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.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

More brain food (Davidson and Deleuze)

John Protevi informs us that his entry on Gilles Deleuze is now up at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Better delayed than at no time!

Also, while I was over there at SEP I stopped by the Davidson entry by Jeff Malpas. Nothing new there, except that I followed the link to his website, where he has posted a number of papers (scroll all the way down), including a couple on Davidson and/or Gadamer, as well as (oh, happy day) the complete text of a newly revised edition of his book on Davidson, which is now entitled Davidson's Holism: Epistemology in the Mirror of Meaning. Here's a snip from the intro:
[T]he holism that is the central focus for my account became an increasingly important, if sometimes still under-developed, theme in Davidson’s own writing over the last fifteen years or so. The idea of triangulation, in particular, which can itself be seen as a development out of the notion of charity, and the associated idea of the indispensability of a notion of objectivity in understanding, is particularly significant in this regard. In triangulation, arguably the central idea in Davidson’s later writing, the idea of what I here termed ‘psychological holism’ (which on my account is seen as itself incorporating an externalist commitment) can be seen as being developed through the notion of the interdependence, not only of the attitudes and behavior of individual agents and speakers, but also of the concepts of the subjective, the objective and the intersubjective.
Tell it, brother! I took the original version of this book out of the library once during my early acquaintance with Davidson's work, but (heh heh) never got to it. Again, better delayed, &c.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Three Shadows

First Second (:01) is a primo arty comix imprint that just gets better and better. Recently I've read and enjoyed the cleverly meta The Fate of the Artist, the utterly charming The Professor's Daughter, Malaysian cartoonist Lat's Kampung Boy, a peek into another world (I see the second one is out now), and the almost unbearably moving Laika. Now comes Cyril Pedrosa's exquisite Three Shadows, featuring richly detailed and expressive line drawings and a thrilling, poignant tale of magic and loss. Check 'em all out!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Free food (brain variety)

In case you missed it (as I did, although I think someone may have mentioned it at some point), the April 2008 issue of the European Journal of Philosophy is free online. Some interesting stuff!

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.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

There'll always be an England

A right clever quip from the BBC:
A man who allegedly photographed more than 3,000 women's bottoms as they toured Venice has been arrested.

The man was stopped after police became suspicious of a large bag he was carrying as he followed women through St Mark's Square.

He has been charged with infringement of privacy. It is a cheeky crime, which could earn this 38-year-old Italian from six months to four years in jail.
I say! Quite! This reminds me of an interview with Brian Eno, in which the interviewer brings up Eno's self-documented fondness for what the interviewer (a Yank, no doubt) referred to as "women's bums" – to which a horrified Eno replied, "'bottoms'! Please!"

Stop me before I descend into talk of Sinn and Bedeutung...

More Rorty links (plus two bonuses!)

A sociological explanation of Rorty's philosophical development (book review interview with author)

Raymond Geuss on Rorty (complete with reference to Stalker)

Rorty and Davidson in conversation (video)

Bonus #1: an older Davidson interview

Bonus #2: Philosophers' Carnival #69 (somewhat abbreviated this time, methinks)

(ht: Adam K, Leiter, Tom, Dan)