What’s In A Word?

The American Prospect has a cool feature where they ask people to write short columns about a book or cultural artifact that’s influenced them. The current issue has me on WVO Quine’s Word and Object:

It’s tempting (and conventional) to imagine language working neatly through such correspondences. Each word refers to some object in the world; each sentence describes a fact. Quine’s somewhat fanciful speculations on radical translation serve to undermine this account of meaning. Language is a social phenomenon, and languages are social practices with no guarantee of such direct correspondences. Quine observes that if we hear of a place where the local inhabitants describe pelicans as their half-brothers, it would be foolish to interpret this as a sign of profound genetic misunderstanding on their part. Instead, we see that their words don’t quite line up with ours, and a concept exists that somehow refers to half-brothers and pelicans alike. […]

Those of us who try to describe the world for a living aren’t just poor handmaidens of those who try to uncover the truth about it. Nor are we all, as Plato had it, dupes gazing at shadows, unable to perceive the real light projected from behind us. Rather, the process of description is the process of discovery. Language and science are, together, a joint process of discovery. Quine uses the phrase “ontic decision” to bypass the traditional question of what kinds of things are “real” as opposed to merely nominal. As he puts it, “The quest of a simplest, clearest overall pattern of canonical notation is not to be distinguished from a quest of ultimate categories, a limning of the most general traits of reality.” To paraphrase loosely — no doubt a bit too loosely for the tastes of one of the most precise writers I’ve ever read — a writer’s search for better, clearer, more concise descriptions of what we know is fundamentally of a piece with the searches for new knowledge.