Friday, 28 August 2009

Confused about Davidson

It’s probably foolish to chart my ignorance and slow-wittedness in a potentially public space but perhaps, as before, someone will email me some help.

I’ve suddenly realised that I’m confused (pictured) about radical interpretation. Thinking back to the issue of how to accommodate inconsistency, there seems to be an important difference between the idea of believing p and ~p and both believing p and also believing ~p. Davidson and Dennett are both keen to rule out the former (as a possible interpretation in radical interpretation and thus as a possible belief). But it seems that common sense requires that the latter is both possible and widespread. On the other hand, the general argument for the constitutive role of rationality seems to push towards its application universally. So what principled difference is there between believing an inconsistency and inconsistently believing?

Two of my colleagues have suggested that the difference lies in conscious attention. As long as one hasn’t attended to the inconsistency between two beliefs then it is possible to hold them. Attention, however, forces (more needs to be said here) revision. But given that the argument for the constitutive principle of rationality concerned the logic of belief individuation, why should conscious attention make any difference?

Non-collusively, both colleagues suggested this line of thought. The argument for the central role of rationality from radical interpretation concerns the ascription of beliefs on the basis of behaviour. And thus it concerns beliefs that are, so to speak, in operation or active. Hence it does not provide an argument for the operation of rationality at some dispositional distance from operational beliefs. (This strikes me as a kind of Dummetian Davidson, but concerning the philosophy of language of the field linguist rather than the truth theoretic output of that.)

But I can’t see how that would work as behaviour can be evidence not only for consciously attended to beliefs but all sorts of other, dispositional beliefs, that hold those in place. And thus the argument for the role of rationality should spread some dispositional distance, at least.

Further, if one plausibly weakens the claim about rationality to hold that interpretation is only possible through the imposition of a transcendental constraint on the data that speakers at least subscribe to the norms of rationality (in Lisa Bortolotti’s helpful word), why would this weakening not govern attended to beliefs as well as those at some dispositional distance.

In other words, what difference does consciousness make? But without it, why does the bar on believing an inconsistency not escallate? I’m sure I was clear on all this in my Davidsonian youth.
(Thanks to the Warehouse for the wifi and coffee.)