Davidson on Conceptual Schemes and Relativism

Donald Davidson's "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" (1974) is widely considered one of the most path-breaking papers in twentieth-century philosophy. In critiquing the idea of a fundamental split between organizing concepts and organized data, Davidson joins Wittgenstein and Sellars in the canon of contemporary anti-empiricists. His work also bears complex relations with postmodernism and neo-pragmatism.

On Davidson’s reconstruction, the picture of multiple conceptual schemes, widely found plausible by thinkers working through the difficulties of translation, posits the reality of an entity or kind of entity that is not actually necessary to make sense of truth, interpretation, and translation. What gets posited is a kind of field or neutral space—or, in more classical terminology, matter—on which or in reference to which different languages may be compared with each other. As it turns out, the difficulties involved here are formidable.

Davidson steers his arguments into what sounds like radical territory: on the picture that makes best sense of semantic truth, “there is no reference to a fact, a world, an experience, or a piece of evidence.” What we are left with, when evaluating statements for truth and falsity, are simply the statements themselves (variously interpretable), the people asserting them, and the situations in which those assertions are held to be called for. This throws us into the game of giving and asking for reasons; it in no way slights the presence and relevance of sensory evidence, insisting merely that the evidence is fundamentally something to which we make appeals rather than something that is just “there”, waiting for us to seize on it.

One entailment is that we never judge another person's language to be completely incommensurable with our own; perhaps paradoxically, we improve our grasp of disconnects and disagreements between two languages only by maximizing the area of acknowledged agreement. Cases of partial, apparent, or temporary incommensurability make sense only against a background of massive agreement, which must therefore be assumed when struggling to interpret even the most alien linguistic performances.

The paper is available in various places online, none of them perfectly convenient. One of the more convenient is in this searchable PDF: www.uruguaypiensa.org.uy/andocasociado.aspx?417,960


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  • Ivan

    Sorry to have missed this! Had to work late. :(

    December 5, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Not going to get out of work in time, sorry.

    December 5, 2013

  • Scott

    Sadly I'm not going to be able to make this one after all. I've just got too much stuff to finish up Thursday night. But I'd love to make a few comments on this old chestnut.

    There's a sense in which everything Davidson says in The Very Idea is perfectly right. We cannot make much sense, at least in a positive respect, of the possibility of a set of languages which are completely mutually incomprehensible; and in the case of more localized failures of interpretation we tend simply to muddle through as best we can, and the recourse to a grand theory of relativized linguistic viewpoints really provides no help at all. But I have to ask whether this is at all getting at the problems expressed by phrases like "differences between conceptual schemes," "pre- and post-revolutionary paradigms," etc.. Let me try to say what I mean.

    December 4, 2013

    • Scott

      Davidson assumes that conceptual schemes are tantamount to languages (English, etc.), thus that relations between them are tantamount to linguistic translations. But I'm pretty sure this can't be right. Schematic (mis)match is not akin to translating a sentence from Inuit into English. Instead, take a question like: "What are you seeing right now?" One could answer: "clouds," "a storm on the way," "a natural setting," "water vapor," "white patches on blue." All of these are in the same language, no one would have trouble understanding them, and in their own ways each makes sense as a response - and yet they are not equivalent. *We* can make sense of them all, i.e. there is no question of *our* misinterpreting them, yet each seems to operate within a totally different picture from the others. And this, I take it, is the real puzzle of "conceptual schemes" - not that we understand too little but that we understand *too much* and we don't know how to get our understandings to square.

      December 4, 2013

  • jerryvp

    I'll be out of town. This from Donald Brown in his Human Universals (p. 154)...

    Although they were sent into the field with the charge of getting the whole picture, so that they could come back relieved of parochial views and thus tell the world what people are really like, anthropologists have failed to give a true report of their findings. They have dwelt on the differences between peoples while saying too little about the similarities (similarities that they rely upon at every turn in order to do their work). At the same time, anthropologists have exaggerated the importance of social and cultural conditioning, and have, in effect, projected an image of humanity marked by little more than empty but programmable minds. These are distortions that [...] profoundly affect our thoughts about ourselves and the conduct of our own affairs.

    November 21, 2013

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