Conceptual schemes, self-refutation and saving the enigmas
In this paper I consider
Donald Davidson’s famous argument against the possibility of different
conceptual schemes as a
form of “operational self
refutation”. I discuss Thomas Nagel’s
objections, andpresent a second Davidsonian argument to the same conclusion formulated by Ernest Lepore and KirkLudwig. I
conclude that Nagel’s points
will not work against the self-refutation argument of limitedscope that Davidson later endorses. I advocate a reading of Da
on which he helps usto take proper account of the baffling encounter with difference that the conceptual scheme idea tries,and fails, to describe.Davidson discusses conceptual schemes in linguistic terms: he assumes that there is no changein scheme without a change in language, though not vice versa.
We identify conceptual schemes withsets of inter-translatable languages.
Conceptual schemes differ where languages cannot be translatedone into the other: total difference of scheme rules out any range of translatable sentences, partialdifference of scheme allows for some range of sentences to be translated but not another.
Davidsonconcentrates on complete failure of translatability, as shall I (for reasons that will become clear later).
The argument is terse, as in his ‘Reply to Solomon’:
But if translation succeeds, we have shown there is no need to speak of two conceptualschemes, while if translation fails, there is no ground for speaking of two. If I am right then,there never can be a situation in which we can intelligibly compare or contrast divergentschemes, and in that case we do better not to say that there is one scheme, as if we understoodwhat it would be like for there to be more.
Someone is trying to give us an example of a different conceptual scheme. He presents us with a set of purported alien sentences. If we can translate them, then his presentation is no evidence that thelanguage is untranslatable, and hence no evidence of a divergent scheme. If we cannot translate them,
then this is equally evidence that the supposed “sentences” are not really speech behaviour at all.
Thesecond point sounds too radical, but it makes sense when we remember that Davidson is talking aboutthe radical interpretation of an entire language. If some French nuclear physicist utters a jargon-filledsentence that I cannot understand, I have no right to assume that he was saying a nonsense rhyme.However, suppose I follow him around for months, trying my hardest to understand the thousands of sentences he utters as reflecting beliefs and desires directed at our common surroundings.
If I cannotbegin to make sense of him, then I have every right to think that the man is not speaking a language butsimply making noise, and grunting is no evidence of a conceptual scheme.
This argument is a form of ‘operational self
refutation’, in J.L. Mackie’s terminology. The item
the speaker wants to present (a sentence or range of sentences of an untranslatable language) conflicts
For Davidson’s argument against attributing thought to non
-linguistic creatures, see Davidson (1975/2001c)
Davidson (1974/2006) 197
Davidson (1974/2006) 198
Davidson (2001) 243
Davidson (1974/2006) 198
See Davidson (1990), §3 for a thorough discussion of radical interpretation.