David A. Jensen, Department of Philosophy
Donald Davidson argues that we cannot make the notion of conceptual relativism, and all that it entails, intelligible. I proposed, in my study, to show how Aristotle’s ontology supports Davidson’s argument. I will thus summarize the following: Davidson’s argument, Aristotle’s ontologies, connections between the two approaches, and the support which, according to my thesis, the latter lends to the former. I must mention, however, that in any type of summary, as with this one, it is impossible to avoid, if not likely to make, inaccuracies and overly general, unqualified assertions. Nevertheless, this summary should give an idea of the development of my argument.
Davidson’s argument makes, and defends, the following assumptions:
(1) conceptual scheme = language:
(2) relative = non intertranslatable thus;
(3) if a conceptual scheme is relative then the associated language will be nonintertranslatable
The problem, however, is that the only criterion for languagehood, that of intertranslatability, is exactly what conceptual relativism denies. Hence, one could never recognize a relative conceptual scheme since to do so would be to translate that language, but to translate would be to defeat its purported relativeness (183-186).
The formulation of conceptual relativism, as Davidson argues, is based on a dualism of scheme and neutral content. Such a dualism would seem to allow several interpretations (or schemes) of this neutral content. Yet, as Davidson shows, this notion cannot be made intelligible, and as thus, the dualism of scheme/ content is merely a construct, and a useless one at that (187-195).
Aristotle puts forth two ontologies (see Graham 14-16). First, he characterizes primary and secondary substances. Primary substances are things which exist in a “tangible” sense. Secondary substances are the attributes which characterize primary substances. For example, whiteness is a secondary substance, but not a primary substance, as it is not a “thing.” Primary substances can only be recognized through the secondary substances, only through their attributes.
Later, Aristotle introduces a different but related ontology based on the form/matter distinction. With this distinction, he is able to solve the problem of change, notably the Eleatics’ argument that any change involves generation, or the creation of something from nothing, which is an impossible feat. Yet, argues Aristotle, such change is possible because matter is always underlying the form which changes, and, in a potential sense, always contains the new form in question.
Connections Between the Two Approaches
It is not easy to reconcile philosophies as diverse as Aristotle’s and Davidson’s. As it is Davidson’s argument which I have attempted to support, I tried to reconcile Aristotle’s approach (to philosophical questions) with Davidson’s predominantly linguistic approach. There are at least two important similarities which serve to make the comparison more plausible. First, there is Aristotle’s explicit use of language to form his first ontology. What is (substances), as well as how it is (attributes), is described in terms of how we speak. Second, there is Aristotle’s use of metaphor, notably with the notion of matter. Davidson’s approach to ontology is, in fact, that the structure of our language reveals the features of our world (199-200). In addition, Davidson uses metaphors in describing conceptual relativism and showing how none of these metaphors, and thus the notion of relativism which they imply, can be maintained. Thus it seems that Aristotle’s approach to ontology does have similarities to Davidson’s approach.
The Argument: How Aristotle Supports Davidson
Having shown connections between the two approaches, I then showed how certain features of Aristotle’s ontologies support Davidson’s argument. This works in the following manner. Davidson argues that if a scheme is to be radically different, then so must the language be radically different (to the point of non intertranslatability). This further entails a different, that is, incommensurate, ontology. Davidson then attacks the issue of non intertranslatability, and by showing the unintelligibility of that notion thus defeats the notion of relative schemes. My argument, drawing upon Aristotle, attacks not the notion of a non intertranslatable language, but the notion of an incommensurate ontology. Thus, it is simply one step further down the list of entailments.
In two ways, then, I show the unintelligibility of an incommensurate ontology, and hence reach the same conclusion as Davidson. As will be obvious, the same features of language that Davidson exploits in his critique are evident features in Aristotle’s ontologies, hence my comparison between the two. First, Aristotle’s notion of primary substance, from the first ontology, disallows the notion of a radically different object. We recognize a primary substance by the secondary substances (attributes) which are a part of it. Thus, should there be a substance which does not have the attributes we are familiar with, we simply could not recognize it. For example, we could not perceive a radically different substance with our senses as perception makes use of attributes (secondary substances) with which we are already familiar. Thus, there may be radically different substances “out there,” we would just never be able to recognize them.
A second support from Aristotle comes from his second ontology, from his notion of form and matter. We can only explain a change in form if the matter subsists “behind” that change in form. Aristotle is concerned, here, with the possibility of change. In support of my thesis, however, I have looked at the same notion from the point of view of recognition. We can only recognize a thing that changes if a certain amount of its attributes subsist. If all the attributes of a thing change, then we have no evidence that it is that same, although changed, thing. The support this lends becomes clear when we consider two people with supposedly relative schemes. Suppose these two people look at one object, but disagree as to what it is. To do so requires that they already share to a great degree their ontologies. For example, to even single out the object in question they must share a large background in their ontologies. But, such shared ontology, in order to recognize a difference which is potentially indicative of relativeness, defeats the relativeness from the beginning. As with Aristotle’s ontology, if a changed substance does not maintain a certain amount of background attributes, then I have no way of recognizing a relation between the first and the second substance.
The comparison brought out two important features of Davidson’s argument. First, the problem Is one of recognition. Though there may be relative schemes, we could never recognize them. We can thus never make the notion of relative schemes Intelligible. It is unintelligible not In the sense that we cannot talk about it, or argue for it, but in the sense that we simply cannot recognize it. Second, this comparison highlighted the importance of background. This, of course, follows from Davidson’s holistic approach to language and the mental. In conclusion, I think this comparison has not only shown interesting and Insightful features common to both philosophies, but also served to strengthen Davidson’s argument by supporting its additional entailments.
- Ackrill,]. L., ed. 4 New Aristotle Reader. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.
- Davidson, Donald. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. 183-198.
- Davidson, Donald. “The Method of Truth in Metaphysics.” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. 199-214.
- Davidson, Donald. “True to the Facts.” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. 37-5 4.
- Graham, Daniel. Aristotle’s Two Systems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
- Hare, R. M., Jonathan Barnes, and Henry Chadwick. Founders of Thought. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.
- Kraut, Robert. “The Third Dogma.” Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Ed. Ernest l.ePore. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. 398-416.