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  • On the Very Good Idea of a Conceptual Scheme
  • Martin Coleman

Richard Rorty has argued that Donald Davidson can be classified as a neopragmatist. To this end, Rorty has tried to show that Davidson's views share important similarities with those of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Davidson, for his part, has tended to resist Rorty's attempts to classify his views in this way. Interestingly, the reasons for Rorty's classification and the reasons for Davidson's resistance share a common trait: an appeal to the elimination of the dualism of conceptual scheme and experiential content on the basis of an assumed background of shared beliefs. According to Rorty, Davidson's background of shared beliefs is closely related to the notion of funded experience found in those thinkers often classified as Classic American Philosophers or pragmatists (13). But Davidson rejects pragmatism along with the relativisms and empiricisms that fall when the scheme-content dualism is eliminated (Davidson, Inquiries xviii).

It is my contention that Rorty errs in including Davidson with Classic American Philosophers in virtue of his assumed background of shared beliefs, and Davidson is wrong to flatly reject the scheme-content distinction as the third and final dogma of empiricism. I intend to show that Davidson's background of shared belief differs significantly from the corresponding notion in the works of John Dewey, and that Dewey's position provides resources for eliminating the incoherence that Davidson finds in the scheme-content distinction without the outright rejection of a helpful tool of inquiry. This contributes to a defense of Dewey's empirical philosophy against Davidson's supposed defeat of empiricism.

Background of Beliefs and Apparatus of Habits

Conceptual schemes are supposed to be perspectives belonging to individuals or cultures by means of which sensory content is organized. The dualism [End Page 69] of scheme-content seems to entail the possibility that different individuals or different cultures may have utterly different understandings of the world to the point of incommensurability. Davidson denies such a possibility and contends that the very notion of a conceptual scheme is incoherent. This is because to recognize a conceptual scheme as completely incommensurable would entail either going beyond one's own conceptual scheme, which would show the superfluity of a conceptual scheme, or else recognizing the supposedly incommensurable conceptual scheme as a conceptual scheme, which would indicate a significant similarity to one's own conceptual scheme and hence a contradiction of the claim of utter incommensurability. In this latter case, the point is that recognizing something as a conceptual scheme requires a shared background of agreement or beliefs. And as this background is not itself a conceptual scheme but rather a basic requirement of reasoning, the notion of a conceptual scheme again becomes superfluous.

This background of agreement can be understood by examining Davidson's use of the Principle of Charity, which is employed when trying to understand what a speaker means. According to Davidson, in order to understand the meaning of a speaker's utterances, one must know what the speaker believes because "a speaker who holds a sentence to be true on an occasion does so in part because of what he means, or would mean, by an utterance of that sentence, and in part because of what he believes" (Inquiries 142). But this "interdependence of belief and meaning" (Inquiries 137) presents a problem: beliefs cannot be determined without interpreting the meaning of a speaker's words. Thus, the interpreter appears trapped in a circle of the speaker's beliefs and the meanings of a speaker's utterances. The Principle of Charity allows the interpreter to escape the circle of unknown beliefs and uncomprehended meanings by assuming that most of the beliefs of the speaker are true. Without the assumption of shared understanding or shared truths, no further understanding is possible.

Davidson thinks one is not only justified but also compelled to adopt the Principle of Charity because genuine disagreements and misunderstandings make sense only against a background of what is understood in common. Genuine misunderstandings stand in contrast to cases in which there is nothing—no language, nothing rational—to understand and so nothing to mis-understand. Hence, an interpreter's initial inability...


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