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Holophrastic indeterminacy, or indeterminacy of sentence translation, is one of two kinds of indeterminacy of translation to appear in the writings of philosopher W. V. O. Quine. According to Quine, "there is more than one correct method of translating sentences where the two translations differ not merely in the meanings attributed to the parts of speech but also in the of the whole sentence." It is holophrastic indeterminacy that underlies Quine's argument against synonymy, the basis of his objections to Rudolf Carnap's analytic/synthetic distinction. The other kind of indeterminacy introduced by Quine is the "inscrutability of reference", which refers to parts of a sentence or individual words.
Quine's work on indeterminacy of translation, stemming from the basic forms of indeterminacy, 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...[Cross references to chapters 15 and 17 omitted]
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. 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 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”.
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