Donald Davidson (1917 – 2003) was a very influential philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century. One of the fields he contributed to was the philosophy of language. Among other questions, the philosophy of language concerns itself with questions like: where does language get its meaning from? and, how does language relate to our mind, the world, or our community?
One reason why philosophy became interested in language was the surge in scientific progress in early modern times. With a more sophisticated science, we needed to think about the requirements of a language suitable for speaking about reality in such an objective and sophisticated way. One of the philosophers who influenced Davidson was Quine, who was indeed concerned with the philosophy of science. Quine proposed that all science aimed to form a coherent theory of reality. This, then, needs to be formulated in language. Each sentence in any language, then, formulates a theorem of this over-arching holistic theory. Sentences, then, acquire their meaning from the role they play in the totality of all true sentences in that language.
Kuhn, another philosopher of science, then proposed that it is possible to have quite different coherent holistic theories of reality. Indeed, he famously offered the idea of a paradigm shift: grand discoveries in science cause a radical change of meaning in a language. In the Ptolemaic world view, for instance, concepts like “star” and “planet” just had entirely different meanings than after the Copernican Turn. Thus, the Ptolemaic language and the Copernican language are so different in terms of meaning, that one can’t compare them with each other, even if they use the same words and grammar. They are incommensurable.
From this idea of language as a way to describe reality in different ways, it is only a small step to the following thesis, which is widely accepted today, among philosophers and non-philosophers alike. It’s called the “incommensurability thesis”, and applies Quine’s and Kuhn’s idea to all natural languages (or families of languages):
- All languages (or families of languages) are conceptual schemes; they are ways in which we organise reality (or our experience thereof).
- Different languages (or families of languages) organise reality in different ways.
- Therefore, languages are not intertranslateable; conceptual schemes are incommensurable.
Davidson rejects this thesis in his seminal paper On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme. He does not argue that languages all are or represent the same conceptual scheme (just in different words), but he argues that the very idea of a conceptual scheme, language as a scheme with which we categorise unorganised content, is unintelligible.
How would a conceptual scheme work? Well, there are four possibilities:
Davidson proceeds to reject them one by one.
Firstly, “we cannot attach a clear meaning to the notion of organising a single object (the world, nature etc.) unless that object is understood to contain or consist in other objects. Someone who sets out to organize a closet arranges the things in it. If you are told not to organize the shoes and shirts, but the closet itself, you would be bewildered.” (p.14)
Secondly, with regards to organising our experience of reality instead of reality itself: “Much the same difficulties recur. The notion of organization applies only to pluralities. … Experience makes another and more obvious trouble for the organizing idea. For how could something count as a language that organized only experiences, sensations, surface irritations or sense data? Surely knives and forks, railroads and mountains, cabbages and kingdoms also need organizing.” (p.15)
Finally, Davidson argues, saying that language fits reality or fits our experience of reality is just a complicated way of saying it is true. But since we’re all sharing the same reality, if all languages just combine true sentences about reality, all languages must share the same meaning.
A truth-conditional theory of meaning
Davidson uses Alfred Tarski’s Convention T to arrive at his truth-conditional theory of meaning:
“according to Tarski’s Convention T, a satisfactory theory of truth for a language L must entail, for every sentence s of L, a theorem of the form “s is true if and only if p” where “s” is replaced by a description of s and “p” by s itself if L is English, and by a translation of s into English if L is not English.” P. 16
Example: “Sneeuw is wit” is true if and only if snow is white.
Since for every language we can determine which conditions in reality must obtain for each sentence to be true, we can then find a sentence in any other language that has very similar truth conditions: a sentence that would be true in the same circumstances. If that sentence is found, then we have a translation.
If languages would indeed not be about the same reality at all, then it is hard to see how we could recognise them as languages at all, rather than mere noise. Principle of charity: interpretation or translation depends on our assuming a great deal of agreement, until disagreements surface. It is then much simpler to explain difficulties in translation as differences in belief about reality, rather than as differences in conceptual schemes.