Random thoughts on random topics


Uninterpreted content

One question that keeps coming back is what a practice based approach (such as Wittgenstein’s and Schatzki’s) has to offer over and above what Davidson’s appeal to Charity accomplishes. And there are good reasons to ask this question, if only because the Charity principle does seem to lend itself to formal modelling, unlike a practice based view.

The answer can be given in two ways (but it is basically the same answer): ‘uninterpreted content’, and ‘learning’. Participation in a practice originates from a point outside the practice, and a characterisation of what it  means to be a participant minimally has to allow for an account of how one becomes one. When the practice is linguistic, -one that involves interpretation-, this involves an account of the transition of the non-linguistic to the linguistic realm, and hence includes a specification of the role of uninterpreted content.

On both counts the Davidsonian approach does not seem to do well: the participants in radical interpretation are autonomous and fully competent, but how they became that way is left in the dark. (Meredith Williams in ‘Wittgenstein and Davidson on the sociality of language’ also voices for criticism along these lines.) In particular, the essentially linguistic nature (in the sense of being linguistically expressible) of what they bring to bear on the task (beliefs, desires, and other attitudes) seems to be an obstacle: there is no role for uninterpreted content here.

Another point that speaks in favour of the learning approach is that it suggests that it is not just the transition from the pre-verbal to the verbal stage that is at stake, but that learning is a continuous process. Hence, ‘teacher’ and ‘pupil’ are really indications of functions, of roles, and even during our days as ‘competent’ speakers of a language we play both roles. If we encounter a new phrase, or one that is used in a new way, we may adopt the role of ‘pupil’ and try to learn what the new meaning is. Or we may adopt the ‘teacher’ role and try to correct the other’s usage. What role we choose depends on a number of factors: our concern with successful communication in this instance, our estimate of the abilities of the other language user, social relations, our emotional attitudes towards the other, and so on.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2009