Davidson, Donald (1917–2003)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 20, 2018, from

9. Conceptual schemes

In ‘On the Very Idea Of a Conceptual Scheme’ (1984), Davidson argues that no good sense can be made of the idea that different people, communities, cultures or periods view, conceptualize, or make the world (or their worlds) in different ways; or of the distinction between conceptual scheme and empirical content. He associates conceptual schemes with sets of intertranslatable languages (1984: 191). Different conceptual schemes then correspond to non-intertranslatable languages. He then argues that it is hard to make sense of a total failure of translatability between languages (1984: 185). No one could be in a position to judge that others had concepts or beliefs radically different from their own (1984: 197).

In part, Davidson holds this view both because strong pressures arise from the very nature of radical interpretation (RI) and because ‘all understanding of the speech of another involves radical interpretation’ (1984: 125). Since RI, and therefore, all interpretation, has a holistic character, it makes no sense to ascribe a single belief to a person except against the background of a very large number of other beliefs. Furthermore, ‘belief is in its nature veridical’. That it is so, can be seen ‘by considering what determines the existence and contents of a belief’ (1986: 432). It all comes back to Davidson’s views about the conditions of correct attribution of beliefs and other propositional attitudes, that is, the possibility of RI. In interpreting another, an interpreter ventures hypotheses as to what in the circumstances in question causes the speaker to hold-true the sentence in question and this is supposed to provide them (normally) with the meaning of that sentence. In every case there will be many different causal chains leading to the same utterance. An interpreter must choose one cause and does so by responding to something in the environment (‘triangulating’) and so converging on something that is a common cause both of their own response and of the utterance of the speaker, thereby correlating the two and thus giving content of the speaker’s utterances (Davidson 1991: 159–60).

One immediate consequence is that an RI cannot find speakers to have beliefs if they themselves have no opinion as to their general truth and falsity. Given what beliefs are and how their contents are determined on this story, Davidson is committed to its being impossible that all a person’s beliefs about the world might be false. An RI must therefore have beliefs about the world in order to succeed in ascribing beliefs about the world to others. But they also must find that others – if they have beliefs at all – largely agree with them in those beliefs. If Davidson is right, then the crucial aspect of his theory of RI is the importance of causality in determining what someone means or believes. We cannot ‘in general fix what someone means independently of what he believes and independently of what caused the belief…. The causality plays an indispensable role in determining the content of what we say and believe’ (Davidson 1986: 435). So, it is the central role of causation in the fixing of the contents of beliefs that ensures the truth of everything we believe is not in general ‘logically independent’ of having those very beliefs; and that others cannot differ too much from us about what it is they believe. The way in which the contents of beliefs are determined puts limits on the extent of falsity and diversity discriminable in a coherent set of beliefs. The method of RI ‘enforces’ on any successful interpreter the conclusion that a speaker’s beliefs are largely true and largely like their own. Thus, the possibility of global scepticism is ruled out.

Citing this article:
Lepore, Ernie. Conceptual schemes. Davidson, Donald (1917–2003), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.