Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Doubting Castle or the Slough of Despond: Davidson and Schiffer on the Limits of Analysis

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Doubting Castle or the Slough of Despond: Davidson and Schiffer on the Limits of Analysis

Article excerpt

I

At present there would seem to be two main camps in Anglo American philosophy of language, the split falling out much as Richard Rorty described it in the preface to his 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn.(1) His editorial policy there was to give even-handed coverage to both sides of the emergent dispute while suggesting that their differences could not be resolved, and therefore that the only way forward was to adopt a sensibly pragmatist view, which entitled one to pick and choose without any need to take sides. On the one hand were those "analytical" types in the Frege-Russell line of descent who took it that "ordinary language" was too fuzzy, imprecise, or ambiguous to provide an adequate basis for the conduct of philosophical enquiry. It could be rendered fit for that purpose only through a rigorous analysis of its underlying logical grammar, or a method--such as Russell's Theory of Descriptions or Frege's canonical distinction between Sense and Reference--for effectively dispelling the manifold sources of "commonsense" error and illusion.(2) On the other side were those in the "ordinary language" camp, influenced chiefly by Wittgenstein and Austin, who rejected the idea that language could or should be subject to such forms of abstract logical regimentation. In their view, as Austin famously expressed it, our "common stock of words" embodied all the distinctions, nuances, connections and refinements that speakers had "found worth marking in the lifetimes of many generations." From which it followed that "these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, . . . and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you and I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon--the most favoured alternative method."(3)

To Rorty this seemed just one more example of the kinds of dilemma that philosophers typically got into by supposing that there must be a right way of doing things and that theirs was the method (or, in Austin's case, the modestly unmethodical approach) by which best to do it. His own work up to this point had been largely analytical in character, or addressed to problems within and around that first (Frege-Russell) line of descent. However, thereafter--that is to say, in his writings subsequent to The Linguistic Turn--he swung right across to a pragmatist view which left little room for such specialized concerns. Thus Rorty now argued that philosophy is not a "constructive" or problem-solving exercise; that the analytic enterprise had reached a dead-end with the difficulties uncovered by "post-analytical" thinkers like Quine, Sellars, and Goodman; and hence that the most useful ("edifying") job of work for philosophers was to help this beneficial process along by debunking the discipline's old pretensions and maybe-once in a while-coming up with some novel metaphor or narrative slant on its own history to date.(4)

Another route "beyond" analytic philosophy is that taken by Donald Davidson in a series of influential essays, among them "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" and (more recently) "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs."(5) Davidson has shifted ground to some extent during the roughly ten-year period that separates these two publications. Nevertheless, one can see how he traveled the path from a truth-based (Tarskian) compositional semantics to a position that Rorty can cheerfully endorse--if somewhat to Davidson's discomfort--as one more feather in the gathering wind of post-analytical fashion.(6) For as Davidson now sees it the only "theory" that is needed is one that effectively puts itself out of business by taking each utterance as it comes, attributing intentions on a one-off (adhoc or intuitive) basis, and assuming that context--or circumstantial cues and clues--can make up any deficit supposedly created when we drop all that otiose philosophic talk about "knowing," "possessing," or "sharing" a language.(7) At which point the question arises: why adopt this line of last resort when there exist alternative approaches with a far greater claim to technical refinement and conceptual-explanatory grasp? …

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