I am struggling to draft my power point presentation for the Durham conference next week. In effect it’s in the same space as something Richard Gipps said to me (about his blog) in an email to the effect that he had criticised the view that “understanding something is to be equated with grasping its rational pattern” and “What I was hoping was to prompt from you a defence of the view that rationality is of a piece with understanding and that it is only on (e.g. overly codified) views of rationality that the rational appears to be only one form of intelligibility.”
That expresses a helpful thought. I do indeed think that understanding is grasping a rational pattern: putting speech and action into a rational pattern. And I am persuaded by those philosophers who argue that the demands of rationality are not in general codifiable (thanks to arguments from Dancy, McDowell and perhaps Wittgenstein). So the link between understanding and rationality does not require a general context-free pattern. There seem to be a couple of other points that makes the connection between understanding and rationality less costly (which is not to offer an argument for the positive claim).
First, there’s no reason to think that the link has to be used to shed light on intentionality or mentality or whatever else is understood from outside those notions. It need not be a sideways on view of them. If it were, then we would need an account of the pattern of rationality couched in non-intentionality-presupposing terms and that seems too difficult. (My hunch is that that assumption helps makes Bortolotti’s criticism of a Davidsonian approach more convincing than it would otherwise be.) But I think that taking seriously the holism of belief and meaning in Davidson’s account (and emphasising the difference rather than the similarity between him and Quine) suggests that there was no hope of that.
Second, we do not in general think that the semantic norms which contribute to the rational patterns relevant to interpretation can be characterised in independent terms. (We can be modest rather than full blooded about theories of meaning.) For example:
[W]hat makes it correct among speakers of English to make a claim with, say, the words ‘Snow is white’... is that snow is indeed white. I stress ‘correct’: truth in the sense of disquotability... is unproblematically normative for the practice of using the sentence mentioned on the left-hand side of T-sentences... On the Tarskian-Davidsonian conception the ‘oughts’ in question – the ‘oughts’ that are built into the idea of, say, denotation – are not separable from the idea of correctness in assertion... I think once we see that the intuition that meaning and aboutness are ‘ought’-laden does not require the relevant ‘oughts’ to be pre-semantical... we can see that there is no ground for the idea that linguistic behaviour must be governed by... proprieties that can be formulated in non-semantical terms... [McDowell 2009: 214-6]
But even with those qualifications in place, one might still think that making the connection between understanding and a rational pattern is too strict. Surely there are things we understand (play, for example) without placing them in such a pattern?
That seems to be what is so interesting about Wittgenstein’s discussion of the fire festivals (and other bits of Frazer’s Golden Bough). He rejects Frazer’s approach which is to postulate as a causal hypothesis an original human sacrifice (to explain why the customs came about) suggesting that this is not necessary to understand the festival. The hypothesis might be false, after all. But what seems necessarily true is that the festival bespeaks something to do with human sacrifice. That seems to be part of what it expresses, its atmosphere, just on the surface (at least, like all symbolism, for the right audience).
I think one reason why the attempt to find an explanation is wrong is that we have only to put together in the right way what we know without adding anything, and the satisfaction we are trying to get from the explanation comes of itself.
And here the explanation is not what satisfies us anyway. When Frazer begins by telling the story of the King of the Wood at Nemi, he does this in a tone which shows that something stranmge and terrible is happening here. And that is the answer to the question “why is this happening?”: Because it is terrible.’... Put that account of the King of the Wood at Nemi together with the phrase “the majesty of death”, and you see that they are one. The life of the priest-king shows what is meant by that phrase. [Wittgenstein 1979: 2-3]
So one thing that Wittgenstein does is to suggest that the causal hypothesis is unnecessary because a proper description is enough to give us an understanding of the ritual. But, further, the hypotheses are not the right move to give us satisfaction, which in turn seems to be a mark of understanding by contrast with explanation. They are not right partly because they are the wrong answer to the question: what is terrible about the ritual?...
(Cioffi quotes a wonderful analogy from Paul Redding.
Wittgenstein draws attention to the fact that not all 'why' questions are requests for causal explanations. Someone bereaved might exclaim, 'Why did she die?' Such a question, uttered in a particular tone and under particular circumstances, would only be taken by the most obtuse as requests for an explanation - as being satisfied by the sort of response appropriate to the question in the context, say, of a coronial enquiry. [Cioffi: 262])
... But also because, according to Cioffi, we might have been asking the wrong question.
Wittgenstein's alternative answers work by offering reasons of a different sort. They suggest how, for those with eyes to see at least, the festivals are somehow the right expressions of feelings in question. They are the correct response. And thus even in cases as alien as fire festivals understanding does seem to be a species of rational pattern finding, though the patterns may ground out in commnets such as:
Here one can only describe and say: this is what human life is like. [ibid: 3]
That forms the bedrock against which the rational understanding gains purchase.
((To add: Why rational? why understanding?))
McDowell, J. (2009) Having the World in View, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Wittgenstein, L. (1978) Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Doncaster: Brynmill Press