What Errol Morris, Kuhn, and Incomensurability have to do with Military Stability Operations

INCOMMENSURABILITY – Opinionator – NYTimes.com.

Errol Morris recently wrote a five part piece in the New York times Opinionator on Thomas Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability. In studying the history and philosophy of science, Kuhn claimed that identical words and concepts were used in different ways that could not be resolved because they were emplaced within different and often incompatible systems of belief. Different “paradigms” conceived of the world in such different ways that it was near impossible to fully translate the meaning of a concept from its emplacement in one theory versus that of another. In other words, theories belonging to different “paradigms” are in effect theories that belong to different worlds. If you do not occupy a position in one of the worlds you cannot grasp what makes a particular theory or set of concepts seem salient. In Kuhns view, it is impossible to “translate” concepts from one theory to that of another theory because they only have meaning against the background of the originating theory. To move it into another theoretical matrix would be to change the meaning. This is akin to a gestalt flip (think the duck/rabbit illusion). But as Morris justly argues, Kuhn was wrong to use this analaogy because in a real gestalt flip, we do not loose the ability to percieve the duck/rabbit image as either a duck or a rabbit. We may only be able to see one image at a time, but we never loose sight of the fact that it has the potential to be both. Nor do we encounter a crisis of perception or judgement during Gestalt flips.

Morris was critical of the concept of incommensurability, essentially arguing that we could not even conceive of having a discussion of incommensurability if it were indeed the case that incommensurability were true. To try to historically or logically recover how scientific theories have changed with time should be impossible but yet philosophers, historians, and sociologists have made a cottage industry out of the practice. Something must be wrong here.

Morris cites Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity” as one way of understanding how we are able to overcome the “incommensurability” problem. Although Kripke didn’t think so, I actually think that the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, and also The Brown and Blue Books provides a way of understanding how language and naming work in a non descriptive and non-correspondance theory of truth manner to help explain why we can overcome not just differences in theories but differences in world views (or culture, ideology, semantic network or whatever else you wish to call it).

Similarly, I recently gave a talk about a similar problem as define by Quine, problem of “radical translation” (which appears in Object and Word and another work). In a manner similar to, but more behavioralisticly oriented, than Wittgenstein, Quine argues that even though to a philosopher we may never be certain as the meaning of a word when trying to translate it from one language to another, completely unrelated one, this is in fact not a meaningful problem. Quine asserts that a field linguist, attempting to make sense of and translate an unfamiliar language is not dabbling in meanings but in linguistic conventions for which certainties are not necessary to allow for effective communication. In effect, according to Quine, the philosopher has misunderstood what is going on during actual translations.

A wonderful philosopher who happens to be my brother, Kevin Lande, put it succinctly:

“The radical translation thought experiment and the point about the indeterminacy of translation continues the attack on mentalism and the concept of meaning. We could, in principle, have an indefinite number of different translation manuals that assign incompatible synonymy relations, all of which account for linguistic behavior. Synonymy, therefore, can’t be read off of first-order linguistic behavior. But since behavior is all that the field linguist has to work from, we must realize that the field linguist isn’t/can’t be interested in anything like “meanings.” She is just interested in mapping the behavior. For Quine, this means that the field linguist isn’t trying to discover synonymy relations in the native’s language. She is searching for assent-conditions and dissent-conditions (as opposed to truth-conditions)–she doesn’t care if the sentence “Gavagai” has the same meaning or propositional content as our sentence “There is a rabbit”; what matters is that all the cases in which the native would assent to “Gavagai” are the cases in which a native English-speaker would assent to “There is a rabbit.”

So, Quine’s point is exactly that determining meaning isn’t a problem for the field linguist. In keeping with his naturalism, we should take a queue from the linguist: look at how the scientist would actually do her work if ever there were a case of radical translation, and stop worry about meanings and synonymy. Just worry about behavior.”

Thus for Quine there is no “incommensurability” of translation ‘for all practical intents and purposes’ and, I think, he would argue the same is true of Kuhn and his “paradigms.” For Quine, there is no absolute truth about the meaning of words. But then again, he denies the traditional representational understanding of meaning. This does not mean that words are not ‘meaningful’ or ‘significant’ to Quine. Quite the contrary, they matter in so much as they are pragmatically employed against a background context of conventional usage. But translation is not, for Quine, a matter of synonymy. For Kuhn, moving between theories does seem to be about synonymy. This is odd given the weight that Kuhn also places on the practical actions that ground a paradigm.

So what does this have to do with training service member to prepare for life on a provincial reconstruction team or for stability operations?  Our current best efforts to prepare service members for life in an unfamiliar and, to use Quines lingo, ‘unreleated’ culture, try to ‘translate’ another societies language, customs, and forms of life (to use Wittgenstien!). But, as Quine suggests, such an attempt will only have limited sucess because, by focusing on meanings, rather than engaging in practices, we prepare people to focus on a poorly defined problem of translation. The field linguist in Quines thought experiment, and I imagine the good philosopher of science in Errol Morris’s opinion piece,  are doing something else. They are finding ways of becoming engaged in forms of life, of learning the meaning of actions (not as intellectual effort of synonymy) in terms of their pragmatics implications and affordances within specific situations.   To avoid binding up training in terms of problems of “radical translation” or “incommensurability” we might want to focus on giving Marines and Soldiers the ‘ethnomethods’, i.e. some folk procedures, practices, and techniques for building up recognition of what are, in effect, patterns of use of words, gestures, comportments, manners, rituals, etc. This means focusing on sensemaking and procedures for entering into meaningful relationships and interactions with “unreleated” conspecifics.

One Comment on “What Errol Morris, Kuhn, and Incomensurability have to do with Military Stability Operations

  1. Kuhn’s proposition might be overstating his case. Incommensurability might be possible or likely, but not a certainty. Sometimes close enough is good enough. Not even all members of the same group sharing the same language, culture, history, values, and ideas completely agree on the meaning of words.

    We still argue over the meaning of words in our Constitution, and for some the original intent is subjugated to present conditions. Shared meaning does not imply shared implications.

    The lack of vowel points in ancient Hebrew has caused immense disagreement over the precise meaning of the Torah and even the correct pronunciation of words. People still argue over whether “Thou shalt not kill” is absolute or relative.

    “Gavagai” and “There is a rabbit” may have identical assent conditions, but to the native speaker of “Gavagai,” the truth value of that statement may hold hundreds of different meanings based on the context of the situation, only some of which the non-native might be aware of (some of which are unobservable):

    – Food source!
    – Good omen (every 12th year)
    – Bad omen (every other year)
    – Predator nearby
    – Pretty bunny
    – Most blessed creature of God
    – Watch out for rabbit holes
    – Storm approaching
    – Where did I put that recipe for Hassenpfeffer?

    Instead of saying, “There is a rabbit,” you could say, “Oh look, it’s Bugs Bunny!”

    Same assent condition, but the native having never seen a television, much less an animated film, would never understand what you’re talking about. He’d not only have to learn your language and watch the cartoons, but learn about real life in the Bowery and the history of US slavery and racism when Bugs uses the term “no-good, cotton picking….”

    An observation may have a common meaning, but the cultural significance of the observation might be beyond the experience or comprehension of the non-native. Clearly the native speaker and his folk understand the meaning (or perhaps some only partially understand), but you might lack the time to cultivate an understanding. And if you’re dealing with a defunct culture, the cultural context might not even exist to provide a learning opportunity.

    I’m reminded of a Star Trek episode where Captain Picard encounters an alien who speaks in metaphors. You can understand the grammar and vocabulary completely. You might even learn something from reading their history. But you may never fully grasp the meaning of the metaphor. The metaphor might exist long after the underlying story has evaporated.

    How many people use English metaphors, use them properly and improperly at times, but haven’t the faintest idea where they came from?

    With respect to “understanding” foreign cultures, has it occurred to you that even if a person from outside the culture follows and respects all the cultural norms and forms, they might still be regarded as inadequate? The cultural norms can take the form of a POSSESSION, which when exercised by outsiders is insulting or laughable. I’m reminded of the German soldier in “Saving Private Ryan” begging for his life:

    “Please, I like America! Fancy schmancy! What a cinch! Go fly a kite! Cat got your tongue! Hill of beans! Betty Boop, what a dish. Betty Grable, nice gams.
    I say can you see! I say can you see! I… I say…
    Fuck Hitler. Fuck Hitler!”

    He’s demonstrating familiarity with American culture, knows the language, knows the context, and knows that he’s trying to build sympathy, but he can’t be certain of the impact. Ultimately, the American commander made the decision based on his own morals and over the objection of his soldiers.

    Three fictional references. Do they count?

    If they do, I’ll bring up Frank Herbert’s Dune and Paul’s understanding of the word “Muadib.”

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