Davidson’s Fork: An Eliminativist Radicalization of Radical Interpretation

by rsbakker

Davidson’s primary claim to philosophical fame lies in the substitution of the hoary question of meaning qua meaning with the more tractable question of what we need to know to understand others—the question of interpretation. Transforming the question of meaning into the question of interpretation forces considerations of meaning to account for the methodologies and kinds of evidence required to understand meaning. And this evidence happens to be empirical: the kinds of sounds actual speakers make in actual environments. Radical interpretation, you might say, is useful precisely because of the way the effortlessness of everyday interpretation obscures this fact. Starting from scratch allows our actual resources to come to the fore, as well as the need to continually test our formulations.

But it immediately confronts us with a conundrum. Radical Interpretation, as Davidson points out, requires some way of bootstrapping the interdependent roles played by belief and meaning. “Since we cannot hope to interpret linguistic activity without knowing what a speaker believes,” he writes, “and cannot found a theory of what he means on a prior discovery of his beliefs and intentions, I conclude that in interpreting utterances from scratch—in radical interpretation—we must somehow deliver simultaneously a theory of belief and a theory of meaning” (“Belief and the Basis of Meaning,” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 144). The problem is that the interpretation of linguistic activity seems to require that we know what a speaker believes, knowledge that we can only secure if we already know what a speaker means.

The enormously influential solution Davidson gives the problem lies in the way certain, primitive beliefs can be non-linguistically cognized on the assumption of the speaker’s rationality. If we assume that the speaker believes as he should, that he believes it is raining when it is raining, snowing when it is snowing, and so on, if we take interpretative Charity as our principle, we have a chance of gradually correlating various utterances with the various conditions that make them true, of constructing interpretations applicable in practice.

Since Charity seems to be a presupposition of any interpretation whatsoever, the question of what it consists in would seem to become a kind of transcendental battleground. This is what makes Davidson such an important fork in the philosophical road. If you think Charity involves something irreducibly normative, then you think Davidson has struck upon interpretation as the locus requiring theoretical intentional cognition to be solved, a truly transcendental domain. So Brandom, for instance, takes Dennett’s interpretation of Charity in the form of the Intentional Stance as the foundation of his grand normative metaphysics (See, Making It Explicit, 55-62). What makes this such a slick move is the way it allows the Normativist to have things both ways, to remain an interpretativist (though Brandom does ultimately ascribe to original intentionality in Making It Explicit) about the reality of norms, while nevertheless treating norms as entirely real. Charity, in other words, provides a way to at once deny the natural reality of norms, while insisting they are real properties. Fictions possessing teeth.

If, on the other hand, you think Charity is not something irreducibly normative, then you think Davidson has struck upon interpretation as the locus where the glaring shortcomings of the transcendental are made plain. The problem of Radical Interpretation is the problem of interpreting behaviour. This is the whole point of going back to translation or interpretation in the first place: to start ‘from scratch,’ asking what, at minimum, is required for successful linguistic communication. By revealing behaviour as the primary source of information, Radical Interpretation shows how the problem is wholly empirical, how observation is all we have to go on. The second-order realm postulated by the Normativist simply does not exist, and as such, has nothing useful to offer the actual, empirical problem of translation.

As Stephen Turner writes:

“For Davidson, this whole machinery of a fixed set of normative practices revealed in the enthymemes of ordinary justificatory usage is simply unnecessary. We have no privileged access to meaning which we can then expressivistically articulate, because there is nothing like this—no massive structure of normative practices—to access. Instead we try to follow our fellow beings and their reasoning and acting, including their speaking: We make them intelligible. And we have a tool other than the normal machinery of predictive science that makes this possible: our own rationality.” “Davidson’s Normativity,” 364

Certainly various normative regimes/artifacts are useful (like Decision Theory), and others indispensible (like some formulation of predicate logic), but indispensability is not necessity. And ‘following,’ as Turner calls it, requires only imagination, empathy, not the possession of some kind of concept (which is somehow efficacious even though it doesn’t exist in nature). It is an empirical matter for cognitive science, not armchair theorizing, to decide.

Turner has spent decades developing what is far and away the most comprehensive critique of what he terms Normativism that I’ve ever encountered. His most recent book, Explaining the Normative, is essential reading for anyone attempting to gain perspective on Sellarsian attempts to recoup some essential domain for philosophy. For those interested in post-intentional philosophy more generally, and of ways to recharacterize various domains without ontologizing (or ‘quasi-ontologizing’) intentionality in the form of ‘practices,’ ‘language games,’ ‘games of giving and asking for reasons,’ and so on, then Turner is the place to start.

I hope to post a review of Explaining the Normative and delve into Turner’s views in greater detail in the near future, but for the nonce, I want to stick with Davidson. Recently reading Turner’s account of Davidson’s attitude to intentionality (“Davidson’s Normativity”) was something of a revelation for me. For the first time, I think I can interpret Radical Interpretation in my own terms. Blind Brain Theory provides a way to read Davidson’s account as an early eliminativist approximation of a full-blown naturalistic theory of interpretation.

A quick way to grasp the kernel of Blind Brain Theory runs as follows (a more thorough pass can be found here). The cause of my belief of a blue sky outside today is, of course, the blue sky outside today. But it is not as though I experience the blue sky causing me to experience the blue sky—I simply experience the blue sky. The ‘externalist’ axis of causation—the medial, or enabling, axis—is entirely occluded. All the machinery responsible for conscious experience is neglected: causal provenance is a victim of what might be called medial neglect. Now the fact that we can metacognize experience means that we’ve evolved some kind of metacognitive capacity, machinery for solving problems that require the brain to interpret its own operations, problems such as, say, ‘holding your tongue at Thanksgiving dinner.’ Medial neglect, as one might imagine, imposes a profound constraint on metacognitive problem-solving: namely, that only those problems that can be solved absent causal information can be solved at all. Given the astronomical causal complexities underwriting experience, this makes metacognitive problem-solving heuristic in the extreme. Metacognition hangs sideways in a system it cannot possibly hope to cognize in anything remotely approaching a high-dimensional manner, the manner that our brain cognizes its environments more generally.

If one views philosophical reflection as an exaptation of our evolved metacognitive problem-solvers for the purposes of theorizing the nature of experience, one can assume it has inherited this constraint. If metacognition cannot access information regarding the actual processes responsible for experience for the solution of any problem, then neither can philosophical reflection on experience. And since nature is causal, this is tantamount to saying that, for the purposes of theoretical metacognition at least, experience has no nature to be solved. And this raises the question of just what—if anything—theoretical metacognition (philosophical reflection) is ‘solving.’

In essence, Blind Brain Theory provides an empirical account of the notorious intractability of those philosophical problems arising out of theoretical metacognition. Traditional philosophical reflection, it claims, trades in a variety of different metacognitive illusions—many of which can be diagnosed and explained away, given the conceptual resources Blind Brain Theory provides. On its terms, the traditional dichotomy between natural and intentional concepts/phenomena is entirely to be expected—in fact, we should expect sapient aliens possessing convergently evolved brains to suffer their own versions of the same dichotomy.

Intentionalism takes our blindness to first-person cognitive activity as a kind of ontological demarcation when it is just an artifact of the way the integrated, high-dimensional systems registering the external environment fractures into an assembly of low-dimensional hacks registering the ‘inner.’ There is no demarcation, no ‘subject/object’ dichotomy, just environmentally integrated systems that cannot automatically cognize themselves as such (and so resort to hacks). Neglect allows us to see this dichotomy as a metacognitive artifact, and to thus interpret the first-person in terms entirely continuous with the third-person. Blind Brain Theory, in other words, naturalizes the intentional. It ‘externalizes’ everything.

So how does this picture bear on the issue of Charity and Radical Interpretation? In numerous ways, I think, many of which Davidson would not approve, but which do have the virtue of making his central claims perhaps more naturalistically perspicuous.

From the standpoint of our brains linguistically solving other brains, we take it for granted that solving other organisms requires solving something in addition to the inorganic structure and dynamics of our environments. The behaviour taken as our evidential base in Radical Interpretation already requires a vast amount of machinery and work. So basically we’re talking about the machinery and work required over and above this baseline—the machinery and work required to make behaviour intentionally, as opposed to merely causally, intelligible.

The primary problem is that the activity of intentional interpretation, unlike the activity interpreted, almost escapes cognition altogether. To say, as so many philosophers so often do, that intentionality is ‘irreducible’ is to say that it is naturalistically occult. So any account of interpretation automatically trades in blind spots, in the concatenation of activities that we cannot cognize. In the terms of Blind Brain Theory, any account of interpretation has to come to grips with medial neglect.

From this perspective, one can see Davidson’s project as an attempt to bootstrap an account of interpretation that remains honest or sensitive to medial neglect, the fact that 1) our brain simply cannot immediately cognize itself as a brain, which is to say, in terms continuous with its cognition of nature; and 2) that our brain cannot immediately cognize this inability, and so assumes no such inability. Thanks to medial neglect, every act of interpretation is hopelessly obscure. And this places a profound constraint on our ability to theoretically explicate interpretation. Certainly we have a variety of medial posits drawn from the vocabulary of folk-psychology, but all of these are naturalistically obscure, and so function as unexplained explainers. So the challenge for Davidson, then, is to theorize interpretation in a manner that respects what can and cannot be cognized—to regiment our blind spots in a manner that generates real, practically applicable understanding.

In other words, Davidson begins by biting the medial inscrutability bullet. If medial neglect makes it impossible to theoretically explicate medial terms, then perhaps we can find a way to leverage what (causally inexplicable) understanding they do seem to provide into something more regimented, into an apparatus, you might say, that poses all the mysteries as effectively as possible (and in this sense, his project is a direct descendent of Quine’s).

This is the signature virtue of Tarski’s ‘Convention T.’ “[T]he striking thing about T-sentences,” Davidson writes, “is that whatever machinery must operate to produce them, and whatever ontological wheels must turn, in the end a T-sentence states the truth conditions of a sentence using resources no richer than, because the same as, those of the sentence itself” (“Radical Interpretation, 132). By modifying Tarski’s formulation so that it takes truth instead of translation as basic, he can generate a theory based on an intentional, unexplained explainer—truth—that produces empirically testable results. Given that interpretation is the practical goal, the ontological status of the theory itself is moot: “All this apparatus is properly viewed as theoretical construction, beyond the reach of direct verification,” he writes. “It has done its work provided only it entails testable results in the form of T-sentences, and these make no mention of the machinery” (133).

The apparatus is warranted only to the extent that it enables further cognition. Indeed, given medial neglect, no further metacognitive explication of the apparatus is even possible. It may prove indispensible, but only empirically so, the way a hammer is to framing, and not as, say, the breath of God is to life, or more mysterious still, in some post facto ‘virtual yet efficacious’ sense. In fact, both of these latter characterizations betray the profundity of medial neglect, how readily we intuit the absence of various dimensions of information, say those of space and time, as a positive, as some kind of inexplicable something that, as Turner has been arguing for decades, begs far more questions than it pretends to solve.

The brain’s complexity is such, once again, that it cannot maintain anything remotely approaching the high-dimensional, all-purpose covariational regime it maintains with its immediate environment with itself. Only a variety of low-dimensional, special purpose cognitive tools are possible—an assemblage of ‘hacks.’ Thus the low-dimensional parade of inexplicables that constitute the ‘first-person.’ This is why complicating your intentional regimentations beyond what is practically needed simply makes no sense. Their status as specialized hacks means we have every reason to assume their misapplication in any given theoretical context. This isn’t to say that exaptation to other problems isn’t possible, only that efficacious problem-solving is our only guide to applicability. The normative proof is in the empirical pudding. Short of practical applications, high-dimensional solutions, the theoretician is simply stacking unexplained explainers into baroque piles. There’s a reason why second-order normative architectures rise and fall as fads. Their first-order moorings are the same, but as the Only-game-in-town Effect erodes beneath waves of alternative interpretation, they eventually break apart, often to be salvaged into some new account that feels so compelling for appearing, to some handful of souls at least, to be the only game in town at a later date.

So for Davidson, characterizing Radical Interpretation in terms of truth amounts to characterizing Radical Interpretation in terms of a genuine unexplained explainer, an activity that we can pragmatically decompose and rearticulate, and nothing more. The astonishing degree to which the behaviour itself underdetermines the interpretations made, simply speaks to the radically heuristic nature of the cognitive activities underwriting interpretation. It demonstrates, in other words, the incredibly domain specific nature of the cognitive tools used. A fortiori, it calls into question the assumption that whatever information metacognition can glean is remotely sufficient for theoretically cognizing the structure and dynamics of those tools.

From the standpoint of reflection, intentional cognition or ‘mindreading’ almost entirely amounts to simply ‘getting it’ (or as Turner says, ‘following’). Given the paucity of information over and above the sensory, our behaviour cognizing activity strikes us as non-dimensional in the course of that cognizing—medial neglect renders our ongoing cognitive activity invisible. The odd invisibility of our own communicative performances—the way, for instance, the telling (or listening) ‘disappears’ into the told—simply indicates the axis of medial neglect, the fact they we’re talking about activities the brain cannot identify or situate in the high-dimensional idiom of environmental cognition. At best, evolution has provided metacognitive access to various ‘flavours of activity,’ if you will, vague ways of ‘getting our getting’ or ‘following our following’ the behaviour of others, and not much more—as the history of philosophy should attest!

‘Linguistic understanding,’ on this account, amounts to standing in certain actual and potential systematic, causal relations with another speaker—of being a machine attuned to natural and social environments in some specific way. The great theoretical virtue of Blind Brain Theory is the way it allows us to reframe apparently essential semantic activities like interpretation in mechanical terms. When an anthropologist learns the language of another speaker nothing magical is imprinted or imbibed. The anthropologist ‘understands’ that the speaker is systematically interrelated to his environment the same as he, and so begins the painstaking process of mapping the other’s relations onto his own via observationally derived information regarding the speaker’s utterances in various circumstances. The behaviour-enabling covariational regime of one individual comes to systematically covary with that of another individual and thus form a circuit between them and the world. The ‘meaning’ now ‘shared’ consists in nothing more than this entirely mechanical ‘triangulation.’ Each stands in the relation of component to the other, forming a singular superordinate system possessing efficacies that did not previously exist. The possible advantages of ‘teamwork’ increase exponentially—which is arguably the primary reason our species evolved language at all.

The perplexities pile on when we begin demanding semantic answers to our semantic questions, when we ask, What is meaning? expecting an answer that accords with our experiences of meaning. Given that we possess nothing short of our experience of meaning with which to compare any theory of meaning, the demand that such a theory accord with that experience seems, on the face of things, to be eminently reasonable. But it still behooves us to interrogate the adequacy of that ‘experience as metacognized,’ especially now, given all that we have learned the past two decades. On a converging number of accounts, human consciousness is a mechanism for selecting, preserving, and broadcasting information for more general neural consumption. When we theoretically reflect on cognitive activity, such as ‘getting’ or ‘following’ our best research tells us we are relying on the memory traces of previous broadcasts. The situation poses a metacognitive nightmare, to say the least. Even if we could trust those memory traces to provide some kind of all-purpose schema (and we can’t), we have no access to the larger neurofunctional context of the broadcast, what produced the information and what consumed it for what—all we have are low-dimensional fragments that appear to be ethereal wholes. It’s as if we’re attempting to solve for a car using only its fuse-panel diagram—worse!

Like Quine before him, Davidson has no way of getting around intentionality, and so, also like Quine, he attempts to pass through it with as much epistemic piety as possible. But his ‘intentional instrumentalism’ will only take him so far. Short of any means of naturalizing meaning, he regularly finds himself struggling to see his way clear. The problem of first-person authority provides an illustrative case in point. The assumption that some foreign language speaker ‘holds true’ making utterances the way you ‘hold true’ making utterances can only facilitate interpretation, assist in ‘following his meaning,’ if it is the case that you can follow your own meaning. A number of issues arise out of this, not the least the suggestion that interpretation seems to require the very kind of metacognitive access that I have consistently been denying!

But following one’s own meaning is every bit as mysterious as following another’s. Ownership of utterances can be catastrophically misattributed in a number of brain pathologies. When it comes to self/other speech comprehension, we know the same machinery is involved, only yoked in different ways, and we know that machinery utterly eludes metacognition. To reiterate: the cryptic peculiarities of understanding meaning (and all other intentional phenomena) are largely the result of medial neglect, the point where human cognition, overmatched by its own complexity, divides to heuristically conquer. In a profound sense, metacognition finds itself in the same straits regarding the brain as social cognition does regarding other brains.

So what does the asymmetry of ‘first-person authority,’ the fact that meanings attributed to others can be wrong while meanings attributed to oneself cannot, amount to? Nothing more than the fact that the systematic integrity of you, as a blind system, is ‘dedicated’ in a way that the systematic integrity of our interpretative relations is not. ‘Teamwork machines’ are transitory couplings requiring real work to get off the ground, and then maintain against slippages. The ‘asymmetry’ Davidson wants to explain consists in nothing more than this. No work is required to ‘follow oneself,’ whereas work is required to follow others.

For all the astronomical biological complexity involved, it really is as simple as this. The philosophical hairball presently suffocating the issue of first-person authority is an artifact of the way that theoretical metacognition, blinkered by medial neglect, retrospectively schematizes the issue in terms of meaning. The ontologization of meaning transforms the question of first-person authority into an epistemic question, a question of how one could know. This, of course, divides into the question of implicit versus explicit knowing. Since all these concepts (knowing, implicit, explicit) are naturalistically occult, interpretation can be gamed indefinitely. Despite his epistemic piety, Davidson’s attempt to solve for first-person authority using intentional idioms was doomed from the outset.

It’s worth noting an interesting connection to Heidegger in all this, a way, perhaps, to see the shadow of Blind Brain Theory operating in a quite different philosophical system. Heidegger, who harboured his own doubts regarding philosophical reflection, would see the philosophical hairball described above as yet another consequence of the ‘metaphysics of presence,’ the elision of the ‘ontological difference’ between being and beings. For him, the problem isn’t that meaning is being ontologized so much as it is being ontologized in the wrong way. His conflation of meaning with being essentially dissolves the epistemic problem the same way as my elimination of meaning, albeit in a manner that renders everything intentionally occult.

So what is meaning? A matter of intersystematic calibration. When we ask someone to ‘explain what they mean’ we are asking them to tweak our linguistic machinery so as to facilitate function. The details are, without a doubt, astronomically complex, and almost certain to surprise and trouble us. But one of the great virtues of mechanistic explanations lies in the nonmysterious way it can generalize over functions, move from proteins to organelles to cells to organs to organisms to collectives to ecologies to biospheres and so on. The ‘physical stance’ scales up with far more economy than some (like Dennett) would have you believe. And since it comprises our most reliable explanatory idiom, we should expect it to eventually yield the kind of clarity evinced above. Is it simply a coincidence that the interpretative asymmetry that Davidson and so many other philosophers have intentionally characterized directly corresponds with the kind of work required to maintain mechanical systematicity between two distinct systems? Do we just happen to ‘get the meaning wrong’ whenever covariant slippages occur, or is the former simply the latter glimpsed darkly?

Which takes us, at long last, to the issue of ‘Charity,’ the indispensability of taking others as reliably holding their utterances true to the process of interpretation. As should be clear by now, there is no such thing. We no more take Charity to the interpretation of behaviour than your wireless takes Charity to your ISP. There is no ‘attitude of holding true,’ no ‘intentional stance.’ Certainly, sometimes we ‘try’—or are at least conscious of making an effort. Otherwise understanding simply happens. The question is simply how we can fill in the blanks in a manner that converges on actual theoretical cognition, as opposed to endless regress. Behaviour is tracked, social heuristics are cued, an interpretation is neurally selected for conscious broadcasting and we say, ‘Ah! ‘Es regnet,’ means ‘It is raining’!

The Eliminativist rennovation of Radical Interpretation makes plain everything that theoretical reflection has hitherto neglected. In other words, what it makes plain is the ‘pre-established harmony’ needed to follow another, the monstrous amount of evolutionary and cultural stage-setting required simply to get to interpretative scratch. The enormity of this stage setting is directly related to the heuristic specificity of the systems we’ve developed to manage them, the very specificity that renders second-order discourse of the nature of ‘intentional phenomena’ dubious in the extreme.

As the skeptics have been arguing since antiquity.