Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Davidson and Gadamer
Recently a few friends stopped by to discuss Davidson, and Clark brought up Derrida's criticism of Gadamer, which he thought might be similar to Dummett's criticism of Davidson (i.e., as committed to something unpleasant or other, I didn't really get it). We ended up talking past each other – I don't get Derrida at all – but I did want to say a few things about the comparison on the one end between Davidson and Gadamer.
I imagine that some of our trouble came from the fact, as I did mention in that discussion, that Derrida's criticism is directed at Gadamer, not Davidson, so it's not really appropriate to speak Davidsonian in response, as I was doing. The similarities between the two are undeniable, but of course that doesn't make the two positions identical. In his article in Gadamer's Century, McDowell defends the two against charges of relativism, of which he takes them both to be innocent for pretty much the same reasons, and so in that context it's easy to elide the differences and just regard Gadamer as one of the good guys. I shouldn't do that.
But as Clark was describing it, Derrida's charge seems not to be one of relativism, but instead of dogmatism. Where we assume that communication is successful (such that our task is to explain how such a thing is possible), it may yet be that there is instead a "radical rupture" of some (necessarily) mysterious kind. This claim sounds to me like the ontological cum semantic equivalent of Cartesian radical epistemological doubt: offended by our seeming complacency concerning the apparent smoothness of typical conversation, the skeptical soixante-huitard imp hops in with dire warnings of ruptures and fissures and cracks, oh my!
Naturally Davidson comes in for a version of these charges as well (if not from Dummett; cf. Stroud and C. McGinn, who reject, on Cartesian grounds, the anti-skeptical consequences of Davidson's account of interpretation and belief), but Gadamer's case is a bit different. From Habermas, as one might expect, the charge against Gadamer took a characteristic form: if our conception of an objective world is limited by our cultural/linguistic horizons, then we won't have the detachment necessary to perform Critique. We dogmatically assume the world is as we have traditionally construed it, and even when we open our horizons up to achieve Horizontverschmelzung (I love that word) with the Other, we still don't acknowledge the absolute otherness of the objective world: now we both "could be wrong" about it. (Or something like that; I can go look.) Incidentally, people have been known to say the same thing about Wittgenstein, or at least "Winchgenstein."
But now two things occur to me about that. First, that accusation does indeed sound like Stroud's criticism of Davidson. And second, this criticism is pretty similar to that directed at Gadamer's supposed relativism (think, for example, of the various definitions – that is, by opponents – of "historicism"): Gadamer is held to claim that our beliefs are culturally determined (dogmatism), so the denizens of the various cultures never reach out to an objective world, rendering them equal in their futility (relativism). This makes sense, in that that Janus-faced flaw is absent from Davidson and (as I've been able to read him so far) Gadamer as well, and telling the proper story about interpretation can bring both of these things out at the same time (as in McDowell's article). I mean, seriously, if Gadamer were really interested simply in retreating from realism to relativism, Truth and Method wouldn't need to be 600 pages long. The tough part is drawing the proper consequences from a) the linguistic structure of cultural tradition and b) the plurality of same in a single objective world. The optimistic thought of Davidsonian Gadamerians is that T & M contains a helpful post-Heideggerian analogue to Davidson's rejection of the scheme-content dualism. But I haven't even read it, so I wouldn't know. (Maybe Malpas's article in Gadamer's Century can tell us.)
Still, if Derrida's criticism were similar to Habermas's, then maybe Gadamer would have said so (and thus not respond, as Daniel paraphrases him in comments, with "Huh?"). But I've never read that exchange, as I've heard before that it was a total train wreck.