Word and Object is W. V. O. Quine’s magnum opus, the most complete expression of his views in a single place. It was written when he was at the height of his philosophical powers, roughly between 1955 and 1959, and continues the themes of his earlier articles in From a Logical Point of View (1953), of which the two most famous are “On What There Is,” which discusses criteria for ontological commitment, and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The first dogma is that there is a clear distinction between analytic sentences (which are true by virtue of their meanings) and synthetic truths (which are made true by facts). The second dogma is that each meaningful sentence is reducible to an equivalent sentence, all the terms of which refer to immediate experience.

As these two articles make clear, Quine is equally interested in the problems of ontology and language, problems that he thinks are intertwined. Quine elaborated and refined the views of Word and Object in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969). In the title essay of the latter book, which constitutes the first of the John Dewey lectures given at Columbia University in 1968, Quine admits his debt to Dewey. In Word and Object and other essays, he expresses his debt to Charles S. Peirce and his commitment to a kind of pragmatism. By his own admission, then, Quine is in the mainstream of traditional American philosophy.

Words and Language

Word and Object consists of three projects: One concerns words, one concerns objects, and one concerns the conjunction of words and objects. The first project is an attempt to give empirical foundations to language, to explain the human use of language in terms of human behavior and the perceptual environment. Quine restricts the theoretical terms of the explanation to these two because, he claims, they are the only available resources for the evidence upon which human beings learn language; thus Quine is very much concerned with reconstructing how a person—typically, but not invariably, a child—might come to learn a language. The second project concerns the classic problem of metaphysics: What kinds of objects are there? What really exists? Quine’s short answer to these questions is that there are two kinds of objects that really exist: physical objects and sets or classes of objects. These first two projects come together in his discussion of the kind of language that is appropriate for expressing what there is. According to Quine, it is science that says what there is, and the language for science, what he calls “a canonical notation,” is first-order predicate calculus with identity.

Quine’s most famous or infamous thesis about language is what he calls the “indeterminacy of translation.” The thesis is this: Two systems of translating one language into another can be devised such that each system is compatible with all the speech dispositions of those who know the language, yet the two systems are not equivalent. Quine develops his thesis in the course of describing the situation with which a linguist would be confronted when first coming upon a culture wholly alien to his or her own. How can the linguist correlate sentences of his or her own language with sentences of the native speaker? That is, how can the linguist come to translate between his or her own language and that of the native? This is the problem of radical translation.

Radical Translation

Suppose a rabbit hops by and the native says, “Gavagai.” The linguist might plausibly guess that the utterance means, “There’s a rabbit,” or “Look at that rabbit.” Of course the linguist might be wrong; in order to determine that, the linguist has to test his or her guess or hypothesis by interrogating the native in some way. However, how can one do this? One way is to say “Gavagai” the next time a rabbit appears and observe the reaction of the native. The linguist wants to see whether the native will assent to or dissent from the utterance. Assuming that a linguist can ask a native whether a given sentence is appropriate, Quine defines “affirmative stimulus meaning” as the class of stimulations that would prompt assent, “negative stimulus meaning” as the class that would prompt dissent, and “stimulus meaning” as the ordered pair of the two. Further, two utterances are stimulus-synonymous just in case they have the same stimulus meaning; that is, when they would produce assent or dissent in the same situations. Although the notion of stimulus meaning is well defined, the linguist is still faced with a cluster of problems, to which Quine is attentive. Which utterances of the native are to count as assent and which as dissent? Given that “evok” and “yok” are the utterances expressing each, which is which? Another problem is that a native will not always be willing or able to respond to the query. His or her glimpse of the object may not have been long enough to allow a response. Therefore, in addition to the assents and dissents there will be some lack of response. The native will sometimes make mistakes; perhaps he or she was looking in the wrong direction or attending to the wrong object. Alternatively, the native might lie. Because of all of these possibilities for skewed results, stimulus synonymy is not what is ordinarily meant by “synonymy.”

This partial catalog of the linguist’s problem is not meant to imply that the linguist’s task is impossible. The point is rather to indicate what difficulties one faces in learning a wholly alien language, what resources are available to learn it, and the strategy the linguist will employ in matching utterances with behavior. Given enough data, time, and imagination, the linguist will surely succeed in writing a manual of translation.

Quine helps us understand how the linguist will proceed with his or her job of translation beyond those utterances whose use is most closely tied to observation by explaining how the linguist might move from translating observation sentences like “Gavagai” to truth-functional sentences. The linguist comes to translate a linguistic element as expressing negation when and only when adding it to a short sentence causes a native speaker to dissent from a sentence previously assented to; the linguist comes to translate a linguistic element as conjunction when and only when it produces compounds from short component sentences that the native is disposed to assent to when and only when he or she is also disposed to assent to the components separately. The qualification “short” is added to guard against the native’s becoming confused by a sentence of extreme length. Also, it applies only to the language-learning situation; once the terms are learned, there is no restriction on the length of the sentences to which the terms are applied.

After the observation sentences, the truth-functional ones, and some other related sorts are...

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Physical Objects and Abstract Objects

Quine’s second project is to answer the question, “What is there?” His answer that there are physical objects (that is, four-dimensional spatiotemporal entities) and abstract objects (sets or classes of objects) is perhaps less interesting than his answer to several related questions, such as “What isn’t there?” or, to put the question more perspicuously, “Why does Quine refuse to countenance various sorts of purported entities?” On the ground of economy, Quine does not accept sense data; they are not needed for science. Physical objects cannot be eliminated from science, and they do all the work that sense data do. Sense data are not needed even to account for reports of illusions and uncertainty. Quine accounts for them with the phrase “seems that” prefixed to a sentential clause about physical objects, and he then paraphrases them away in the same way he paraphrases away propositional attitudes toward sentences. Sense data are excess baggage.

Quine’s rejection of sense data brings his standards for adjudicating conflicting claims for thinghood into high relief. Something has a claim to being an entity if it is empirically attested to or is theoretically useful. Competing claims to thinghood have to be weighed against both considerations. Sense data have empirical support but no theoretical use. Physical objects have at least some empirical support and a great deal of theoretical utility. Even if physical objects are not completely...

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Conjunction of Words and Objects

Quine’s third project is to explain how a person’s ontological commitments can be clearly expressed in language. His explanation is that what is required is a canonical notation that is clear, precise, and unambiguous. Such a notation is the first-order predicate calculus with identity. A canonical notation has two purposes. The first is that it allows for simplification of theory. It allows a person to iterate a few constructions a large number of times to the same effect as the use of a larger number of constructions a small number of times. The use of a larger number of constructions may allow for psychologically simpler constructions but not a theoretically simpler one, and that is what is demanded. The second purpose of a...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Arrington, Robert L., and Hans-Johann Glock. Wittgenstein and Quine. London: Routledge, 1996. The essays in this book address the similarities and differences between these philosophers, whom the authors rank as two of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century.

Borradori, Giovanna. The American Philosopher. Translated by Rosanna Croatto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Conversations with Quine and other leading philosophers are recorded in an easy-to-read, question-and-answer format. The interview with Quine reveals how he views his own philosophical development and place...

(The entire section is 479 words.)