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