ABSTRACT. It is widely considered in cognitive science that Quine’s Indeterminacy of Translation argument has been overcome by empirical evidence that indicates children have innate constraints on the way they learn concepts. This paper will review experimental evidence that purports to show that the indeterminacy of translation has been overcome using the tools of modern cognitive science. It will be shown that the attempts to demonstrate that innate concepts exist while compelling are not demonstrative while we have compelling evidence that pre-linguistic concepts exists the evidence is less clear in the case of innate concepts. By reviewing this experimental literature it will be shown that while it does offer compelling evidence that Quine is incorrect on his theory of how children learn their first language the evidence does not have much significance for Quine’s Indeterminacy of translation argument. By close textual analysis of Quine’s argument it will be shown that innate constraints on learning cannot be used as a way of overcoming the Indeterminacy of Translation argument unless there was a further argument that proves that these purported innate constraints cannot be modified as we learn more about reality. It will be shown that no convincing argument exists which demonstrates that our concepts cannot be modified as we interact with our environment and social group. Hence it will be concluded that the Indeterminacy of Translation argument remains untouched by contemporary cognitive science. pp. 104–141

Keywords: indeterminacy of translation; concept; underdetermination; innateness; pre-linguistic; cognitive science

How to cite: King, David (2017), “Indeterminacy of Translation and Innate Concepts: A Critical Review,” Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations 16: 104–141.

Received 20 February 2016 • Received in revised form 21 July 2016
Accepted 21 July 2016 • Available online 10 August 2016


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Ph.D., Trinity College Dublin

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