Radical Interpretation and the Principle of Charity
A Companion to Donald Davidson
The idea of radical interpretation, using The Principle of Charity, plays one of the two central roles in Davidson's philosophy of language. It is introduced already in 'Truth and Meaning' and then developed in a series of papers in the mid-1970s. Ideas shift in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. We shall here focus mostly on the early views. What is radical interpretation? Radical interpretation is a species of interpretation. The term 'interpretation' itself has a process-product ambiguity: in
... ct ambiguity: in the product sense it denotes a content attribution, or the content itself that is attributed, by an interpreter. In the process sense, an interpretation is the process that leads to an interpretation in the product sense. The "aim" of an interpretation process is understanding, i.e. knowledge of content. Interpretation, in the process sense, covers everything from the automatic or semiautomatic comprehension of utterances in a well-known language to the methodologically elaborate exegesis of old texts or the struggle to understand speakers of an alien language. In case the goal is to understand an entire language, the interpretation product is what Davidson calls a meaning theory. We shall be concerned with the process of interpretation that leads to a meaning theory. Davidson emphasizes that a theory of interpretation must reveal semantic structure in the object language, whereas a theory of translation need not: A theory of translation must read some sort of structure into sentences, but there is no reason to expect that it will provide any insight into how the meanings of sentences depend on their structure. A satisfactory theory for interpreting the utterances of any language, our own included, will reveal significant semantic structure: the interpretation of utterances of complex sentences will systematically depend on the interpretation of utterances of simpler sentences, for example. (Davidson 1973, p. 130) * For comments and discussion, I am indebted to Kathrin Glüer, Ernie Lepore, and Kirk Ludwig. 1 Both interpretation and translation into one's own language yields understanding of foreign utterances, but interpretation is a more theoretical endeavour. 1 The term 'radical interpretation' is nonetheless coined in analogy to Quine's 'radical translation' in chapter 2 of Word and Object. The intuitive idea, in both cases, is that of translation/interpretation that "starts from scratch", without any previous knowledge of the language in question, or detailed knowledge of the attitudes of the speakers. Although radical translation/interpretation in this sense has taken place in history, for both Quine and Davidson describing it is rather a thought experiment. The point is to identify the kind of evidence that is ultimately available to an interpreter and how that evidence supports a meaning theory, i.e. the evidential relation (Davidson 1973, 128). Although the idea of interpretation from scratch highlights the problems and resources of the interpreter, it cannot be essential to radical interpretation, for if were, the interpreter would cease to be radical when he has made some progress. Furthermore, whether or not the interpretation process once started from scratch is historically contingent. What matters is what the ultimate evidential basis is: The problem of interpretation is domestic as well as foreign: it surfaces for speakers of the same language in the form of the question, how can it be determined that the language is the same? Speakers of the same language can go on the assumption that for them the same expressions are to be interpreted in the same way, but this does not indicate what justifies the assumption. All understanding of the speech of another involves radical interpretation. (Davidson 1973, p. 125) That my fellow speakers mean the same as I with words we both use, is not, on this view, anything we have the right to take for granted, but something that requires justification, and ultimately from evidence of the very same kind as is available to the interpreter that does start from scratch. This has an immediate consequence for the question of identifying the interpretee of radical interpretation. It cannot be a speech community, but must be an individual speaker. The reason is that we need evidence to determine whether or not two speakers belong to the same speech community (cf. Davidson 1973, p. 135). 2 When interpreting a speaker who makes an assertion in a familiar language we typically infer what she believes on the basis of what we take the sentence to mean. If she 1 Davidson points out in 'Truth and Meaning', p 21, that a syntactic theory plus a lexicon does not add up to a meaning theory, and the same can be said about translation: we can translate belief sentences into our own language without knowing how to provide a compositional semantics for them. 2 Davidson is somewhat ambivalent on this important issue. He does suggest (1975, p 169) that the interpreter should aim at a theory that optimizes agreement in the speech community. However, this is different from taking for granted that agreement exists. 2 speaks an unfamiliar language but we happen to have independent information about what she believes or wants, we can move on to a plausible guess about the meaning of the sentence she used. Ultimately, however, the radical interpreter does not have access to sentence meaning as basic evidence, and neither does he have access to information about particular beliefs, desires or intentions as data for interpretation. The meaning of sentences and the contents of attitudes will be what his theory attributes to the speaker. The evidence must be something else (Davidson 1973, p. 134). Without knowing what the speaker believes or expresses the interpreter can, however, observe the speaker's linguistic utterances and reactions to utterances by others, including the interpreter himself. The interpreter can form an hypothesis about the attitude to a sentence that the speaker manifests. In particular, Davidson focused on the attitude of holding-true, or more precisely, holding true relative to a time, in order to take account of indexical sentences, like 'it is raining' (Davidson 1973, p. 135; Davidson 1974a, p. 144). Holding a sentence true is an attitude to a sentence that corresponds to believing the proposition that is the meaning of the sentence. Holding-true is indeed a kind of belief, but it is a belief with a very coarse-grained, impoverished content; identifying the content of such a belief requires no more than identifying the sentence the belief is about, for there is no need to identify the meaning of the sentence. Provided the radical interpreter can identify manifestations of the holding-true attitude on the part of the speaker, he has access to data that are independent of knowledge of sentence meaning or fine-grained individual beliefs.