Holophrastic indeterminacy

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In the writings of philosopher Willard v. O. Quine, he discusses the 'indeterminacy of translation'.[1] Two kinds of indeterminacy appear: holophrastic indeterminacy, or 'indeterminacy of sentence translation' refers to the assertion that "there is more than one correct method of translating sentences where the two translations differ not merely in the meanings attributed to the sub-sentential parts of speech but also in the net import of the whole sentence."[2][3][4] The other kind of indeterminacy introduced by Quine is indeterminacy of reference, or 'inscrutability of reference', which refers to parts of a sentence or individual words.

It is holophrastic indeterminacy that underlies Quine's argument against synonymy, the basis of his objections to Carnap's analytic/synthetic distinction.[5]

Indeterminacy of translation

Quine's work on indeterminacy of translation, stemming from the basic forms of indeterminacy,[2] is widely discussed in modern analytic philosophy:

“W. V. O. Quine's contention that translation is indeterminate has been among the most widely discussed and controversial theses in modern analytical philosophy. It is a standard-bearer for one of the late twentieth century's most characteristic philosophical preoccupations: the skepticism about semantic notions which is also developed in Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein on rules... and which many have read into Putnam's ‘model-theoretic’ assault on realism...”[6] [Cross references to chapters 15 and 17 omitted]

—Crispin Wright, The indeterminacy of translation, p. 397

Quine's approach to translation, radical translation, takes the perspective of trying to establish the meaning of sentences in a foreign language (Quine calls it Arunta) by observing and questioning native speakers of that language.[7][8] It is a hypothetical version of what could be an empirical investigation. By an armchair analysis of such an adventure, Quine argues that it is impossible to construct a unique translation that can be defended as better than all others. The reason is predicated upon an argued unavoidable introduction of of the two indeterminacies above. According to Hilary Putnam, it is “what may well be the most fascinating and the most discussed philosophical argument since Kant’s Transcendental Deduction of the Categories”.[9]

Naturalized epistemology

Holophrastic indeterminacy is important to the understanding of Quine's naturalized epistemology. As Quine states his thesis:

"If the English sentences of a theory have their meaning only together as a body, then we can justify their translation into Arunta [a hypothetical foreign language] only together as a body...Any translations of the English sentences into Arunta sentences will be as correct as any other, so long as the net empirical implications of the theory as a whole are preserved in translation. But it is to be expected that many different ways of translating the component sentences, essentially different individually, would deliver the same empirical implications for the theory as a whole; deviations in the translation of one component sentence could be compensated for in the translation of another component sentence. Insofar, there can be no ground for saying which of two glaringly unlike translations of individual sentences is right."[10]

—Willard v. O. Quine, Epistemology naturalized, p. 80

Quine's naturalized epistemology in brief is the view that instead of traditional attempts to connect how our beliefs relate to evidence, epistemology should focus upon how experience leads to beliefs: the causal connections between our sensory evidence and our beliefs about the world. .[11][12]


  1. Willard v. O. Quine (2013). Word and Object, New. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262518314. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Willard Quine (2008). “Chapter 31: Three indeterminacies”, Confessions of a Confirmed Extentionalist: And Other Essays. Harvard University Press, pp. 368-386. ISBN 0674030842.  A lecture "Three Indeterminacies," presented at the Quine symposium at Washington University in April 1988. The three indeterminacies are (i) the underdetermination of scientific theory, (ii) indetermninacy of translation and (iii) inscrutability of reference. The first of these refers to Quine's assessment that evidence alone does not dictate the choice of a scientific theory. The second refers to holophrastic indeterminacy. The third refers to indeterminacy in interpreting individual words or sub-sentences.
  3. Willard v. O. Quine (1990). “§20 Indeterminacy of reference”, Pursuit of truth, 2nd. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674739507. “The serious and controversial thesis of indeterminacy of translation is not that [indeterminacy of reference]; it is rather the holographic thesis, which is stronger. It declares for divergences that remain unreconciled even at the level of the whole sentence, and are compensated for only by divergences in the translations of other whole sentences” 
  4. Hylton, Peter (Apr 30, 2010). Edward N. Zalta, ed.:Willard van Orman Quine. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition).
  5. Peter Hylton (2007). “Radical translation and its indeterminacy”, Quine. Routledge, p. 199. ISBN 0203962435. 
  6. Crispin Wright (1999). “Chapter 16: The indeterminacy of translation”, Bob Hale, Crispin Wright, eds.:  A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0631213260. 
  7. Edward N. Zalta, ed.:Donald Davidson: Radical interpretation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition) (Jun 29, 2009). “Quine envisages a case in which translation of a language must proceed without any prior linguistic knowledge and solely on the basis of the observed behaviour of the speakers of the language in conjunction with observation of the basic perceptual stimulations that give rise to that behaviour.”
  8. Nicholas Bunnin, Jiyaun Yu:Radical translation. The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (2004).
  9. Putnam. H. (March, 1974). "The refutation of conventionalism". Noûs 8: pp. 25 ff. Reprinted in Putnam, H. (1979). “Chapter 9: The refutation of conventionalism”, Philosophical Papers; Volume 2: Mind, Language and Reality. Cambridge University Press, pp. 153-191. ISBN 0521295513.  Quote on p. 159.
  10. Willard v. O. Quine (1969). Ontological relativity and other essays. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231083572. 
  11. Feldman, Richard (Jul 5, 2001). Edward N. Zalta, ed.:Naturalized Epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition). “The most extreme view along these lines recommends replacing traditional epistemology with the psychological study of how we reason. A more modest view recommends that philosophers make use of results from sciences studying cognition to resolve epistemological issues.”
  12. Benjamin Bayer (July 6, 2009). "Quine's pragmatic solution to skeptical doubts". International Journal of Philosophical Studies 18: pp. 177-204. DOI:10.1080/09672551003677853. Research Blogging. “While it is true that both traditional epistemology and Quine’s project study the theory - evidence relationship, critics may wonder whether this common subject matter is enough to count Quine’s naturalism as genuine epistemology.”