INDETERMINACY AND THE FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE

Karsten R. Stueber Department of Philosophy College of the Holy Cross Worcester, MA 01610 kstueber@holycross.edu

Published in Verdad: logica, rerpresentacion y mundo,ed. by C. Martinez Vidal, (Universidade de Santiago De Compostela, 1996): 333-341. Please quote according to the published version. If you need a hard copy of the article please feel free to contact me at kstueber@holycross.edu.

He claims that Quine's and Davidson's arguments for the indeterminacy of meaning and inscrutability of reference should be understood as a reductio ad absurdum of the third person methodology. I will discuss Searle's main argument for the first person perspective in regard to meaning and intentionality. I will defend the third person perspective by reevaluating the claims for the inscrutability thesis. STUEBER INDETERMINACY AND THE FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE In this paper.ABSTRACT KARSTEN R. . It will be shown that Searle's argument for the first person perspective is not conclusive and that the inscrutability of reference does not follow from the analysis of radical interpretation.

As we will see. however.) Because of 1. He claims that even an undogmatic explication of our notion of meaning through the philosophically appropriate thought experiment of radical interpretation supports the inscrutability thesis. does not depend on such questionable assumptions and has to be taken more seriously. in some dim sense at least know this. neither is Searle's argument for the first person perspective conclusive nor does the inscrutability of reference follow from the analysis of radical interpretation. because he subscribes to the dogma of the distinction between scheme and content. Different schemes of reference are compatible with the evidence of the radical interpreter.1 In recent years several philosophers have claimed that it is impossible to adequately characterize mental states within the predominant third person perspective because of their irreducible subjective nature. Davidson's argument for the inscrutability of reference.) This evidence does not uniquely determine an interpretative theory of truth. ------------------------------------------------------------3. i. His thesis of indeterminacy can be rejected by pointing out that he evaluates the practice of meaning attribution according to a standard which is external to our practice of translation.e. on the other hand.) Semantic properties supervene in some way on or are constituted in regard to nonsemantic properties which are publicly accessible from the perspective of the radical interpreter and which form the evidence for radical interpretation. on a narrow empiricist and behaviorist conception of what constitutes objective evidence for the radical translator. i In this paper. John Searle has argued specifically that both Quine's and Davidson's arguments for the indeterminacy of meaning and reference have to be understood as a reductio ad absurdum of the third person methodology. Davidson's Arguments for the Inscrutability of Reference and for Indeterminacy of meaning Both Quine and Davidson argue for the inscrutability of reference and the indeterminacy of meaning.) meaning and reference are indeterminate and as Davidson further maintains that "since every speaker must. I will analyze this debate between the first person and third person methodology in regard to intentional states and I will defend the third person perspective by reevaluating the claims for the inscrutability thesis. he cannot . 2. they claim that there is no fact of the matter to what we refer. Quine's argument in Word and Object depends. I.) and 2. ii Schematically his argument for the inscrutability thesis has the following structure: 1.

however. He suggests that the inscrutability thesis is pragmatically inconsistent because in order to sensibly maintain the indeterminacy thesis. Instead of adopting the third person perspective. Something can be understood as a conceptual scheme or a language only insofar as it allows for the distinction between truth and falsity. for he knows that there is no way for his words to convey this reference to another. But if we accept that our intuition about the general concept of truth is best expressed through Tarski's convention T . Hence. i. important to first fully understand the reasons for accepting or rejecting the premises on which Davidson bases his inscrutability argument. Our conception of languagehood and of linguistic meaning can . Searle concludes that semantic properties are not supervening on publicly accessible properties and that one should reject the first premise of the argument. Does not the success of communication depend on our ability to recognize the intention of the speaker a la Grice? How can we even rationally engage in a meaningfully discourse if we cannot convey anything determinate? If nothing determinate can be intended. iv Since the argument is deductively valid." iii Intuitively this conclusion seems to be absurd. only insofar as its linguistic expressions have certain truth conditions. Giving up the third dogma of empiricism means that we can understand the relationship between world and language only in terms of truth. we can conceive of the empirical significance of a sentence only in terms of truth conditions but not any more in terms of sensory stimulation. As Quine has already pointed out in his discussion of the analytic/synthetic distinction.e. he suggests that we should adopt a first person methodology for the purpose of investigating the phenomena of meaning and intentionality. v Here then is a brief outline of the arguments that one can reconstruct from Davidson's work in support for the first two premises. For Searle. as Davidson does in his analysis of radical interpretation.2 even intend to use his words with a unique reference.`P' is true iff p . we have to assume that our terms have a determinate reference and that we can distinguish between the references of different terms. unless these intuitions can be accounted for only by that particular philosophical position. Convention T requires that its right side is an interpretation of the object language sentence by a sentence of the meta-language.then we can understand something as being a language only insofar as it can in principle be interpreted. In Kantian terms one might say that intuitions without philosophical reflections are blind. In order to be able to evaluate the validity of Searle's consideration it is. the above conclusion is therefore obviously false. to justify a philosophical distinction or position based solely on ordinary linguistic intuitions is not sufficient. communication seems impossible.

reference remains fundamentally inscrutable. The analysis of radical interpretation is the attempt to bring into open all of the criteria and principles on which we implicitly rely to justify particular interpretations and decide whether a particular behavior constitutes linguistic behavior. The reference assignments to specific words can be only indirectly argued for by justifying the interpretation of full sentences. We can therefore not decide between interpreting the utterance `Wilt is tall' as Wilt is tall and the shadow of Wilt is the shadow of a tall thing. Davidson's argument for the inscrutability of reference depends on the assumption that the reference of a particular expression is determined in the context of constructing a particular theory of truth for the language of a speaker. Only if we assume that the speaker holds something true and that it is true by the interpreter's standard can radical interpretation get off the ground. then one has to accept that the criteria which are revealed through the analysis of radical interpretation are not only constitutive for meaning attribution to another speaker of a foreign language but that they constitute the framework in which we can sensibly talk about any meaning at all. or at least so Davidson argues. exists only on the level of the sentence. since for Davidson a systematic relation between a speaker and its environment which forms the evidence for the radical interpreter. Davidson's argument is based on the conviction that it is always possible to construct an alternative and equally justifiable scheme of reference by constructing a function which maps each object one to one on another. To stay with Davidson's fictional example. For that reason an analysis of the interpretation of a familiar language is philosophically insufficient because in these interpretive processes it is already decided that a particular behavior manifests linguistic behavior or that a certain expression has a certain linguistic meaning. vi Davidson now maintains that within the framework of radical interpretation we are equally justified to interpret `Wilt' as referring to Wilt or the shadow of Wilt and tall as referring either to tall things or shadows of tall things.3 therefore be only analyzed in regard to our practice of interpretation and the criteria which are constitutive for this interpretative practice. If these considerations are plausible. a so-called permutation of the universe. According to Davidson different. If meaning and reference turn out to be indeterminate and inscrutable within the framework of radical translation. Thus. It is then possible to construct function f (the shadow of) which maps each object onto its shadow. . then linguistic meaning and reference as such are indeterminate even in our own case. assignments of schemes of reference are compatible with the totality of evidence even while interpreting according to the principle of charity and even after the logical form and the total ontology of a language is fixed. just assume that each object has a shadow.

To maintain that it is not possible to decide what language one is speaking. ix But this distinction between a merely practical and a theoretical level of reflection cannot be made in the case of the inscrutability thesis. it is important to understand that in maintaining the inscrutability of reference. viii In my opinion. Davidson himself regards the indeterminacy of meaning as a rather harmless consequence of his analysis of meaning and compares it to the possibility of measuring temperature according to different scales of measurement such as Fahrenheit or Celsius. because assignments of different referent schemes are compatible with the totality of the evidence. requires at the very least a perspective from which these languages are recognized as different languages and as possessing different referent schemes. A comparison to the discussion of external world scepticism might be helpful to illustrate this problem. To accept such a thesis for one's own language seems to require that one disengages oneself from the very same linguistic practice with which we need to formulate the inscrutability thesis. In this case the distinction seems to be made from the . This engagement in a linguistic practice however cannot be understood as being merely a practical necessity from which we can free ourselves on a more theoretical or philosophical level. Furthermore. Searle is right to be dissatisfied with the inscrutability thesis but for a slightly different reason than the one he articulates. vii Nevertheless. Davidson is not claiming that we cannot distinguish between Wilt and the shadow of Wilt within a particular language. Davidson does not claim that the distinctions within a language are obsolete but that it is indeterminate what language -which is identified through a particular reference scheme. but rather as implying that our intuitions about these distinctions are not sufficient to determine one unique reference scheme within which these distinctions can be accounted for.4 However. Such a claim would obviously validate the complaint that Davidson's thesis of the inscrutability of reference leads to a pragmatic contradiction because in order to state the thesis one would need to make a distinction which the thesis itself denies. The inscrutability thesis should therefore not be understood as implying that we are not able to distinguish between Wilt and the shadow of Wilt within a language. In the case of measuring temperature we at least know which measuring scale we are using even though another one might be just as adequate. but the sceptic maintains that it is unassailable from a theoretical level which transcends the restricted and arbitrary constraints of our ordinary practices.we are speaking. the sceptic claims that on a theoretical level the skeptical worries are based on certain platitudes about objectivity and truth which we are committed to in our ordinary practices themselves. Global scepticism is obviously unacceptable from the perspective of our ordinary cognitive practices. this response to the indeterminacy thesis remains unsatisfactory.

if meaning is constituted within the first person perspective then one cannot conceive in principle how somebody else can have thoughts with the same contents as oneself. First of all. The radical interpreter does not only observe the linguistic behavior of a particular . But that seems to be impossible and unintelligible. As Wittgenstein argued already. is to put oneself outside the realm of scientific naturalism. this does not automatically lead to the acceptance of the first person perspective. however. xii I propose. since it is not clear how one can be justified to single out one particular causal relation as the reference relation. x Secondly. even if one cannot accept the inscrutability thesis and rejects the first premise of Davidson's argument.xi One could argue that semantic properties like reference are determinately supervening on natural properties besides those that are accessible from the point of view of radical interpretation. for example. In this context one could. that one should reject the second premise of the argument. to think about meaning and intentionality as being constituted within the first person realm makes it impossible to explain how meaning could in principle be intersubjectively accessible. even though we might not be able to construct a causal theory of reference. II.5 perspective of the language we speak. The interpretation of the non-linguistic behavior of a particular person is thus further evidence for the interpretation of her linguistic utterances. To claim that the reference of our own language is inscrutable would require one to entertain a linguistic cosmic exile or the no language point of view. Most of the current naturalization attempts. since we justify an interpretation of a particular speaker's utterances not only in the context of making sense of her linguistic but also her non-linguistic behavior. To object to the first premise means to reject the specific analysis of intentionality within the framework of radical interpretation but not to oppose the third person perspective per se. Just to insist that causation itself fixes reference determinately. think of the various attempts to reduce semantic content to the notion of information or consider the proposal to account for reference in terms of causal relations. It is not clear what differentiates such a "naturalistic" position from the claim that reference is a relation sui generis. hence. Indeterminacy and the First Person Perspective Even though I am dissatisfied with the inscrutability thesis I am more than reluctant to follow Searle in his rejection of the first premise and his adoption of a first person methodology. do not escape the problem of indeterminacy. I will argue that the indeterminacy thesis is not even intelligible from the perspective of radical interpretation.

one might object that in arguing in the above manner I dogmatically prefer our way of describing the world. otherwise her linguistic and non-linguistic action cannot be regarded as being consistent with each other or even caused by one agent. Now it might be possible to construct truth-conditions for the German sentence according to which "ich öffne die Tür" is interpreted as I open* the shadow of the door. However. xiv To argue conclusively for the inscrutability thesis one would have to show that even from the perspective of the radical interpreter one cannot distinguish between different schemes of reference. To insist on a God's eye perspective and to maintain that there might be two permuted languages as in the above example is to beg the question since it assumes the truth of the inscrutability thesis without arguing for it.6 speaker but also her non-linguistic interaction with the world. Ramberg in his explication of the Davidsonian thesis of inscrutability asks us. If this is indeed the case then we are forced to interpret the interpretee in the standard mode in light of the principle of charity. Now. the inscrutability thesis cannot be sensibly asserted from the perspective of radical interpretation. the acceptance of premise 1 is not consistent with assertion of premise 2. to imagine the case of two Gods who speak permuted languages and who are both equally and objectively justified in their interpretation of the speaker. for example. She for example does not only observe the speaker saying "Ich öffne die Tür" but she also sees him opening the door. Contrary to what Davidson maintains. Searle's arguments for the first person perspective as the philosophically appropriate basis for the analysis of meaning and intentionality have proven neither to be conclusive nor are his objection against the perspective of radical interpretation in the end well founded. from the perspective of our linguistic practice it does not seem to be possible to describe her action as an opening* of the shadow of the door. or to say it differently. One could claim that those persons using a supposedly permuted scheme of reference might make a similar argument from their perspective. a position Davidson normally regards as unintelligible because it appeals to a notion of truth outside the realm of interpretation. xiii In appealing to such a God's eye point of view one is leaving the context of the thought experiment of radical interpretation and appealing to a cosmic exile position. since we cannot totally abstract from our way of describing the world. . The thesis of the inscrutability of reference is therefore not consistent with the claim that our conception of semantic properties can be fully analyzed through the thought experiment of radical interpretation. Conclusion As I have shown.

because even from that perspective we are at a loss to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions. We rather assume that our concepts are characterized by a certain amount of vagueness and openness and that it is not always clear whether a particular concept applies in a certain situation. does not refute what I would like to call the general indeterminacy of meaning. therefore. In whichever manner we decide to interpret this particular term. The thesis of the indeterminacy of meaning is a consequence of giving up the analytic/synthetic distinction and the holism involved in the construction of an interpretive theory of truth. compatible with the assumption of a special first person authority in regard to our own mental states. which one should strictly distinguish from the inscrutability thesis. even under the guidance of the principle of charity it is not fully determined if we should interpret the ancient Greek term "arete" as expressing the same concept as our term "virtue. however." and attribute different beliefs to the Greeks or if we should rather say that the Greeks possessed a concept for which we do not really have one linguistic expression. though. since we in contrast to them would not attribute virtue to horses. In this context the interpreter has certain room to construct different interpretations which are equally well justified because she is able to pragmatically trade off belief and concept attribution. There is. both interpretive options would account for the differences in linguistic behavior and are equally supported by the evidence. This is a general characteristic of our conceptual scheme and no appeal to the first person perspective will change it. This kind of indeterminacy of meaning is. The only criteria for the correct interpretation of a specific sentence is in the end the overall fit between the interpretation of a specific sentence and the interpretation of all the other sentences. We do not at all expect that everybody is able to explicate all concepts in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.7 The above argument. To give an example. . no need to be particularly worried about Searle's assault on the third person perspective insofar as intentional states are concerned.

G. Stroud. See for example Davidson. For this evaluation of Quine see my Donald Davidsons Theorie sprachlichen Verstehens.229/30. "Indeterminacy. Philosophical Investigations. See Searle. The Philosophical Significance of Scepticism. ftnte." in Analyomen 2. Within the context of such an account. 123-146 and The Rediscovery of Mind. See Davidson. p. iv.7. p. Empiricism and the First Person. For our purposes it is not necessary to define the notion of supervenience in an exact fashion. chap. Cambridge. For different conceptions of supervenience see the relevant article in J.67.124). Frankfurt a. 1993.). p. p. "The Inscrutability of Reference".224/25 and "Towards a Unified Theory of Meaning and Action.8 Endnotes i. For a recent critique of Quine from the perspective of our actual translation practices see also D. vii. 13. Indeterminacy and Private Language: Wittgenstein's Dissolution of Scepticism". Cambridge UP. See his "Indeterminacy. For the argument. i.Searle seems to be committed to a projective account of understanding based on analogical reasoning. Bar-On. v. See Quine's response to objection from Grice and Strawson in Word and Object. by. pp. "Reality without Reference.11-36. Oxford. pp. 53 (1993):. iii." in Grazer Philosophische Studien 11 (1980). Cambridge.2. I defend radical interpretation as the philosophically appropriate context for the analysis of meaning against objections from Fodor and LePore in "Holism and Radical Interpretation. Steinacker. I argue against the claim that these platitudes have unavoidable skeptical consequences in "Practice. 140. ed. See Davidson "The Inscrutability of Reference. Cambridge (Mass.1. The Rediscovery of the Mind. Oxford.M. vi. Reason.. Truth and History.235. Cambridge UP. This line of argument is most forcefully represented by B. 1984. As it is known. Kim. Davidson himself is a proponent of a rather weak conception of supervenience according to which it is impossible that two events are identical in all their physical properties but differ in their mental or semantical properties.Meggle and P.159ff I did not stress this fact sufficiently enough.22. in "Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. p. "Indeterminacy of Translation . esp. because the notion of type-identity in regard to intentional states seems to be unintelligible within the first .. viii." p. I project my intentional thoughts onto you if I observe that you behave similarly and your behavior is caused by similar internal non-semantical states. Clarendon Press 1984. ix. pp.6. it is however not clear how it is possible to establish that type-identical intentional states supervene causally on typeidentical neurophysiological states as Searle seems to maintain (See ibid. Beltz Athenäum. 1992. Kap. p." in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. ii. chap. For another more complex example see Putnam. See Searle. DeGruyter (Forthcoming).Theory and Practice. x. 1881. MIT Press." in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Empiricism and the First Person". it is only of importance that semantic properties cannot be regarded as properties which are utterly independent of other nonsemantical properties. Berlin/New York. Supervenience and the Mind. In my discussion of the inscrutability of reference in Donald Davidsons Theorie sprachlichen Verstehens. Clarendon Press. p. Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987).e. 1993.

". xiv.81. Ramberg. "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge. Oxford. Cambridge. . For opposing views in this debate see J. Oxford. pp. p.Loewer.344-361 and E.LePore/B. Blackwell. ed. MIT Press 1994. however. such as the linguistic construction of predicate conjunction.9 person perspective. Blackwell. See for example Fodor's and LePore's critique of radical interpretation in Holism. xi." in Midwest Studies in Philosophy XII (1988). Oxford. pp. "Semantic Supervenience and Referential Indeterminacy. p. He admits that a purely atomistic account of content is not possible but that he can avoid semantic holism and the threat of indeterminacy by appealing to the logical syntax of a language." in Truth and Interpretation. Van Cleve. xii. 459-473. See B. even remotely address the argument for the inscrutability of reference which is based on the idea of a permutation of the universe. Blackwell.317. LePore. in Journal of Philosophy 1992. xiii. Donald Davidson's Philosophy of Language. Fodor addresses the referential indeterminacy which plagued his earlier account of content. This argument does not. See Davidson. Davidson's appeal to the idea of an omniscient God in his argument against skepticism is in my opinion another example of a transgression of his own paradigm of radical interpretation. "A Putnam's Progress. In The Elm and the Expert. by E. p. 1992.94/95. 1989.

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