On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme

“It would be wrong to summarize by saying we have shown how communication is possible between people who have different conceptual schemes, a way that works without need of what there cannot be, namely a neutral ground, or a common co-ordinate system. For we have found no intelligible basis on which it can be said that schemes are different. It would be equally wrong to announce the glorious news that all mankind – all speakers of language, at least – share a common scheme and ontology. For if we cannot say that schemes are different, neither can we intelligibly say that they are one.

In giving up dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside of all schemes and science, we do not relinquish the notion of objective truth – quite the contrary. Given the dogma of a dualism of scheme and reality, we get conceptual relativity, and truth relative to a scheme. Without the dogma, this kind of relativity goes by the board. (..)”

D. Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 197-198.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 19-04-09. Key quote, weak thought, at least very weakly expressed.]

This long quote is one of the rare wormholes (some basic notion of science fiction is a assumed existant in the reader of this) between philosophy of language and ethics.

If true we have speakers that understand each other at least somewhat and a world against which they can check each other’s understanding. Insofar as speakers don’t understand each other, they are not speakers and they are merely, if that, part of the background against which understanding is possible., part of the world. That is clean and neat. It is not much but it is not only better than nothing, it is enough to make some quite striking moral observations.

Assuming that our ability to communicate is an important part of what we are,  there clearly is virtue in extending both breadth and depth of communication (it is a truely Habermasian point to make).

And not just that: whatever else may be said of an erroneous but shared and understood notion, if it is to have any cash value in the world it will have to allow being judged intersubjectively. It either helps or blocks communication and understanding. Some undoubtedly find this plebeian morality naïve and counter to the everyday observation that common people cling on to many falsities.

But these elitists are wrong.

As per the above: language can’t be individuated (more on that later – language by the way is not alone here, genes can’t be properly individuated – subatomic particles can’t properly …) Integers don’t work for communication and the continuum isn’t as easily filled by the elite (must find back that article by Church!) as the elite thinks it can be filled, by them.

Common sense is a product that involves the common people more than it involves the happy few. We are constantly creating understanding and (Quine is right albeit in this case he is not radical enough) there’s no possible end to it (although there is a beginning: any successful attempt at communication).

So that is the moral path: neither crooked nor narrow . No requirement to force us in directions against our grain because nothing is so natural for human beings as to be blabbering constantly. The risk does not come from a momentary tiredness of this talking, our instinctive conservativeness in not allowing new understanding that could jeopardize a status quo in which we and our children are pretty sure to thrive.

No sir, the risk comes from the attempts to regiment our communication (rules for spelling come to mind as early symptoms) which is always (and necessarily, per the above) the creation of arbitrary and untenable (except temporarily, by force and coercion) in- and outsiders who are, as always, immoral by the simple but strong lights described above.

At the risk of repetition of things elsewhere slumbered about on this site; it is not at all a coincidence to discover that the shorter, simpler and less detailed version is the better. Only by stripping away the coincidental and realizing it’s just an instant in the journey rather than the possible end point we can fix something worthwhile (Darwin’s like that as well). It is immoral to defend a multiplicity of rules. Certainly when we’re told that bending, or sometimes even only calling into question, these rules is in and by itself immoral.

There are not too many things that are truly immoral. Religion was maybe right in that (and only that): in the end judgment is simple and not a question of arithmetic.

[Whilst writing this I was listening to Chemical Brothers, We Are The Night, 2007.]


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