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


  1. Thanks for this clear exposition of Davidson! Of all philosophers I have read, Davison has been the most difficult for me. I still don’t quite get his anomolous monism after reading his paper several times.

    You said that Davison suggests that to accept a conceptual scheme is to take it as being true. Does this relate to, if I remember correctly, his idea that there can be no completely untranslatable language because in order for something to be a language it must have a concept of truth, akin to ours?


  2. unless, of course, you are a post-Deweyan pragmatist, in which case you ask not is this conceptual scheme ‘true’ (and I must confess I cannot understand how it could be possible for concepts to be true in the strict sense, because their meaning only arises analytically, ie not synthetically,and holographically as they partake in a system of concepts) but you ask, is this conceptual scheme useful for resolving the puzzles arising now in feedback-directed practical action against an historical-cognitive background of expectations?

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  3. What are we to make of this? It has a few amusing shots eg “The trouble
    is, as so often in philosophy, it is hard to improve intelligibility
    while retaining the excitement” or “Since there is at most one world,
    these pluralities are metaphorical or merely imagined”, or “How would
    you organize the Pacific Ocean? Straighten out its shores, perhaps,
    or relocate its islands,or destroy its fish”, or “As philosophers we
    are peculiarly tolerant of systematic malapropism, and practised at
    interpreting the result”. I do like the ambition
    of giving solid meaning to the idea.

    But “unmediated touch?” I’m afraid the “direct perception” movement in
    psychology is generally recognised as having failed. And conceptual
    schema are either true or false? Surely they are either more or less
    successful in predicting what the world throws up (“all models are wrong,
    but some are useful”). And “My skin is warm” has so much baggage (and
    so many facts) attached to it, that are essential to me to understand it.
    In his yawl/ketch example, in practice we would have a dialogue where
    we test our own understanding of the other’s concepts.

    As for translation: “He who translates is a heretic but he who refuses
    to translate is a blasphemer”. 😉

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  4. Very clear as usual!!

    It is absolutely true. My skin also feels warm and I have a slight headache. The obvious question is who cares other than those who already care for me? No one feels what I feel. These are private truths.

    The realm of public truth is so much more complicated as you amply demonstrate. However, I am not aware of any public pursuit of truth that does not (try to) proceed in an organized, systematic and structured way.

    Could it be that the realist/idealist divide is just a symptom of the public/private divide?

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  5. Hi Dan, ok I am going to admit confusion…

    “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.”

    I don’t see how the second sentence is true at all. Ok, I admit I have yet to read Davidson’s piece (and have not read him before). Of course, given your ability to channel Wittgenstein who is wholly opaque to me, I trust this account is just (if not more) useful than the original text.

    While I do not agree with Quine’s arguments to the point that I would reject realism, I am not particularly satisfied with this way out of the problem he poses.

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  6. Statements, yes. Not the same thing as concepts, though. But Davidson doesn’t say ‘true’, does he, it is called the ‘principle of charity’ because it is about treating what people say as if it were true – subjunctive not indicative. Not a statement about the truth of what they say, but something more like an undischarged assumption of truth. That is how I read him, anyway.


  7. Oh, and as for concepts, much the same charity must apply or you could not find someone’s speech to be even partially intelligible, but the issue for concepts is still not a truth issue, it is an issue of usefulness, even if many conceptualists it in terms of concept and object, to borrow from Quine.


  8. DanK:

    “It’s connected to Davidson’s argument that in order to understand another person, one has to presume that most of their statements are true.”


    One of my favorite passages from this piece by Davidson:

    “Since charity is not an option, but a condition of a workable theory, it is meaningless to suggest we might fall into massive error by endorsing it. Until we have successfully established a systematic correlation of sentences held true with sentences held true, there are no mistakes to make.”

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  9. dbholmes: I don’t know that I understand your question. Where is there any invocation of “facts” or “the world” or “experience” in his formulation? That snow is white is the reason that “snow is white” is true. One can thus characterize the truth of the sentence without saying that it is true because it “corresponds to the facts” or “fits the totality of experience” or the like.

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  10. dbholmes: In this essay — which I should mention, with respect to some of the other commentators, is quite influential — Davidson really is criticizing both sides of the conceptual relativists toolbox: the notion of conceptual schemes as organizers/systematizers and the notion of some *thing* — “the world”; “the facts”; “experience” as the thing organized/systematized. This “scheme/content” distinction, Davidson believes, is a “third dogma of empiricism” , alongside the analytic/synthetic distinction and the idea that individual statements carry their own confirmation conditions.


  11. Dan,

    I think I’m having the same problem as dbholmes.

    Do you mean that Davidson says that “snow is white” is true because snow is white and not because of ‘breakdowns’ like for example:

    The meaning of “snow” + the meaning of “is” + the meaning of “white” produces a concept that corresponds to what we sense is the case therefore the statement “snow is white” is a true statement.


  12. Davidson has what is called a “compositional truth theory” but not a compositional meaning theory. Indeed, he eschews meanings altogether. The canonical paper is “Truth and Meaning.”

    But I must admit that I don’t get what this has to do with whether or not we need any notion of “facts” over and above the specific particularities and generalities that we normally speak of.


  13. Hi Dan, I guess my problem is that I can’t help seeing the statement “my skin is warm” as requiring reference to experiences (at the very least), with potential correspondence to a “world” (at its best), with “facts” being a qualitative assessment (whether theoretical or practical).

    I don’t want to use the “snow is white” example since color adds a layer of complexity I don’t want to get into yet. Let me offer another example, which I think better highlights the issues involved (as I see it): the blind men and the elephant.

    I’m sure you know it but for those who don’t, the consistent idea through all such tales is that there are a group of blind men who are asked to describe what an elephant is ( I’ll make my own version with just three men. One touches its leg and says “It is a tree”. Another touches its trunk and says “It is a snake”. And the last touches its side and says ”It is a wall.” Or we can simplify it to “It is thick and hard”, “it is long and soft”, and “it is wide and firm”, respectively.

    Now most truth claims involve trying to describe something to someone else (this is true for both examples you have used). The blind men example seems to set up the issue in a better context. Let’s say we don’t know what an elephant is either.

    1) Don’t the claims made by each of the men relate to an experience they are having? If not, what is it their words are referring to?

    2) Doesn’t a resolution of the different experiences they are relating, require a notion that there is some common element which can bind all together in a consistent way? A “fact” about a “world” (or perhaps the “world of experience”) with which each is interacting in a limited fashion… Or is it satisfactory to say “an elephant is a tree/snake/wall” and there is nothing else to/about an elephant?

    3) How should we (or more importantly the blind men) treat the statement of a so-called “sighted” man who says “It is one large animal, and you are all grabbing separate parts which have those separate properties/resemblances”?


  14. Like dbholmes I am still at a loss.
    That “Snow is white” is true IFF —- is —–.
    HERE there is no reference to a fact, a world, an experience, or a piece of evidence.
    What of snow illuminated by light of a very limited wavelength or in utter darkness. To be snow it must be water frozen under the constraint of Earth’s gravity, to be white it must reflect light of all wavelengths and the linguistic expression of this concept is only “true” in its contemporary meaning in English, that’s all. God is true IFF God is true. I just don’t understand how one can prove THE truth of A truth in its “words”.
    “All swans are white” became false when black ones were *seen.*.
    No “fact” is “true” except in proportion to a “real” existence, “Real” being no more and no less than its repeatable likelihood based on past experience whose external existence is unprovable absolutely. All we know (and conjecture) of dinosaurs is only upheld by the *present* evidence of a *past* reality. Science is a means of establishing this kind of “truth” but even the best of scientific knowledge can do no better than high likelihood. As firm evidence diminishes so it becomes reasonable inference and less experimental scientific theory and more imaginative philosophic theory -and eventually “faith”.


  15. I see Davidson’s mention of malapropisms expands in A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs. His idea of a “passing theory” does seem to be of a conceptual schema of sorts.

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  16. David,

    Interesting stuff. If anyone wants to read it:

    In his essay “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, philosopher Donald Davidson suggests that malapropisms reveal something about how people process the meanings of words. He argues that language competence must not simply involve learning a set meaning for each word, and then rigidly applying those semantic rules to decode other people’s utterances. ***Rather, he says, people must also be continually making use of other contextual information to interpret the meaning of utterances, and then modifying their understanding of each word’s meaning based on those interpretations.*** -Wikipedia

    This essay argues that in linguistic communication, nothing corresponds to a linguistic competence as summarized by the three principles of first meaning in language: that first meaning is systematic, first meanings are shared, and first meanings are governed by learned conventions or regularities. ***There is no such a thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language users acquire and then apply to cases, as well as the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions.*** -Oxford review


  17. In any case, there is a great deal of evidence that meaning is ampliative..ampliative of any already roughly overlapping conventional/dictionary definitions, but since those definitions are systemically related to other definitions which in turn employ other definitions (as a short glance at a dictionary reveals (ie dictionary words define each other in ever widening gyrs of connection), meaning is not a condition, it is an momentary, ever shifting accomplishment somewhat similar to tracking a lion through the savannah.
    But don’t take my word for it. Look at recent research using real time brain scans of people listening to fairy stories, each word evokes responses on stochastic trees of related words, on other cross-connected trees, through antonyms, denotations, connotations, across into areas of the brain that govern movement in speech, and back to emotional centres, and between dictionary like areas and the visual cortex, and back and forth again, in patterns of holographic connection that display many similarities in culturally similar subjects, but even there show slight to significant differences between subjects. Which all makes sense, since other brain function research strongly suggests there is no cognition without feeling, and that you cannot not think of (and see) an elephant when one is mentioned. But which elephant one might well ask. The one that frightened you when you were three on your first visit to the zoo? Or maybe a kindly, unthreatening cartoon character? The researchers are now moving on to do the same work with culturally different subjects, and in areas of words that carry more of the freight of human differences, politics etc. no doubt we will see them move beyond simple narrative to speech genres that have more performative freight (shades of speech acts etc).

    In other words, If Davison is still alive, he must be wondering about this science stuff. He might well say, ” Let the scientists work it out, I will move on to other problems that the scientific party-poopers haven’t taken all the fun out of!”


  18. Excuse my grumpiness today, but it should be a rule that “Don’t take my word for it” must be followed by a citation or citations, or other precise indications of where to look — not by your little summary.

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  19. Perhaps this is more of a “provocation” than a response to the thread.

    The various conversations within philosophy tend to be like Islands named for famous  philosophers of the past. They don’t tend (to the extent science does) to emerge into a robust unity. The more solid Sciences have downplayed the ism’s and have a sort of communal consciousness of some solid external reality. In physics, we have a total or near total absence of conversations about Einsteinians or Einsteinism and Heisenburgers or Heisenburgism. There are instead conversations about waves and particles and gravitational force or the geometry of the cosmos. In philosophy any consciousness of a shared percept that all are trying to situate themselves with respect to is extremely feeble.

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  20. Mark Levesque wrote ‘In his essay “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, philosopher Donald Davidson …” – I have a book I haven’t looked at in a while called “A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour”. I wonder if they’re related, or if both refer back to something earlier. I do rather love academic title combinatorics.


  21. Hi, Hal Morris,

    Like your comment about science and philosophy, and I do not mean to denigrate philosophy when I say that in some domains at least it tends to behave like the Popes, giving ground grudgingly to science, sometimes hundreds of years too late. You could say of Davidson’s accounts, penetrating though they are in some ways, that the conversations described in them are not real-world conversations, which conversational linguistics shows to be multifunctional, contextually reflexive, semantically accumulative, genre-shaped etc…as I said, when seeking to explain how meaning happens, you are like someone tracking a wild beast on the savannah, you are following a moving, intention-bearing, seeking to eat you target. Or perhaps like the moves of your opponent in a chess game. Maybe replicating Ruiz-Lopez for a while, and then going off into the wilds of billions of variations. Why is he/she moving that there?What does that move mean? Derrida was at least half right about ever retreating meaning.

    best wishes,

    my grandkids sometimes call me…



  22. “passing theory” appears here as a “conceptual pact”:
    keyword: “experimental semiotics”
    How can we understand each other during communicative interactions? An influential suggestion holds that communicators are primed by each other’s behaviors, with associative mechanisms automatically coordinating the production of communicative signals and the comprehension of their meanings. An alternative suggestion posits that mutual understanding requires shared conceptualizations of a signal’s use, i.e., “conceptual pacts” that are abstracted away from specific experiences [they cite Wittgenstein. PI]. Both accounts predict coherent neural dynamics across communicators, aligned either to the occurrence of a signal or to the dynamics of conceptual pacts. Using coherence spectral-density analysis of cerebral activity simultaneously measured in pairs of communicators, this study shows that establishing mutual understanding of novel signals synchronizes cerebral dynamics across communicators’ right temporal lobes. This interpersonal cerebral coherence occurred only within pairs with a shared communicative history, and at temporal scales independent from signals’ occurrences. These findings favor the notion that meaning emerges from shared conceptualizations of a signal’s use.

    The phrase “conceptual pact” seems to go back only to Brennan and Clark (1996) who quote:

    In another study, pairs of people in conversation referred to the same abstract geometric form variously as “the rice bag,” “the whale,” “the complacent one,” “the stretched-out stop sign,” and “the baby in a straitjacket”.

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