13 April 2008

On the very idea of blegging for a paper

Forster has a paper titled "On the Very Idea of Denying the Existence of Radically Different Conceptual Schemes" (Inquiry, Volume 41, Issue 2 June 1998 , pages 133 – 185). I would like to read it, but my UT library account is unable to hook me up with a copy; this isn't the first time something's been published in Inquiry which I should like to read, but am not able to.

It has occurred to me that talk of "different conceptual schemes" can be harmless, if sundered from the scheme-content dualism. If two different people (or groups, or cultures) act differently enough, then there's no reason to deny that they get around in the world in different ways, that they conceive of things differently -- that they have different concepts. Rejection of the scheme-content dualism in no way prohibits this; the problem lies not in "conceptual schemes" but in the way these schemes were supposed to "latch on" to the world; the dualism, and not either pole, was the problem.

I do think there are certain families of concepts which anyone who has the ability to communicate must possess -- notions of self, other, belief, truth, etc. -- for basically Davidsonian reasons. But these needn't be identical concepts for all speakers; so long as something in a speaker's practices is able to play the role of distinguishing truth from (mere) belief, the way things are from the way so-and-so holds them to be, all is in good order. And this is a general enough sort of demand that I should imagine very different sorts of practices might suffice to satisfy it. The Davidsonian demand is an externalist one, not an internalist one -- to be a speaker, one must be able to do certain sorts of things, but one needn't necessarily recognize that what one is doing is (e.g.) distinguishing truth from belief. There is no stock of "pure" concepts which all conceptual schemes must have in common, which anyone must possess to be able to think; practices can vary widely, and concepts will vary along with them. And yet all conceptual schemes will have certain family resemblances -- they will all be concepts used by speakers, thinkers, willing agents who act to make things more agreeable to themselves etc. (I am honestly not satisfied with anything I say about "pure" concepts; I cannot seem to find the right words for what I want to say about them, and this leads me to suspect I'm not sure what I want to say about them in the first place.)

I think that incommensurability-talk can be salvaged to an extent; two speakers might be unable to understand one another, despite both being understood by a third speaker. This would be a relative sort of incommensurability, as opposed to an absolute one; it looks to the conceptual repertoire of a particular speaker at a particular moment, rather than something broader. Without learning to cope with one another differently, the two will be unable to understand one another. If the necessary change in coping seems sufficiently difficult, if the mutual incomprehension seems sufficiently resilient to attempts to dissolve it, then talk of "incommensurable conceptual schemes" starts to seem attractive. Of course they might still come to understand one another; there is nothing prohibiting the dropping of old concepts and the taking up of new, or the revision of old concepts in light of new circumstances. The only thing that can bring the hermeneutical circle to a stop is the death of the hermeneut(s). This is all in keeping with Davidson; he has no objection to schemes which can be "calibrated", sentences which are in principle translatable, though they are presently impenetrable. I take this to be the truth of his claim towards the end of "On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" that we ought not to "announce the glorious news that all mankind -- all speakers of language, at least -- share a common scheme and ontology." Understanding does not come this easily; but, contra certain sorts of incommensurability-talk, neither is it impossible.

An aside: I am reading Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" for the first time; I'm fifty pages in now. So far, no surprises. One thing that I am keeping an eye open for is how Kuhn demarcates paradigms; as entities, they seem fishy to me. Kuhn's "normal science" is too smooth; it seems idealized. I suspect that a "paradigm" is just an idealization, too -- as it were, the tutelary angel of a normal-scientific practice. Revolutions might then be the same sorts of disputes which occurs in normal science, only they are more intense; they are disputes sufficient to make an idealized picture cease to seem applicable (the fall of a paradigm), whereas normal disputes are able to go on without the general picture appearing to shift. (These are all very speculative thoughts, obviously, and I ought to finish the book before I worry too much about these big-picture notions in it. But "normal science" just seems too sanguine to be human.)

4 comments:

jon said...

I can send you a copy of the Forster paper, if you're interested.

I highly reccomend checking out post-Structure Kuhn. There's a great collection of papers edited by Conant and Haugeland called "The Road Since Structure."

Daniel Lindquist said...

I am interested.

dmlindquist @t gmail (.com) por favor

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

Ah S-Danski, did you finish PMS Hacker's skewering of Quinean naturalism? Mebbe provide your counterarguments to Dr. Hacker's paper (let's put it this way: while Hacker has a somewhat displeasing Toryish aspect, he more or less stuffed Quine, er the Quine school, into a rather nasty district of the Malebolge--of course one might grant that providing directions to that address somewhat difficult)............