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Philosophy of the Social Sciences

Review Essay : Anthropology, Concepts, and Quine RICHARD C. JENNINGS University of Cambridge Robert Feleppa, Convention, Translation and Understanding: Philosophical Problems in the Comparative Study of Culture. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1988. Pp. 317. $44.50 (cloth), $14.95 (paper

Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1991 21: 561 DOI: 10.1177/004839319102100407

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Review Essay

Anthropology, Concepts, and Quine


University of Cambridge

Robert Feleppa, Convention, Translation and Understanding: Philosophical Prob-

lems in the Comparative Study of Culture. State University of New York Press,

Albany, 1988. Pp. 317. $44.50 (cloth), $14.95 (paper).


Convention, Translation and Understanding, subtitled Philosophical Problems in the Comparative Study of Culture, is centrally concerned with the indetermi- nacy of translation. This now classic problem, developed by W. v. O. Quine (1960) in his book Word and Object, has stimulated considerable philosophic discussion but so far has seemed to have little impact on fields outside philosophy. Robert Feleppa, in Convention, Translation and Understanding,

argues that the indeterminacy of translation raises a problem in anthropology and he works to resolve it. He dearly states the problem early on:

According to the arguments [Quine] presents in Word and Object and

elsewhere, the fact (recognized generally by anthropologists)

guists can developdivergent



that lin-

translation man-

uals for source

languages nized by anthropologists)

carries the

consequence (notgenerallyrecog-

that translational hypotheses are not fully

speak of the

legitimate hypotheses,

and that it makes no sense to

objective existence of meanings or even of natural synonymy relations

holding between

source- and

receptor-language expressions. (p. 3)

The aim of the book is threefold: to

clarify the problem Quine raises, to show

that it arises in the methodology of anthropology, and to resolve it. The

discussion is evenly balanced between philosophical material and anthropo-

Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 21 No. 4, December 1991 561-571

0 1991 York University,Toronto, and Contributors.


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logical material. Of the five chapters, two are primarily concerned with

anthropological material, two with the philosophical, and one is divided.

Chapter 1 contains a generalphilosophical discussion of theories of mean- ing, indicating some of the ontologicalproblems found therein. The issues are

raised in a historical context-the discussion begins with the work of Frege and Russell, moves on to C. I. Lewis and Rudolph Carnap, and then discusses

Quine in terms of his reaction to these, his predecessors.

Chapter 2 introduces methodological issues of anthropology, including

such problems as the objectivity of cultural descriptions and the danger of

imposing our own home concepts in such descriptions. In particular, it looks

at these issues as they arise in the language and culture tradition derived from

Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Like chapter 1, chapter 2

developsalongcomfortably historical lines, giving the reader a good sense of

each set of issues.

Chapter 3 then brings together these two sets of issues. Its professed aim is to &dquo;tie Quine’s indeterminacy thesis more firmly into the anthropological

controversies just discussed&dquo; (p. 108). The first part of the chapter consists of a clear discussion of the distinction between emic and etic descriptions, that is, between those descriptions of a culture which do and those which do not make use of the particular way in which members of the culture conceive of

their own behavior. The second part of the chapter consists of a lengthy

discussion of Quines indeterminacy thesis and how, if at all, this differs from the familiar problem of the underdetermination of theories by their data. Chapter 4 develops the author’s own account, an account of translation which aims to account for the indeterminacy of translation while at the same

time avoiding the problems which he feels indeterminacy raises for anthro-

pology. The central claim is that a translation manual is not a set of hypotheses about meanings or synonymies but is a codification of conventions which it


is rational to adopt. This


indeterminacy of translation and underdetermination of theories as

well as a basis for the discussion of anthropology in chapter 5.

Chapter 5 argues that although anthropologists must learn another lan-

guage (or symbol system) different from their own, there is no issue of

grasping the real concepts (meanings, ideas, intentions) of the language and

consequently no issue of using such &dquo;real concepts&dquo; to explain the source

culture. The measure of success in translation is pragmatic; a translation manual is correct (not true) if it enables coordinated activity among manual

users and source language users.

claim provides a basis for maintaining the


The work presents a comprehensive view of current discussion in both

philosophy and anthropology. The author takes into account a significant

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number of philosophers, anthropologists, and linguists,citing more than 180 individuals in his bibliography and nearly 100 in the index. There are two

leadingfigures, however: W. v. O. Quine is clearly the central character among

the philosophers, and Ward Goodenough plays the leading role among the


W. v. O. Quine

Quine is clearly the center of attention in this book. The author’s main aim

is to save anthropology from the philosophical problem of indeterminacy of

translation (henceforth IT) as presented and developed by Quine. This gives

rise to two complementary discussions: one of anthropology aimed at show-

ing the relevance of IT and the other of IT aimed at solving the problem it

poses. A second, and

related, problem that the author takes on is to distinguish

IT from underdetermination of theories (henceforth UT). UT is the thesis that

radically different theories could have the same empirical implications and

therefore be empirically indistinguishable, or underdetermined. Thus we might develop two theories with different ontologies(e.g.,particles and forces

vs. fields and singularities) and be unable empirically to determine which one

is true.

Early on in Chapter 2, the author expresses his concern over the lack of

impact that IT has had on anthropology:

Given the enormous impact Quines work has had on recent philoso-


it is

puzzling that he has had relatively little impact on anthropol-

ogy, a social science that is usually sensitive to developments in relevant

areas in philosophy.

minacy arguments,

on first glance, might seem so extremely skeptical

Part of the reason for this is that Quines indeter-

as not to warrant any more serious concern than, say, those of Sextus

Empiricus. (p.52)

Quines argument, that there is no fact to the matter of translation, is aimed

primarily at Platonistic and mentalist theories of meaning. He argues that

there are alternative possible translation manuals which will be equally

successful in providing appropriate (linguistic) behavior for the user of the

manual but will provide radically different translations of source language

utterances in the home (or receptor) language. Insofar as he establishes this

conclusion, he undermines any access to &dquo;real meanings,&dquo; &dquo;mental concepts,&dquo;

or &dquo;underlyingconceptual schemes&dquo; with which to justify such translations

and thus undermines any grounds we might have for claiming that there are such objects. Chapter 2 is intended to establish that Quines work is relevant

to anthropology. It consists of a survey of those methodological positions in

anthropology that are particularly concerned with the language of the culture

being studied, the so-called language and culture approaches.

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The problem arises in the followingway: Anthropologistsworry about our

understanding of an alien culture versus the culture’s own understanding of

its culture. Insofar as this is a concern with language (or with more general

symbolic behavior that involves the same sort of understanding as language),

IT undermines the whole question of whether there can be any truth at all in understanding an alien culture, whether from our point of view or theirs. It

undermines the idea that there are any meanings, concepts, or conceptual

schemes for us (or anyone) to understand.

The main result of chapter 2 is to establish that virtually all methodologies

in anthropology fall prey to the problem of indeterminacy. This suggests that

the problems of objectivity and imposition in translation cannot be solved

within the bounds of the current discussions in anthropology.

Ward Goodenough

Although the author distributes his attention more uniformly over the

anthropologists he discusses than over the philosophers, his main focus of

attention among anthropologists is Ward Goodenough. He is primarily con-

cerned with two methodological issues that arise in Goodenoughs work the

etic/emic distinction and componential analysis. Componential analysis is a

method of identifying the conceptual components of a source language and

providing a semantic analysis of the language in terms of those components.

In componential analysis, the author finds a variety of mentalistic commit- ments ; the conceptual components are taken to be some kind of mental entity

(e.g., ideas or intentions), and

it is here that Quines attack on &dquo;real meanings&dquo;

or &dquo;mental concepts&dquo; begins to tell. A central concern of emic studies is the

identification of concepts that are unique to a particular culture.

The author discusses an example of an emic concept taken from

Goodenough’s (1951) work on the people of Truk. These people do not

distinguish property and kinship the way we do but have social relations that combine the two in ways that are different from ours. Their language, of

course, has words to

no English correlates-there are no English words to translate Trukese words. But this does not mean that we cannot understand the Trukese-their property/ /

kinship relations can be described in English and labeled with words in English or with Trukese words. Feleppa is concerned with the way that Goodenough uses Trukese terms

and with the ontology to which he seems to commit himself, saying that

label their relations, but for the anthropologist, there are

&dquo;[Goodenough] thus creates the impression that Trukese concepts are ab- sorbed, in successful ethnography, into the Englishlanguage or into the heads

of Englishspeakers&dquo;(p.205). But this undesirable impression with itsobvious

ontic commitment can be avoided, according to Feleppa, by keeping clear

distinctions between meta- and object languages and between the use and

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mention of terms. He offers an example of Goodenough’s (1951) &dquo;employ-

ment&dquo; of Trukese concepts in the following quotation:

The jefekyr

are the children of the men of a matrilineal corporation,


jefekyr of the Pwereka, he not only

and as such are considered the children of the corporation itself

when a corporation’smembership

the children, of the corporation


cited on p. 204)

becomes extinct, it is the

Perhaps the best translation of the jefekyr


who are its natural heirs. Thus when a

person says he is a Jacaw man and a

says that his mother was Jacaw and his father was Pwereka, but

indicates that he is a member of an Jacaw corporation and an heir to a

corporation should the latters memberships die out. (p. 92,

is &dquo;heir&dquo;. It will be recalled

Here, Feleppa finds Goodenough unclear in his use of &dquo;corporation,&dquo; a term

which Goodenough is using to refer to a particular kind of social group in

Trukese culture. He suggests the term could be either a metalinguistic term

being used, or a receptor-language term being mentioned. He tells us that

Goodenough translates the Trukese term for the social group referred to as

&dquo;lineage.&dquo;Clearly there is some trouble here-Goodenough seems to use both

corporation and lineage to convey the same concept. This confusion doubtless

arises from the fact that the Trukese concept combines elements of each of these terms. But the basic problem is that English just does not have an

appropriate word to label that concept. In this respect the concept is emic.

The Author’s Solution

The fundamental problem that Feleppa attempts to solve here is that of

ontic commitment. He is concerned to provide an analysis of anthropology

talkabout language which will avoid commitment to mentalistic or Platonistic

entities such as concepts, ideas, meanings, or underlyingconceptual schemes.

He makes two related suggestions as to how we can avoid ontic commitment

in such talk. The primarysuggestion, and the raison detre of this book, is that

we must look at translation in a new way. The second suggestion is that we

should be scrupulous in distinguishing the use of words from their mention and that we should not conflate metalanguage with either source or receptor

language. With regard to translation, the author suggests that we opt for an analysis

of translation according to which a translation manual is not a set of hypoth- eses, which would be true or false, but a convention devised by the anthro- pologist(or field linguist). The aim of this convention is successful interaction with the alien culture, and insofar as this is achieved, the translation is correct. In response to Quinesargument that multiple manuals are possible and there are no further grounds on which to decide which among them is really correct, the author argues that such a decision is a matter of pragmatic rationality: A

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translation manual is a convention adopted by field linguists and those who use their manuals, and (like all conventions) for successful interactions be-

tween these people, one single convention (translation manual) should be

adopted. This is the basis on which the author claims that we can speak of the right manual:

Even though there are alternative sets of rules (translation manuals),

which are equally correct on all imaginable




fectlygood rational grounds

behavioral and formal

with regard to the task of applying them to the source culture

yield mutually incompatible translations), there are per-

for the community of manual users to treat

the right manual. (p. 181,emphasis

the actuallyexisting best manual as

in original)

Feleppa’s second suggestion, that we can avoid the appearance of ontic


by carefully distinguishing the use of terms from their mention

and by not conflatingmetalanguage with either source or receptorlanguages, uses Goodenough as an example to illustrate the importance of clearly distin-

guishing the use of terms from their mention, particularly with reference to

terms from the source language. In discussing Goodenough’s analysis of the

Trukese language, he asks whether the descriptive task requires using or capturing the Trukese concept. In two sentences, he claims that

from the standpoint of the form

insist that the

to any of their

whether and how their

of the account itself, there is no need to

ethnographer use any source-language terms applicable

concepts, thereby incurring spurious concerns as to

concept, expressed in their language, became



transmitted to the receptor-language speaker, enabling

in the latter’s terms. Goodenough only seems to be using Trukese terms

because he chooses only to underscore, but not to set in mention-quotes,

the term ’jefekyr’, and he is incorporating


it in sentences containing

these sentences also obscure the differencesbetween the

ethnographer’s metalanguage (which we might

the receptor language. (p. 205, emphases in original)

call anthropologese) and

His suggestion here is that if we only mention the source language terms, then there is no commitment to concepts or meanings of those terms and no

spurious concerns about how those concepts were transmitted to the source

language speaker.


Indeterminacy versus Underdetermination?

On the basis of Quinesposition that there are no such things as


mental concepts, intentions, underlying conceptual schemes, and so on, it is

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difficult for one who follows him to distinguish IT and UT. The easy answer

to the question of how we are to distinguish them is no longer open to him.

The author neatly summarizes the easy answer as follows:

The critical difference between physics and anthropology, one might

say, is that physics can impose a scheme on

concern that its pre-existing scheme is distorted

physical reality, without

However, one

might continue, it seems to make evidently good sense to say that the

anthropologist does confront a pre-existing scheme, namely that of the

source-language speakers.

to worry

that a

This, one might say, is what gives us reason

basis of familiarity might be

scheme attributed on the

the wrong one. (p. 123)

He then goes on to explain that this answer will not work because it rests on

the very notion of a conceptual scheme that Quine’s arguments undercut.

In the last part of chapter 3, the author provides some fortypages (one-sixth of the book) of tightanalysis of how the distinction might be made within the

constraints of Quines own views. Finding no satisfactory solution, he pro- ceeds in the next chapter to offer his own. The distinction between indetermi-

nacy of translation and underdetermination of theories which he offers is

made in terms of his new analysis of translation according to which transla-

tions are prescriptive conventions, whereas theories are descriptive hypotheses.

The difference between the grounds for accepting a translation manual as correct and a scientific theory as true is that

the linguist does not have, on the basis of the criteria for correctness-of- manuals, a basis for claiming that he is describing, or saying,things that

are true (or false) of the source culture’s &dquo;own&dquo; grammar, a grammar

they alone have or that is manifest in structures in their heads or minds.

Nor does he have a basis for

saying that his translations &dquo;represent&dquo; or

&dquo;capture&dquo; their meanings. As I noted above, he is not bound to such

claims because his sentences do not describe anything or assert any-

thing about

anything (meanings, and so on)

and are not descriptions

having truth conditions-for in canonical form, they are prescriptive,


descriptive, formulations. (p. 181, emphasis in original)

Here, I take it that one is supposed to understand that scientific theories do

have a basis for claimingthings that are true (orfalse) and for saying that they

represent or

describe (theoretical)things. But

here, the philosopher of science

with old-fashioned ideas may wonder if the author actually does offer any- thing new. Scientific instrumentalism repudiates the ontology of theoretical

entities in the same way that the author repudiates meanings, intentions and

so on. The present reviewer finds little difference between the author’s analysis of translation and old-fashioned instrumentalist analyses of scientific

theories. In chapter 4, the author develops his new account of translation,

summarizing it as follows:

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The rational grounds for selecting that manual which best coordinates

and codifies

the linguistic practices of the [receptor, linguistic, and

precisely in the fact that it so well serves

source] communities


that function. Such rational

are not much different from the grounds for accepting a [scientific]

grounds for regarding the manual as correct

theory as true. (p. 180)

He then goes on, as seen earlier, to tell us what that difference is. But notice

that what he says of translation can be said of scientific theory,particularly if

one wishes to avoid commitment to theoretical entities as much as the author

wishes to avoid commitment to meanings or underlyingconcepts.

A scientific theory, treated as an inference license, has the characteristics

that the author ascribes to a translation manual: It prescribes which sorts of

claims should follow other sorts of claims without making claims about the truth of the prescriptions. If this is the case, then, there seems to be no

difference between IT and UT-a conclusion the author himself was very close

to at the end of his intensive analysis of the grounds that Quine had for the


We may ask ourselves what interest this author, or Quine, or anyone else for that matter, has in maintaining that there is a difference between IT and UT. One reason, no doubt, is that it has a traditional importance in philosoph- ical discussions: It has become entrenched in our way of thinking. However,

more fundamentally, the reason seems to be our inclination to accept the

reality of theoretical entities in science. This certainly seems to be the basis of

Quines own commitment to the difference, as the author made clear in his

analysis of Quines own views. If, however, we scruple as much about

theoretical entities as we do about meanings, then there seems to be nothing

to choose between IT and UT. It is precisely such scruples that give rise to

instrumentalism. It should come as no surprise, then, that the author’s new

account of translation looks like a

the author himself refers to translations as &dquo;instrumentalities&dquo;: &dquo;I construe

translation manuals, roughly speaking, as sorts of instrumentalities for facil-

itating intercultural coordination&dquo; (p. 176).

new version of an old philosophy-indeed,

The Concepts of Trukese

In discussing the argument of the book, we saw how the author worked

to reconstrue anthropological talk about other languages so as to avoid

commitment to such things as meanings and underlying concepts. He ried, for example, about Ward Goodenoughs use of the word corporation,



and we agreed that there was some confusion there. There is, of course, a

problem in translating a language which describes social structures that we

do not have-we will not have words with which to refer to those structures.

UsingEnglish words is not entirelysatisfactory and gives rise to the objection

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that we are &dquo;imposing&dquo; our own concepts on the Trukese. Feleppa’sresponse

is to treat such use of English words as a matter of &dquo;technical redefinition&dquo; (p.209),

but, of course, we cannot just redefine the term corporation so as to capture

the Trukese notion. All this would do is add another sense to the term and

thus proliferateambiguity. In general, it is better to import the subject word

and let its unique identity signal the new concept which it is to convey. This

is what

Goodenough does with the term jefekyr. The structure of Trukese social

relations is not the same as the structure of our Western relations, and thus it makes sense to label them with Trukese names, even though they are de-

scribed in English.