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Conceptual Schemes, Self-Refutation and Saving the Enigmas

Conceptual Schemes, Self-Refutation and Saving the Enigmas

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Huw Duffy. Originally submitted for Philosophy & French at Trinity College Dublin, with lecturer James Levine in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Huw Duffy. Originally submitted for Philosophy & French at Trinity College Dublin, with lecturer James Levine in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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Donald Davidson famously argued, using a self-refutation argument, that we can make no senseof the possibility of radically differing conceptual schemes. Taking it that there can be no difference inconceptual scheme without a difference in language, radically different conceptual schemes would belanguages that cannot be inter-translated. Davidson argues that we cannot conceive of what this wouldbe, since any putative example of a language that could not be translated into English would either infact be translatable, or else could not be known to be a language at all. I take his argument to be a good
example of what J.L. Mackie calls ‘operational self 
refutation’: arguing from the impossibility of giving an
example of something (here an untranslatable language) to the conclusion either that such a thing isimpossible or merely that we cannot conceive of what it would be. Precisely which conclusion Davidsondraws is, as with most Davidson exegesis, a rather delicate matter. If his argument is to establish anyconclusion, however, Davidson must bridge the gap between the impossibility of giving examples and
the unintelligibility of the general statement ‘there are untranslatable languages’
. I discuss his ambitiousattempt to do so by appeal to
Tarski’s work on truth. I then consider Thomas Nagel’s objection that
Davidson must claim, implausibly, that all possible true sentences can be understood by English
speakers: a view Nagel labels ‘idealism’. Davidson’s response to Simon Evnine, who has mad
e a similar
objection to Nagel’s, leads me to think that Davidson’s considered view is a weak version of the variousformulations in ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, limited to radical, widespread
untranslatability. There exists another argument from Davidsonian premises to this weaker conclusion,which Ernie Lepore and Kirk Ludwig have formulated. This new argument rests on the claim that anylanguage, if it is to be spoken, must have a central core of the intentional concepts needed tounderstan
d one’s interlocutor as an interlocutor. Thus these concepts are common to all languages, sothat no two languages can be completely different. This second route to Davidson’s conclusion does not
require the controversial position he takes on truth. I conclude by laying out what I take to be the moral
of Davidson’s arguments: that the conceptual scheme idea tries, unsuccessfully, to put into familiar
terms the possibility of meeting a creature that genuinely baffles our attempts to understand it.
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
vidson’s conclusion
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.
3with the only possible mode of presenting it (assertion).
Thus the item cannot be presented at all:there is no way of giving an example of an untranslatable language. This method of argument is familiarfrom
Berkeley’s Master Argument. Try to give an example of a thing unthought of: lo, your example is
now thought of, by you! The natural response is equally familiar. To show that it is not possible tocoherently assert of a given particular
is unthought of’ does not impugn the proposition ‘There issomething (unspecified) which is unthought of’.
This suggests a response to Davidson. Very well, saysthe lover of schemes, I cannot give an example of an untranslatable language, but you have donenothing to show that my stated view - that there is some untranslatable language - is incoherent.Berkeley and Davidson respond by arguing that the nonspecific existential statement does notstate a genuine proposition. The success of this form of self-
refutation turns on the parties’ conception
of general existential statements; the present argument, on whether we can conceive of what it is to bea conceptual scheme in the abstract. If we could make sense of a dualism of conceptual scheme anduninterpreted content (raw experience, or surface irritations, etc), Davidson says, then scheme
relativism ‘
would appear to be an abstract possibility despite doubts about how an alien scheme mightbe deciphered: the idea would be that different schemes or languages constitute different ways in which
what is given in experience may be organized.’
However, the metaphor collapses: you cannot
something that has not already been divided up into particulars, which belies the given’
s supposedlyuninterpreted status.
A second metaphor, that conceptual schemes
cope with
experience, comesdown to the claim that there could be different theories that are largely true but not translatable; forwhat is it for a theory to predict or cope with possible experience except for it to be true? Davidson nowmakes the crucial claim that we do not understand the idea of truth independently of translation.
 Thus, to claim that there is an alternative conceptual scheme is to claim that there is a theory whosesentences are largely true but not translatable, which is not to make an intelligible claim at all.
This view about truth depends on the claim that Tarski’s Convention T ‘embodies our bestintuition as to how the concept of truth is used’, and tha
t a theory of truth based on Convention Tcannot be understood without making use of translation. The latter claim is correct: consider thisexample, from Putnam, of an attempt to define a truth predicate for French (F) using English as themeta-language, without translation:
La neige est blanche
is true-in-F if and only if la neige est blancheThat is not part of a truth theory expressed in English, it is a piece of nonsensical franglais.
To turn thisinto a sentence of the meta-language, we have to translate the right hand side of the bi-conditional:
“La neige est blanche” is true
-in-F if and only if snow is white
Mackie (1964) 195-197
Prior (1955/1976) 38
Davidson (1989/2001b) 41
Davidson (1974/2006) 203
Davidson (1974/2006) 205
Putnam (1985) 67

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