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« Quine on Ethics | Main | Pictures, Propositions and the World (Tractatus Studies) »

Quine, Dennett and Wittgenstein

Here's a very interesting link to a panel discussion on Quine's views about language, science and philosophy. This particular segment (its broken into nine and they are all worth watching, preferably in sequence) involves Dennett (one of the panelists) asking Quine to clarify his position vis a vis behaviorism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WumCK5cxrFQ

Dennett poses the question to Quine as a matter of Quine's distinguishing the relationship of his views on language and meaning, which Quine acknowledges as consistent with behaviorism, as to whether they are more compatible with a Skinnerian approach to behaviorism or the kind of behaviorism Wittgenstein is often seen as representing. (In the literature Wittgenstein's later position on meaning is sometimes thought of as "logical behaviorism" as opposed to a methodological and/or metaphysical sort which, latter, presumably denies the existence of mental objects in any sense whatsoever.) This is an interesting exchange in light of the frequent debates and disagreements here over whether Wittgenstein was a behaviorist and, if so, which type, and whether Dennett effectively is, and so can be construed as denying the existence or reality of what we call our "experiences" in his attempts to "explain" consciousness.

The larger discussion takes us through Quine's own view of his positions and how he came to them and also how they have developed in his later thinking but it also gives us a good chance to hear from Dennett first hand since this latter thinker has often been the target here of attacks on his views, many of which attacks, I would say, are seriously mistaken. For those with an interest in this stuff (the idea of meaning, as in how we understand words in language, the possibility of accurate and consistent translation, the role of analyticity in philosophy and science and where Quine fits into all this), I'd suggest starting with the first clip (should be locatable on the right side of the screen). If you're only interested in Quine and Dennett on Wittgenstein's take on meaning, then perhaps the single clip at the link above is enough.

I am no expert on Quine I'm afraid, having only read one book by him, Word and Object many years ago, which I found dry and rough going, in a seminar I took on the philosophy of language. I had gone into that course because of my interest in Wittgenstein and his approach to language and was surprised to be hit by a professor who was a Quinian (I was unfamiliar with Quine at the time). I and my fellow students found ourselves spending a lot of time on the problem of translating the meaning of "gavagai," a term encountered by a field linguist attempting to compile a dictionary of words in an unknown and entirely isolated language which had no etymological connections with any other known languages.

I think the guy giving the course just kind of gave up on us after a while but, in fairness, he was as dry and poor an expositor as I had found Word and Object despite its insights. Quine's notion of the indeterminacy of translation (that words take their meanings in context and only as part of a larger system of word usages and so never have precise one-to-one relations with particular ideas, concepts, referents, etc) took hold of me back then (see my own pieces on semantic meaning on this site -- Can Machines Get It? and A Horse of a Different Color -- which surely betray a Quinean influence that no doubt stuck with me since that course some 40 years ago).

But I think it was Wittgenstein who first opened up this line of thinking in modern Western philosophy with his emphasis on the role of language in our thoughts about how things are (i.e., in philosophical inquiry and concerns).

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