Early on Kuhn drew a parallel with Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of translation (1970a, 202; 1970c, 268). According to the latter, if we are translating one language into another, there are inevitably a multitude of ways of providing a translation that is adequate to the behaviour of the speakers. None of the translations is the uniquely correct one, and in Quine's view there is no such thing as the meaning of the words to be translated. It was nonetheless clear that Quine's thesis was rather far from Kuhn's thesis, indeed that they are incompatible. First, Kuhn thought that incommensurability was a matter of there being no fully adequate translation whereas Quine's thesis involved the availability of multiple translations. Secondly, Kuhn does believe that the translated expressions do have a meaning, whereas Quine denies this. Thirdly, Kuhn later went on to say that unlike Quine he does not think that reference is inscrutable—it is just very difficult to recover (1976, 191).

Assuming that the


refers to Kuhn's essay, Theory-Change as Structure-Change (source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, see bibliography), what did Kuhn exactly write in the original text about the above-mentioned thoughts?

  • Kuhn/ Quine inscrutability quote found.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Aug 1, 2018 at 14:17

1 Answer 1


Thomas S. Kuhn, 'Theory-Change as Structure-Change: Comments on the Sneed Formalism', Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jul., 1976), pp. 179-199 : 191.

Seen in this way, the problem of comparing theories becomes in part a problem of translation, and my attitude towards it may be briefly indicated by reference to the related position developed by Quine in Word and Object and in subsequent publications. Unlike Quine, I do not believe that reference in natural or in scientific languages is ultimately inscrutable, only that it is very difficult to discover and that one may never be absolutely certain one has succeeded. But identifying reference in a foreign language is not equivalent to producing a systematic translation manual for that language. Reference and trans? lation are two problems, not one, and the two will not be resolved together. Translation always and necessarily involves imperfection and compromise; the best compromise for one purpose may not be the best for another; the able translator, moving through a single text, does not proceed fully systematically, but must repeatedly shift his choice of word and phrase, depending on which aspect of the original it seems most important to preserve. The translation of one theory into the language of another depends, I believe, upon compromises of the same sort, whence incommensurability. Comparing theories, however, demands only the identification of reference, a problem made more difficult, but not in principle impossible, by the intrinsic imperfections of translations.

NB : Kuhn's word is 'discover', not 'recover'.

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