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On Davidson's "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" (1974) and Carnap's "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology" (1950).
What does it mean to say that we grasp the world through a conceptual scheme? Are schemes different between cultures or even individuals, such that we can't really understand each other? Davidson thinks that this doesn't make sense: For schemes to be really different and not just something like different coordinate systems that can be used to map a single plane, it has to be the case that you can't translate one scheme's concepts to concepts in the other scheme. But Davidson thinks total lack of translatability is incoherent: Just to be able to describe what the differences are between two sets of concepts means you're describing the foreign concepts in your own language, i.e., translating them. If a language were wholly untranslatable, we'd have to judge it not a language at all. The issue of partial untranslatability is more complicated, and we are rejoined by Lawrence "Dusty" Dallman (from our Sellars episode, which is relevant to Davidson's reasoning here) to help us disentangle the arguments and decide whether Davidson has characterized schemers like Thomas Kuhn plausibly.
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Davidson image by Charles Valsechi.
Love this type of topic. Please do more Davidson eventually and bring back Dusty.
while we wait for more DD
‘4.3 The ‘Third Dogma’ of Empiricism
Davidson’s rejection of the idea of an untranslatable language (and the associated idea, also common to many forms of conceptual relativism, of a radically different, and so ‘incommensurable’ system of belief) is part of a more general argument that he advances (notably in ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’) against the so-called ‘third dogma’ of empiricism. The first two dogmas are those famously identified by Quine in ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (first published in the Philosophical Review, in 1951). The first is that of reductionism (the idea that, for any meaningful statement, it can be recast in the language of pure sensory experience, or, at least, in terms of a set of confirmatory instances), while the second is the analytic-synthetic distinction (the idea that, with respect to all meaningful statements, one can distinguish between statements that are true in virtue of their meaning and those that are true in virtue of both their meanings and some fact or facts about the world). The rejection of both these dogmas can be seen as an important element throughout Davidson’s thinking. The third dogma, which Davidson claims can still be discerned in Quine’s work (and so can survive the rejection even of the analytic-synthetic distinction), consists in the idea that one can distinguish within knowledge or experience between a conceptual component (the ‘conceptual scheme’) and an empirical component (the ‘empirical content’) — the former is often taken to derive from language and the later from experience, nature or some form of ‘sensory input’. While there are difficulties in even arriving at a clear formulation of this distinction (particularly so far as the nature of the relation between the two components is concerned), such a distinction depends on being able to distinguish, at some basic level, between a ‘subjective’ contribution to knowledge that comes from ourselves and an ‘objective’ contribution that comes from the world. What the Davidsonian account of knowledge and interpretation demonstrates, however, is that no such distinction can be drawn. Attitudes are already interconnected — causally, semantically and epistemically — with objects and events in the world; while knowledge of self and others already presupposes knowledge of the world. The very idea of a conceptual scheme is thus rejected by Davidson along with the idea of any strong form of conceptual relativism. To possess attitudes and be capable of speech is already to be capable of interpreting others and to be open to interpretation by them.”
That was like music. You guys have a great band with Dusty in the mix. Your thoughts and voices were so fluid and connected. I am also excited about this five part series. Would like to see a more frequently updated Upcoming Episode section. This episode fits in nicely with a great book that just came out from the excellent philosopher Herman Cappelen called “Fixing Language: An Essay on Conceptual Engineering.”
Wes Alwan says
Nathan Harvey says
I feel this is one of those areas where formal semantics really shines in providing the right lines of clarity. In formal semantics, there is a distinction between a language (symbols and signs with structural syntax) and theories in the language (collections of axioms and rules of inference that provide the logical calculus of a worldview). Meaning is something you provide to a theory – you give it a model that interprets it’s logical structure.
It seems Davidson regularly shifts loosely between a language and it’s theories and so makes numerous mistakes that your commentary was helping illustrate. There are obviously different theories. There are many theories that cannot be intertranslated – and it is theories that we are talking about when we are discussing translation because that’s what has meaning to be interpreted. You mention different axioms in different ways – perceptual absences like blindness and deafness, areas of applicability like scientific theories (and you explicitly pointed to theories).
In the formal setting, Davidson is just wrong. It just doesn’t work that way.
Informally, I think those same kind of arguments also have strength. It just needs to be pointed out that this crux of “one experience” that so much philosophy derives on is totally not necessary in the ways that Davidson and others often rely. The idea that we couldn’t have a language if we didn’t perfectly share one reality or one experience (depending on your metaphysical and phenomenological orientation) is also just wrong. Correlation is sufficient. Again there is a formal reason that this is true, but the informal argument relies on this oneness for it’s intertranslatability assertion in a way that is ultimately even informally untrue.
Wes Alwan says
Thanks for this Nathan–very interesting.
Nick Halme says
Re: Inuit words for snow.
My understanding is that this is not a case of a culture giving more weight to an environmental factor that is more important to them, but rather it’s the nature of the language group that compound phrases are achieved not through separate words but through new suffixes for root words. That is, given such a different language schema, they also have a preponderance of different single words for other things that English must describe with several words – such as trees, the sky, etc.
This translatability is apparent when English speakers describe the difference, e.g. “The Inuit have a specific word for packed snow.” Here the English speaker is using the English equivalent “packed snow” to accurately understand the concept described – it’s just that since English speakers can’t conceive of a root word being modified by new suffixes as being the equivalent of a sentence fragment, they instead attribute some more essentialist meaning to the atomistic Inuit words. That is, the English speaker oddly applies the rules of their own language to the Inuit language – but what it means for the Inuit to have this many “words” for a thing, is not the equivalent of what it would mean to have that many words for a thing in English.