Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Inscrutability of Reference

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

Sam writes,
Seriously Bro,
When we all talk to each other, have conversations or engage with a language in any way, how do we know that the content (meaning) of our words is the same as the person we're talking to?
It's like Wittgensteins [sic] beetle in a box thing only for EVERYTHING! Like the words and sentences we use are consistent with the language framework we're using (eg. English) BUT, since these words can only be defined in terms of other words, we can never know what anyone is saying even if we ask them to carefully explain it. No?
Well Sam, The simple answer to your question is that we don't know that the other person knows what we're talking about. You're going to want to look at W.V.O. Quine's idea of the inscrutability of reference. The idea here is that when we hear someone speak, there is always a bunch of different ways to interpret whatever they say. Let's say you're a bro out hunting with some indigenous tribe you discovered like a boss, and one of the hunters points to a rabbit and goes, "Gabaga." Now maybe you take out your notebook and you write down, "Gabaga = rabbit. BOOM." And maybe you're fucking wrong and shouldn't assume shit. Maybe it means "rabbit feet" or "small white thing" or "potential food" - you'd have to spend a lot more time with them to eliminate those possibilities. But even once you were sure he was referring to the thing that you call a rabbit, and not some part of it or a general description or whatever, the problem still hasn't gone away. Maybe this culture has a religion that, among other things, teaches that everything is part of the same, unified life-force. So where you see rabbit, hunter-bro sees life-force part that looks like a rabbit. And to understand that, you would have to not only know enough language to eliminate the other options, you'd also need a pretty good grasp on the culture of this tribe, so that you'd know they don't really ever refer to individual things so much as distinguishable parts of this life-force situation.

And honestly, if it works for some language you learn later on in life by studying some random tribe, this idea also probably works for the language you learn early on in life by studying the tribe around you. Your roommate that you just met this week from the other side of the country from you? Maybe he's thinking something completely different from you when he's like, "so, we getting hammered this weekend?" You think, "Hammered = really, really drunk" but he thinks, "hammered = having reduced control of faculties as a result of alcohol in particular".
 If you're reading that last sentence thinking, "Bro, aren't those the same thing, really?" Then you have walked right the fuck into the problem. Quick recap: How do we know that we use words to mean the same things as people we talk to? We don't. Big question here: how much does this matter? How much does this affect how we relate to others?

Well, it's easy to see cases where it doesn't at all. Every budding philosopher, when she was maybe seven years old, thought, "How do I know the color I see when I look at the sky isn't the color that everyone else sees when they look at an apple?" What if red and blue are switched? She'll never know, and it wouldn't fucking matter because we all call the sky blue. Maybe if she could crawl inside your head she'd be like, "Holy fuck, bro, that is a blood red sky!" but you'd say, "Nah, bro. That's blue. The sky is blue, remember?" Since I can't get inside your head and see the Colorpocalypse going on inside your brain, we all just agree the sky is blue, regardless of how different our qualia might be.

Likewise, there are bros who believe that things like chairs literally don't exist, that chairs and tables and shit are just arrangements of indivisible simples in the shape of a chair. So when someone says "chair" you think, "that thing I sit on" while they think, "That collection of simples I sit on." But we all pretty much agree to use the word 'chair' in the same way. So here, the disagreement only matters when we're being real fucking particular about metaphysical realities, not so much in ordinary conversation.

Now, among the points that I think Wittgenstein was making is that it doesn't matter one bit if you fully and properly understand the contents of the other person's mind when you talk to them; somehow, shit gets done anyway. Somehow, if Trenton Merricks says "Please, take a seat, I hear Quine is serving rabbit in a red sauce for dinner." the expectations I form based on that sentence match reality, even though Merricks doesn't believe in chairs, Quine believes some weird shit about rabbits, and I'm not sure 'red' looks the same for me as it does for them.

So what does this say for how we do philosophy? Well, for starters, it makes it harder to turn our intuitions about language back on metaphysics. You can't be like, "Yeah, but if chairs don't exist, and we still refer to things as 'chairs', isn't that a contradiction?" No, asshole, those bros just use the word slightly differently than you. In epistemology, it makes it harder to say exactly when we should believe what someone else tells us. If someone says, "There are five chairs in the room," but he means something radically different by 'chairs' than you do, can you say you know that there are five of what you call 'chairs' in the room? Maybe you even happen to be right, and there are in fact five chairs, so you go about your business, smug in your chair-count. Sounds like you might have just been Gettier'd, bitch.

In ethics, it might raise a similar problem, depending on how much of a role intention really plays into the rightness of an action. If, as Kant says, doing the right thing only counts if you intend to do the right thing for the right reason, but you have a radically different notion of 'duty' than Kant, then you can't ever have the right reasons to do the right thing. And then you're just sort of fucked.

So, there's a sketch of how the inscrutability of reference might affect some of the other areas of philosophy - good luck with that, bro. It's a deep rabbit hole but there's plenty there to be had.

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations continues to exert its considerable influence through this question.

Quine develops the idea of inscrutability of reference in his book Word and Object

If you're interested in some of the examples cited in the post...

Trenton Merricks' Objects and Persons develops the view that chairs don't exist, as does Peter van Inwagen's Material Beings, which also includes a defense of the word "chair" in regular language.

Lauren Leydon-Hardy develops some interesting cases in which not knowing what someone means by certain words can lead to the sort of fortuitous hijinks Gettier cases are famous for in her paper "Getting Gettier'd on Testimony".


  1. I'm reading your essays and I have a mixed feeling that I start to understand something about philosophical concepts, but at the same time they are too interdependent and I begin getting lost in prioritizing these concepts.

    I have a question about swearing in your essays, it's as if they are moving your thoughts into the informal plane, where the exact definitions aren't that important and intuitive understanding moves forward, are you doing that intentionally?

  2. or, when you say 'fuck', 'fucking', or 'bro', do you maybe mean something different from what I think you mean or would mean when using these words myself?

  3. If I were to get more into Wittgenstein, would you suggest that I start with the book that you have listed in your sources?

  4. I probably only care because I'm a linguistics bro, but the indigenous bros' word that we hypothetically assumed shit about like assholes was 'gavagai', not gabaga.

  5. A clear epistemological peice of the puzzle is missing, otherwise - Well Done

  6. has been done before: kangaroo in australian means i dont understand, captain cooks liguist misunderstood and the name has stuck

  7. in 'australian'
    .. really?

  8. I just went from the ~Apology~ to the ~Nichomachean Ethics~ to Lewis to Mary W. to here with Great Grampa Quine. I kind of liked the ride. I think I'll read some more for fun. :p Though it's kind of weird for me to do this, yeah?

    Oh, and I really talk like this.

    <3 Lucy Raymaker <3