I’m working my way through Word and Object. I’m finding it frustrating in some ways. What drew me to Quine is his idea of the “web of belief,” a brilliant image of how a conceptual scheme for the world could work without an a priori foundation, but, however much it’s been discussed in commentary on Quine, it seems to be little more than a footnote in his actual work. There’s barely any explicit discussion of this metaphor in The Web of Belief, despite the title, and when it comes up in Word and Object Quine finds it sufficient to quote a paraphrase by Virgil Aldrich rather than bother with the exposition himself (12). Instead of backing up the idea with evidence and working out its implications for cognition, Quine spends a good portion of the book speculating about language acquisition (in the comments section of this New APPS post Jon Cogburn talks about Quine’s “weird a priori stories of language acquisition”) in a way that is, for someone so expressly concerned with science as Quine, strangely lacking in concrete evidence.
Someone recently quipped (I can’t find where) that the significance of Quine’s ideas comes through better in “cover versions” of his philosophy by others than in his own work. I certainly think this is the case with Word and Object. Buried in Quine’s regimentation and speculative psychology are some ideas that are highly relevant today, but they are relevant mostly in areas that Quine had little interest in exploring.
There are, though, some moments in Word and Object that can be quite readily construed in ethical/political terms. The way Quine writes about “native languages” in his section about radical translation has dated poorly, but the section does touch briefly on the ethics of anthropological research. Quine opposes the “doctrine of ‘prelogical mentality'”, in which the anthropologist carefully avoids the assumption that “natives” follow any particular rules of logic, because, Quine argues, we can’t be sure we’re understanding them correctly unless we assume they’re being consistent. “Better translation,” he writes, “imposes our logic upon them” (58). A postcolonialist might bristle at this, but the lack of determinate meaning in Quine’s theory of language places a limit on that imposition:
The speaker can be advised in his paraphrasing, and on occasion he can even be enjoined to accept a proposed paraphrase or substitute another or hold his peace; but his choice is the only one that binds him. A foggy appreciation of this point is expressed in saying that there is no dictating another’s meaning; but the notion of there being a fixed, explicable, and as yet unexplained meaning in the speaker’s mind is gratuitous. The real point is simply that the speaker is the one to judge whether the substitution of S’ for S in the present context will forward his present or evolving program of activity to his satisfaction. (160)
To assume that someone is being logically consistent is to impose on them a set of rules for how logical connectives in a language must work. But if we don’t take speech as the transmission of a “meaning” that exists apart from language, we can infer nothing about what they actually believe with these rules. All we can do is infer, on some hypothesis about their purpose in speaking to us, to what other sentences they might give assent, and in this we can assume neither that they are being honest with us nor that their purpose is fixed. It would take more than just a reading of Quine to develop this line of thought fully, but in his work we have the seed of a rational choice assumption that doesn’t actually assume much about what it means for another person to be rational.