MONDAY, AUGUST 23, 2021
We hungrily fell upon it: Near the end of the week, our new book arrived in the mail. Hungrily, we fell upon it.
It was the sixth most important philosophy book of the twentieth century—and not only that! It had been written by the fifth most important philosopher of the past two hundred years!
The book in question was Word and Object. The philosopher was Willard Van Orman Quine, a Harvard professor of long standing and of unquestioned academic renown.
Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations had been published in 1953. In the surveys to which we've referred, it was rated the most important philosophy book of the twentieth century—and Wittgenstein himself had been rated the most important philosopher of those two hundred years.
Hungrily, though, we fell upon Word and Object, which appeared in 1960. At the beginning of Chapter One, this is what we found:
Chapter I. Language and Truth
1. Beginning with Ordinary Things
This familiar desk manifests its presence by resisting my pressures and by deflecting light to my eyes. Physical things generally, however remote, become known to us only through the effects which they help to induce at our sensory surfaces. Yet our common-sense talk of physical things goes forward without benefit of explanations in more intimately sensory terms. Entification begins at arm's length; the points of condensation in the primordial conceptual scheme are things glimpsed, not glimpses. In this there is little cause for wonder. Each of us learns his language from other people, through the observable mouthing of words under conspicuously intersubjective circumstances. Linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name; it is to these that words apply first and foremost.
Talk of subjective sense qualities comes mainly as a derivative idiom. When one tries to describe a particular sensory quality, he typically resorts to reference to public things—describing a color as orange or heliotrope, a smell as like that of rotten eggs. Just as one sees his nose best in a mirror, removed to half the optimum focal distance, so also he best identifies his sense data by reflecting them in external objects.
Reader, when's the last time you saw an account of the way "entification" begins? For us, it's been quite a while!
At any rate, so begins the sixth most important philosophy text of the twentieth century. By the end of paragraph 2 (and then again in paragraph 3), the reader has encountered a technical term—"sense data."
Perhaps for that reason, a general reader will possibly feel that he or she has no idea what is under discussion at this point. That doesn't necessarily mean that this isn't a valuable book.
Still, we'll offer this:
"Linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name?"
Dreaming a little, that general reader may start to "feel the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe," the tyranny of the scholastics. The pungent oranges and bright, green wings may seem things in some procession of the dead as Quine's language causes her to flash upon her Cummings:
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
For us, the opening of this book came as a bit of a surprise, but also brought a rush of unpleasant associations and memories. Inevitably, though, we struggled to be thoughtful and fair!
Because we felt ourselves to be somewhat distanced from the start of Chapter I, it occurred to us that we probably should have started with Quine's preface.
After flipping backward several pages, we found that it started like this:
Language is a social art. In acquiring it we have to depend entirely on intersubjectively available cues as to what to say and when. Hence there is no justification for collating linguistic meanings, unless in terms of men's dispositions to respond overtly to socially observable stimulations. An effect of recognizing this limitation is that the enterprise of translation is found to be involved in a certain systematic indeterminacy; and this is the main theme of Chapter II.
The indeterminacy of translation invests even the question what objects to construe a term as true of. Studies of the semantics of reference consequently turn out to make sense only when directed upon substantially our language, from within. But we do remain free to reflect, thus parochially, on the development and structure of our own referential apparatus; and this I do in ensuing chapters. In so doing one encounters various anomalies and conflicts that are implicit in this apparatus (Chapter IV), and is moved to adopt remedies in the spirit of modern logic (Chapters V and VI). ...
"The indeterminacy of translation invests even the question what objects to construe a term as true of?" That's what it actually says. Meanwhile, we only made you skim that far to reach the reference to "the spirit of modern logic."
It is that spirit, it seems to us, which may be in question here.
For unknown reasons, Quine started his preface by describing his theme for Chapter II. As the preface continues, Chapter I is never addressed.
But in the first paragraph of the preface, it's clear that this is not a book for general readers. Meanwhile, the first two sentences of that second paragraph are hard to recognize as conventional English.
Even earlier, in paragraph 1, we've been offered this:
"There is no justification for collating linguistic meanings, unless in terms of men's dispositions to respond overtly to socially observable stimulations."
No general reader will have any idea what the professor is talking about. It's sometimes said that the work of the later Wittgenstein, which began being published in 1953, raised a larger question:
Can people like the writer of Word and Object justify the claim that they know what they're talking about—or the claim that they're talking about anything at all? In the end, we won't be trying to settle that question, but we'll note that the question's been raised.
At any rate, what on earth—what in the world—is Word and Object about? It was the sixth most important book of the century. But what was it talking about?
As that "old catastrophe" crawled up through our souls, we decided to seek an overview from the leading authority on this book. At that site, this is the overview we found, referred to as a synopsis:
Quine emphasizes his naturalism, the doctrine that philosophy should be pursued as part of natural science. He argues in favor of naturalizing epistemology, supports physicalism over phenomenalism and mind-body dualism, and extensionality over intensionality, develops a behavioristic conception of sentence-meaning, theorizes about language learning, speculates on the ontogenesis of reference, explains various forms of ambiguity and vagueness, recommends measures for regimenting language to eliminate ambiguity and vagueness as well as to make perspicuous the logic and ontic commitments of theories, argues against quantified modal logic and the essentialism it presupposes, argues for Platonic realism in mathematics, rejects instrumentalism in favor of scientific realism, develops a view of philosophical analysis as explication, argues against analyticity and for holism, against countenancing propositions, and tries to show that the meanings of theoretical sentences are indeterminate and that the reference of terms is inscrutable.
Say what? That synopsis may make the book seem unnecessarily arch.
With that in mind, we turned to Penguin Random House, a publisher of the book. When we did, we found this account of a 2013 edition:
ABOUT WORD AND OBJECT, NEW EDITION
A new edition of Quine’s most important work.
Willard Van Orman Quine begins this influential work by declaring, “Language is a social art. In acquiring it we have to depend entirely on intersubjectively available cues as to what to say and when.” As Patricia Smith Churchland notes in her foreword to this new edition, with Word and Object Quine challenged the tradition of conceptual analysis as a way of advancing knowledge. The book signaled twentieth-century philosophy’s turn away from metaphysics and what Churchland calls the “phony precision” of conceptual analysis.
In the course of his discussion of meaning and the linguistic mechanisms of objective reference, Quine considers the indeterminacy of translation, brings to light the anomalies and conflicts implicit in our language’s referential apparatus, clarifies semantic problems connected with the imputation of existence, and marshals reasons for admitting or repudiating each of various categories of supposed objects. In addition to Churchland’s foreword, this edition offers a new preface by Quine’s student and colleague Dagfinn Follesdal that describes the never-realized plans for a second edition of Word and Object, in which Quine would offer a more unified treatment of the public nature of meaning, modalities, and propositional attitudes.
The edition we purchased didn't include that foreword by Churchland—and surely, no one wants to encourage some sort of "phony precision." But we offer you this question:
Friend, do you feel that our failing public discourse has been suffering, down through the years, from the indeterminacy of translation, from the anomalies and conflicts implicit in our language’s referential apparatus, from a need to clarify semantic problems connected with the imputation of existence, and has been in need of reasons for admitting or repudiating each of various categories of supposed objects?
Is that what's been ailing our discourse, friend? Is that where it's gone so wrong?
In the rumination we've begun in the past few months, we're basically considering "the flight of the logicians"—the failure of our high academic class to speak to the problems which ail us and our failed discourse.
(We're able to see no obvious way to recover from that failure.)
It's always possible that Quine's book—the sixth most important of the past century—actually performed that function, or something equally valuable. But we'll suggest that, ar least on its face, the allegedly "influential" book may carry a different feel.
The later Wittgenstein was bad enough; his work was extremely opaque. But at least it's said that he pushed back against this general sort of thing—and at some point, most likely next week, we're going to make Wittgenstein easy.
This week, let's consider Wittgenstein's place in the wider failing world. Let's consider the world within which the twentieth century's most important philosophy book was written, was fated to take its largely inscrutable form.
Tomorrow: Bertrand Russell, 1916, at that same "familiar desk"