ground to stand on, not the other way around. Quine's particular recourse is widely criticized as being too narrowly physicalist and sense empiricist, but broadening the view of experience does little to make "meanings" more plausible, Wittgenstein's "meaning is use" still works and just as well. Wittgenstein himself, for example, produced a theory of universals (Brambourgh even credits him with solving the problem of universals) as used in practice, including linguistic practice, which does explain how they come to be learned and commonly used, without reifying and projecting them back into objects that Aristotle thought necessary (but Ockham and Kant did not). Objects are grouped by family resemblance, and useful commonalities are reinforced through public interactions. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological theory of perception also avoids reified universals.

So the first premise begs the question against Quine, he'd simply say that there is nothing there to be accounted for (it reminds me Kant's argument from "certain knowledge" to synthetic a priori, few take "certain knowledge" seriously today, but its availability seemed self-evident in his time). And even assuming that there is "there" there, there are arguably better ways to do so. Furthermore, "materiality is unknowable, incommunicable, and indeterminate" sounds more in the spirit of Heraclitus and Plato than Aristotle, and even embracing the Heraclitean flux of "changing stream of experience" did not stop Hegel from claiming that "determinations of thought" ultimately become "determinations of reality" through dialectic. So this premise is equally questionable. There is also a ring of rationalist psychologist's fallacy to it, where one moves from describing activities of a soul to the conclusion that it is immaterial, see What are the problems with the argument for the mind-body dualism from immateriality of thoughts?

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    "while philosophy ended its centuries long affair with ultimate grounds and certainties" I'm not so sure that can be granted without extensive qualification (especially since it is still a very hotly contested idea still within discussion). But in any degree, the notion that meaning has been shown to be indeterminate by the 'embodied embedded' and the 'private language' is somewhat fallacious. Rather than show that meaning is indeterminate, these points themselves simply presuppose that meaning is determined by its language and expression, which is precisely the point in contention.
    – Ovid
    Apr 3, 2016 at 18:23
  • To hold that meaning can still be communicated despite not being relegated in entirety to its material formulation obviously requires a well-thought out response. But while this is true your claim that all burden of proof lies with the anti-materialist to show this is rather biased, for the anti-materialist by no means has proven his own case. Indeed, if it can be argued that meaning really must be determinate in order for the mind to understand anything, and that in light of materiality being indeterminate, it seems that the materialist has a more daunting thing to account for.
    – Ovid
    Apr 3, 2016 at 18:26
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    Furthermore and lastly, it seems that contemporary philosophers have a particular attraction to the phrase 'folk psychology'. In any degree, simply stating that such things as intentionality, meaning, determinateness, etc are all products of 'folk psychology' is hardly satisfying to philosophical discussion. Whether or not this 'folk psychology' can be supervenienced or reduced to some neurology or study of the brain is what must be analyzed, and the problems raised by anti-materialists about subjectivity, thought, and intentionality have still yet to be fully answered by materialists.
    – Ovid
    Apr 3, 2016 at 18:30
  • And that is precisely the point of this question; what actually compels and allows one to reduce the data of subjectivity, intentionality, and so on to a study of the brain, be it behaviorist, functionalist, or identity theorist? The typical offerings of 'indeterminacy of translation' and 'private language' don't really answer this question since they assume an answer to it.
    – Ovid
    Apr 3, 2016 at 18:34
  • @Ovid That's not it. Wittgensteinians and phenomenologists aren't materialists, Kant was openly hostile to materialism, but critique of arguments for immateriality of soul is his, even Quine for all his epistemic physicalism is anti-realist on ontology. Mental states and intentionality are largely accepted in cognitive science, and even many materialists are sceptical of a physicalist reduction, including Quine's own student Davidson. But it is one thing to accept them as useful theoretical posits or practicalities of life, and another to speculate on their materialistic/idealistic "nature".
    – Conifold
    Apr 4, 2016 at 21:51

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