12 February 2009

A Note on Triangulation

While rereading Rorty's response to Ramberg in "Rorty and His Critics", I had a thought about why McDowell doesn't seem to like the notion of "triangulation". Davidson introduces the notion as something that doesn't require language. Monkeys can triangulate -- they react one way to snakes, another way to lions, and another way to eagles, and monkeys can notice these different reactions, and in this way avoid predators. Which makes it seem like the point of the notion is to explain animal behavior, primarily; human behavior is then a type of animal behavior that it explains. I've reread several of Davidson's later essays recently, and he pretty consistently uses it in ways that can be read like this: triangulation is something generic to rational and non-rational animals, and in interpretation of a rational animal some additional factor is brought into view. Triangulation + Language = Rational Animals.

Davidsonians seem to speak a bit differently (though I'd argue that they simply bring forth what's already present in Davidson's texts). Here's the bit from Davidson that Rorty, in his response to Ramberg, said he had previously found "utterly opaque":

We depend on our linguistic interpretations with others to yield agreement on the properties of numbers and the sort of structures in nature that allow us to represent those structures in numbers. We cannot in the same way agree on the structure of sentences or thoughts we use to chart the thoughts and meanings of others, for the attempt to reach such agreement simply sends us back to the very process of interpretation on which all agreement depends.
And here's Rorty:
I did not understand the second sentence in this passage until I read it in Ramberg's way. Read that way, it can be paraphrased as saying "Whereas you can, in the course of triangulation, criticize any given claim about anything you talk about, you cannot ask for agreement that others shall take part in a process of triangulation." The inescapability of norms is the inescapability, for both describers and agents, of triangulating.
This is a far cry from "running when the other monkey hoots, climbing a tree when he hollers". If McDowell reads "triangulation" in the more generic sense, this might explain why he misses some of the more Gadamerian elements of Davidson.

In addition, rereading Rorty's response has reminded me just how fantastic this volume is. This stuff is just captivating. Really terrific.


N. N. said...


What paper(s) by Davidson can I read where he goes into detail about prior and passing theories (does he always use this terminology)? I'm really wanting to see how Davidson (or even a good Davidsonian) would give an involved description of how adjustments are made to a prior theory so as to correctly interpret what someone says.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"(does he always use this terminology)?"

He does not. He regrets introducing it in the Appendix to "Truth, Language and History" (which is a reprint of his responses to an issue of Critica devoted to him). Relevant section is ps.323-327 of TLH. He thinks he could've put his point more clearly without the prior theory/passing theory language.

If you want detail, I'm afraid that "Epitaphs" and "The Social Aspect of Language" are the only full essays Davidson devotes to the topic. It comes up from time to time in responses to others in Fechtschriften/colloquia in his honor, but not in any substantial way, that I recall. Generally he just repeats things from "Derangement".

Checking for Davidsonians who've addressed the issue, I checked the index for "Rorty and His Critics". I don't see anything that would fit the bill for what you're asking after, but I do want to recommend, again, that you read this volume (especially Bjorn Ramberg's piece). It really is fantastic.

As to "an involved description of how adjustments are made to a prior theory so as to correctly interpret what someone says": I suspect that there might not be much to say about how it goes, in general. "There are no rules for arriving at passing theories, no rules in any strict sense, as opposed to rough maxims and methodological generalities. A passing theory really is like a theory at least in this, that it is derived by wit, luck and wisdom from a private vocabulary and grammar, knowledge of the ways people get their point across, and rules of thumb for figuring out what deviations from the dictionary are most likely. There is no more chance at regularizing, or teaching, this process than there is of regularizing or teaching the process of creating new theories to cope with new data in any field -- for that is what this process involves." (from the last page of "Epitaphs").

The ending remark there is a little unfortunate, since it ties Davidson's point to his "theory"-talk, but I take the point of this passage to be broadly Gadamerian: There's no science of interpretation. The urge to find some method of interpreting texts/speakers that will always infallibly work is doomed; hermeneutic good sense requires recognizing that any such method would be of limited usefulness. We have to always be prepared to understand things radically anew. (I take this to be, broadly, one of the main points of "Truth and Method". It's the whole "Truth requires going without Method" part of it.)

Oh, that is something: "Gadamer and Plato's Philebus" might be worth looking at, for general this-is-the-sort-of-thing-Davidson-is-after reasons. It's also in "Truth, Language, and History".