Friday, 20 January 2012

Philosophy for the theory of translation and interpretation

I’ve been invited to give a guest lecture on a post-graduate module on the theory of translation and interpretation here at UCLan. I learn that ‘part of the programme content involves studying post-structuralist approaches to fluid textual meaning and to the (im)possibility of equivalence and semantic fidelity within translating, especially of literary texts with fluid meaning, which are open to interpretation/deconstruction by individual readers and translators’. So that prompts the question of which bits of the philosophical larder to raid, of what is sufficiently-free standing to be teachable to non-philosophers and then, finally, what one should think about the matter.

Obvious first thoughts are:

1) Quine’s attack on analyticity based on the impossibility of a sufficiently independent characterisation of such a notion. The argument in a nutshell is that there is no distinction between the analytic and synthetic if we cannot explain what that distinction amounts to. But all attempts at explanation presuppose equally mysterious concepts.

Against this, Grice and Strawson memorably argue:
If we take these two conditions together, and generalize the result, it would seem that Quine requires of a satisfactory explanation of an expression that it should take the form of a pretty strict definition but should not make use of any member of a group of inter-definable terms to which the expression belongs. We may well begin to feel that a satisfactory explanation is hard to come by. [Grice and Strawson 1956: 148]

2) Quine’s radical translation and Davidson’s radical interpretation. Under slightly different ground- rules, both offer accounts of what underpins facts about meaning by examining its ascription by field linguists starting from scratch to interpret native utterances. They go on to suggest that our own access to language is constrained by the same epistemic predicament.

It turns out, they argue, that the underpinning account does not determine meaning sufficiently to rule out a lingering indeterminacy. Concretely, according to Quine, the native utterance of ‘gavagai’ could pick out rabbits, rabbit stages, or even rabbit flies etc. More abstractly, according to Davidson, there is holism that connects word meaning and belief content such that there can be no atomic equivalencies.

3) Kripke’s Wittgenstein-inspired (if hardly accurate) argument that there are no facts about meaning. In thinking about how I can justify that my use of a word today is in accord with the standards of correctness that governed my past practice, Kripke unleashes a form of scepticism which concludes from limits on what we can know to the claim that there are no facts about meaning. How can Kripke draw such a conclusion about the link between rules and applications from epistemological considerations?

The answer is that an important assumption is built into the sceptical approach. If there were some fact that constituted the relation between a rule and its applications, it would be independently identifiable by the idealised subject that Kripke postulates. Kripke supposes, for the purpose of argument, that one may have all possible information about one’s past experiences, mental states and inclinations. He then asks whether any of these would be sufficient to determine the rule that one were following. His conclusion, based on his interpretation of Wittgenstein’s arguments, is that none would be. Given the idealisations involved, and the assumption that had any fact constituted the rule one were following one would have known it, then there is no such fact of the matter.

The sceptical argument, then, remains unanswered. There can be no such thing as meaning anything by any word. Each new application we make is a leap in the dark; any present intention could be interpreted so as to accord with anything we may choose to do. So there can be neither accord, nor conflict. [Kripke 1982: 55]

What should we conclude from these arguments?

All three lead to revisionary consequences. They undermine our pre-philosophical commitment to facts about meaning, respectively: there are no facts about meaning equivalence; there are no determinate facts about meaning; there are no facts about meaning.

All three start by examining the nature of meaning and attempting to shed light on it (one might say, what we mean by ‘meaning’ but this is not an interesting reflexivity yet) from outside. Quine assumes a scientistic naturalism about the kind of facts there are. Davidson at least wishes to shed light on meaning without circularity (though he says:
Quine describes the events or situations in terms of patterns of stimulation, while I prefer a description in terms more like those of the sentence being studied; Quine would give more weight to a grading of sentences in terms of observationality than I would; and where he likes assent and dissent because they suggest a behaviouristic test, I despair of behaviourism and accept frankly intensional attitudes toward sentences, such as holding true. [Davidson 1984: 230]).
Kripke appears to place no particular limits on the reduction base (though it turns out he does).

All three, therefore, can be undermined by those with sufficient confidence to reject explicit and implicit attempts at reductionist naturalism. The arguments share the same defect: they infer, from the failure of a particular kind of reduction of facts about meaning, the conclusion that there are no, or at least limits on, those facts about meaning. But the cost of this diagnosis is that one has to grant that facts about meaning are sui-generis. And that in turn suggests that the ontology and epistemology of meaning is mysterious (or rather, will seem mysterious to anyone who feels any temptation at all towards physicalist reduction): the world contains facts about meaning which are not reducible to more basic facts and those facts are apparent to those, at least, with eyes and ears to see and hear them, to those initiated into this tract of the space of reasons.

Davidson, D. (1984) Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Grice, H.P. and Strawson, P.F. (1956) ‘In Defence of a Dogma’ Philosophical Review 66: 141-159
Kripke, S. (1982) Wittgenstein on rules and private language, Oxford: Blackwell