- Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective by Donald Davidson
Oxford, 237 pp, £30.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 19 823753 7
I do wish Donald Davidson would write a book. I mean, a proper book with a beginning, a middle and an end, in contrast to the collections of papers of which the present volume is an instance. My wishing so is not invidious. These bite-sized essays, each a mere fifteen or twenty pages long, often impress one as serious philosophical achievements even when they are read piecemeal, as they were written. But when they’re read together, one sees (what I, at least, hadn’t fully realised) that Davidson is a kind of bird that’s become rare almost to extinction: a systematic philosopher. That’s to say that he holds to a small number of very general principles the application of which, he claims, resolves a heterogeneous bushel of philosophical puzzles. The puzzles range from, for example, whether animals believe things (apparently they don’t), to whether the concept of the self is irreducible (apparently it is), to how many people it takes to think about a light bulb (apparently it takes two; see below). A lot of the fun of reading these papers is seeing how an exiguous collection of commitments plays out in so many different domains.
But, though it’s fun, it’s also frustrating. Davidson’s format often doesn’t give him room to make clear exactly what his general principles amount to; and the arguments from the principles to the conclusions that they’re alleged to underwrite tend to be elusive. One thinks perhaps that one sees how they’re supposed to go; but then one thinks that perhaps one doesn’t. Much gnashing of teeth. Much tearing of hair. Lacking the book that I wish Davidson would write, the best I can do is trace a strand through the web of arguments that he weaves. For all that it’s a main strand, there is much more going on in these papers than this way of proceeding will let me attend to. So be it.
Perhaps Davidson’s primary commitment is to the thesis that languages are intrinsically public objects. ‘If Wittgenstein held that language is necessarily social, then the central thesis of this essay is Wittgensteinian.’ And again: ‘Language is in its nature . . . intersubjective; what someone else’s words mean on a given occasion is always something that we can in principle learn from public clues.’ And yet again: ‘The theory of truth we must presume lies in available facts about how speakers use the language. When I say available, I mean publicly available – available not only in principle, but available in fact to anyone who is capable of understanding the speaker or speakers of the language.’ What with one thing and another, I guess Davidson thinks that there aren’t – can’t be – any private languages. ‘And, given the close connections between thought and language, analogous remarks go for the contents of the [propositional] attitudes.’ Just as the meaning of utterances must depend entirely on facts that aren’t privy to the speaker, so, too, the content of thoughts must depend entirely on facts that aren’t privy to the thinker. Only what hearers are able to interpret could be a language; only what second persons can discern can be the content of a thought. The pending questions are: Why does Davidson believe all that? Is he right to believe it? And, if he’s right, what follows from it?
To begin with, the inherent publicity of language (or thought) must amount to more than the inherent publicity of communication. It’s just a truism that it takes two to communicate, as Davidson is fully aware. His idea is that whatever it is actually used for, it’s intrinsic to something being a language that it’s the sort of thing that could be a medium of communication. Likewise, however reticent the thinker in a given case, it’s intrinsic to something being a thought that its content could be publicly manifest. Davidson’s shorthand way of saying this is that the contents of utterances and of thoughts must be available to someone who is in the epistemic position of a ‘radical interpreter’. I’m not entirely clear what epistemic position Davidson thinks radical interpreters are in, but the basic intuition is that a language has to be the kind of thing that such as you or I could learn to translate.
Only a radically interpretable language could be a vehicle of communication; that seems plausible enough. But it doesn’t quite follow that languages are, per se, radically interpretable. For, why couldn’t a language that isn’t used for communication be useful for something else? Consider inferring, which is, I suppose, something that creatures with minds do all the time. The premises and conclusion of an inference must be expressed in some way or other. The usual way of expressing them is to utter (or think) a linguistic formula that means them. Presumably, you infer from P to Q by saying (or thinking) something along the lines of ‘P, therefore Q’. Well, it certainly seems that you could use a language to express the inferences you want to evaluate but not for anything else. And it seems not to be obvious that such a language would have to be accessible from, as it were, ‘the outside’; that it would have to be a language that a radical interpreter could learn. If Davidson thinks that isn’t really imaginable, he has to say why. I’m about to turn to this, but first a detour. I want to make clear why he supposes the issue of interpretability matters so.