Senior Literature Review Fall 2018

Paskalina’s Second Presentation


Paskalina presented the material on truth from Quine’s book Pursuit of Truth (Quine 1992). Specifically, she was interested in two of Quine’s theses.

  1. The disquotational theory of truth.
  2. His relativism, according to which different theories of the world could be empirically equivalent but use different vocabularies.

Our discussion

James had an interesting example in which a meaningless term is used in sentences that, it seems, can be analyzed using our normal logical operators. I expressed some doubt about whether that is so. Paskalina said that these kinds of cases could be handled with a three valued logic (true, false, and limbo).

Coleman had a question about whether what Quine calls “eternal sentences” are really all that different as bearers of truth values than what he had called “meanings.” I didn’t really follow Coleman’s question, but I didn’t follow Quine on this point either, so maybe I was tacitly agreeing with Coleman!

Coleman was also bothered by Quine’s relativism. In particular, he was bothered by Quine’s view that the meaning of a sentence could be indeterminate.

In a nutshell, Quine’s relativism stems from his belief that there can be multiple equally good translations of what a person says. When I see you say “gavagai” and point to a rabbit, you might mean to point to the whole rabbit or to one of its undetached parts. Since every time you point to the whole rabbit you will also be pointing to its undetached parts, either translation would be consistent with your behavior. They are equally good accounts of everything that I observe about how you use the word “gavagai.”

We can scale this problem up. Suppose there are two scientific theories that both account for all the observations in a given field. The Copernican theory holds that the planets move around the sun in ellipses while the Ptolemaic system holds that the sun and planets follow a complicated system of epicycles. Both might accurately describe the observations we make of the planets and the sun. So the empirical evidence would not determine that one rather than the other is correct. That’s the idea.

Coleman did not think that anything we had said showed that the meaning of sentences is indeterminate. Here I made a mistake. I said that wasn’t part of Quine’s point, but that is not so. He does believe that the meaning of your own sentences is indeterminate to you and others for the same reason that the meanings of other people’s sentences are indeterminate to you or other observers. So Coleman was right and I was wrong.

I’m currently skimming an essay on Quine’s ideas about the indeterminacy of translation by Crispin Wright (Wright 2017). It’s quite helpful and even skimming it is far better than watching me flail around trying to remember this material from decades ago. (When I took a class taught by … Crispin Wright! Maybe the lessons will stick this time.)


Quine, W. V. 1992. Pursuit of Truth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Wright, Crispin. 2017. “Indeterminacy of Translation.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Language, edited by Bob Hale, Crispin Wright, and Alexander Miller, 670–702. New York: Wiley. doi:10.1002/9781118972090.ch26.