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inscrutability of reference

First proposed by the American philosopher W. V. O. Quine (1909 - 2000), inscrutability of reference is a version of what might be considered extreme ontological relativism. It questions the very basis on which one can make any sort of ontological argument. Inscrutability of reference says that there is no possible way to completely understand any language, or what the speaker of a language refers to, even within one's own natural language.

Inscrutability of reference argues that if an individual points to a rabbit, and utters a noise, there is no possible way to confirm if the individual is referring to the rabbit as a whole, a collection of 'undetached rabbit parts', or a spatiotemporal state of the rabbit. There is no universal pointer one can use to make a specific reference that will always be taken to mean the exact same thing no matter what society or language the listener is from (see: indeterminacy of translation).

To this end, Quine dictates that any translation, meaning analysis, or in fact analysis of any kind is hopeless. He admits that, to the field linguist, these arguments are merely academic. The field linguist he says, would simply have to decide that what the pronounced word the individual made means rabbit, and exclude other possible interpretations. Otherwise, the linguist would fall into a sort of infinite regress, and would never be able to translate the foreign language, and perhaps even start to question his own.

--Reed Loar

Quine, W. V. O. Word and Object. MIT Press, 1964.

Quine, W.V. O. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. Columbia University Press, 1964.

Swoyer, Chris, "Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Feb 2, 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL= http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism.