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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 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Review Essay

Anthropology, Concepts, and Quine



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).


Convention, Translation and Understanding, subtitled Philosophical Problems in the Comparative Study of Culture, is centrally concerned with the indeterminacy 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) that linguists can develop divergent but empirically adequate translation manuals for source languages carries the consequence (not generally recognized by anthropologists) that translational hypotheses are not fully legitimate hypotheses, and that it makes no sense to speak of the 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 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 general philosophical discussion of theories of meaning, indicating some of the ontological problems 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 develops along comfortably 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 Quines 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 authors 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 anthropology. 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 claim provides a basis for maintaining the distinction between 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 language (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.


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 leading figures, however: W. v. O. Quine is clearly the central character among the philosophers, and Ward Goodenough plays the leading role among the


O. Quine

Quine is clearly the center of attention in this book. The authors 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 showing 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 philosophy, it is puzzling that he has had relatively little impact on anthropology, a social science that is usually sensitive to developments in relevant areas in philosophy. Part of the reason for this is that Quines indeterminacy arguments, on first glance, might seem so extremely skeptical 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 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;underlying conceptual 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.


at Platonistic and mentalist theories of


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The problem arises in the following way: Anthropologists worry about our understanding of an alien culture versus the cultures 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.



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 concerned 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 commitments ; 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 Goodenoughs (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 label their relations, but for the anthropologist, there are 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/ / in be in and labeled with words relations can described English kinship 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 &dquo;[Goodenough] thus creates the impression that Trukese concepts are absorbed, in successful ethnography, into the English language or into the heads of English speakers&dquo; (p. 205). But this undesirable impression with its obvious 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 Goodenoughs ment&dquo; of Trukese concepts in the following quotation:

(1951) &dquo;employ-

are the children of the men of a matrilineal The jefekyr corporation, and as such are considered the children of the corporation itself.... Perhaps the best translation of the jefekyr is &dquo;heir&dquo;. It will be recalled that when a corporationsmembership becomes extinct, it is the jefekyr, the children, of the corporation who are its natural heirs. Thus when a person says he is a Jacaw man and a jefekyr of the Pwereka, he not only 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 Pwereka corporation should the latters memberships die out. (p. 92, cited on p. 204)

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


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 Authors Solution

The fundamental problem that Feleppa attempts to solve here is that of ontic commitment. He is concerned to provide an analysis of anthropology talk about language which will avoid commitment to mentalistic or Platonistic entities such as concepts, ideas, meanings, or underlying conceptual schemes. He makes two related suggestions as to how we can avoid ontic commitment in such talk. The primary suggestion, 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 hypotheses, which would be true or false, but a convention devised by the anthropologist (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 Quines argument 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 between 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 behavioral and formal grounds with regard to the task of applying them to the source culture (yet which yield mutually incompatible translations), there are perfectly good rational grounds for the community of manual users to treat the actually existing best manual as the right manual. (p. 181, emphasis



Feleppas second suggestion, that we can avoid the appearance of ontic by carefully distinguishing the use of terms from their mention and by not conflating metalanguage with either source or receptor languages, uses Goodenough as an example to illustrate the importance of clearly distinguishing the use of terms from their mention, particularly with reference to terms from the source language. In discussing Goodenoughs 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 of the account itself, there is no need to insist that the ethnographer use any source-language terms applicable to any of their concepts, thereby incurring spurious concerns as to whether and how their concept, expressed in their language, became transmitted to the receptor-language speaker, enabling its description in the latters 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 English words; these sentences also obscure the differences between the ethnographers metalanguage (which we might call anthropologese) and the receptor language. (p. 205, emphases in original) 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 Quines position that there are no such things as meanings, mental concepts, intentions, underlying conceptual schemes, and so on, it is

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who follows him to distinguish IT and UT. The easy answer of question how we are to distinguish them is no longer open to him. The author neatly summarizes the easy answer as follows:

difficult for

to the

The critical difference between physics and anthropology, one might say, is that physics can impose a scheme on physical reality, without concern that its pre-existing scheme is distorted.... 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. This, one might say, is what gives us reason to worry that a scheme attributed on the basis of familiarity might be 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 Quines arguments undercut. In the last part of chapter 3, the author provides some forty pages (one-sixth of the book) of tight analysis of how the distinction might be made within the constraints of Quines own views. Finding no satisfactory solution, he proceeds in the next chapter to offer his own. The distinction between indeterminacy of translation and underdetermination of theories which he offers is made in terms of his new analysis of translation according to which translations 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

linguist does not have, on the basis of the criteria for correctness-ofmanuals, a basis for claiming that he is describing, or saying, things that
true (or false) of the source cultures &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 anything about anything (meanings, and so on) and are not descriptions having truth conditions-for in canonical form, they are prescriptive, not 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 claiming things that are true (or false) 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 anything 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 authors 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 source] communities ... lies precisely in the fact that it so well serves that function. Such rational grounds for regarding the manual as correct are not much different from the grounds for accepting a [scientific]

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 underlying concepts. 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 difference. 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 philosophical 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 authors new account of translation looks like a new version of an old philosophy-indeed, the author himself refers to translations as &dquo;instrumentalities&dquo;: &dquo;I construe translation manuals, roughly speaking, as sorts of instrumentalities for facilitating intercultural coordination&dquo; (p. 176).

The Concepts of Trukese

discussing the argument of the book, we saw how the author worked anthropological talk about other languages so as to avoid ontic commitment to such things as meanings and underlying concepts. He worried, 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
to reconstrue

do not have-we will not have words with which to refer to those structures. Using English words is not entirely satisfactory and gives rise to the objection

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that we are &dquo;imposing&dquo; our own concepts on the Trukese. Feleppas response 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 proliferate ambiguity. 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 described in English. But I think there is something much more fruitful to be discovered in Goodenoughs discussion of Trukese. I think we can discover something about what we mean by the term concept. In Goodenoughs discussion, we find a description of Trukese social relations and an interpretation of their language in terms of those relations. The more we know about Trukese social relations and the more complete our descriptions are, the more we can know about what the implications are of bearing a certain relation to another person. In knowing these implications, we grasp the concept. This grasp consists in knowing what more can be said once someone is said to be &dquo;a jefekyr of the Pwereka&dquo; and in knowing what might be done in certain situations if this is so. The concept is not a mysterious mental object but the practical knowledge of the implications of being a jefekyr of the Pwereka. The word heir is not a totally satisfactory translation of jefekyr because the two words describe relations in different social structures. The implications of being an heir are different from the implications of being a jefekyr. In this respect, the Trukese conceptual scheme differs from ours-different logical connections within their language reflect different social relations among the members of their

There is no problem of how their concept is &dquo;transmitted to the receptor language speaker&dquo; (p. 205), and concepts are not &dquo;absorbed... into the heads of English speakers&dquo; (p. 205). Rather, the social relations of the people of Truk are described in English and the language used to label those relations is introduced. Feleppa claims that Goodenough only seems to be using Trukese
terms and thus creates the impression that Trukese concepts are absorbed into the English language. What he fails to note is that the concepts are explained, or interpreted, so that we can understand them and that Trukese terms can
serve as

labels, and appropriate ones, for those concepts.

One of the major problems of this book is its style. The authors vocabulary is impressive, as is his ability to construct long, grammatically correct senten-

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However, these virtues too often give rise to a turgid prose which obscures the philosophical points the author is trying to make. Structure at a higher level also sometimes fails-this reviewer often felt in need of more guidance as to where the discussion was and where it was going next. I offer the following two sentences as examples of turgid prose:

I want to show both how some of these considerations are adumbrated with surprising fullness by a number of classic and recent anthropologists and also that confining our attention, at least initially, rather narrowly to the immediate anthropological consequences of Quines arguments allows a substantial gain on recalcitrant problems in that field-this without the initial burden of meeting some stronger and perhaps even more recalcitrant conditions in its widely generalized

application. (p. 6) Many inquirers, I suspect, are unsatisfied with Burlings &dquo;hocus-pocus&dquo; attitude, not so much because they expect more of anthropological inquiry itself than Burling (and for that matter Tyler) thinks it can achieve but because Burlings relativization of criteria of adequacy to anthropological concerns makes problematic the future synthesis of ethnographic and anthropological linguistic results with work in cognitive and developmental psychology, psycholinguistics, and so forth. (p. 92)
This kind of prose, coupled with structural failure at a higher level, can be deadly. Such structural faults are not as easy to exhibit, but I offer the following

In the second paragraph of chapter 2, the author tells us: &dquo;This survey is intended to develop the following points: First....&dquo; But he never tells us what the second point is nor how many points we should expect. What in fact happens is that this introductory remark quickly merges into the discussion. On page 170, he begins a paragraph, &dquo;The first point to note, then, is....&dquo; It is not until page 173 (six paragraphs later) that he tells us what his second point is. Why cant he say what the two points are when he starts, and then discuss them in turn? Of course, these flaws in style do not undermine the argument, but they do mitigate against recommending the book as a good read or a helpful source of understanding. Looking at the authors eighteen-page discussion in chapter 1 of radical indeterminacy, the present reviewer cannot help but think that the first two chapters of Quines (1960) Word and Object should be read instead.

1. The subtitle on the card accompanying the complimentary review copy of this book is Philosophical Problems in the Study of Alien Culture.

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Goodenough, W. 1951. Property, kin and community on Truk. University Press. Quine, W. v. O. 1960. Word and object. Cambridge: MIT Press.

New Haven, CT: Yale

Richard C. ]ennings is a research associate in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He writes on philosophy of language and philosophy of science and is concerned with the problem of understanding alternative conceptual schemes, arguing that truth and rationality depend on conceptual schemes and that the theoretical ontology of science is a projection of our theories. He is currently working on a naturalized account of semantics, one that provides an analysis of meaning and truth in terms of natural causation.

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