22 February 2009

Davidson's Conceptual Dualism

A citation from a post from a while back at "Frame/Sing":

Here I want to refer to my friend and former colleague at Warwick University Tim Thornton, a Wittgensteinian. He told me years ago that he never understood why Davidson was a conceptual dualist. Why stop at two conceptual spheres or modes of description? Why is the distinction between the mental and the physical so much more compelling than any other way that we can think of to describe the world? Would it not be sensible to say that all situations can, in some way, be described as moral? Tim Thornton thought that conceptual pluralism made more, Wittgensteinian, sense. (footnote, p. 27, Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality, Floris van der Berg)

This actually comes up in one of the "Davidson in Conversation" interviews, with Stuart Hampshire. Here's a quote from Davidson:
I certainly think that we have more than two ways of conceiving reality. I often sound as if I think there are just two, natural science and psychology or something, but, no, there are a lot of natural sciences, and they have different ways of describing things, perhaps irreducibly different…. I don’t know how you’d count potential conceptual schemes, so I don’t see that one should boggle at them [like Spinoza did].
So ,it seems that Thornton’s point was appreciated by Davidson. He just wrote as if he hadn’t thought of it a lot of the time, because the only relevant schemes in the context were the mental & the physical (the rational and the nomic).

Incidentally, this is a nice instance of Davidson talking about "conceptual schemes" in a way that doesn't involve the scheme-content dualism. Later in the same interview, he notes that in physics we plausibly "don't have the best conceptual scheme for the task" (of formulating laws with no exceptions etc.) and that we can advance by changing our scheme. So it seems that Davidson was fine with talking about "conceptual schemes" in a basically Kuhnian way. Which is interesting. Certainly a lot of people have worried about a tension between the two. (I know I have.) Davidson doesn't seem to feel a tension -- he just uses "conceptual schemes" here, without comment.

There's a lot of interesting things in the "In Conversation" videos. I wish they were more easily accessible; only the Rorty one is online, as far as I can tell.


kvond said...

Well, Davidson does and does not anticipate Thornton's point. Davidson reserves these conceptual schemes to sciences, while Thornton asks if "moral" might also be such a conceptual category. I"m not sure that Davidson anticipates a "moral science" (but perhaps he does).

There is also another aspect here in the difference between Davidson's point, and Spinoza's notion of Attribute. Spinoza's Attributes are things that defintionally "all" things can be reduced to in description, and thus includes a panpsychism of the world. Davidson restricts the mental to pretty much the human. If Davidson is going to grant conceptual schemes to individual sciences, then these schemes are going to have to be context bound by subject.

Daniel Lindquist said...

I took Thornton's point to be about pluralism, as opposed to dualism. Davidson has that much. I'm not sure he reserves his pluralism for sciences, either; I think those are just the examples that came to mind. (Of course, Davidson is a good Quinean and so doesn't hold to a firm boundary between science and the other stuff. So "the natural sciences" might include the study of literature, or some damned thing like that.)

I think Davidson would actually lump the moral in with the psychological. In his later writings his formulations of the principle of charity include a clause about taking the other to be a "fellow seeker of the good". Understanding another's desires is part of understanding their attitudes, and understanding their desires requires charity in their knowledge of the good. So questions about what it's good to desire are just part of "the mental" -- it's a big-tent category.

That's a fair point about Attributes. Spinoza has reasons to be more sparing with them than Davidson does, so the bit about not seeing why Spinoza found them mysterious isn't fair.

Though it's worth noting that every event does have a mental description, for Davidson: "X co-exists with a thing that wants to take a nap" is a mental description by the standards of "Mental Events", and it's true of everything (at least at the moment, because I am tired). That's the bit about being able to spare "Spinozistic excess" in "Mental Events". It's just that most events don't have mental descriptions such that those events are happenings in the life of some rational agent. But in the "Spinozistic excess" sense, all the natural sciences' conceptual schemes will admit descriptions for everything. Most of them will be very boring.

kvond said...

All nice comments. As to every event having a mental description, a la "wanting to take a nap" this is unfortunately a far cry from the notion of mental Attribution, which requires that the mental or ideational description tell us precisely what the "essence" the very isness of what something is. "X co-exists..." is certainly not of this character.

And I do agree with you that there is a strong moral or perhaps ethical component to Davidson's psychology, hence his Charity. And this follows Spinoza's own Ethics of trigulating causes in the "imitations of the affects." I'm not sure that this amounts to a moral "conceptual scheme". But it is an interesting question, for Spinoza too buries the ethical, what traditionally in the Neoplantonic, Augustinian treatment "Amor" in the very mechanism of the other two Attributes, treating the conatus as something like a third Attribute (it is the essence of existing things).

I see strong correspondences between Davidson's and Spinoza's treatment of the social field in this way, how ethical attributions of sameness (and rationality) are the very means by which epistemology functions.

I wonder though if even more clarity could be sought if the pull the moral/ethical dimension out, with its own autonomy of description.

And I do follow your point about there being no hard line between the sciences and not, but he does renounce the Spinozist ambition for a complete science of the affects, and one wonders if "incompletion" is perfectly acceptable for an irreducible "conceptual scheme" what is the qualification of such a scheme in the first place. (He does want to draw a rathe firm line between metaphor and literal truth, so there can be no science of metaphor for instance, and therefore one presumes no "conceptual scheme of metphor.)

Perezoso said...

Nietzsche referred to Spinoza as a spider or something. For all the supposed rationalism, Spinoza's Ethics reads pretty much like a scholastic (ie note the references to "God" perfection, essencia, etc) with a bit of naturalism. Continental rationalist nostalgia's still popular in some circles--like the private Uni- vichy conservative circle.

Davidson's pretty much Quine, in terms of naturalism, and even reductionist aspects, with more muck (and thus like Quine with that the villains of "scientism", according to Wittlesstein). Varsity-boy, after a few months of QuineSpeak, should realize he would have been better off trying to earn an MD (or at least RN...)

BLK said...

Arguably, the divergence between Quine and Davidson is most pronounced when it comes to issues related to "naturalism" and "reductionism," you anti-semitic rube.

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

Non-arguably, that's a non sequitur, if not racist--tho' expected from ZionCo.

Anyway, Davidson was not a logician, at least in the sense that Quine was a logician.

Davidson seemed more interested in psychology (and conceptualism, man), though cognitive science types might disagree with his anti-determinism, and the thesis that mental laws cannot be formulated (cogsci's still in development, so in a few decades, language-functions will, most likely, be mapped out neurologically, as has already happened with vision)

Human cognition may seem "anomalous" (compared to other primates, the natural world, etc), but that in itself does not defeat physicalism--

Either way, has little to do with ju-xtian tradition

henk said...

for a readable explanation of conceptual schemes, look at:


Henk Tuten