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Wittgenstein, Davidson, and the Myth of Incommensurability

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

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Part Two: Reconceptualizing Philosophy
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Copyright © The Authors 1993

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References

1 I would like to thank Jocelyn Couture and Kai Nielsen, without whose encouragement and guidance I would never have awoken from my dogmatic slumber. I would also like to thank Dahlia Stein for her assistance and patience in editing the copy.

2 James C. Edwards, Ethics Without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the Moral Life (Florida: University Presses of Florida 1982), 165

3 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), 2

4 Davidson, Donald, ‘On the Very Idea of Conceptual Scheme,’ Post-Analytic Philosophy, John Rajchman and Cornel West, eds. (New York: Columbia University Press 1985), 132

5 Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 49

6 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell1958), ‘1!115

7 In what follows, I shall often gloss over the admittedly significant differences between such notions as ‘language-games,’ ‘forms of life,’ ‘Weltbild,’ ‘conceptual framework,’ ‘language,’ and ‘social practice.’ Although differences between these notions are important, they are not strictly relevant in what follows, which is primarily an argument against incommensurability. However, two points regarding the connection between some of these notions might be relevant here: the first is that our web of beliefs, our Weltbild, for reasons which will become clear, can often not be separated in a strict a priori manner from our concepts, language, or conceptual framework. The second is that Wittgenstein himself did not give a systematic account of notions such as ‘language-games’ and ‘forms of life.’ He used these terms in different ways for different purposes throughout his writings. This gives credence to the view, which I accept, that he was not interested in presenting a general account or theory of language and society.

Perhaps I should add that I do not maintain that my interpretation of Wittgenstein conforms to all the remarks he made regarding the above mentioned notions; such a task, given the diversity of his comments, may not be possible, or even desirable. In this context, I particularly have his comments in Culture and Value in mind; for example: ‘one age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all others in its own nasty way.’ [Culture and Value, Peter Winch, trans. and G.H. von Wright, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980), 780. Whatl do hope to provide is a reasonable and charitable account (for good Davidsonian reasons) of many of his observations, which will allow one to avoid incommensurability and skepticism between languages and social practices.

8 Ibid., ‘li 23

9 Ibid., ‘li 241

10 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (New York: Harper 1969) 1167

11 Ibid., 1144

12 Kai Nielsen, After the Demise of the Tradition: Rorty, Critical Theory, and the Fate of Philosophy (Oxford: Westview Press 1991), 102

13 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ‘li 94

14 Donald Davidson, ‘The Methods of Truth in Metaphysics,’ in After Philosophy, End or Transformation? Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, eds. (Cambridge: MIT Press 1987), 167

15 Ibid.

16 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ‘li 204

17 Ibid., ‘1!105

18 Ibid., ‘1!509

19 James C. Edwards, Ethics Without Philosophy, 182

20 Stanley Cavell, ‘Existentialism and Analytic Philosophy,’ Daedalus 93 (1964), 963

21 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 23

22 James Conant, ‘Introduction,’ Hilary Putnam, Realism With a Human Face, James Conant, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990), xxxv

23 Donald Davidson, ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge,’ Reading Rorty, Alan Malachowski, ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell1990), 127

24 Ibid., 135

25 Peter Winch, The Idea of Social Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul1958), 114

26 Roger Trigg, ‘Wittgenstein and Social Science; Wittgenstein Centenary Essays, A. Phillip Griffiths, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), 216

27 In this essay, I do not consider the interpretation of Kuhn and Feyerabend which involves the discussion of incommensurability between different scientific theories. For example, Howard Sankey reads Kuhn and Feyerabend as arguing to the conclusion that ‘theories may be incommensurable with each other …. [T]he languages of some semantically variant theories fail to be fully inter-translatable, and … the content of such theories cannot be directly compared’ ('Incommensurability, Translation and Understanding,’ The Philosophical Quarterly 41 [1991], 414). I do not see such ‘incommensurability’ as problematic. It should come as no surprise that different theories cannot be inter-translatable, just as it should come as no surprise that the vocabulary we use to describe actions cannot be translated into vocabulary in which we describe behavior or brain states. This is so, even if we wish to also say that the different theories or different descriptions explain or describe the same processes or events. What makes it possible for someone (anyone, in principle, given proper education) to interpret a theory, or ‘directly’ compare two different ‘incommensurable’ theories which describe the same state of affairs, is the theories’ relation to the background language or web of beliefs (with their interrelated and holistic character) that make up our Weltbild, which are necessarily commensurable. It is the idea of the possibility of different, incommensurable background languages, webs of belief or world-pictures that I wish to attack.

28 Ibid., 216

29 Richard Rorty, ‘Cosmopolitanism Without Emancipation: A Response to JeanFran∼ ois Lyotard,’ Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 212

30 James Conant, ed., Realism With a Human Face, lxix

31 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 4

32 Donald Davidson, ‘Method of Truth in Metaphysics,’ 167

33 Donald Davidson, ‘On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,’ 142

34 Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 117

35 I will discuss in section IX the sense of ‘must’ used here.

36 Donald Davidson, ‘Radical Interpretation,’ Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985), 137

37 Kai Nielsen, After the Demise of the Tradition, 83

38 Richard Rorty, ‘Inquiry as Recontextualization,’ Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 107

39 Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 117

40 Donald Davidson, ‘Radical Interpretation,’ Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985), 168

41 I believe that upon reflection, it would be very difficult to deny Davidson's position without appealing to some transcendental perspective or self-refuting skepticism. It is in this sense that we have no alternative. I will say more about this in section VII.

The situation is not essentially different, at least not in any philosophically interesting way, if one learns a language from scratch, as a child does. For however one learns a language, as participant or radical interpreter, what one learns will have the properties of rationality, veridicality, and publicity, and, therefore, will not be incommensurable.

42 W.V. Quine, ‘Ontological Relativity,’ Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press 1969)

43 Donald Davidson, ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,’ 141

44 The reason I call this a pragmatic solution is that the decision to attribute a different concept to a person rather than a false belief can not be determined in advance through the use of a general, mechanical, decision procedure. The decision must be based on what Putnam calls our ‘general intelligence.’ As he argues: ‘the knowledge that one thing is reasonable charity while another thing would be excessive exhibits our full power of understanding … there is no hope of a theory of meaning or reference which applies to such difficult cases and which is independent of our … general intelligence’ (Hilary Putnam, Representation and Reality [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1988]14).

45 Charles Taylor, ‘Understanding and Ethnocentricity,’ Philosaphy and Human Sciences Philosophical Papers 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985), 128

46 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 108

47 Bernard Williams, ‘Terrestrial Thoughts, Extraterrestrial Science’ London Review of Books 13 (February 7, 1991), 13

48 Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, 114

49 I do not take up, although I acknowledge, the possibility of Quinean indeterminacy. Thus, with appropriate adjustments elsewhere in a translation scheme, all the evidence an interpreter has might justify two alternative translations for the native term ‘gavagi,’ one being ‘rabbithood,’ the other ‘rabbit parts.’ (Although the interpreter may, upon obtaining new evidence, come up with reasons for choosing one translation over another. Thus the native speaker may have been a cook seeking the basis for his next meal; hence, ‘rabbit part’ might be the most reasonable choice.) What I want to deny, as does Quine, is that there is something over and above the interpretation of another language, like fixed exhibits within a museum to which we have no access. That is the incommensurability thesis. Quine rejects the image of words having meanings like exhibits in a mental museum: ‘On these assumptions it would be forever impossible to know of one of these translations that it was the right one, and the other wrong. Still, if the museum myth were true, there would be a right and wrong of the matter; it is just that we would never know, not having access to the museum. See the language naturalistically, on the other hand, and you have to see the notion of likeness of meaning in such a case simply as nonsense’ ('Ontological Relativity,’ Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press 1969), 29-30). For Quine there is no fact of the matter about what a sentence in another language means aside from the translation of that sentence into our own language. He adds, however, that ‘this is not because the meanings of sentences are elusive or inscrutable; it is because there is nothing to them, beyond what these fumbling [translator's] procedures can come up with’ (W.V. Quine, Pursuit of Truth [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990]47).

It may be worth pointing out that for Davidson, translation is also indeterminate, if a determinate translation requires that there be a set of strict decision procedures which will determine a unique interpretation that disentangles meaning from belief in every case. We have seen (in section V) that such determinations will be pragmatic, requiring the application of our ‘general intelligence.’ Alternative interpretations are possible, and there is no mechanism which will determine a unique choice between them. As Davidson remarks: ‘Belief and meaning cannot be uniquely constructed from speech behavior.’ He adds, significantly, that ‘the remaining indeterminacy should not be judged as a failure of interpretation, but rather as a logical consequence of the nature of theories of meaning’ ('The Material Mind,’ Essays on Actions and Events [Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980], 256-7).

There is an important difference between Quine and Davidson which is significant in this context. Quine's views are more likely to lead to conceptual relativity and skepticism (rather than indeterminacy) than are Davidson's. Quine still maintains that there must be an epistemological intermediary between ‘the world’ on the one hand, and the meaning of our sentences and contents of our beliefs, on the other. For Quine, sensory stimulation plays this evidential role. This, as Davidson points out, is still a version of the distinction between scheme and content, and thus suffers from the ills of that distinction. By focusing on what are essentially private or subjective patterns of stimulation, which play the role of evidence for the meaning of our sentences and the contents of our beliefs, rather than intersubjectively observable events and objects, which are the causes of our beliefs, Quine opens the way for skepticism and relativity.

As Davidson has argued: ‘Quine makes interpretation depend on patterns of sensory stimulation, while I make it depend on the external events and objects the sentence is interpreted as being about’ ('A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge,’ 313).

50 Donald Davidson, ‘Radical Interpretation,’ 137

51 Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, 114

52 Richard Rorty, ‘World Well Lost,’ Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press 1982), 7

53 It might be argued that translation is not a necessary condition for understanding an alternative conceptual scheme since one can become bilingual and learn a language from scratch. But here, again, just as in the case of a child learning a language from scratch, the language learned will have the properties of rationality, veridicality and publicity. What can be said in the one language will, on the whole be able to be said in the other (on the whole, since there will be some exceptions, exceptions which presuppose a background of agreement). The bilingual speaker will not have access to two alternative conceptual schemes, if the argument is this essay is correct.

54 Ibid.

55 Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, 116

56 This also explains the relativism inherent in the incommensurability thesis. The incoherence found in relativism often arises from the fact that it presupposes a transcendent perspective. Otherwise the relativist could not argue that one moral system is as ‘good’ as another, or one pattern of beliefs as ‘true’ as another.

57 Donald Davidson, ‘Judging Interpersonal Interests,’ Foundations of Social Choice Theory, Jon Elster and Aanund Hylland, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 206

58 There is a grain of truth in both the notions of correspondence and coherence. We can say that a statement (although not language as a whole) corresponds to reality in the trivial sense that, for example, ‘snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white. And we can appeal to coherence, as Davidson does, to make the negative (holistic) point that the only thing which justifies a belief is another belief. But these interpretations of correspondence and coherence do not conflict, nor do they lead to any sort of metaphysical position.

59 Richard Rorty, ‘World Well Lost,’ 6

60 This point is reminiscent of a remark by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus: ‘Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism. The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there is the reality co-ordinated with it’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul1922], ’)[5.64). For Davidson, realism and idealism collapse into each other. Of course, I do not want my remarks to carry the weight of the thesis presented in Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

61 ‘And in practice we end the regress of background languages … by acquiescing in our mother tongue and taking its words at face value’ (W.V. Quine, ‘Ontological Relativity,’ Ontological Relativity and Other Essays [New York: Columbia University Press 1969], 49). I believe this is a basis of the appeal to ordinary language made by contemporary philosophers. For there is no more basic appeal, neither foundational nor transcendental, than the appeal to our mother tongue, the ordinary language within which we have been nurtured. In this sense the appeal may be said, if you like, to be not strictly empirical. See Kai Nielsen, ‘On There Being Philosophical Knowledge,’ Theoria 56 (1990), 193-225.

62 When I use the word ‘natural,’ I wish to contrast ‘natural’ with ‘transcendental’ and ‘metaphysical.’ I do not wish to exclude anything else by the use of that word. In particular, I do not wish to imply that some of our statements are not intentional or not normative, nor do I wish to imply anything that can be taken to be reductionistic.

63 Peter Winch, Idea of Social Science, 94

64 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press 1970), ‘1!430

65 Donald Davidson, ‘Judging Interpersonal Interests,’ 206

66 O.K. Bouwsma, Wittgenstein: Conversations, 1949-1951 (Indianapolis: Hackett 1986), 23-4

67 See note 59.

68 Donald Davidson, ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge,’ 128

69 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ‘li 109

70 James Conant, ed., Realism With A Human Face (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990), xxxii

71 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ‘1!206

72 Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ‘1!156

73 Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1979), 83

74 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ‘j[509

75 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ‘j[l09

76 Ibid., ‘j[llS

77 Ibid., ‘li 144

78 Richard Rorty, ‘Cosmopolitanism Without Emancipation,’ Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 216

79 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 5

80 O.K. Bouwsma, Wittgenstein: Conversations, 1949-1951,24

81 Ronald Dworkin, ‘Pragmatism, Right Answers and True Banality,’ Pragmatism in Law and Society, Michael Brent and William Wearer, eds. (Boulder, CO: Interview Press 1992)

82 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1979), 178

83 Ronald Dworkin, ‘Pragmatism, Right Answers and True Banality,’ 360

84 Ibid., 361

85 Ibid., 362

86 Ibid.

87 Ibid.

88 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 178

89 Ibid., 385

90 Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, 117

91 When we say reasonable, we are neither using a notion of ‘rationality’ that is relative to a culture or language-game, nor a transcendent notion of ‘rationality.'

The contrast between these alternatives has been eliminated, or so I have argued. We may, from this external perspective, also give a causal or functional account of their beliefs and social practices. Thus, for example, we may demonstrate that certain economic or productive forces determine certain beliefs and practices as Marx does.

It is important to note that this (external) knowledge may be used when one enters into dialogue with those with whom we are engaged in order to argue for the truth or falsity of views with which we disagree. Thus, for example, we may use the functional or causal information we have garnered in our external study to point out that certain beliefs and practices are ideologically distorted.

92 Ronald Dworkin, ‘Pragmatism, Right Answers and True Banality,’ 364

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