“Nothing in the world would count as a sentence, and the concept of truth would therefore have no application, if there were not creatures that used sentences by uttering or inscribing tokens of them. Any complete account of truth must therefore relate it to actual linguistic intercourse.” Donald Davidson, “Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective”, Clarendon Press, 2001 – Chapter 12 (Epistemology and Truth), p. 181.
[Re-posted from “The Old Site” the original was dated November 11th, 2007 – I can tell ya that I can’t wait to re-read all of this, Davidson is great!]
Not exactly a popular writer, Davidson, not even a writer whom people refer to onliquely in order to give themselves a more intellectual image – he is not well known enough, has not published on existential problems and solutions, has not kept an air of mystery around him. That’s for the best, it’s rather comforting to know people can make their way without making a string of concessions along that way. Davidson’s impact is substantial. It will grow as more people understand how he brought together what seemed doomed to diverge forever.
Davidson is a fin de siècle thinker of sorts. More modest if compared to those of now more than a century ago but, then again, the future will turn out to be rather more modest than most would anticipate. The great schism in philosophy is a product from the previous fin de siècle. On one hand Anglo-Saxon philosophy oriented itself to logic, mathematics and an initially rather pristine concept of truth – in fine to the objective. On the other, continental philosophy meandered through various quasi-religious territories, trying to find big answers to the traditional big human questions – in fine to a rather subjective inclination.
Far from me to suggest that both paths were as productive, most of the continental tradition was a waste of time – some of it is annoying at its best and plain dangerous at its worst. The logico-mathematical and analytic/linguistic path were, and still are, extremely productive. But Wittgenstein quickly discovered that – as productive as the early him may have been – there was more to it and that this required a late him as well. He must have understood this, even if he could never have expressed it – lacking as he did the time to reflect on the writings of the late Wittgenstein. Which is why from the outside we see an early W on truth almost completely split from a late W on language use. The late W moreover lacked any formal apparatus to discuss what he needed to discuss leading to a very specific style (with the unfortunate side effect that many can now insultingly lay claim on him for mysticism).
It took the better part of a century to bring this point home. That is what Davidson did a.o. in the quote above. How did he do it? – see below the fold for my attempt at an explanation:
In the quote there is truth, their are language users and the necessity of the combination of both. There even is an almost passionate continental word as ‘intercourse’. The intersubjective is an invention of continental philosophy. It’s a term crucial to the moral and political philosophy of for instance Habermas, one of a few real contributions continental philosophy has made to a better understanding of the world (or, put more simply, to a better world).
Donald Davidson brings these things together. Far from solving all problems, or trying to create ‘definitive philosophy’, he definitely puts philosophy in a direction in a way that only a Kant or Socrates did before him. From Davidson on we may well ignore many things that are plain wrong in philosophy (and, if well written, reserve them for reading some poetical truth into them; a truth that was glanced from far away but that could not yet be articulated), but we can also combine many things that were thought before to be too far apart to enter into a same argument.
This could be our project (or rather unfortunately [I have to admit: still to this moment], my project): to understand these connections, to extract from analytical thought the moral conclusions. I did not get to what I probably needed to say about the quote itself but that’s as well. The idea of this site is not to have to hurry, not to have to conlude in a format that is socially recognized for its ‘impact’ so: another day and another quote. At least I hope I have made it clear where I find the basis – if it proves to be a basis – for quoting from both the philosophical left and right in search of a truth that lives up to the staunchest and clearest criteria whilst having a direct relevance to the everyday personal and social life.
In closing (on rethinking the above), the staunchest and clearest criteria have been left unmentioned. That’s certainly a pity, if not a crime, because this way one might be tempted to read into the above truth as relative to this or that – nothing is farther from my mind. The reference to language users does not do that: it does not relativize truth (as in your truth is yours and mine is mine, or ours is ours – one of the worst outcomes of continental philosophy is the type of post-modernism that prefixed a word to another word because it could not come to an understanding of that last word). It does allow to understand the relationship between language, users and truth. But it is best to stop here as the argument for it is embryonically present in above quote and as nobody was ever served by redoing an argument using another terminology (discounting the beneficiaries of plagiarism, that is).
[Note whilst re-posting: it is also the purpose of the new site ‘not to have to hurry & not to have to conclude because of a social convention that any argument needs to wear its conclusions on its sleeves’ but let me try to get one step further with the benefit of some hindsight. I have come substantially back from my criticism of post-modernism – also because of having read more Davidson since then: maybe the problem with post-modernism is that it is equated to relativism of a very crude kind (also by most post-modernists); but whilst truth is relative to language and language to its users, it is not true that any truth is relative to its use simpliciter. The intermediary of language is a necessary step in relativism & this means that there is no truth outside of language and no language outside of its use. This is precisely what’s required to tie analytical philosophy to moral philosophy and it is still precisely what – given time – I would like to study. So – at least this is constant in what is otherwise fully dynamic.]
[Whilst writing this I was listening to “Dmitri Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87, by Keith Jarrett (ECM New Series)”.]