Course Notes – Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”
By Daniel A. Kaufman
Well, we’ve arrived at the last set of Course Notes for the Knowledge and Reality course I taught this past Spring. I look forward to picking the series up again, with the upper-division Aesthetics course I will be teaching in the Fall.
In our last installment, we talked about Quine’s account of conceptual and ontological relativity, which has had a profound effect on the larger Realist/Anti-Realist debate. The Realist, of course, believes (a) that the world exists independently of us – that is, independently of our thoughts – and (b) that there is a way that world is, independent of our conceptions of it. The pursuit of knowledge, then, is understood as an effort to paint a picture that corresponds to the way that reality independently is.
Quine seemed to render all of that problematic. When we refer to or speak of things, we do so under a particular conceptual scheme, one that includes ways of counting, sorting, individuating, and the like. There may be indefinitely many such conceptual schemes, all of them equally consistent with the totality of the evidence we have and even the totality of facts in the world: everything that is a rabbit is also a set of undetached rabbit parts is also a time-slice-of-rabbit. Thus, not only is what one refers to relative to a conceptual scheme, what exists is also relative to a conceptual scheme, which is why Quine says, as I noted last time: “What makes sense is to say not what the objects of a theory are, absolutely speaking, but how one theory of objects is interpretable or reinterpretable in another.” (1) To say of the world that it exists and that there is some way it is, independently of our conceptual schemes, then, looks to be hopeless.
Or So One Might Think. One of the wonderful – and infuriating – things about philosophy is that one can be absolutely convinced that an argument is airtight, incontrovertible, utterly convincing, devastating, and then, after reading just one essay, find oneself doubting all of it. Donald Davidson’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” is such an essay, and while it really doesn’t offer any kind of systematic account or theory or even a persistent line of argument, it makes a number of powerful points that threaten to cut the legs out from under the idea of conceptual and ontological relativity and thus, the conceptual relativist critique of realism. But Realists should not take too much heart. If Davidson’s ultimate position is correctly characterized as a Realist one – and I’m not at all sure it is – it is only a Realism of the thinnest, naivest sort. Cheap Realism. Unavoidable Realism. No-choice-but Realism. But hardly the Realism that Realists want.
Notice that Quine’s arguments – and arguments like it that one finds in places such as Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking – rely on a number of key ideas.
A. The idea of a language so alien that it might be incommensurable with our own.
B. The idea of a conceptual scheme as an organizing system.
C. The idea of a “thing” being organized, whether “the world,” “experience,” or “the facts.”
With respect to each of these, Davidson offers a number of points in opposition. The essay is quite difficult, so I will do my best to provide an accurate sketch of each of these points.
A.’ Anything that is evidence that a language is untranslatable into or incommensurable with our own is evidence that it isn’t a language at all. “Nothing…,” Davidson says, “could count as evidence that some form of activity could not be interpreted in our language that was not at the same time evidence that form of activity was not speech behavior.” (2)
Of course, most Relativists and Anti-Realists do not posit complete incommensurability, but refer, more modestly, to a kind of substantial difference. The point, however, remains essentially the same: it only makes sense to speak of difference against a broad background of common understanding and agreement. As Davidson points out:
Whorf, wanting to demonstrate that Hopi incorporates a metaphysics so alien to ours that Hopi and English cannot, as he puts it, “be calibrated,” uses English to convey the contents of sample Hopi sentences. Kuhn is brilliant at saying what things were like before the revolution using — what else? — our postrevolutionary idiom. (3)
B.’ The idea of “organizing” or “systematizing” something presupposes that this something already has parts or components. One cannot organize or arrange a single object, such as “the world” or “experience.” “Someone who sets out to organize a closet arranges the things in it,” Davidson explains. “If you are told not to organize the shoes and shirts, but the closet itself, you would be bewildered.” (4)
Of course, if “the world” and “experience” must already have structure in order to be “organized” or “systematized,” then conceptual schemes cannot bear the relationship to them that Relativists and Anti-Realists allege they do.
C.’ While B.’ already makes trouble for the idea of some unconceptualized “world” or “experience” or “facts” waiting to be organized or systematized, Davidson goes even further in undermining the supposed objects to which conceptual schemes are allegedly applied.
We speak of conceptual schemes as organizing or “systematizing” “the world,” “experience” or “the facts,” and presumably, one way of weighing them – judging one against another – is with respect to how well they do this. On what other grounds, after all, would one decide that one conceptual scheme – or even one theory — is better than another? But as Davidson observes, it is unclear what a notion of “the world” or “experience” or “the facts” adds to our capacity to evaluate conceptual schemes. To accept a conceptual scheme is to say that it is true. To reject it is to say that it is false. But one need invoke neither “the world” nor “experience” nor “the facts” in order to say this. Davidson writes:
Nothing … no thing, makes sentences and theories true: not experience, not surface irritations, not the world, can make a sentence true. That experience takes a certain course, that our skin is warmed or punctured, that the universe is finite, these facts, if we like to talk that way, make sentences and theories true. But this point is put better without mention of facts. The sentence “My skin is warm” is true if and only if my skin is warm. Here there is no reference to a fact, a world, an experience, or a piece of evidence. (5)
(1) W.V.O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity,”p. 201.
(2) Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” p. 7.
(3) Ibid., p. 6.
(4) Ibid., p. 14.
(5) Ibid., p. 16.
Categories: Course Notes