Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Davidson and rationality

I discovered that the library has a full set of the videos of "In Conversation: Donald Davidson" which consists of 19 tapes of one-on-one and panel discussions with Davidson and other philosophers. I've now watched almost all the ones that I want to watch. A few things struck me which I will comment on over the course of a few days. First was who Davidson talked about and who he didn't. There was a lot of talk of Quine, Wittgenstein and Sellars. The first two didn't surprise me but the last one did. I didn't get any Sellars as an undergrad but I'm coming to appreciate his work. The person that he didn't mention at all that surprised me was Kripke, apart from saying that he preferred Tarski's truth theory to Kripke's because it is more elegant by his lights and a brief mention of the rule-following puzzle. Maybe this just illustrates how overstated the importance of the development of rigid designators is.

The discussion with McDowell focused in large part on the importance of rationality, or the constitutive nature of rationality. McDowell asked whether we should retrospectively read this idea into the early pieces on truth and interpretation since it wasn't expressed until the coherence theory of knowledge paper. (I'll have to doublecheck that.) Davidson said it should be. He went on to say that the principle of charity was basically one way of stating the constitutive nature of rationality. Interpretation as a whole is trying to take what people say and organize them in a systematic fashion so that they ellicit a certain pattern. This pattern is the sort of inferntial links between various sentences that is distinctive of a rational mind. This, he goes on to say, is how we get to know other minds; we look for things that fall into this pattern in what other beings say and do. It also connects up with the paper on conceptual schemes. Davidson denies that there could be conceptual schemes that are uninterpretable by us yet still be thoughts becasue in order for something to count as a conceptual scheme, it has to have a certain structure. McDowell describes it as a way of telling what is a reason for what, which is a reformulation of the constitutive idea of rationality. If something has a way of telling what is a reason for what that we can understand as near enough to our own (providing some wiggle room) then we can attribute that thing rationality and thought. If we can't interpret it in that way, then it doesn't count as thinking. Why not? Because the concept of thought is our concept and so it is linked to our conceptual scheme. Something can't count as thinking unless we can count it as thinking because we have no way to get outside our conceptual scheme to check, so to speak, that it has some alien conception of thought. This seems like a kind of conceptual perspectivalism, that is, our concepts are what we are stuck with and it is not possible to grasp concepts which are in principle unintelligible to us. Maybe "perspectivialism" isn't quite the best word for it, but that was the thought that struck me when I heard it.

The discussion also cleared up the article on reference that I had trouble making sense of before. Davidson said that the truth theory sets up certain demands that require us to break sentences into words. We have to assign referents to these words, thereby setting up a relation of reference and satisfaction. These are governed by the demand that they ultimately allow for the attribution of rationality if interpretation is successful. We have to come up with a relation of reference, but it is not unique. There could be multiple such relations as long as each one preserves the structure of rationality and supports the truth theory. The relation of satisfaction involved then mixes objective parts (from the word-world connections) with normative parts (from the demands of rationality). That makes the article seem much more sensible.

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