Tuesday 25 October 2011

A Plea for Conceptual Schemes


In 1974, Donalad Davidson published a now famous paper entitled 'On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme', in which he attacked that idea and exhorted the reader to give it up. One reason Davidson set upon this idea was his evident hunch that it lay behind the pernicious, nebulous doctrine of the relativity of truth. Another, perhaps more fundamental, reason, was his desire to see the world and our understanding of it in terms of a metaphysics of sentences and objects, without employing things like concepts and propositions.

I think the idea of a conceptual scheme a highly serviceable one, and that Davidson's attack is confused. I believe that the idea of a conceptual scheme has a good deal of unrealized potential in the philosophy of modality and many other areas. My object here is simply to vouchsafe the idea from Davidson's attack. 

The Problem of Comparison and Neutrality

Early in his paper, Davidson makes this remark, which goes to the essence of his attack:  
[T]here is no chance that someone can take up a vantage point for comparing conceptual schemes by temporarily shedding his own.
(Davidson 1979/1984, p. 185. Page references are to the 1984 version.)
This is true, but misleading. True, because we cannot do anything by temporarily shedding our conceptual scheme - the immediate reason being is that there is no such thing as 'temporarily shedding our conceptual schemes' in the required sense (i.e. while retaining some kind of rationality or sentience). Misleading, because it seems to carry the implication that scheme-shedding would be the way we ought to proceed with a comparison, if only this were possible.

Against this, I want to insist that the only conceivable way we could compare two conceptual schemes is from within our own. We have a conception of the world (surely!). Part of that conception is the idea that there are conceptions - of the world, in the world. We are self-conscious. We think about our thinking and that of others, and when we do this we employ our conception of our own conceptions, and our conception of others' conceptions.

Of course, if we compare our conceptual scheme with another, our ideas of these two schemes will not be on a par epistemologically. This difference cannot be factored out. However, we should try to be as objective as we can, and this means trying to improve our conception of our conceptions, and those of others, and the relations between them.

Davidson, on the other hand, apparently has some idea to the effect that, as long as we are 'stuck' in our own conceptual schemes, comparison will be impossible or at the very least greatly hampered. Indeed, some notion of being stuck seems to lie at the root of this part of the confusion.

'The Dualism of Scheme and Content'

According to Davidson
[the] dualism of scheme and content, of organizing system and something waiting to be organized, cannot be made intelligible and defensible. It is itself a dogma of empiricism, the third dogma. (p. 189.)
Now, I do not want to argue with the claim that no dualism between scheme and content could be made good sense of. Rather, the point is that no notion of a dualism is called for to support the idea of a conceptual scheme.

In our ordinary ideas of 'scheme and content', I should think, it is understood that the scheme itself is potentially part of the content, and parts of this potential content - such as concepts - inhere in the scheme.

Simply put: There is no dualism of scheme and content. A distinction is not a dualism.

The idea of a dualism of scheme and content is bound up with a fundamental misunderstanding of the 'content' part of that idea, arising from a certain picture we possess of the situation, and an attitude toward this picture which most of us, in certain circumstances, are strongly inclined to take. (Cf. the notion of the thing-in-itself.) While this phenomenon is of fundamental importance in parts of philosophy, I maintain that it is not an essential part of our practical understanding of the idea of a conceptual scheme. On the contrary, and as the existence of Davidson's paper shows, it can be an obstacle.

The Problem of 'Uninterpreted Reality'

Davidson wants us to give up 'dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside all schemes and science'. The great unclarity here is: what do the phrases 'uninterpreted reality' and 'something outside all schemes and science' mean in this context?

As suggested in the previous section, the 'content' or 'world' term of the conceptual representation relation need not be thought of as some amorphous fundament, some uninterpreted thing-in-itself. We live in the world - in reality - and we interpret it. Reality, since we are real and interpret it, just is interpreted; there is no reality which, as a whole, is completely uninterpreted.

What about parts of reality? The particular objects, events and processes which intelligent beings talk and think about are parts of interpreted reality - parts of reality which get interpreted. Thus my desk is part of interpreted reality, as are Denmark, Donald Davidson, Beethoven's Ninth, Saturn and many other things besides.

It is quite commonly believed, in our culture, that other parts of reality are uninterpreted; if some small pebble somewhere has never been apprehended or encountered in any way by an intelligence, then this individual is, in some sense, part of uninterpreted reality. Quite obviously, this is not the sort of thing Davidson means by 'uninterpreted reality'.

We might instead take the phrase 'uninterpreted reality' to mean 'reality considered separately from any interpretational or conceptual apparatus'. Then surely this can include chairs, tables, and the rest of it. ('Considered separately from interpretational or conceptual apparatus' obviously doesn't mean 'considered without recourse to any interpretational or conceptual apparatus'.) So this doesn't seem to be what Davidson means, either.

Regarding the phrase 'something outside all schemes and science': isn't the desk I am working at now outside all schemes and science? Surely my desk is not inside a conceptual scheme, or inside science (whatever that means).
The following passage from Rorty, who enthusiastically embraced Davidson's critique of the idea of conceptual schemes, gives us more to work with:
The notion of 'the world' as used in a phrase like 'different conceptual schemes carve up the world differently' must be the notion of something completely unspecified and unspecifiable - the thing in itself, in fact. A soon as we start thinking of 'the world' as atoms and the void, or sense data and awareness of them, or 'stimuli' of a certain sort brought to bear upon organs of a certain sort, we have changed the name of the game. For we are now well within some particular theory about how the world is.
(Rorty 1982, p. 14.)
I deny the first assertion. The notion works like this: we use our conceptual schemes and understand there to be chairs, tables, numbers, quarks, experiences, concepts and schemes thereof. Then we form an idea of different schemes carving up the world differently. Here, our idea of the world is still our idea of the world, i.e. an idea of something which contains chairs, tables, numbers, quarks, experiences, concepts and schemes (among who knows what else).

In a strange way, Davidson and Rorty seem to make the very mistake they appear to be warning against. In saying queer things about 'uninterpreted reality', they try to identify a thing we can't say anything about. Or: they try to give the content of a notion they want to criticize, but in so doing they only embroil themselves in the confusion which bothers them. It is this confusion, I believe, which leads Davidson and Rorty to loudly and violently reject the idea of a conceptual scheme. They reached for the saw; I suggest we consider a scalpel.

Tristan Haze


Davidson, D. 1974. 'On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme', Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47, pp. 5-20.

The above reprinted 1984 in Donald Davidson (ed.), Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rorty, R. 1982. 'The World Well Lost', Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Monday 10 October 2011

Deduction and the Necessary A Posteriori

Consider: There is a cat here, therefore there is an animal here.

Assuming we want to say that this inference is valid in some sense, here are three things we might say about it:

1) It is an elliptical argument, involving an unarticulated premise, namely that cats are animals.

2) It is an enthymematic or gappy argument, involving unarticulated reasoning.

3) It is a complete argument in itself - neither (1) nor (2) is the case.

On the first approach, the deduction is clearly a priori. But this is not the only possible attitude. While the belief that cats are animals could conceivably be overturned by experience, it is arguably not a contingent fact that all the cats around are animals (cf. Kripke 1980). So rather than regarding this as part of the matter being reasoned from, we might regard it as part of the deductive apparatus.

Thus, on the second interpretation, we might regard the move from 'cat' to 'animal' as being licensed by an unarticulated principle of reasoning (which may be expressed in the form of an inference rule, or an axiom such as 'All cats are animals'). Or we might resist even this, and say that nothing is unarticulated - perhaps still allowing that the argument can be justified by the principles of reasoning which are held to be unarticulated on the second interpretation.

Note how natural these latter two approaches are; there does seem to be some sense in which the conclusion follows from the single articulated premise. Note also that the argument by itself satisfies the natural (admittedly problematic) modal characterization of validity, if we take the relevant modality to be subjunctive or metaphysical modality ("what could have been the case") rather than a priori possibility or epistemic modality ("what could be the case"): it could not have been the case that there was a cat here yesterday but no animal here yesterday.

This may suggest that, according to some intuitive and central concept of deduction, some facts about what can be deduced from what are empirical (i.e. not knowable a priori).

However, this flies rather completely in the face of previous philosophical thinking about deduction. It also raises the following puzzle: on one way of thinking about necessity, our holding it to be necessary that all cats are animals means that we have made a certain kind of connection between our cat-concept and our animal-concept (an empirically defeasible connection, held constant when describing counterfactual scenarios). But it is natural to think of this conceptual connection as partly constitutive of the content of thoughts involving these concepts - thoughts such as 'There is a cat here' and 'There is an animal here'. Thus, someone who doesn't have such a connection arguably isn't in a position to have those two thoughts at all: there would appear to be little room for them to have those exact thoughts and yet not be able to work out a priori that one implies the other.

My suggestion is that, when faced with this sort of puzzle, one should try to distinguish different ways of individuating content, some more fine-grained than others. When talking about thoughts in, e.g., the context of communication, a relatively course-grained individuation scheme is often most appropriate. When talking about the epistemology of deduction - and not just the epistemology - a more fine-grained approach is called for. (That is, an approach where what are for many purposes two instances of the same thought get treated as distinct structures.)

Insofar as this is right, the more general moral is perhaps something like: when doing philosophy, be willing to put multiple modes of content-individuation on the table - don't let one obsess you to the exclusion of all others.

Tristan Haze


Saul A. Kripke (1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press.