Meaning-Change Through the Mistaken Mirror: On the Indeterminacy of “Wundt” and “Piaget” in Translation

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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What does a name mean in translation? Quine argued, famously, that the meaning of gavagai is indeterminate until you learn the language that uses that word to refer to its object. The case is similar with scientific texts, especially if they are older; historical. Because the meanings of terms can drift over time, so too can the meanings that inform experiments and theory. As can a life’s body of work and its contributions. Surely, these are also the meanings of a name; shortcuts to descriptions of the author who produced them, or of their thought (or maybe their collaborations). We are then led to wonder whether the names of scientists may also mean different things in different languages. Or even in the same language. This problem is examined here by leveraging the insights of historians of psychology who found that the meaning of “Wundt” changed in translation: his experimentalism was retained, and his Völkerpsychologie lost, so that what Wundt meant was altered even as his work—and his name—informed the disciplining of Modern Psychology as an experimental science. Those insights are then turned here into a general argument, regarding meaning-change in translation, but using a quantitative examination of the translations of Piaget’s books from French into English and German. It is therefore Piaget who has the focus here, evidentially, but the goal is broader: understanding and theorizing “the mistaken mirror” that reflects only what you can think to see (with implications for replication and institutional memory).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-48
Number of pages27
JournalReview of General Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1-Mar-2022


  • Piaget
  • translation
  • indigenization
  • critical digital history of psychology
  • integrated history and philosophy of science (iHPS)

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