Random thoughts on random topics

Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Davidson on rationality and the transcendental status of Charity

What is it that strikes one as problematic about Davidson’s appeal to rationality? Is it the apparently metaphysical status of the concept as it plays a role in Davidson’s work, or does it concern the content of the concept that he uses? (In the latter case, how does that differ from the kind of appeal to rationality that is inherent in, e.g., Popper’s approach in terms of falsifiability? Isn’t that another application of a conception of rationality?) 

As for the qualms that many people have about the Kantian, transcendental status of Charity: it is certainly true that one can raise objections to the kind of transcendental analysis that Davidson’s use of Charity seems to instantiate. But we should ask ourselves whether the alternative theories are really theories about the same phenomenon, or whether perhaps a shift takes place when we drop the appeal to transcendental notions. For example, one may argue that a consequentialist in ethics `really’ (but the use of `really’ should be a warning sign!) is concerned with a different notion of the good than a deontologist. Likewise, if we talk about interpretation on the assumption of the possibility of an external, independent identification of what counts as (utterances of) the same language, we’re dealing with not quite (another red light flashes) the same problem as Davidson. So what seems to be needed (but at the same time seems very hard to get) is an a priori, non-theory dependent characterisation of the phenomenon in question.

Question: suppose it were clear what exactly Davidson’s conception of rationality was, and suppose it would be one with which we  agreed, would that make a difference? In other words, is it the lack of perspicuity of some of the central concepts that is bothering us, or is it the way in which they are used? 

Observation: Davidson’s goal is not to come up with empirical theories in the sense in which scientific theories are empirical. (Cf., the discussion in `The Second Person’ about the abstract nature of the concepts of ‘language’, ‘meaning’, etc.) If anything, his goal is to come up with models for empirical phenomena that explain, not their actual ‘ins and outs’, but, one could say, their ‘possibility’. 

That actually leads to a second question (one that is not restricted to Davidson’s analyses), viz., what it is that we do when in philosophy we analyse something that is also a straightforward empirical phenomenon. To that question there are many answers, one of which is that of transcendental methodology. And the next step is then to determine how empirical observations are relevant for assessing these philosophical answers.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: fall 2006