SORITES, ISSN 1135-1349

Issue #08. June 1997. Pp. 5-14.

«Synthesising Intersubjectively»

Copyright © by SORITES and S.H. Elkatip

Synthesising Intersubjectively

S.H. Elkatip

The argument I present here falls into four major parts. First, we note that Quine's usage of the word «stimulus» is more prodigal than Skinner would have approved. In the second part, comes an argument inspired by Fodor: are not Quine's stimulus meanings precisely the linguistic items about which we were querying when we were trying to understand the translatability of linguistic behaviour? In the third part, Quine's notion of «culture» is at the centre of our interest because Quine hints that linguistic phenomena are embedded in cultural phenomena. I argue that Quine's relativism may rescue him from an infinite regress, but it does not save him from circularity: explaining linguistic phenomena by some other linguistic or quasi-linguistic phenomena.

The fourth part of the argument is: there is a whole series of vague notions Quine has been employing all along: «empathy», «testimony», «giving evidence», «importuning», «acquiring», etc. These deceive us into thinking that translation is accomplished in stimulus meanings. This part of the argument hinges on the following question: could Quine's work on linguistic behaviour and stimulus meanings have taken off without any of the obscure notions he brings into his account? I argue that not only do we need all those vague notions to understand what stimulus meanings were for Quine, but also stimulus meanings are superfluous: they do not accomplish what Quine wants them to do: to take linguistic phenomena to what he calls «the tribunal of sense experience». In conclusion: we synthesise intersubjectively via some mysterious notions like empathy, according to Quine, and we analyse subjectively; and the latter, in spite of the fact that Quine denies the existence of private languages.


It is true that in section nine of Word and Object (p. 32) Quine distinguishes «stimulation» and «stimulus meaning» and so tries to disambiguate the word. He says: in this concept of stimulus meaning «we now have before us the makings of a crude concept of empirical meaning. For meaning, supposedly, is what a sentence shares with its translation; and translation at the present stage turns solely on correlations with non-verbal stimulation». In «Propositional Objects» (p. 158), he approaches the problem of identifying stimulus meanings: «Even a primitive mother, in encouraging or discouraging a child's use of a word on a given occasion, will consider whether the relevant object is visible from where the child sits. And even a highly civilized mother is content, when checking the child's testimony against the child's data, not to penetrate the child's surface... The trouble is really, of course, the intersubjective equating of stimulations». (cf. [4] p. 81: «Surely one has no choice but to be an empiricist so far as one's theory of linguistic meaning is concerned», and [6] p. 155: «Save the surface and you save all».) The problem of stimulus identification and resemblance is one that Quine leaves to posterity at the end of this essay: in practice it is not a problem for psychologists; they could work it out later. But, and this is the problem, what Skinner as a scientist would object to is the peculiarly Quinian aspect of this method: responses are correlated to stimuli, verbal or non-verbal; whereas as scientists we should have first determined our stimuli when planning our experiments. The crux of the Quinian problem is an indeterminacy in guessing about stimuli for linguistic behaviour. And, put in this way, it is a trivial enterprise: there is no clear cut analytic synthetic distinction for Quinians, because the stimulus meanings they are trying to discover are themselves indeterminate: they will be synthetic or analytic or a combination of both. This indeterminacy is self evident from the fact that we are guessing what the stimulus meaning is from statements which are themselves not purely synthetic or analytic, if our beginning point in our study indeed is, not those things Quine calls «occasion sentences», but, full-fledged statements.

Quine confesses above ([6] p. 158) that a child's testimony about experienced stimuli is important: child testifies, let's say, that there is a cat in the room; mother encourages or discourages the use of the word «cat». Let us suppose that there are not any bats, hats, mats or pats in the room. The child is randomly babbling ([7] p. 80): «random vocal behavior affords parents continual opportunities for reinforcing such chance utterances as they see fit; and so the rudiments of speech are handed down».) and the parent hears distinctively the words «bat», «cat», «hat», «mat», «pat» among the babblings uttered. Does the stimulus precede the response? Is it simulataneous? In any case, you can not penetrate your child's surface to find the stimulus that prompted her to utter these things. Suppose, further, that the family dog, Fido, is also in the room, along with the cat. Both are clearly visible to you and to the child. You must be sure of the stimulus to reinforce «cat», unless you are pulling a trick! When you do, you take the cat and say «cat». You can not ask the child to testify that by «cat» both you and she means the «small furry domesticated carnivorous quadruped» that can purr and also hurt with its claws. The baby is not able to read The Concise Oxford Dictionary yet. If the child testifies that she was talking about Fido as the «cat», then you would not go into a discussion of dictionary content with her. You will probably discourage the usage of «cat». Testimony can be either a verbal exchange with the child about how things are defined, or a physical exchange in which the parent is obliged to penetrate sensory surfaces in order to «(under)determine» stimuli. The former can not be since children do not usually chat about definitions and essences before they start speaking. And, it can not be the latter either, because, as Quine says, even primitive mothers will not do such atrocities.

Of course, Quine disclaims the weight of intersubjectivity in an 1990 essay, «Three Indeterminacies», when he says «I was expressing this discomfort as early as 1965... In my original definition [of observation sentences] I had appealed to sameness of stimulus meaning between speakers, but in 1981 I defined it rather for the single speaker» (pp. 2,3). He alludes to his gradual denouncing of the notion of intersubjectivity. It began in the nineteen sixties with Word and Object. The eleventh section of this major work was entitled «Intrasubjective Synonymy of Occasion Sentences». Quine was already expressing an eagerness to replace «intersubjectivity» by «intrasubjectivity»: «Altogether the equating of stimulus meanings works out far better intrasubjectively than between subjects...» ([7] p. 48) Quine's aim was to make the difference between private and public experience into one of degree as he stated this both in Word and Object and in the conclusion of his 1952 article «On Mental Entities»: possible subjects of experience differ just in «idiosyncratic neural routings or private history of habit formation». ([7] p. 31; cf. [10] p. 214.)

I think the notion of empathy includes intersubjectivity for Quine; it is the bigger notion. He compares the linguist with the child, according to the domination of empathy in learning a language: «Empathy dominates the learning of language, both by child and by field linguist. In the child's case it is the parent's empathy... In the field linguist's case it is empathy on his own part... We all have an uncanny knack for empathizing another's perceptual situation... Empathy guides the linguist... And much the same must be true of the growing child». ([1] pp. 3,4) Is empathy a symmetric relation or an asymmetric one? Is it reflexive as it appears to be in the case of the linguist who empathises with himself, on his own part? Is the mother teaching her mother tongue more like the linguist, because both are dominated and activated by empathy? Or, is the mother more like the native, because both are dominated passively by imposed translations? Is it both, and so, a symmetric relation? Quine also says, «Empathy guides the linguist still as he rises above observation sentences through his analytical hypotheses». ([1] p. 4) He compares a child's learning of a language to a linguist's attempt «to project into the native's associations and grammatical trends». If linguists are like children in forming their analytical statements, then surely, mothers are like the primitive natives, dominated by empathy. ([1] p. 4) Strangely, the linguist also has empathy on his own part, insuring the reflexivity of the relation. And, moreover, as a bonus, he can freely project himself into other people's subjectivities -- whatever subjectivity is for Quine. Empathy is a transitive relation like synonymy because the notion allows that anybody can project himself into anybody. In his disccusions, Quine sets two proportions: (a) the mother is to the child as the linguist is to the foreigner; and (b) the child is to the mother as the linguist is to the foreigner.

Mothers should note that children learn their uniqueness in the following way: «'Mama', in particular, gets set up retroactively as the name of a broad and recurrent but withal individual object, and thus as a singular term par excellence». ([8] p. 10) Had Quine taken deontic logic and obligation sentences seriously, then mothers could be justified in warning their babies that mother is neither undetached mother parts nor mother stages but a human being. This is what most babies are told when they grab the tail of a cat: «No, poor cat; the tail is not a cat part or a cat stage!» And, that is how children first hear language even before they can walk, with norms: cats are good, they are animate beings, etc. Quine ignores deontic logic.<1>Foot note 1_1 Nor does he distinguish movement from action. He seems to be cognisant of the requirement that some stimulations must be stimulations of movement. Stimulations are not all about more or less static things. ([7] p. 31) But, it is not clear at all how the child figures out the difference, for instance, between intonation in speaking behaviour and singing behaviour. ([7]. p. 96: «Mama sings».) It could all be singing or all be speaking for the child. Quine does not explain how the difference between movement-stimulations and action-stimulations are discovered or guessed by the child or by the field linguist.

A Fodorian Argument

It is quite futile to ask Quine whether there is room for intersubjective linguistic dialogue. He taught that «epistemology naturalised» was an attitude of «the mariner who has to rebuild his boat while staying afloat in it». ([4] p. 84) To Quinians, looking for intersubjectivity sounds like an unwarranted commitment to a definite source which can be exchanged among people. (for example in [5] p. 29: «We give up an assurance of determinacy».) I will first sketch an argument inspired by Fodor.<2>Foot note 1_2 But, I myself am not at all convinced that such an argument will persuade Quinians, who derive the semantical properties of natural language sentences from those of their stimulus translations. Let us begin by noting that they fail to give a story about what makes the translations mean what they do. However, argue Fodorians, it is necessary to give a story about stimulus semantics, for the language of stimuli itself is productive. Call this language «M»: «each of the syntactically distinct expressions of M has its distinctive truth condition» and «these facts about the meanings of M expressions can't be parasitic on semantic facts about English».<3>Foot note 1_3 It is not necessary to call M «a language of thought», says Fodor: «If you don't like language of thought stories, then let it be a formula of anything you please».<4>Foot note 1_4 It could be a language of stimuli in Quinian fashion: «And now here are our stimulus meanings, functioning both as the meanings of some sentences and as the objects of some propositional attitudes. However, stimulus meanings are remote as can be from propositions in the sense of meanings of eternal sentences. They are meanings, on a reasonable usage of `meaning', only of observation sentences». ([6] p. 156) There is no reason why these stimulus meanings can not be called «Quinese» or «Skinnerish» or, to borrow a term from Fodor, «Mentalese». The Fodorian reply is: «So, a story is wanted about what makes the symbols of Mentalese mean what they do».<5>Foot note 1_5 If the natural language of a native is explained by M, then the productivity of the Quinese language, M, can not be referred back to the natural language. Each of the syntactically distinct expressions of M has distinct truth conditions. We must learn why it means what it means without circularity, and, that is not a business of translation anymore.

Fodor notes the failure of translation with respect to transitivity as a relation. Synonymy is an equivalence relation and thus is transitive.<6>Foot note 1_6 But, translation is not symmetric either. Imagine a forum on intercultural dialogue during which you have serious reasons to shun misunderstandings. You would surely have your speech translated back into your own language to catch the discrepancies, if any. Otherwise, your hosts will hold you responsible, as the author of the radicalness in the translation, and it may cost dearly.


In «Three Indeterminacies» Quine relates the course of his discussions with other philosophers, mainly Davidson, Dreben, Follesdal and Lars Bergstrom, about intersubjectivity. He considers intersubjectivity to be a problem in linguistics, and says, «we can simply do without it». ([1] pp. 2-4) But, he mentions «intersubjectivity» in the very first sentences of the preface to Word and Object: «Language is a social art. In acquiring it we have to depend entirely on intersubjectively available cues as to what to say and when». (p. ix) Wondering about the meaning of «intersubjectivity» we go to the index: 1f, 8, 31,134. The list is not very exhaustive. There are overlooked passages: the following, for instance: «terms for intersubjectively observable physical things are at the focus of the most successful of unprepared communication... they are at the focus of such successful communication». (pp. 234,238)

«Intersubjectivity» was not a synonym for «translation». Maybe the following is true: first communication, then translation, but this is probably because communication entails more than intersubjectivity; the native and the linguist could commune, but they could not intersubjectively engage in a conversation before the manual was written. Could the baby and its mother entertain intersubjective dialogue before the baby begins to speak? They could share mother's milk; however, this is not what we usually think of as intersubjectivity, the sharing of a language.

«Intersubjectivity» was not included in the index of The Roots of Reference, published later in 1974. It occurs in the following passages, for example: «such intersubjective equating of stimulus situations... What are observations?... They are sensory, evidently, and thus subjective... socially shared... there is no presumption of intersubjective agreement about the environing situation...» ([3]. pp. 24,38) Quine does not clarify his notion of subjectivity, although it is vital to his account of empathy and is included in empathy, apparently a reflexive relation. Subjectivity is as mysterious as intersubjectivity.

Quine's «Mama» communicates her milk to the child; in teaching the mother tongue, she communicates her culture; jungle linguists communicate their sophistication to primitive natives; and so forth. (Here teacher and learner could be added to the list: [2] p. 6; [7] p. 7.) But, cultural norms are not shared like milk or chewing gum; they are shared linguistically. Quine remarks: «We improved stimulus synonymy a bit by socializing it». ([7] p. 66) «Synonymy» carries the full generality of «sameness in meaning». ([7] p. 61) Stimulus synonymy on an optimum modulus is an approximation to sameness of confirming experiences and of disconfirming experiences. ([7] p. 63) Stimulus synonymy is related to stimulus analyticity while synonymy of sentences in general would be related to analyticity. ([7] p. 65) Quine thinks that one cause of the failure «to appreciate the indeterminacy» ([7] p. 72) hovering over our traditional analytic-synthetic distinction is that «we may speak of interlinguistic synonymy only within the terms of some particular system of analytical hypotheses» ([7] p. 75): continuities encourage... an illusion that our so readily intertranslatable sentences are diverse verbal embodiments of some intercultural proposition or meaning, when they are better seen as the merest variants of one and the same intracultural verbalism. ([7] p. 76) Culture may be regarded as a process sui generis.<7>Foot note 1_7 However, this was not the point Quine was getting at. If we turn to the essay which Quine largely incorporated into Word and Object, he offers relativism as the antidote, if not a way out, for the circularity in his explanations: the obstacle to correlating conceptual schemes is not that there is anything ineffable about language or culture, near or remote... The obstacle is only that any one of intercultural correlation of words and phrases, and hence of theories, will be just one among various empirically admissible correlations... ([8] p. 25) For Quine, translation was all there is. In «On What There Is» he maintained that to «analyze it in terms directly of what people do» is the procedure to deal with «the fact that a given linguistic utterance is meaningful» ([12] p. 11) and concluded thus: «ontology can be multiply relative, multiply meaningless apart from a background theory... As for the ontology in turn of the background theory... -- these matters can call for a background theory in turn». (cf. [5] p. 69) Relativism was the solution for the infinite regress deduced from his indeterminacy. Evidently, the circularity still remains.

The Proportion

Mothers do not begin with stimulations, stimulus meanings and occasion sentences and get standing sentences, observation sentences and eternal sentences: as soon as the child starts grabbing things, they have to reply with «No!» It is not necessary even to wait until the infant moves around in order to hear the reprimand: when the baby takes a hold of her hair and she must try and change the baby's diapers, she will find herself impatiently saying: No, that is not nice, etc. That is how the song «Hush little baby, don't you cry!» makes sense. Nor does dissent follow upon assent as Quine says in the Roots. The child is set upon her linguistic course first with norms. Values are not formulated the way Quine says they are: «The likening of obedience to toffee is indeed the very strategy of the parent's training program». ([3] p. 50) I wonder how many mothers hand down their values to their babies with a training program rewarding toffee.

Quine notes that «Learning to react in appropriate non-verbal ways to heard language is equally important. The child learns to react appropriately to many words before being moved to volunteer them. Dogs learn to act appropriately on some words without learning to volunteer any. Much of what is earliest and most urgent in language learning, furthermore, is a matter of neither stating nor asserting nor acting upon statements, but of importuning». ([3] p. 46) «Importuning» is explained in the Oxford Dictionary as «solicit pressingly» and «solicit for immoral purpose». Quine's intention was to be an empiricist like Kant, at least in The Roots of Reference.<8>Foot note 1_8 Given that he has expressed his awareness of how it goes with children -- «Other utterances -- greetings, commands, questions -- will figure among the early acquisitions too» ([1] p. 2) -- we can ask: In what sense do babies acquire these things as Quinian occasion sentences? How can we be certain of this -- there is a stage in infantile history, in which babies do not respond as dogs do, by sitting or standing, or imitate our linguistic utterances in any remarkable way? How far back are we supposed to push Quine's Kantian construction for proof of its correctness? If our sole criterion in the matter is parents' or linguists' «importuning», Quine's genetic account might have claimed any arbitrary point in the analysis as proof for its truth.

As early as the writing of «The Scope and Language of Science» in 1954, Quine maintained that it is the mother who intersubjectively appreciates the child's learning: (1a) «At the very beginning of one's learning of language, thus, words are learned in relation to such likenesses and contrasts as are already appreciated without benefit of words... The likenesses and contrasts which underlie one's first learning of language must not only be pre-verbally appreciable; they must, in addition, be intersubjective... the mother is in a position to appreciate that the child is confronted with something `red'». ([9] pp. 218,219) (1b) «the foreigner's word has yet to be assessed, whereas the reference of the child's word has yet to be acquired». ([3] p. 83) Acquiring and appreciating/assessing are correlative notions for Quine. From this, the intersubjective correlation, it follows that synthetic statements are fixed intersubjectively. He exploits the similarities between a child and a foreigner in order to salvage the synthetic content precious to an empiricist. (1c) «Let us return our attention from the heathen who seemed to have a term for `rabbit', to our own child at home who seems to have just acquired his first few terms in our own language: `mama', `water', perhaps `red'. To begin with, the case of the child resembles that of the heathen». ([8] pp. 6,7) It is the correlative-intersubjectivity which is at work when both the child and the native «give evidence» of their recognitions: (1d) «to say that he refers to the color would be to impute our ontology to him... considering in place of the child a foreign adult who gives similar evidence of recognizing red». ([3] pp. 81,82)

On the other hand, there are texts which picture the child as an agent, exercising empathy: (2a) «the linguist unable to guess the trend of the stimulus meaning of a non-observational occasion sentence... He can settle down and learn the native language directly as an infant might. (See Chapter III for reflections on the infant's learning of our own language.)» ([7] p. 47) (2b) «The child scrambles up an intellectual chimney... these matters are not reflected in stimulus meaning... the child has to scramble for them by a method of simultaneous learning, and... the linguist has to resort to analytical hypotheses to translate them». ([7] p. 94) (2c) «the field linguist who is breaking into an unknown language by investigating native speakers... Let us return then to home ground and consider how our child might get on...» ([3] pp. 46,47) (2d) «the learner as theorist. That is the way to look at both the field linguist and the learning child.»<9>Foot note 1_9 (2b) suggests that the stimulus meanings of (1) are purely synthetic in contrast to those referred to in (2). Those of (2) may involve analytical hypotheses and thus be other than synthetic. Moreover, (2a) announces quite explicitly that stimulus meanings are guesswork, but, because there somehow content which is not synthetic is involved, both the child and the linguist each have to do the work alone, that is to say, subjectively. It is then that empathy comes into play as a reflexive relation.

Quine talks of a reorientation in semantics whereby the primary vehicle of meaning came to be seen no longer in the term but in the statement: statements are translatable into sensory language as wholes, not term by term. ([11] p. 39) Carnap did not adopt a sense-datum language in the narrowest sense and eventually has had to abandon the dogma of radical reductionism. However, the dogma itself has lingered in the thought of empiricists: for «each synthetic statement, there is associated a unique range of possible sensory events». ([11] p. 40) Quine, on the other hand, argues that the cleavage between synthetic and analytic statements is indeterminate: «our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body». [11] p. 41) How can we come to grips with what Quine has called «the tribunal of sense experience»? In «Epistemology Naturalized», he had declared his interests as: Two cardinal tenets of empiricism remained unassailable, however, and so remain to this day. One is that whatever evidence there is for science is sensory evidence. The other, to which I shall recur, is that all inculcation of meanings of words must rest ultimately on sensory evidence. ([4] p. 75; cf. [10] p. 212) Quine's so called «stimulus meanings» are verbal responses in disguise or quasi-verbal responses. By moving a step backwards we are only reduplicating the linguistic responses of which we were seeking an understanding. In fact, Quine is in danger of a different kind of infinite regress, in addition to a charge of circularity, unless he admits that stimulus meanings are synthetically generated in experience. The query then is why he does not ground language more directly in sense experience and introduces intermediate stimulus meanings.<10>Foot note 1_10 I think because it is difficult.

Bibliography for W.V.O. Quine's Works Cited:

[1] (1990) «Three Indeterminacies» and Quine's replies to papers in Robert B Barrett and Roger F. Gibson (Eds.) Perspectives on Quine (Oxford, Blackwell).

[2] (1986) Philosophy of Logic (Cambridge, Harvard U Press).

[3] (1974) The Roots of Reference (La Salle, Open Court).

[4] (1971) «Epistemology Naturalized» in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, Columbia U Press).

[5] (1968) «Ontological Relativity» in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, Columbia U Press).

[6] (1965) «Propositional Objects» in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, Columbia U Press).

[7] (1960) Word and Object (Cambridge: MIT Press).

[8] (1958) «Speaking of Objects» in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, Columbia U Press).

[9] (1954) «The Scope and Language of Science» in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York, Columbia U Press).

[10] (1952) «On Mental Entities» in The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (New York, Random House).

[11] (1951) «Two Dogmas of Empiricism» in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Harvard U Press).

[12] (1948) «On What There Is» in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Harvard U Press).

S.H. Elkatip
University of Bristol