Saturday, September 26, 2009

Conceptual Schemes

I first encountered the thought of Donald Davidson in 1982 in a graduate seminar conducted by Alasdair MacIntyre. The first thing I read was "Actions, Reasons, and Causes." The second thing I read was "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme." I have agreed with almost everything that I have come to understand from the work and thought of Donald Davidson. I agree with his views on truth and meaning, for example. I agree with his views on rational action and intention. I agree with his views on the distinction between causes of belief and reasons for belief. And I agree with his rejection of the intelligibility of the idea of a conceptual scheme. On that last one, I may well be in a minority among philosophers, and certainly am among academics. So I am wondering:

First, what motivates a belief in conceptual schemes? Why would one want to think that there are “alternative” conceptual schemes, or radically incommensurable conceptual schemes? What conceptual or theoretical (or political?) work does a belief in conceptual schemes achieve?

Second, on occasion I hear someone speaking of another person as living in a completely different world. If that is not hyperbolic, I cannot make sense of what I hear. Or could it be that the person meant that the other operated under a completely different conceptual scheme?

Third, and I think this might be different from the first two, I sometimes hear people, even reasonably intelligent academics, stating that some other people see the world completely differently from the way I see it. Again, apart from hyperbole I do not know how to make sense of that thought. I could make sense of the notion that a robot capable of ambulating without running into things sees the world differently than I do (actually, that it would be metaphorical to even say it sees).

Fourth (I am trying to understand why anyone should be attracted to the belief that there are alternative conceptual schemes), could it be that some confuse differences of language and vocabulary with differences of concept? For example, might my vocabulary for identifying birds be rather coarse, while an ornithologist would have a more fine-tuned and nuanced vocabulary? The ornithologist is more discriminating than I am.