Friday, August 23, 2013

Davidson’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”

1. Getting Davidson better press — Talking about your own problems; 2. Pragmatic holism — Words are not stilts — Idealism — Linguistic holism; 3. Avoiding idealism; 4. Incommensurable paradigms — Smells like idealism; 5. Close reading the conclusion of “Very Idea” — Empiricism motivated by realism — Conceptual relativity; 6. Truth is between sentences — On the very idea of mediation

Davidson’s and Wittgenstein’s writings are not easy for the nonspecialist to grasp. Neither are those of Kant and Hegel. But the work of original and imaginative philosophers such as these, in the course of generations, gradually comes to have an influence on the entire culture. Their criticisms of our intellectual heritage change our sense of what it is important to think about. A couple centuries from now, historians of philosophy will be writing about the changes in the human self-image that Donald Davidson’s writings helped bring about. [1]
Richard Rorty, who was a personal friend of Davidson’s, wrote this shortly after Davidson’s death. So this strong claim has two strikes against it: 1) friendship often colors and 2) interesting prophesies are often wrong. But as amplification, and from someone deeply immersed in intellectual history, it’s a striking thing to say about a philosopher no one outside of small coteries of isolated individuals—called Anglophone Philosophy Departments—has heard of. Not so with Wittgenstein, who gets good press amongst other departments, even if there aren’t many who really know what he was on about. However, Wittgenstein was an eccentric person and carried out his philosophy eccentrically—he just seems more interesting, and so attracts the mind at a more superficial level. Davidson, so far as I know, led a quiet life carrying out a philosophical project amongst a group of fellows who increasingly separated themselves from the life of other disciplines.

I’m not a specialist, but I’ve picked up some things about anglophone philosophy, and I tend to think Rorty was probably right about Davidson’s significance. So what I’d like to do is just provide a little of the context that I understand to be at work to make one of Davidson’s most famous essays more accessible to the layreader, especially students of literature. [2] Davidson once told Rorty “that he had never tried to solve anybody else’s problems, never discussed an issue simply because others were talking about it.” [3] This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can aid in the avoidance of the entropy that sets in quicker for those whose writings are too timely. Most of us are doomed to be only understood within the claustrophobic space of our immediate situation—you could understand what our remarks mean if you knew more about the history of the conversation we were taking part in, but why would you want to? In the hands of a thinker of genius, however, such ignoring of your context can give a freshness because if you know beforehand that these are just your problems, then you are usually more careful to make sure your reader knows what you’re concerned about. Davidson has this freshness, based on his idiosyncrasy, but he is also not completely idiosyncratic—he is taking part in the Conversation of Philosophy, and sometimes in setting up his problems, it’s not always apparent how to situate him in philosophical space. You have to know something about the history of a conversation to understand any conversation. These are just a few notes toward that end.

2.      The first thing to know is that if you haven’t already read Willard van Orman Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), there is no point in reading Davidson’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” (1974). Davidson generally should be seen, in many aspects, as extending certain basic Quinean ideas, and in “Very Idea” he is pursuing an argument that extends the basic pragmatic holism that underlies that earlier paper. The basic gist of that extremely influential essay is that the empiricist project of analysis—“linguistic analysis” being built into the self-image of anglophone philosophers since Bertrand Russell and Rudolph Carnap—is fundamentally flawed if is based on two very bad ideas. “One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in the meanings independently of matters of fact, and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.” [4] The second dogma represents the specific manifestation of empiricism as a core philosophical project after the linguistic turn. If, as empiricists since Locke have maintained, we are born tabula rasa, a blank slate, then everything is learned and thus rooted in experience. This means you have to build backwards to experience if you think there is anything at a distance from it. This is a kind of atomism, where the goal is to give an account of our conceptual activity by constructing complexities out of simples that can be tied directly to their origin in our immediate experience of the world. Words are like stilts—they each are grounded in the world, and if they aren’t, you’re just floating in the air, unconnected.

The linguistic turn in anglophone philosophy, however, made an important move away from the realm of philosophical action that had animated 18th and 19th-century philosophy—the mind. Experience, for most empiricists, happened in the mind, which is also where conceptual activity occurred because before the linguistic turn, ideas were concepts, not words. [5] Tired of the Hegelian Absolute Idealism of the preceding generation of British philosophy, Russell and G. E. Moore said sucks to that—skip the ideas and go to the only manifestation we deal with. “Philosophical analysis is linguistic analysis” became a kind of fighting faith as this kind of metaphilosophical, methodological viewpoint swept Philosophy Departments. However, part of the motivation for rejecting the Bradleys and the McTaggarts was to move away from a wooly-headed spiritualism and towards an embrace of the natural sciences. The hard, tough natural sciences are empirical, and the founding of analytic philosophy also marked the resurgence of empiricism in philosophy. But empiricism—rooting everything in experience—poses a problem for a philosopher who also thinks that the natural sciences are the best at doing that kind of thing. What’s left for philosophy to do?

Linguistic analysis! We’ll study words and meaning, and how they mean. However, the only way for this to be a distinct project that can’t be taken over by a science is if some of our words aren’t rooted in experience in the requisite way. So the analytic/synthetic distinction took hold as a means to keep something distinctive for philosophers to do, helping the scientists with their words, if you will. The iconic example to establish the plausibility of analyticity—the notion of a statement that depends for its truth only on the meanings of the words composing it—is “A bachelor is an unmarried man.” That statement is true and the shenanigans of married and unmarried men matter not a whit to that judgment. So definitions are a paradigm of the analytic, as opposed to a synthetic statement like “That rock just fell on my foot,” where you’d have to check my foot for a bruise and the vicinity for a proximal and culpable rock.

Against the atomism of trying to give an account of simples connected to experience being put together to create complexes and trying to separate out the “just language” parts from the “experience decides the truth” parts—which the project was foundering on—Quine substituted a holistic picture of our interaction with our environment:
The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. … But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole. [6]
This is, essentially, the picture that holists like Davidson, Rorty, and Robert Brandom all wish to remain loyal to. The only difference is that all three are a lot less likely to conflate what Quine elsewhere calls the “web of belief” that is described here with “total science.” With that metaphor of the self as a web of belief, Rorty and Brandom in particular take the further step of thinking of belief as Alexander Bain did—as a habit of action. [7] In this case, one of the most relevant habits of action here is the action we take to articulate a belief in words. The core idea here is that our beliefs, and the sentences we use to articulate them, mean what they do both because of their relationship to each other and the whole of them to the environing world. The use of any particular word or sentence is underdetermined by the world by itself. “Snow is white” might be true, but why use it instead of “La neige est blanche”? Both are true, but only in relationship to their home language in English or French and the world doesn’t tell you which one to use. The picture here is of a self as a kind of amoeba, whose permeable sides can be crossed in specific ways. On the inside are linguistically articulable beliefs and on the outside is the organism’s environment. [8] What Brandom calls language-entries (i.e. “perception”) and language-exists (i.e. “action”) are fundamental to how this self interacts with its environment. [9]

3.      One problem this picture has incurred is of avoiding the charge of idealism. The problem of idealism in philosophy in the last 200 years is the problem of avoiding Cartesian solipsism. Descartes inaugurated the problem by means of his radical doubt—if I can doubt everything but that I’m doubting, then at least I know that. The premise of this line of thought, of course, is that a certain primacy is given to knowing, or epistemology. Idealism, however, first got off the ground as a corollary of empiricism, not the rationalism of Descartes. Berkeley felt that the consequence of a thoroughgoing empiricism, an effort to put experience first, led to the belief that the only thing you really know then is your experience—the stuff happening in your own mind. This is the connection between empiricism and phenomenalism, the 20th century manifestation of the notion that the appearances just are the reality.

This is troubling, for it seems like admitting that the only thing you can really be sure of is in your own mind, and that is reality. Kant’s transcendental argument, about what we think of as empirical reality needing the categories of the mind, hoped to avoid this problem of idealism, so that as the old formula has it, only a transcendental idealist can be an empirical realist. But given his descendents in German Idealism, who had other agendas, idealism has remained the bugbear of realists, those who demand a robust sense of a world out there. When you look at Quine’s holistic picture, it seems nice, but realists want to know an awful lot about why there’s such radical underdetermination and how one defuses the problem of connecting to reality attendant to the relative independence of the inside of one’s web of beliefs.

4.      These are the problems Davidson concentrated some of his most original work on. For in the time between Quine’s “Two Dogmas” and Davidson’s “Very Idea,” a revolution had occurred in the philosophy of science, which given the fighting faiths of analytic philosophy was a very important subground. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962. In it Kuhn made the argument that scientific theories and experiments were elaborated within in what he called paradigms. A paradigm for Kuhn is essentially the guiding assumptions that undergird the conceptual content of those theories and experiments. [10] Given the nature of the relationship between assumptions, inferences, and conclusions, however, this means that if you change your root assumptions, it doesn’t make sense to say the old conclusions are false—you simply can’t draw them from your new assumptions. [11] Kuhn drew from this kind of consideration the conclusion that different scientific paradigms were incommensurable, that paradigm shifts in scientific activity—such as the shift from geocentric, Ptolemaic astronomy to the heliocentric, Copernican—are not logical transitions from the falsification of assumptions, but rhetorical transitions by simply replacing one set of assumptions with another. But this means, then, that proponents of alternative paradigms beg the question over each other in argument because they are working from different assumptions. Paradigms are incommensurable because from each standpoint one cannot attain a position in which to even judge whether the other is true. And thus Kuhn was led to his most regretted line, that “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” [12]

“Works in a different world”—smells just like idealism. It’s against this background that Davidson intervenes, collecting together the linguist-anthropologists Sapir and Whorf, the calm Kuhn and the fiery Feyerebend, and his mentor Quine—quoting the passage I pointed to above as the holistic picture—as all suggesting a picture of different conceptual schemes organizing a world that is otherwise a blank without such organization. The criterion that seems to be implicitly at work in all of them to tell when we actually have different conceptual schemes at work is failure of translation. This philosophical perspective then infers from this failure an inability to translate between them.

Davidson doesn’t think there’s a “between” here. He thinks that whatever the picture of language is that has given rise to what Hilary Putnam called the “cookie-cutter view of reality” is false. He calls the scheme/content distinction, that between “organizing system and something waiting to be organized,” “a dogma of empiricism”—“the third, and perhaps the last, for if we give it up it is not clear that there is anything distinctive left to call empiricism.” [13]

5.      The above should put you in a better position to read the essay. (I’m not confident enough to think it’s sufficient, but it might be a good start.) The view of Davidson articulated above is pretty much that of Richard Rorty. [14] In what follows, I’d like to close read Davidson’s conclusion in order to bring out how the above interacts with his specific mode of articulation. The final paragraph of “Very Idea” runs like this:
In giving up dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside all schemes and science, we do not relinquish the notion of objective truth—quite the contrary. Given the dogma of a dualism of scheme and reality, we get conceptual relativity, and truth relative to a scheme. Without the dogma, this kind of relativity goes by the board. Of course truth of sentences remains relative to language, but that is as objective as can be. In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but re-establish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false. [15]
As I’ve tried to suggest above, in the program of empiricism as a motivation for analysis, the idea was to reduce words to nonwords, to get back behind the complex mechanics of semantic meaning to the atomistic simples directly tied to reality or experience, the individuated things that made some sentences true and not others. If there was not some “uninterpreted reality,” empiricists thought, then we’d have no hold on reality for it would just be a morass of relativism—words pointing to words in a nightmarish Cartesian solipsism. This is empiricism itself motivated by realism. [16]

The thing to understand in this context is how this is empiricism through the looking glass of Kant. What Davidson is saying in the first two sentences might be paraphrased as “you might think that we are giving up on objectivity if we give up the idea of an uninterpreted reality and thus sink into relativism [first sentence], but it is that very idea of an ‘uninterpreted reality’ that produces the possibility of relativism.” That’s what Davidson means when he says “this kind of relativity goes by the board”—i.e., we can’t even make sense of this vulgar relativism without the dogma, so none of its considerations, objections, concerns, or arguments are relevant.

In the rest of the paragraph, then, Davidson is trying to reconstrue what we should mean by conceptual relativity and objectivity. At this point, it is important to not construe Davidson as having identified language with conceptual schemes. At the beginning of the essay, he says, “We may accept the doctrine that associates having a language with having a conceptual scheme.” [17] But what Davidson is doing at the beginning of the essay is leading us dialectically through the inside of this line of thought. We might paraphrase his mode this way: “we may accept this hypothesis about how to understand language, so if we do, this is how it would have to work...oh, it doesn’t work the way we need it to...guess we have to reject it.” (Obviously there are two points at which the mechanics of the argument might be criticized, then: whether Davidson has correctly gotten a handle on how it has to work and whether he’s identified things we need to be done by the theory.) Everything at the beginning leads up to his famous line about the third dogma. He’s attempting to show how contemporaneous discussions of “incommensurability,” then white hot because of Kuhn and Feyerabend’s explosive fight with the Popperians, run back through Quine’s gauntlet of the two dogmas, and how Quine then isn’t enough to show what the problem is with radical incommensurability of languages/schemes/vocabulary.

6.      So here’s the last two sentences again: “Of course truth of sentences remains relative to language, but that is as objective as can be. In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but re-establish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false.” To understand what Davidson is saying here I find it helpful to think of Alfred Tarski’s Convention T (which Davidson, I think, has in the back of his mind). “Claim ‘P’ is true if and only if P.” Here’s the famous example: “The claim ‘Snow is white’ is true iff snow is white.” (I’ve thrown in the shorthand of “if and only if.”) This is now sometimes called the disquotational theory/definition of truth: take off the quotes to find out what needs to be the case for the sentence to be true. (Lately this is also called the deflationary theory of truth.)

Davidson is saying here, first, what Rorty repeats in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: truth is a property that only holds in languages, between sentences (“relative to language”). So, there is a kind of relativity here, since I might say “Snow is white” or “I think snow is white” or “La neige est blanche,” all of which might say the same thing. However, these three claims are as objective as can be, Davidson thinks, because we already know how to judge their truth by the way the world is. Snow is white if snow is white; likewise, since the French use their sentence in exactly the same contexts as our English one, we can say the two sentences say exactly the same thing, talk about the same world. “I think snow is white” can express the same thing as the first two, but Tarski shows us that it might also tell us something slightly different: “The claim ‘I think snow is white’ is true iff I think snow is white.” And depending on who is using that sentence, you might come up with different answers, unlike “snow is white.” For why would we say that the claim “I think snow is white” is true tout court just because I happen to think so? (“I” is what they call an indexical, like “here” and “now”—they refer very differently depending on context, and thus can radically change truth-values.)

When Davidson says “unmediated touch,” what he’s saying here is the same as when Rorty rejects the metaphor of thinking of language as a medium. Davidson shouldn’t have said “reestablish,” for his real point is that we couldn’t possibly be in a position where we weren’t in contact with the world in such a way that our common modes of adjudicating the truth of sentences might globally be suspicious. (This the Cartesian threat of skepticism.) Rorty’s argument goes backwards to Hegel, whose attack on “immediacy” in the Phenomenology of Spirit is the first attack on the Kantian framework that Davidson is, we could say, rephrasing in the analytic idiom. [20] Rorty wants to say that language is more like an arm than it is a veil (or a map). That means “snow” is just as connected to snow as your hand.

There are a number of more general problems scared up by this discussion, most especially how we are to understand Davidson’s argument’s relationship to Kuhnian notions of radical conceptual shifts. Kuhn is ostensibly a target, so does Davidson’s argument require us to reject Kuhnian paradigm shifts? I will return to these problems.


[1] Richard Rorty, “Out of the Matrix,” Oct. 5, 2003 in the Boston Globe

[2] I should add that literary critics have not remained completely ignorant of Davidson’s work. (And putting it that way, I hasten to add, makes it sound like it’s their fault, when it isn’t. Really, it isn’t anybody’s fault—and that’s despite the tone in the body, above, where it sounds like I’m sliding blame in the direction of the philosophers. That’s a rhetoric I’ve more picked up from Rorty than I should feel entitled to. In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly tired of people complaining about how their particular hero has been “ignored” or someone else’s hero was “anticipated” by theirs—and you can probably find me making such complaints, but I’d really rather weed that out. They sound so uncouth in others, so why should I keep it up as well? In our lengthening age, who actually has time to stay abreast of everyone? Why can’t we learn to lay off the horn, and just show people why we happen to like so-and-so and leave omniscience to the gods? Scholars have an interest in promulgating a sense that there are certain things you need to know to be considered in the club—the problem is that there are a lot of different clubs now, and generally this is a good thing. I have more thoughts about this in “Do We Need a Center, or Generalities?.”) There is a very good collection of essays edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock, Literary Theory After Davidson, and though a philosopher, Samuel Wheeler III’s book, Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy, is of inestimable value for literary critics desiring an approach to Davidson because of their general familiarity with Derrida and de Man.

[3] “In Memoriam,” 318 in the International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 2006

[4] Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” 20 in his From a Logical Point of View

[5] I say “most empiricists” because many pragmatists would like to include pragmatism within the ranks of empiricism. In particular, for James and Dewey, everything was experience—they collapsed the distinction between experience and world that is needed to constitute the idea of a mind radically distinct from the world, and thus create the possibility of being out of touch with it, a problem hovering in the background of all of this. For a different version of this story about the foundation and demolition of analytic empiricism at the hands of Quine, Sellars, Davidson, and Rorty that discusses its relationship to the pre-linguistic turn maneuvers of James and Dewey, see my “Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn.”

[6] Quine, “Two Dogmas,” 42-43

[7] Brandom, as he likes to cutely point out, technically does not believe in belief. In his systematic philosophy of language, he avoids it in the official account, though provides the means of seeing how to move back and forth between various common ways of understanding the concept of “belief.” See in particular his Making It Explicit, 195-6. He’s also proud of the fact, and his Ph.D. dissertation advisor Rorty is as well, that “experience” does not appear once in that massive book, though that is tangential to the issues here.

[8] When did this web of belief become a biological construct? Sleight of hand, given that it would take me too far afoot to justify the suitability of this picture for humans, though clearly it won’t work, say, for actual amoeba who have an environment but no language. This is a problem that needs an account, and some of Brandom’s best work goes some way in justifying the analytic’s fighting faith in thinking that it’s a good idea to just avoid talking about “mind” and “experience” given how other animals probably have them and instead find a way of talking about the specific problems that arise for us language-users. Brandom calls this the demarcation problem and it is terribly important, particularly for various ecologically-minded intellectual movements, e.g. forms of “posthumanism.” (I apply this Brandomian insight to posthumanism and give the example of one particular treatment of intentionality in “Posthumanism, Antiessentialism, and Depersonalization,” sections 3-5.)

[9] Rorty gives a Davidsonian account of this kind of thing—with a picture!—in his “Non-reductive Physicalism” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth.

[10] They are much more interestingly complex than this—for example, the nature of an exemplar in Kuhn’s vocabulary points in a particularly pragmatic-attitudinal direction, as opposed to my reduction of the paradigm to a semantic-conceptual essence—but for my purposes this may suffice.

[11] Say you have an argument like this:
Assumptions: P and If P, then Q
1. P
2. If P, then Q
3 Q
This codifies in symbolic notation the inference from the two premises, (1) and (2), which are assumed to be true, to the conclusion (3). But what if you had a different set of assumptions?
Assumptions: P and R
1. P
2. R
3 …
There is no inference to be drawn from just P and R. Does that, then, make Q false? Nope—it doesn’t, in fact, say anything at all about Q or the conditional If P, then Q.

[12] Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed., 121. A new fourth edition, with a long essay by the most important philosopher-historian working after Kuhn, Ian Hacking, has recently come out, and the pagination is near-identical to the 3rd, but not quite. (Note: I’m not counting Foucault in that evaluation because he worked out of a different tradition than Kuhn. Interestingly, however, Hacking is the heir of both Kuhn and Foucault, being one of the earliest and still most cogent commentators and appreciators of Foucault’s project.) There are significant differences in pagination from the 3rd to the earlier ones.

[13] Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” in Inquires into Truth and Interpretation, 189

[14] One of Rorty’s more infamous essays, “The World Well Lost” (in Consequences of Pragmatism), is in fact an excited extrapolation of the argument Davidson makes in “Very Idea,” except that Rorty published it a year before Davidson got around to publishing his. (Rorty, similarly to Kuhn, later regretted the rhetoric of that essay.) Rorty’s most thorough treatment of what he takes the importance of Davidson to be is his “Pragmatism, Davidson, and Truth” (in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth).

[15] “Very Idea,” 198

[16] In Note 5, I suggested that James and Dewey considered themselves empiricists of a different stripe, and talking about motivation—the connections and relative priority given to different doctrines—is another way of articulating kinds of difference within camps marked out by isms. For example, one might think of James and Dewey as empiricists who aren’t realists and Davidson and Brandom as kinds of post-linguistic turn, analytic philosophers who are neither empiricists nor realists.

[17] “Very Idea,” 184

[18] See CIS 4-5

[19] See CIS, Ch. 1, esp. 10-13

[20] An earlier important attack on immediacy in the Hegelian tradition was Sellars’s in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.”

1 comment:

  1. Hi Matt, further to our good discussion on this topic a while back, I finally got around to reading Rorty's PMN and was pleased to see his comment (35) on Chapter VI Philosophy of Language: "Unfortunately Davidson in that paper misinterprets Kuhn as meaning "untranslatable" by "incommensurable"." If you recall, that is exactly what I concluded after reading the essay.


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