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.


  1. I will definitely read these papers when i have time (after 3 weeks from now) and post a suitable comment!

    Sam Moreton

  2. I agree with your conclusion; Davidson's paper on conceptual schemes is one of the poorest arguments I have ever read in analytic philosophy.

    When we talk about the very idea of a conceptual scheme, the first person I think of is Kant, not Kuhn. Yet, strangely, Davidson has no refutation of the 'absolute' Kantian categories -- apart from a joke, which he repeats dogmatically at the introduction and at the conclusion. Because of this oversight, he fails to make a case for his stated conclusion because he puts things more boldly than is warranted by the argument to come.

    I wasn't even convinced that Davidson succeeded in mentally distinguishing between the scheme/content distinction and the analytic/synthetic one. Quite a lot about the scheme/content distinction is supposed to rest upon incommensurability, in a Kuhnian sense. But Kuhn (though a fine physicist and historian) wasn't a very precise philosopher, so why does Davidson think Kuhn is he our touchstone for establishing a scheme/content distinction? Why not talk about the Quinean formulation, as being structured sentences held true? It's a strawman of sorts.

    One area where you and I may not agree is with the line, "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". I agree with you that it's not clear that the notion of 'the world' is 'unspecifiable' or 'unspecified'. But I do think that the world that fits our knowledge is unspecific. That is, I agree with Putnam and Rorty that we don't have a 1:1 correspondence sense of truth available to us. So while there's a kernel of insight in what Rorty is saying, he puts things so boldly that his work suffers from the same ailments that undermine the quality of Davidson's work.

  3. Benjamin, it is precisely because Kant avoids positively characterizing the noumenal realm that he is not the target of Davidson's paper. The difference between Kant and the Kuhn/Whorf party line here makes all the difference: Kant does not think that there are "multiple conceptual schemes", and his empirical realism precludes the drawing of the Kuhnian scheme/content distinction.

    It's pretty bizarre that you would accuse Davidson of failing to attack a figure whose view by definition excludes him from the scope of the attack. The only thing we can conclude is that Davidson in fact has more respect, not less, for Kant.

  4. No kidding! The first point I made in my post was that Kant's categories -- his absolute categories -- are not given any treatment in Davidson's argument. That's exactly the problem. Davidson makes a joke about an 'absolutist' view of conceptual schemes (it being like a kind of monotheism), implying that he has said something interesting in the argument against absolute schemes. He didn't. Epic fail.

    The fact that Davidson mentions absolute schemes both in the introduction and the conclusion, ought to indicate to you that absolute schemes are one of Davidson's targets.

  5. Benjamin,

    Thanks for commenting and for provoking Nick to weigh in.

    "I agree with you that it's not clear that the notion of 'the world' is 'unspecifiable' or 'unspecified'. But I do think that the world that fits our knowledge is unspecific. That is, I agree with Putnam and Rorty that we don't have a 1:1 correspondence sense of truth available to us."

    There is probably a bit of a difference between us here, but it isn't that I hold to some '1:1 correspondence' view of truth.

    It's not clear to me what it means to say the world is unspecific, or that we don't have a 1:1 correspondence sense of truth available to us. (What would it be like if we did?)

    This may look like a foolish scruple. There is obviously more to say (ugh)... but I think maybe there are more promising entry-points for seeing what's going wrong here - a critique of Blackburn's quasi-realism, for example - and that these "proposals" about 1:1 correspondence and the unspecific nature of the world may be better left to rot.

    I'd be curious to hear more about why you might differ, if you differ.

  6. Hey. If we had a 1:1 correspondence sense of truth, it would involve a strong denial of the pragmatic encroachment into epistemology. That is, issues involved in the interpretation of language are rendered unthreatening to epistemology.

    So, for instance, all of the following propositions would be accurate:
    - When we refer, we refer infallibly.
    - All our concepts have necessary and sufficient conditions that never require future modification.
    - The assertability of a claim is only judged according to its connection with reality.
    - Our inferences are properly governed by strict inferential rules known a priori.

    Our social and personal concepts are all part of the same web of belief that affects how we see the natural world. So the world is unspecific in the sense that, intuitively, we never know whether our claims have a strong kind of fit with the material world because of the fact that our claims have that appropriate relationship with that material world.

    I think that these are essentially the points that Rorty and Putnam would agree with. You might too, though. What do you think?

  7. Hmm. I agree that not all the four listed propositions are true. But I'm pretty sure most contemporary philosophers who self-identify as 'correspondence theorists', 'realists', 'non-pragmatists' would agree too.

    'So the world is unspecific in the sense that, intuitively, we never know whether our claims have a strong kind of fit with the material world because of the fact that our claims have that appropriate relationship with that material world.' - Still not getting this.

    There are two ways of reading that sentence:

    (1) As something like: 'We never know whether the following is true: our claims fit because of the fact that they fit.'

    (2) 'Because of the fact that our claims fit, we never know whether they fit.'

    Both seem quite bizarre to me, so I guess I haven't understood.

  8. Sure, people may disagree. Get two philosophers in a room and you'll come out with five ways of cashing out the distinction between pragmatism and realism. This state of conceptual flux is intolerable.

    So to cut through philosophical indecisiveness and bickering, at some point we have to draw our own lines in the sand. For my part, I'd say the area where epistemology starts to turn towards pragmatism is when we start allowing for pragmatic encroachment. That's the important point.

    (I agree that those four postulates taken together might be a pragmatist's caricature of (naive) correspondence theory. I'm open to other formulations of correspondence. But for what it's worth, the four sentences are my provisional starting point.)

    Maybe it would help to approach this in terms of 'realism', not in terms of 'pragmatism' or its denial. Crispin Wright conceives of realism as "modest" and "presumptuous". The realist is modest, in the sense that they think there is a mind-independent reality; and presumptuous, in the sense that we know some things about that reality. After a fashion, pragmatists like Rorty are akin to idealists in the sense that they would deny modesty; neo-pragmatists like Putnam are not so keen on denying modesty (at least, not in quite the same way).

    Let me rephrase that awful sentence of mine you quoted above. I just mean that pessimistic meta-induction tells us that we have no mirror of nature. We never have complete certainty that our maps, our concepts, theories, and so on fit reality in the way we expect. e.g., Newton thought his mechanics fit the world in a tight and tidy way, but it turns out that reality is more complicated. It seems fair to say that (the non-crazy parts of) Newton's theory weren't false, per se. But Newton's theory didn't fit with reality in the way we hoped.

    In other words: the structure of the world might help condition our theories, but it never tells us how well we're doing. We're always going to be at least partially ignorant of how well our true theories fit reality.

    Does that make more sense?