Thursday, May 15, 2008

Davidson and Dummett

In Davidson's response ("The Social Aspect of Language") to Michael Dummett's criticism of Davidson's 1986 article "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," he says that "what bothers Michael is [...] my failure to appreciate that the concept of a speaker meaning something by what he says depends on the notion of a shared language and not the other way around" (Truth, Language, and History, p. 111). Naturally I agree with Davidson here; but I do have a few concerns about some of the sub-morals to be drawn. I intend to talk about those concerns eventually, but first let me deal with a broader issue, which is that Dummett doesn't seem to have any idea what Davidson is talking about, something which (as you can imagine) renders his criticism somewhat ineffective.

Apparently Dummett thinks that in speaking this way Davidson violates Wittgensteinian strictures against "private languages". But an idiolect isn't the same thing as a "private language" at all. Wittgenstein's target in those famous sections of PI is the Cartesian idea that one can fix the meaning of one's own words by a form of "inner ostension" – that I can as it were "point" to some "inner" mental item and say "when I say X I mean that." This is a fairly specific manifestation of the more general Cartesian picture which has been Wittgenstein's target from the beginning of the book.

As an aside: this can help explain a strange phenomenon in contemporary attitudes toward Philosophical Investigations. Most analytic philosophers who deal with Wittgenstein at all regard the first quarter or so of the book as nothing more than throat-clearing and hand-waving. That's why Kripke's book had such an impact. It said: when most people think of PI, they think of the Private Language Argument. But there's some stuff before that (i.e., the rule-following considerations), of which the PLA is just a specific instance! Well, yes (duh); but with that in mind, perhaps we might keep going back before §142 (imagine that) to find the real core of the book. On this latter reading, the PLA, while interesting, in one sense doesn't really tell us anything we couldn't already have guessed. The book's real subject is the more general (and deep-seated, so much so as to be virtually invisible) Cartesian attitude, and what it takes to render it both visible and treatable at the same time (which turns out not to be as easy as it sounds, as the two tend to get in each other's way).

Now Davidson doesn't make as big a deal about his anti-Cartesianism as Rorty does (his own or Davidson's), which is ironic as Davidson's is the more effective version. But in any case, it would surely be odd for Davidson to set up his entire interpretive system as he does specifically to avoid the Cartesian "inner" – and then fail to notice that he falls into what by that point in PI is a fairly straightforward manifestation of that idea.

But of course he doesn't do this. "Idiolect" is Davidson's term for that structured set of linguistic dispositions attributed by an interpreter to a particular person at a particular time and place. The basis for these attributions, in Davidson's account, is of course the interpreter's observations of, and interactions with, the interlocutor in question, over a period of time. It is not new to "Nice Derangement," but goes back to "Radical Interpretation" and other mid-70's papers, that such attributions of a person's meanings cannot be delivered independently of attributing beliefs to him at the same time – and this requires shared interactions with an objective world. There is no question of meaning's dependence on a purely subjective "inner."

The worry about "inner" ostension of meanings was the typically Cartesian one that for all we know from the "outside," someone might mean something entirely different from the meaning we attribute to him on the basis of his verbal and physical behavior (and our own understanding of our shared environment). Dummett's criticism amounts to the charge that in making the idea of a "shared language" dependent on attributions of meaning achievable without previous agreement (i.e. "linguistic conventions"), Davidson leaves open a very real possibility of attributing to a speaker some meanings he had not "agreed to" and might therefore have his own ("internal"?) ideas about. Or something – I don't even see room for such criticism here, but it must be something like that or the PLA couldn't come up at all.

For this is exactly wrong. The whole point of "Nice Derangement" is to account for the manifest success of communication and understanding, even in cases, such as malapropisms, where such success cannot be accounted for by the traditional model (of previously established linguistic conventions). Of course, in any particular case, you may simply deny that understanding has indeed occurred – just as you may feel obliged to say of any of my beliefs that they "might be false"; but part of Davidson's point is that such skepticism about meaning would manifest exactly the sort of theoretically-driven perversity as does Cartesian skepticism about belief.

In any case an "idiolect" is precisely not a "private language." In attributing meanings to a speaker, I thereby indicate that they are shared: we have used his language to communicate. In this sense, defining a "sociolect" such as English or Flemish is, as Davidson elaborates Dummett's complaint, "the philosophically rather unimportant task of grouping idiolects". Naturally languages of this sort are "shared"; but at the more fundamental level, the sharing in question is not at all dependent on the sort of "linguistic conventions" one uses to make the broader, relatively (conceptually!) straightforwardly empirical charaterizations of languages made by linguists.

Now it may seem as if idealism or instrumentalism threatens here, as if I have denied the very possibility of "getting someone wrong." You might think this if, like Dummett, you thought that only (pre-existing) shared rules can provide objective grounding for attributions of meaning. But this is false. Naturally, again, you may dispute my attribution of certain meanings to our informant's utterances; but that just means that you are not satisfied that communication has occurred, i.e., you feel that we interpreters need to continue the process of interpretation further – that I have jumped the gun. And again, just as in the other skeptical case, what you may not do is allow that communication has occurred, but that (due to the lack of previously established agreement about meaning), my attributions are somehow still suspect. It's like saying "yes, we should believe that P; but is it really true?" Compare: "yes, you two succeeded in communicating; but is that what he really meant?" In either case, to ask this is to grant something in one breath and take it back in the next (not good).

Of course people say that first thing too. And this last bit (about the parallel) is my line, not Davidson's. Davidson doesn't say much about epistemology, which leads him into some trouble by my lights, but we'll leave that for another time.

22 comments:

N. N. said...

Good. Between your post and Daniel's, we can get a good discussion of 'Nice Derangement,' etc. going. If my own thoughts get too long, I may have to increase the number of posts by one. But before I attempt to make any lengthy comments, I have a simple (and 'unloaded') question.

The basis for these attributions, in Davidson's account, is of course the interpreter's observations of, and interactions with, the interlocutor in question, over a period of time. It is not new to "Nice Derangement," but goes back to "Radical Interpretation" and other mid-70's papers, that such attributions of a person's meanings cannot be delivered independently of attributing beliefs to him at the same time – and this requires shared interactions with an objective world.

What are the range of 'observations' and 'interactions' that would suffice? The kind of example I have in mind is understanding the writings of a 19th-century English writer, e.g. Mill. In the most obvious sense, I can't observe or interact with him, and we don't have shared interactions with the same world (for one thing, he's long dead; for another, his 'world' was different from mine in many respects). Nevertheless, I don't have any trouble making sense of On Liberty. What would Davidson say here?

Daniel Lindquist said...

Davidson actually gets asked about writing in the interview I linked the other day. "This lack of interaction surely does make a big difference with the triangulation idea, and you have to ask how to apply the idea. I think the only way to do this is to say that something like novel writing absolutely depends upon the prior existence of conversational exchange. People have to have been in the triangular situation before they could make anything out of a novel." So the way I can understand writing is different from the way I can understand speech, in some respects, and parasitic on it. (He says a little more in the interview, though not a whole lot.)

Davidson does grant (in the interview, in "The Social Aspect", and elsewhere) that shared grammatical conventions (in the schoolmarm sense) do make communication easier. He simply denies that they play either necessary or sufficient conditions in someone's being comprehensible. As a propaedeutic for interpretation, they are certainly valuable. The more oddly someone speaks, the harder it's likely to be to make sense of them -- but there's no point at which they'll speak too oddly to be (in principle) understandable. And simply speaking conventionally doesn't make someone easy to understand, in certain cases (many academics).

As a knee-jerk response, I want to insist that you (and I, and everyone else) do share a world with J.S. Mill, and with everyone else who's no longer present, in many interesting & important senses. Our "worlds" are different, but they are also the same. There's only one world. (I have an allergy to the multiplication of worlds.)

Davidson's actually written an essay on Joyce ("James Joyce and Humpty Dumpty"), which I haven't read. I should probably get on that; it seems like the sort of thing that could show up as useful. Certainly "Finnegan's Wake" is an interesting thing to look at when thinking about "conventions" and what you can do to language without becoming utterly nonsensical, and like matters.

Duck said...

Thanks Daniel, I was wondering where to look for a good quote. I'm sure he talks about it elsewhere as well. Certainly things like dictionaries are useful; but it's worth a look at how we actually use them. Rather than (implicitly) saying "this is The Meaning of X, such that anything but this is Wrong," they seem to say something more like "well [scratches chin], of course I can't tell without looking at the context, but your guy most likely means something like ______. See if that makes sense. If not, try definition 2. If none of them work at all, I don't know what to tell you." (I get this sense especially from foreign language-to-English dictionaries, where you sometimes really have to test the various choices.)

Yet I think that after this and the related points are understood, there may remain a sense – perhaps even not simply reducible to prudence or ease – in which we may speak of "misusing" a word (i.e. by breaking an established convention) – just as, even after rejecting the platonistic and Cartesian (reifying and dualistic) senses of "objectivity" we may still speak (as I have relearned to do after being led astray by Rorty) of "the one and only objective world."

Which is why my knee-jerk response was the same as yours – that there's only one world, shared by you and me and Mill and everyone else. But now I feel like leaving room for (judicious) use of differing-world talk. It's fairly standard nowadays to regard Goodman as having gone round the bend into idealist la-la land; but the problem with Ways of Worldmaking is less that what may yet be an acceptable position is approached as it were from the other direction (so that the problem is not how to reconcile talk of subjectivity with a single objective world, but talk of objectivity with a multiplicity of subjective worlds), but that it sometimes seems like the problems are supposed to be resolved simply by switching to the new vocabulary. Wow, should have broken that sentence up (too late now). Anyway (see blog name) I think that inventing (or rehabilitating) new ways of speaking is only the first step toward understanding how they work. So if somebody (even Lewis, who has different concerns still) wants to use multiple-world talk, then I'll only object when it seems like the new vocabulary is doing all the work (so that we are encouraged to think of it as The Correct One where we had been Wrong before).

I have a different analogy I want to try out, but maybe I'll save it for a separate post.

Daniel Lindquist said...

It's perhaps worth noting that in the really good dictionaries (like the OED), most of the space is taken up by citations of the word in question being used. You have a few "definitions" and then quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, Jonathan Edwards, Twain, or whoever. There's a sense in which Shakespeare cannot have misused any words; whatever he said is Good English.

UncleMeat said...

Wittgenstein is to analytical philosophy (of say Quinean-Carnapian sort) as Harpo Marx is to Debussy..........

Clark Goble said...

I'm not a fan of Dummett's and actually haven't read the criticism in question (or at least not in a long enough time that I can remember it) To me Dummett is frequently guilty of conflating things that are better left separated.

Having said all that and ignoring the quality of Dummett's presentation, is this that different from say Derrida's critique of Gadamer?

kvond said...

duck: "..there may remain a sense...in which we may speak of "misusing" a word (i.e. by breaking an established convention)...just as we may still speak...of "the one and only objective world."

Agreed, I see Davidson's "What Metaphors Mean" strongly in support of this.

kvond
http://kvond.wordpress.com/

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Having said all that and ignoring the quality of Dummett's presentation, is this that different from say Derrida's critique of Gadamer?"

Care to elaborate? I wouldn't have thought the two would be parallel, considering the one point Davidson consistently distanced himself from Gadamer over was the need for a shared prior language for communication to be possible, and this is just what's at issue between Davidson and Dummett here. What relevance do you think Derrida's comments on Gadamer have in this area?

Clark Goble said...

Here's an excerpt I'd written some time ago:

Gadamer's position basically can be characterized as a charity of interpretation. Clearly we are able to understand one an other. Thus the main point Gadamer establishes is that hermeneutics functions on a "good will to understanding." That is, we assume that the person we communicate wishes to be understand and attempt to understand them. Derrida critiques this view by suggesting that "good will to understanding" as a theory, depends upon a metaphysics of will. Clearly to have good will so as to understand, one must have a will. Regarding this statement of Gadamer's, Derrida replies, "how could anyone not be tempted to acknowledge how extremely evident this axiom is?" The problem is, according to Behler, that if Derrida acknowledges this axiom, then the debate really is over. All the metaphysical implications Gadamer asserts follow rather logically. Thus Derrida, in tune with his critique of metaphysics and will, calls Gadamer's position the "good will to power" with the obvious allusion to Nietzsche.

The basic point of contention between the two ends up being the nature of the expansion between the two speakers in a communication. Gadamer view it in terms of merging horizons (context) that allow a shared context - or close to it - in which communication becomes possible. Deconstruction, in contrast, appears to be based on a notion of interruption, breaks, and the suspension of mediation. In other words the two views are at polar opposites in terms of the functioning of the will. Derrida's question of Gadamer thus becomes, how can a speaker come to know that he is understood if, to be understood they must share contexts? In other words, if a shared context is necessary to understand, how can one know when the context is shared? We might assume that we are converging on truth - much like the scientific realist who claims our answers get better and better with time. However it also seems fair to critique a view of evolution that depends upon only forward progress. Instead it may be that change is not continuous and not always in one direction. Rather we may take two steps forward and one step back. Progress may be interrupted by misunderstanding and radical miscommunication. We may arrive at agreement not via a continual line, but by false steps and many different ways of entry.



What I'd say Gadamer and Davidson shared (acknowledging they aren't exactly the same) is the rejection of this radical miscommunication. Davidson's charity is quite similar to Gadamer's in terms of a faith of merging contexts of understanding. Even where, as you note, Davidson differs from Gadamer it is because he feels communication works better than Gadamer. And it seems to me that it is there that Derrida is skeptical. (Although one can, of course, reject Derrida as being correct)

Clark Goble said...

To add (sorry for the length). The key text is his "Epistemology Externalized." While, unlike Gadamer, he doesn't require a shared language he requires a shared world in a certain sense of that term. But where I think he goes astray is that he accepts a causal relation with objects but neglects the Nietzschean point that our causal relation with objects is always from a certain perspective. So I see Derrida making this Nietzschean critique of Gadamer and I think it applies equally to Davidson.

(Sorry - I should have just written that rather than that overly long prior comment)

Daniel Lindquist said...

Right, I recall that summary from the last time we discussed Gadamer. I'll have another go at it:

Instead of "good will to understanding" we might speak of the "constitutive principle of charity". Does this depend on a "metaphysics of will" (whatever that means)? This "axiom" hardly seems evident -- it seems that Derrida simply puns on "will" and then talks about things that aren't Gadamerian. Which nicely explains Gadamer's response to Derrida: "Huh?"

(I paraphrase, but only just barely. Even Derrida didn't think the exchange went at all well.)

I don't see that hermeneutics has anything to do with "will", whatever that metaphysical-type term is supposed to mean.

I also don't see that there's any sense in which Davidson thinks communication "works better" than Gadamer does. Davidson thinks there are plenty of situations in which understanding does not happen. He's interested in the ones in which it does, to the extent that it ever does. I don't see what "radical miscommunication" could be other than these boring situations where there is no understanding. Which are a dime a dozen. And which I don't think either Davidson or Gadamer somehow forgot existed, not to say denied (how would that work?).

"Derrida's question of Gadamer thus becomes, how can a speaker come to know that he is understood if, to be understood they must share contexts? In other words, if a shared context is necessary to understand, how can one know when the context is shared?"

The answer is straightforward: One doesn't need to know that contexts are shared and then know that one is understood; one grasps contexts alongside comprehension. Derrida creates dualisms where there are none to be found (or else takes them up unthinkingly from the philosophical tradition). One does not judge either context nor comprehension separately, and so Derrida's question is asked from ignorance. One can see that the relevant contexts are shared just because one can see that one is understood.

"Davidson's charity is quite similar to Gadamer's in terms of a faith of merging contexts of understanding."

I don't know where you're getting this. Nothing in Davidson implies that we're (somehow, magically) always in all ways getting better at understanding one another. Conversations can go sour; understanding can break down; interpretation can flounder. I don't see that this is an aspect of Gadamer, either; Gadamer is a proponent of the Hegelian "bad infinite" of endless "progress" -- "progress" with neither a fixed end nor an assurance that any particular end is headed towards. He has no "faith" of convergence; there is no end of inquiry, for either Gadamer or Davidson. Eternal corrigibility is the price of rationality.

"Epistemology Externalized" is my least-favorite of Davidson's later papers. But I'm not sure what your point is supposed to be here, either; Davidson doesn't "neglect the Nietzschean point that our causal relation with objects is always from a certain perspective", he denies it. For Davidson, causal relations are extensional, and so independent of how the events related are described. Certain perspectives on an event may make certain causal relations easier or more difficult to see, but they're not in any way "limited" to a particular perspective. Davidson doesn't require "a shared world in a certain sense of that term", he requires that both speakers be causally involved with the same objects & events. If the two speakers vary in their descriptions of the relevant objects & events, this is irrelevant. Causal relations are not relative to a description. So I don't need to already be able to view objects & events from the interpretee's perspective to be able to judge that they're the relevant causes of his or her perceptual beliefs etc., and so to judge that they determine the content of his or her perceptual beliefs to be such-and-such. Though of course I can only attribute perceptual beliefs along with all manner of other beliefs; interpretation requires jumping in at the deep end. So again, your Derrida is manufacturing dualisms; externalism and the rest of interpretation are not opposed in Davidson in the way this Derrida supposes.

Clark Goble said...

I don't see that hermeneutics has anything to do with "will",

Really? I don't think the Gadamer/Derrida debate was Derrida's best moment (although to be fair I think it came around the nadir of his writings as well). But I think he's quite correct here.

I'm not sure how one could sensically talk about hermeneutics without talking about will either. I'll have to think about that and maybe write something a tad more careful as a response.

Davidson thinks there are plenty of situations in which understanding does not happen. He's interested in the ones in which it does,

Oh, no doubt. But then Derrida would agree with that. He just thinks that to understand where it does work one has to understand where (and why) it doesn't whereas Davidson and Gadamer don't think that is necessary. (This is part obviously of a broader difference between differance and hermeneutics)

Davidson doesn't "neglect the Nietzschean point that our causal relation with objects is always from a certain perspective", he denies it.

Well yes. By neglect I didn't mean neglect as oversight.

But you seem to just be agreeing with me now.

As I said, one can reject the Derridean/Nietzschean position. But it does offer a critique of Davidson if one does accept it.

As to whether we ought accept it that takes a bit more argument than I'm prepared to make in an offhand reply in the comments. (grin) I'll put something together later.

Duck said...

Wow, look what happened while I was away – a discussion broke out! Thanks, everybody, for your comments.

kvond, I see what you're saying, but I'm not sure that those who want to deny semantic normativity (including, in some places at least, Davidson himself) can't accommodate Davidson's account of metaphor. All that account needs to acknowledge is the manifest fact that there are common patterns of usage for certain words, not that the "obligation" to conform to them is irreducibly semantic in character (as opposed to prudential, i.e. to make it easier to communicate).

When we "break a convention" by using a metaphor, we don't necessarily "misuse" a word in the disputed sense (after all, we're not "making a mistake"). We are instead exploiting the fact of conventional usage in order to bring about certain effects in our audience. This is still the same basic story, with no distinctively semantic obligations.

And I don't want to overstate my objection to this story. It's just that in certain circumstances I think it's not worth it to object, out of theoretical scruple, to the very idea of characteristically semantic normativity. That is, I think that in such circumstances to speak that way need not dump us back into the rejected picture. But I need to be clearer here.

Let me just post this as a separate comment before I say anything about ... these other things.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Oh, no doubt. But then Derrida would agree with that. He just thinks that to understand where it does work one has to understand where (and why) it doesn't whereas Davidson and Gadamer don't think that is necessary."

I think it's stronger than that: I don't think Davidson thinks a story about why understanding doesn't happen is possible. (I'll leave Gadamer alone for the moment, since I'm less sure in his case, though I'm inclined to think he'd agree.) Which is just to say that understanding someone is like any other task: You can fail at it in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons. There's no interesting story to tell about why some people can't ride a bicycle or appreciate Shakespeare; why should there be a story to tell about why sometimes conversations go badly? Certainly, in particular cases, you can say interesting things about why so-and-so can't ride a bike (he needs more practice), and in particular cases you might be able to say interesting things about why so-and-so doesn't understand that-other-guy (that-other-guy isn't trying to do what so-and-so took him to be doing). But I see no reason to think a general account of failure is forthcoming in either cases.

And I'm being honest when I say I don't see what a "metaphysics of the will" has to do with hermeneutics. Derrida's claim there really does just look like a pun to me. I'm sure the pun was supposed to just be a bit of cleverness to segue into his real point, but I have no idea what the "real point" could be.

Duck said...

Clearly we are able to understand one an other. Thus the main point Gadamer establishes is that hermeneutics functions on a "good will to understanding." That is, we assume that the person we communicate wishes to be understand and attempt to understand them.

I'm sure Daniel has leapt on this already, but let me try first before I see what he said.

We are indeed able to understand each other. It is this manifest fact which demands explanation. The "assumption" you describe is not a piece of dogmatic metaphysics but a Quinean "analytical hypothesis." Like any other empirical hypothesis, it pays its way with accurate predictions and enlightening explanations – or it doesn't. If we try to explain alien behavior this way ("those sounds are words, so let's try to figure out what they're saying") and make no progress at all, we may give up on the hypothesis. If Derrida wants to make this objection in any particular case, he may. But his own explanation for our observations had better do better than ours. And of course in any case in which that we are able to understand each other is a manifest fact, that's not going to fly at all, but is instead just the sort of perverse skepticism I would have thought we were all trying to get past.

Of course I'm speaking Davidsonian here rather than Gadamerian. But I don't see how either of them is required to construe the attribution of beliefs and desires to aliens (and meanings to their utterances and actions) as anything objectionably metaphysical (referring here to the content of our "assumption," not its epistemic status). Again Derrida seems to press on us a forced choice between unacceptable metaphysics and ... I know not what, and urging a recoil from the former into the latter.

The last part of the second paragraph is not to the point. The question is (again) entirely analogous to the skeptical question "how do we know when our beliefs are true?" Answer: give up the Cartesian picture.

Moving on: it's true that Davidson's official line isn't as perspectivist as I'd like, and some of this may indeed have to do with his residually Cartesian conception of causality (see McDowell's criticism). But I hardly want to hear that from Derrida. Perspectivism (on my construal) allows one to make intelligible claims while giving up Cartesian objectivity, while it seems Derrida wants to sacrifice the former to the latter. Why, I have no idea. It's not like we need the latter to understand the very possibility of failure to understand (or, again, to know).

As for Gadamer vs. Derrida, both are operating in a post-Heideggerian context, and thus speaking a lingo in which I am not exactly conversant. So I can't exactly absolve Gadamer from all blame. But I thought the point of operating in that context was that once we overcome our Seinsvergessenheit then we wouldn't find the old dualisms compelling. So I guess I'm not seeing what Derrida thinks he gets from Heidegger. (Of course here I'm construing Heidegger charitably, which might itself be a mistake.)

Clark Goble said...

Daniel, I confess I don't see how hermeneutics can avoid will. Surely interpreting is in part an act of will, isn't it? It seems odd to discount in a human act what makes intentional acts mine. I don't think one has to particularly be sympathetic to Derrida or Nietzsche to claim that.

As to whether Davidson thinks a story about why understanding doesn't happen is possible I'll confess that too seems an odd claim to me. On both the philosophical and exegetical level. Why do you think this a position of Davidson? Surely he'd agree that sometimes we don't understand and even misunderstand. Can't we talk about that?

Now it's true that Davidson's particular perceptual externalism seems to admit little by way of error if only because he seems to tie too closely content and causal origin in terms of objects. "If anything is causing certain experiences (or verbal responses), that is what the thoughts and experiences are about. This rules out systematic error. If nothing is systematically causing the experiences, there is no content to be mistaken about." (Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, 201)

Now the question is how far to take that.

Clark Goble said...

Duck, your initial objection seems odd to me and perhaps this is my fault. Is will purely 'metaphysical' and what does that mean? Surely we all talk about will and it doesn't seem particularly metaphysical to me even though I confess to seeing the line between metaphysics and physics (empiricism) as rather blurry at best.

I'm certainly not opposed to an empirical hypothesis. (Is this what Davidson is doing? If so is he doing philosophy or linguistics?)

The objection I take Derrida to be making is the issue of what is shared. We can, as Davidson does, talk about shared objects but it doesn't follow that my relation with the objects (which I take to be part of my will to the degree we are talking intentionality) are the same. Nor does it follow that the objects are fully related to. That is why I brought up perspectivism since it entails a relation that is always a bit of "too much and too little." Which I also take to be part of the hermeneutic condition. However rather than some sort of triangulation or convergence of a kind of determined trajectory it seems to entail the possibility of radical failure at the level of objects. That is the objects that Davidson has in causal relationship are themselves unstable and incomplete.

Now there are many ways to discuss this. I confess that over the years I've found Derrida's literary excesses less and less quaint and more and more annoying even though I largely agree with him on a philosophical level. So I certainly understand the frustration many have with him.

But it just plain seems wrong to suggest that Davidson is offering a purely empirical proposal with no metaphysical assumptions. The very notion of causality and objects as whole objects is a very metaphysical proposal.

Clark Goble said...

To add I'm not quite sure why you think Derrida wants to give up making intelligible claims or what it would mean to sacrifice that to Cartesian objectivity. Certainly he's anti-Cartesian. But I take him as suggesting intelligibility isn't as simple as some suggest.

Just to add, while something may not be a dogmatic assumption, I think we can ask if it works on even analytic terms. If we talk about meaning in terms of causal relations between things and utterances surely we have to closely analyze what we mean by a thing and what we mean by a causal relation.

Duck said...

Clark, I don't see why you think anyone is denying the possibility of failure to understand. For instance, when you explain Derrida's objection in your 11:50 comment, I have only the vaguest idea what you're talking about. Also, I don't see why you should think of that objection as "Nietzschean." (My own Nietzsche is pretty Davidsonian, actually. Have you read Christoph Cox's book?)

It seems to me that the "anti-Cartesianism" you attribute to Derrida is skin deep at best. Disrupting inquiry with apocalyptic talk of an alleged possibility of "radical rupture" is as Cartesian a move as there is. I am getting a whiff, though (reminiscent of Charles Taylor's criticism of the early Davidson, which I've mentioned before), of an uncharitable attribution to Davidson of a pernicious metaphysical realism (with "complete objects" or whatever).

However, there is no room in Davidson's picture for such a thing. On my construal of that picture, objectivity precisely does not swing free of subjectivity – or, that is, looking at it from the other direction, that of the interpreter: belief does not swing free of meaning. (Or maybe I should say: "from one of the other directions" (i.e. points of the triangle)).

Yet that does not prevent me (or any interpreter) from speaking of an objective world (or, as Daniel does above, of causal relations which are "not relative to a description"). That's because what I'm doing in so speaking is speaking (and believing, and desiring). It's that basic interpretive picture that such objections as Derrida's (again, to the extent that I get it, which is ... limited) utterly fail to engage.

If we talk about meaning in terms of causal relations between things and utterances surely we have to closely analyze what we mean by a thing and what we mean by a causal relation.

Knock yourself out – no-one's stopping you.

Clark Goble said...

Well I think the discussion is going around in circles a bit so I'll bow out. I don't think the totality I'm attributing to Davidson necessarily entails metaphysical realism of the sort that say Putnam often discusses. They seem orthagonal issues. Rather the issue is the nature of causal relations and objects.

The anti-cartesianism in Derrida is, as I see it, pretty key. Although I suppose one can always (and should always) ask what one means by anti-cartesianism since it's a term used in so many ways. Let me instead say anti-foundationalism. I'm not sure what you mean when you say a radical rupture is Cartesian. Derrida's sense is quite different from Cartesian doubt or even Husserl's epoche. So I'm missing something here.

But you've inspired me to go back and reread some Derrida since I have to admit it's been quite some time since I last really was interested in reading him. My sense is that there is an assumption that we have two choices: simple descriptions independent of reference and simple references. I just reject that as a false dichotomy.

But I'll not hijack the discussion anymore.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Surely interpreting is in part an act of will, isn't it? It seems odd to discount in a human act what makes intentional acts mine."

Well, it's an "act of will" in that it's an act. I don't think there's something "willish" that makes an intentional act mine as opposed to someone else's. (For that matter, I don't see that intentional acts are a proper subset of acts generally; to act without intentions would be to be moved, not to move.) There's no gap between conceiving an event as an action and attributing that action to so-and-so, so there's no place that "will" could fit in to glue the pair together.

"As to whether Davidson thinks a story about why understanding doesn't happen is possible I'll confess that too seems an odd claim to me. On both the philosophical and exegetical level. Why do you think this a position of Davidson? Surely he'd agree that sometimes we don't understand and even misunderstand. Can't we talk about that?"

Your view strikes me as so odd that I'm having trouble conceiving a motivation for it. Davidson never discusses what goes on when misunderstanding occurs, in general. Why would you think he actually thinks there's a story to tell about that? Certainly on various occasions we misunderstand one another to various degrees; as Davidson (a bit hyperbolically) puts it in an interview: "[Interpretive theories] just are nearer to or further away from being correct. Luckily, we can make lots of adjustments as we go along. Communication is always incomplete. It's not as though anybody ever gets everything right; it's a matter of degree." Whatever else goes on that prevents understanding does not fall under the purview of a discussion of what's involved in understanding. Whatever interferes with understanding is just whatever else is going on. There's no need for a "theory of everything" to have a perfectly good theory about such-and-such.

"If we talk about meaning in terms of causal relations between things and utterances surely we have to closely analyze what we mean by a thing and what we mean by a causal relation."

No we don't. "Analysis" has to come to an end somewhere; there's no hope for ever-better understanding by way of superfine definitions. Our best-understood concepts (truth, object, reason, cause, many others) are not profitably able to be "defined". See, for instance, "The Folly of Trying to Define Truth", or Davidson's constant reminder that even Plato's Socrates only ever "defined" one concept (mud: it's dirt+water). The idea that there's some sort of superknowledge of our concepts, that might be revealed by getting better definitions or more subtle analyses of them, is a philosophical chimera.

More to the point, unless there's some reason to think that we really don't mean anything by talk of "things" and "causal relations", it's silly to act as if they're mysterious. The only reason "analysis" might be needed here is if there's a worry that we're slipping up somewhere, so we should pay super-close attention to try and catch where it is that we misstep. Though if you think something like this is true, then like Duck said: Knock yourself out.

"But I'll not hijack the discussion anymore."

Don't worry about "hijacking" anything. Blog posts do not have some central mission that you might be distracting them from; they are excuses to make conversation about things people like talking about.

Clark Goble said...

Daniel, I think I am starting understand why we are all talking past one an other. As I said if nothing else this is getting me to go back and refresh my Derrida - I've just not read him much in years and when I was last reading him I was more focused on the semiotic notion of an icon and it's repetition rather than these issues.

Anyway, let me think through the issues so I can explain them to someone not familiar with the traditions.