On the Very Good Idea of a Conceptual Scheme

Abstract: Donald Davidson employs an assumed background of agreement to eliminate the scheme-content dualism. The background of agreement is, as Richard Rorty has noticed, similar to the pragmatic notion of funded experience. Consequently Rorty has tried to classify Davidson as belonging to the tradition of Dewey among others. But an examination of Dewey's apparatus of habits, a notion corresponding to Davidson's background of agreement, suggests that Rorty's comparison is flawed. Furthermore, Dewey's apparatus of habits provides resources for reclaiming and reconceiving the scheme-content distinction so that it may be fruitfully employed in resolving genuine conflicts.

Richard Rorty has argued that Donald Davidson can be classified as a neo-pragmatist. To this end, Rorty has tried to show that Davidson's views share important similarities with those of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Davidson, for his part, has tended to resist Rorty's attempts to classify his views in this way. Interestingly, the reasons for Rorty's classification and the reasons for Davidson's resistance share a common trait: an appeal to the elimination of the dualism of conceptual scheme and experiential content on the basis of an assumed background of shared beliefs. According to Rorty, Davidson's background of shared beliefs is closely related to the Classic American Philosophers' notion of funded experience. According to Davidson, pragmatism is just another form of empiricism that falls when the scheme-content dualism is eliminated.

It is my contention that Rorty is incorrect in grouping Davidson with Classic American Philosophers in virtue of his assumed background of shared beliefs, and Davidson is wrong to flatly reject the scheme-content distinction as the third and final dogma of empiricism. I intend to show that Davidson's background of shared belief differs significantly from the corresponding notion in the views of John Dewey, and that Dewey's position provides resources for eliminating the incoherence that Davidson finds in the scheme-content distinction without the outright rejection of a helpful tool of inquiry. This contributes to a defense of Dewey's empirical philosophy against Davidson's supposed defeat of empiricism.

Conceptual schemes are supposed to be perspectives belonging to individuals or cultures by means of which sensory content is organized. The dualism of scheme-content seems to entail the possibility that different individuals or different cultures may have utterly different understandings of the world to the point of incommensurability. Davidson denies such a possibility and contends that the very notion of a conceptual scheme is incoherent. This is because to recognize a conceptual scheme as completely incommensurable would entail either going beyond one's own conceptual scheme, which would show the superfluity of a conceptual scheme, or else recognizing the supposedly incommensurable conceptual scheme as a conceptual scheme, which would indicate a significant similarity to one's own conceptual scheme and hence a contradiction of the claim of utter incommensurability. In this latter case, the point is that in order to recognize something as a conceptual scheme would require a shared background of agreement or beliefs. And as this background is not itself a conceptual scheme but rather a basic requirement of reasoning, the notion of a conceptual scheme again becomes superfluous.

This background of agreement can be understood by examining Davidson's use of the Principle of Charity, which is employed when trying to understand what a speaker means. According to Davidson, in order to understand the meaning of a speaker's utterances one must know what the speaker believes because "a speaker who holds a sentence to be true on an occasion does so in part because of what he means, or would mean, by an utterance of that sentence, and in part because of what he believes" (Davidson 1984, 142). But this "interdependence of belief and meaning" (Davidson 1984, 137) presents a problem: beliefs cannot be determined without interpreting the meaning of a speaker's words. Thus, the interpreter appears trapped in a circle of the speaker's beliefs and the meanings of a speaker's utterances. The Principle of Charity allows the interpreter to escape the circle of unknown beliefs and uncomprehended meanings by assuming that most of the beliefs of the speaker are true. Without the assumption of shared understanding or shared truths, no further understanding is possible.

Davidson thinks one is not only justified but also compelled to adopt the Principle of Charity because genuine disagreements and misunderstandings make sense only against a background of what is understood in common. Genuine misunderstandings stand in contrast to cases in which there is nothing—no language, nothing rational—to understand and so nothing to misunderstand. Hence, an interpreter's initial inability to understand a speaker of an unknown language (given an actual speaker of a genuine language) presupposes a background of agreement about truths. Davidson writes that, "making sense of the utterances and behavior of others, even their most aberrant behavior, requires us to find a great deal of reason and truth in them" (Davidson 1984, 153). The other option is to write them off as irrational and their so-called utterances as non-linguistic noises (Davidson 1984, 137).[1]

So, to assume that another person is operating with another conceptual scheme different from one's own is to already assume a shared background of agreement that makes possible the disagreement in particular beliefs about the world or in meanings of utterances. Because the shared background of agreement rules out complete variance in beliefs, the idea of incommensurable conceptual schemes disappears. Indeed, the notion of a conceptual scheme itself disappears, because there would be no way to make sense of a scheme at variance with its content. That is, the very idea of a conceptual scheme assumes the idea of some neutral content open to interpretation, but this idea is eliminated by the background of shared beliefs because the background of beliefs is a basic condition of creatures that reason.

The background of beliefs is not a scheme that interprets or organizes the world or reality. According to Davidson, the relationship of beliefs to the world is causal. Things cause sensations and sensations cause beliefs (Davidson 2001, 305; Davidson 2001 143). But he warns that the causes of beliefs are not to be confused with reasons for or justifications of beliefs (Davidson 2001, 143). If one attempts to justify beliefs by means of sensations, one faces the difficulty of accounting for how the belief refers to something beyond the immediate sensation that supposedly justifies it.[2] This extra content, by means of which a belief refers to an objective world, is elusive, but without it skepticism threatens. Davidson's response is to reject the idea that knowledge has an ultimate evidential basis (Davidson 2001, 146). In other words, he appears to take an anti-foundationalist position. He holds that knowledge does indeed depend on experience and experience depends on sensation, but this dependence is not evidentiary or justificatory—it is causal (Davidson 2001, 146). Nothing but another belief could count as evidence for the truth of a belief (Davidson 2001, 141).

Rorty picks out Davidson's assumed background of beliefs as comparable to the idea of funded experience found in Classic American Philosophers. At first glance the comparison seems apt: Dewey employs what he calls an apparatus of habits that performs much as Davidson's background of beliefs. Dewey follows Peirce in understanding belief as a habit, that is, as a predisposition to act in a particular way given particular circumstances. This conception of habit can be understood as sensitivity to certain kinds of stimulating events, and it contrasts with the traditional and narrower conception of habit as recurring act (MW.14.32).[1] On Dewey's view, habit is influenced by prior activity and hence acquired. Funded by prior activity, habit organizes present activity; it is projective and dynamic in the sense of actively directing behavior; and habit is operative even when not dominating present activity (MW.14.31). According to Dewey, "there is a body of residual undisturbed habits" upon which thinking and discrimination depend (MW.14.128). This "complex apparatus of habits" is the background required for inquiry, and without it "observation is the blankest of stares" (LW.1.170). It allows one to make sense of unknown objects and, in the case of interpretation, of foreign utterances, on the basis of established and unquestioned habits.

Without an apparatus of habits as a means to discrimination and judgment, neither disagreement nor agreement could be assessed. Acknowledging this body of habits has many of the same practical consequences as Davidson's Principle of Charity. Meeting a speaker of an unknown foreign language presents immediate doubts about the meaning of the utterance, but the doubts can be handled only as a body of habits guides the interpreter in regarding the speaker as rational and as attempting to communicate. Without such assumptions neither interpretation nor misinterpretation—that is, neither agreement nor disagreement—is possible. Furthermore, like Davidson's assumed background of beliefs, the body of habits supports one in trying to be charitable toward fellow inquirers. Aberrations and inconsistencies need not be taken as marks of utter irrationality precisely because they can be aberrations only in relation to the larger, shared body of habits.

Despite the similarities, Dewey's apparatus of habits and Davidson's background of beliefs differ greatly in their underlying conceptions of experience, and this is the key to rejecting both Rorty's classification of Davidson as a pragmatist and Davidson's rejection of the scheme-content distinction. Rorty has neglected the difference because he dismisses Dewey's notion of experience. But I contend that the difference results in Davidson's position reinstating a dualism and being what Joseph Margolis has characterized as Cartesianism (Margolis 2002, 38).

In an essay critical of Davidson's attack on the scheme-content distinction, John McDowell points out that what is needed is precisely a new conception of experience. Davidson neglects this because, according to McDowell, he mistakes the motivation for the scheme-content dualism. Davidson regards the motivation as a desire to locate an ultimate source of evidence. This makes the dualism attractive because it makes subjective experience (content) a foundation for conceptual knowledge (scheme). McDowell, though, thinks the dualism is motivated by a deeper concern with understanding how one may have a set of beliefs or a world view in the first place. Thinking about the possibility of world views gives rise to the notion of experience as a tribunal or as that which legitimates judgments about how the world actually is. The distinction, then, explains world views as resulting from the interaction of purely formal scheme and sensory content. McDowell's point is that the dualism arises from a concern with not simply justification but with how we actually make our way through the world.

McDowell acknowledges the incoherence in the dualism, which he understands as the result of a flaw in a conception of empiricism, "one that makes it seem as if intuitions as such are 'without concepts'" (Hahn, ed. 1999, 99). According to McDowell, in order to eliminate the incoherence "we need to find a way to resist the idea that the impacts of the world on our senses are 'intuitions without concepts.' And for that we need a more radical counter to the underlying dualism of reason and nature than the one that Davidson supplies" (Hahn, ed. 1999, 102). Dewey provides such a counter with his understanding of experience.

Dewey is concerned to resist traditional conceptions of experience that separate it from thinking or render thinking irrelevant to the world of experience, and so he looks to biological science rather than philosophical tradition. On his view, experience is living, and living is an interaction of creature and environment. He emphasizes that the interaction is not merely in an environment but because of an environment. In other words, the live creature is not a self-contained unit injected into an environment, rather the live creature is part of its environment, it is vitally interconnected with its environment, and it is what it is because of its environment. Experience, then, is an affair of interconnections and relations. It is not completely antithetical to reason because the concrete relations in experience are the material that further experiential interaction may refine into the rational linkages of logic. Reasoning and systematic logical thinking are specialized experiences that develop out of experience more broadly.

Dewey's notion of experience allows for a more thoroughgoing anti-foundationalism than that of Davidson's position. Davidson's anti-foundationalism denies an ultimate experiential justification of belief; but his position employs a background of beliefs as an evidential basis. This is the foundation of justification, even if ultimately beliefs are simply caused by sensory stimuli. In contrast, Dewey's anti-foundationalism denies not only the ultimate evidential basis of belief but also the idea that philosophy is primarily concerned with foundations of any kind. In his essay "Dewey on Experience: Foundation or Reconstruction?" Richard Shusterman contends that Dewey is not interested primarily in justification, and his emphasis on experience is, hence, not a reinstatement of a foundationalist epistemology. Responding to Rorty's dismissal of Dewey's notion of experience, Shusterman contends that there is no argument about how Dewey grounds justification because on his account philosophy is concerned with transformation of experience rather than justification of belief (Shusterman 1999, 194). For Dewey, experience is not a foundation for philosophical doctrine; it is the context in which all human activity including philosophizing occurs. Dewey's emphasis on experience serves not epistemology but the enrichment of experience itself.

Dewey's account of experience effects a deeper reconstruction of philosophy than Davidson's rejection of traditional empiricism. Dewey's conception of philosophy as concerned with transformation rather than justification follows from his claim that knowing is one mode of experiencing among others (MW.3.159). It happens to be among the most deeply transformative modes of experiencing, but knowing does not exhaust the character of experience. Any concerns about belief and how it may be accounted for must be answered in a specific experiential context; and the answers serve the larger purpose of making experience richer, more meaningful, and more secure. The concern, obviously, is with living well. On Davidson's view, justification retains its primary importance though its realm is limited to the linguistic. The ability to reason is isolated in its influence and utterly beholden to causal conditions; a split is retained between human thinking and actual human living. The result is the abandonment of concern with experience beyond the cognitive, and shrinkage of the rational and philosophic context.

On Dewey's view, philosophical activity goes beyond the confines of justification and legitimation. Causes can be modified intelligently thereby bettering human experience. This can be seen in Dewey's notion of inquiry in terms of habit. Dewey's notion of habit makes explicit the kind of connection human thinking has to the world. It is a connection that shows reasoning to be continuous with experience without grounding justification on some experiential foundation. In other words, it shows how thinking transforms experience.

Habit is an established mode of interaction that both arises from prior experience and influences present experience. It can be understood only when considered in relation to impulse or unstructured native activity. According to Dewey, impulse comes first in time and first in the life of the individual, but habit comes first in fact. This can be seen when one considers the impulses of the infant. The unstructured native activity of the infant comes to nothing without the context of a background of habits found in a social context. The infant cannot survive without support; impulse cannot survive without habit. Impulse is the starting point for the assimilation of those established modes of making one's way through the world, which is to say impulse is the means by which the creature establishes relations with an environment—habits are environment embodied. Dewey also calls impulse the agency for reforming established habits. Impulse has plasticity and potentially many avenues of discharge. So, even as it is directed by established habits, it brings with it the possibility of reforming those established habits. This gives rise to the possibility of inquiry and the intelligent transformation of experience.

Habitual activity may run into novel conditions that obstruct it. When this occurs impulse is released from the established mode of response, and the course of action becomes uncertain. Released impulse seeks other means of outlet and often issues in unrefined responses or wild outbursts of emotion. This is especially true when established habits are exceptionally rigid and especially unable to deal with novel conditions. There is, however, another possible response, namely inquiry and the establishment of a new habit that permits activity to resume. The habit of inquiry uses released impulse in surveying subsidiary habits. These old habits, which are in conflict, are reformed and a course of action is determined that resolves the blocked situation. It is neither the habit of inquiry nor the impulse that inquires. According to Dewey, thinking is a delicate combination of habit and impulse (MW.14.124).

For example, I act according to established habits as I am riding my bicycle. I am not thinking or inquiring because everything proceeds smoothly, and so habits are operating relatively unconsciously. But then my activity is obstructed when I discover that I am unable pedal. Something is preventing the cranks from turning. I am baffled at this experience, impulse escapes the habit of riding my bicycle, and a habit of visual inspection becomes dominant. If I have established safe habits, then at this point I pull off the road. My next course of action is uncertain. If impulse animates some kind of habit of inquiry instead of simple emotional responses, then

In the midst of such conflicts, the situation is one of confusion and uncertainty. One's way is blocked, the next step is unknown, and the direction of activity is unknown. Dewey writes that when a habit is obstructed "a new impulse is stirred which becomes the starting point of an investigation, a looking into things, a trying to see them, to find out what is going on" (MW.14.127). Released impulse is active and seeks outlet among unobstructed habits; it points toward possible directions of activity. Impulse defines the search for a new direction. In the preceding example, I try to figure out how to repair my bicycle by surveying established habits such as resetting my chain, investigating my rear wheel for debris, asking a mechanic to inspect my bottom bracket or rear hub. In turning toward subsidiary habits, impulse indicates possibilities among what was formerly vague. In the process of searching for a new direction of activity these habits that remained in the background as I pedaled unproblematically gain definition and bring some degree of clarity to the confused and conflicted situation.

Here is the apparatus of habits required for thinking. It serves to make the unknown recognizable, or the foreign domestic. In this way, it translates the incomprehensible into something the inquirer may begin to understand. When these subsidiary habits become definite, some are seen to object to a proposed course of action; others indicate objectives of the blocked activity (MW.14.143). The former are the real factors of the situation and set the terms of the problem. The latter contribute to the ideal that guides inquiry in seeking a resolution, and in this way the apparatus of habits furnishes established modes of response that may contribute to a novel resolution. In both cases, habits stand out in the conflicted situation as objects.

Resolution is achieved when a viable course of action is indeed established. This is achieved through experiment, and experiment in imagination is called deliberation; this is the dramatic rehearsal of possible course of action. In inquiry overt activity is turned inward as modes of response are tested in imagination (MW.14.133). Deliberation ends when a choice is made, that is when competing preferences are unified in a course of action that acts as a stimulus to overt activity. The chosen course of action is that which overcomes the inhibition brought about by the original perplexity and confusion. If the chosen course of action allows activity to continue, then a resolving habit has been established.

Unlike beliefs on Davidson's view, a resolving habit is not established by a purely causal influence. It is the result of a reciprocal and ongoing interaction between impulse and habit, or between the native activity of the live creature and the environment as embodied in habits. In other words, it is the result of experience. Furthermore, the chosen course of action as stimulus is not merely a cause (and certain not in Davidson's sense as the cause of a belief since it is a candidate for a belief itself). The stimulus is already involved in a complex interaction with the apparatus of habits. To characterize it as a simple cause is to neglect its vital context of relations. But the big difference apparent here is that, on Dewey's view, the main concern is not justification of a belief, but resolution of a conflicted situation.

Dewey understands his account of inquiry as the interaction of habit and impulse to resolve an opposition between unity and difference, that is, between a synthesizing factor and that which is separate and disconnected. He takes such a distinction in epistemology to be a commonplace, and he calls it a standing paradox of the theory of knowledge (MW.14.128). The opposition of unity and difference corresponds to that of scheme and content: a conceptual scheme imposes a unified order on the diverse deliverances of the senses. The scheme is the related categories, the coherent ideas that make up a single system. Content is the different and unrelated sensations that lack reason, that make no sense. Like Davidson, Dewey characterizes the distinction as incoherent. Also, similarly to Davidson, Dewey sees the incoherence as a result of confusion regarding the establishment of belief. But on Davidson's account, the supposed confusion is one in which causes are taken as justifying reasons for belief. Dewey, on the other hand, has an opposite view of the confusion: reason in the sense of systematic concepts and justifications is substituted for physiology in characterizing thinking.

For Dewey, the problems regarding the opposition of unity and difference are due to "a confusion of logic with physiological psychology [resulting in] in a hybrid epistemology" (MW.10.37). In other words, the main problem is looking to logic instead of physiological psychology in formulating a theory of knowledge. The result is "that the technique of effective inquiry is rendered irrelevant to the theory of knowing, and those physical events involved in the occurrence of data for knowing are treated as if they constituted the act of knowing" (MW.10.38). The standing paradox of unity and difference or scheme and content is the result of isolating the theory of knowledge from the empirical behavior of knowers (MW.14.128). Davidson attempts to eliminate the confusion by holding causation and justification apart and then giving an account of the relation of beliefs to the world that is strictly causal. This eliminates one kind of split between beliefs and the world, but at the cost of rational inquiry, which now seems to lose relevance to the establishment of belief.

Dewey, rather than instituting a further distinction in order to resolve the incoherence, holds that unity and difference are not fundamentally isolated. He sees the forward movement of impulse as a drive to synthesis, to unified action. The movement aims to remove an obstruction to activity by introducing old habits in new situations, relating old habits in new ways, and thereby establishing new ways of acting, that is, new habits. The unifying relations aimed at are prospective; they are ideal in the sense of being a goal instituted in active engagement with problematic conditions. This corresponds to an organizing scheme imposed on a confused and conflicted situation.

There is also the retrospective character of the activity of knowing, that is, what is presented and taken with definiteness and assurance: the objects of the conflicted situation. These are most assured and definite insofar as they are most closely related to the undoubted fact that there is a problem, a conflict, obstructed activity. They are the discriminated factors in this situation. Dewey writes, "they are the conditions which have been mastered, incorporated in the past. They are elements, discriminated, analytic just because old habits so far as they are checked are also broken into objects which define the obstruction of ongoing activity. They are 'real,' not ideal" (MW.14.128-29). This aspect corresponds to content, to sensory deliverances, to the certainty of traditional empiricism's sensations and to the diversity and chaos of idealism's unreality.

The distinction of scheme and content does not correspond to Dewey's distinctions of habit and impulse and certainly not to knowing and experience. Rather the distinction of scheme and content is best understood on Dewey's view as a distinction among phases of experience, that is, among interactions of habit and impulse in situations of conflict. Dewey writes, "unity is something sought; split, division is something given, at hand" (MW.14.129). The conflicted situation that calls out inquiry is what is at hand, and organized activity is what is aimed at. A conceptual scheme arises in a resolved situation, and content is understood in terms of the matter or issue that needed resolving in the first place. This distinction of scheme and content, on Dewey's view, has a temporal character. This temporal character explains why habit and impulse do not fit neatly into the distinction of scheme and content. In some phases of experience habits are beliefs: they are unified means to thinking. In other phases of experience beliefs are content: they are a definite conflicting collection of objectified activities. The role of habit is fluid precisely because experience is fluid; the role depends on the situation.

The resolution of the paradox of unity and difference, or scheme and content, grows out of Dewey's position that "all knowing, judgment, belief represent an acquired result of the workings of natural impulses in connection with environment" (MW.14.130). Presumably Davidson would agree with this view, and this seems to suggest another similarity between Davidson's and Dewey's attempts to eliminate the dualism of scheme and content. For example, Davidson aims to restore unmediated touch with the familiar object that give meaning to what is said and believed, which suggests a naturalistic approach to the issue. And yet Davidson's account does not seem to go far enough, and so it retains the dualism in a different form. Dewey's complaint that "isolating intellectual disposition from concrete empirical facts of biological impulse and habit-formation entails a denial of the continuity of mind with nature" (MW.14.130) applies to Davidson's account in its isolation of reasons from causes. Davidson's account, in spite of its apparent naturalism, leaves knowing and doing disconnected in its neglect of intelligent inquiry.

On Dewey's view, causation and justification are not separate and irreconcilable bases for belief, but rather phases of experience, of the interaction of creature and environment. On Dewey's view, impulse may lead to certain responses to stimuli, and habit may supply justification for certain ways of acting; but Dewey takes great pains to demonstrate how the notions of isolated impulse and isolated habit are fictions. There is no such isolation of factors in the process of knowing; habit and impulse are what they are because of their interaction. Any isolation of habit and impulse is the product of analysis and not a description of the conditions of experience. Such analysis may be helpful in certain circumstances, but such analysis requires a disclaimer and a statement of purpose for the distortion. This is not part of Davidson's analysis. He is explicit throughout his work about his interest in "the purely formal properties the system" that make belief acquisition possible (Hahn, ed. 1999, 330). Without an acknowledgement of experience, a dualism remains and this is apparent in Davidson's account. His neglect of experience leaves his account in the end committed to a complete description of the universe as the paradigm of reason that is atemporal in character. This in turn renders actual thinking inexplicable and ineffective. His elimination of the scheme-content dualism is not worth the cost.

Dewey eliminates the dualism and the incoherence of scheme and content, but he retains the distinction as a helpful tool in resolving misunderstandings and disagreements. It allows for recognition of genuine differences among disagreeing parties. This is in contrast to Davidson's outright rejection of the distinction that betrays a neglect of the concrete situation of disagreement and misunderstanding. Rejection of the distinction indicates a retreat from actual conflict into the formal realm of an assumed background of agreement. With the assumption of a background of truths prior to inquiry, Davidson's position is surely an example the philosophic fallacy, that is, the fallacy of taking the product of inquiry as existing antecedently to that inquiry.[3] This, I think, is Margolis's point when he writes, "to say, with Davidson, that...we do have reason to believe that 'most of our beliefs are true' is to put the cart before the horse—to argue in a completely arbitrary way. Surely, only if we know to be true (or have reason to believe we know) a large number of determinate (true) beliefs, could we possibly venture to say that 'most of our beliefs are true'" (Margolis 2002, 44).

On Dewey's view, there is an apparatus of habits; but in contrast to Davidson's background of beliefs it is hardly something to recline on, content with the defeat of skepticism. Rather the apparatus of habits is a springboard for inquiry, for an activity that aims at transforming experience. It is not a guarantee of the nature of rationality and agreement ahead of time, and it is not the basis for justification. Rationality and agreement are concrete achievements. The value of the popular idea of a conceptual scheme as that with which one makes one's way through the world is that it keeps before us the idea that inquiry is an activity and often a tedious and discouraging one. The idea also suggests that the successes and failures of inquiry, that is, agreement and disagreement can have actual effects on the world, that it can change the world.

A detailed understanding of the activity of inquiry, such as Dewey provides in terms of habit, allows the scheme-content distinction to be reconceived in a way that eliminates the incoherence lurking in the popular notion, but takes seriously the motivation of wanting to understand how to make one's way through the world. On Dewey's view, a conceptual scheme is a phase of experience in which conflicting habits have been unified in a new course of action. It is the resolution of some problematic situation; it is a way of carrying on. This suggests that as activity proceeds and interaction continues, it may and most likely will come into conflict with other courses of action. Then inquiry may again occur and a new resolution may be sought.

Consider an example. One may find oneself in a problematic situation in which justice, security, and well-being are threatened by tyranny, suffering, and violence. One may choose to resolve the conflict by going to war in order to eliminate the threatening evils. The intended outcome would be the dismantling of the tyrannical government, liberating the oppressed people, and destroying the threatening means of violence. But another, in the same situation, may choose different means of resolving the conflict between the same ideal ends and the threatening facts. This second inquirer may choose to pursue a less immediately destructive course of action that eliminates violence, suffering, and tyranny. More specifically, this second course of action may pursue indirect activity that eliminates resources perpetuating the threatening evils. Diplomacy and cooperation with other governments may be used to isolate and weaken the tyrannical government. Aid would be provided to suffering people including food and medicine for oppressed citizens and shelter for refugees. Opportunities for improvement of conditions could be made available to potential recruits of a threatening army such that military activity becomes extremely unattractive.

It is easy to imagine two such inquirers having much to disagree about including points of political theory, understandings of human nature, and perhaps business interests or cultural experience. It is easy to imagine the two parties being described as having different world views. On Dewey's view, it would make sense to say they have two different conceptual schemes because each has a different resolution to the conflicted situation. On Davidson's view, there is not much to say about this situation at all, and this reflects the different conceptions of philosophy on the different views of Dewey and Davidson. On the latter view, this would not be a matter of philosophical concern—at least not in terms of agreement and disagreement or rationality and irrationality. Disagreement could be shown to be relatively small in terms of differing beliefs, but nothing could be said about the particular disagreements. One wonders, then, how reasoning could affect the actual pursuit of one or the other of the two courses of action.

On Dewey's view, the two different conceptual schemes, since they are in conflict themselves, present an opportunity for further inquiry. The question then arises whether they are incommensurable. But incommensurability could mean at least two things: First, it could mean that the two different conceptual schemes are, in this given situation, in genuine conflict; that is, the two proposed courses of action are not compatible. This seems to be an undeniable fact. If there were no conflict, there would be no need for inquiry. Second, it could mean that no resolution of the two conflicted conceptual schemes is possible. That is, the obstacles to mutual understanding, to agreement, may not be surmounted for want of good will, courage, strength, or time. This is something that cannot be determined ahead of time. The second sense of "incommensurable" cannot be applied before a propose resolution has been attempted. In fact, it cannot be applied before all attempts have been exhausted.

"Incommensurable" seems to be a legitimate word to use in describing an actual situation. It describes the fact of present conflict, and its second sense suggests the uncertainty of an attempt at resolution. Certainly there are some disagreements that seem so intransigent as to suggest some imagined encounter with an alien being whose conceptual scheme seems utterly incommensurable. On Dewey's account, we can take the image of an alien encounter seriously as an indication of anxiety or fear at the prospect of continued engagement, but we can eliminate the implied fatalism. That is, on Dewey's account, we need not be initially overwhelmed by the idea of alien conceptual schemes as if the pronouncement of incommensurability could be applied a priori.

There is a way to test the extent of incommensurability. If the conflict can in fact be resolved, then there are steps to take to accomplish this. Dewey, by giving an analysis of inquiry, offers a helpful way to think about the conflicted situation. This seems more conducive to the exercise of reason than complete rejection of the idea of a conceptual scheme and incommensurability in favor a formal defense against skepticism. "Incommensurable conceptual schemes" can be used to indicate actual conflicts, misunderstandings, and problems. Formal dismissal of the means by which such conflicts are indicated, that is, rejection of the very idea of a conceptual scheme, does not increase wisdom. Reconstruction of the idea so as to eliminate its incoherence and fatalistic connotations makes possible the pursuit of wisdom. Analyzing the factors of the conflicted situation makes possible the experiment that will determine incommensurability. It also indicates that certain conceptual schemes really may be incommensurable if time runs out, if conditions change, if people die—all of which are more than theoretical possibilities.

Martin Coleman
Department of Philosophy
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis


Davidson, Donald (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press.

————— (2001). Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press.

Dewey, John (1969-1991). The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882–1953. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Hahn, Lewis, ed. (1999). The Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Chicago: Open Court Press.

Margolis, Joseph (2002). Reinventing Pragmatism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Rorty, Richard (1982). The Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Shusterman, Richard (1997). Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life. New York: Routledge.

[1] Davidson points out that the Principle of Charity is not a charitable assumption about the level of actual human intelligence (Davidson 1984, 137). And invoking the Principle of Charity does not eliminate disagreement; rather it makes explicit the shared understanding that makes "meaningful disagreement possible" (Davidson 1984, 196). He thinks that if this background of agreement is overlooked, it is because it consists of a vast number of ordinary and typically dull truths; it is the novel or the disputed that attracts attention (Davidson 1984, 153).

[2] The idea is that a belief justified by a sensation has no resources to justify any belief beyond a belief in the immediate sensation. So, if one has the sensation of seeing a flashing green light, the question is how this ever justifies a belief in an actual flashing green light existing beyond the immediate sensation. This further belief in an actual flashing green light would require for justification some content beyond the immediate sensation (Davidson 2001, 142).

[3] See Margolis 2002, 44.

[1] Standard references to John Dewey's works are to the critical edtion, The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882–1953, edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-1991), and published as The Early Works: 1882–1898 (EW), The Middle Works: 1899–1924 (MW), and The Later Works: 1925–1953 (LW). These designations are followed by volume and page number. For example, page 32 of volume 14 of the Middle Works is cited as "MW.14.32."