Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Language of the Gods: An Analysis of the Possibility of Conceptual Schemes

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Language of the Gods: An Analysis of the Possibility of Conceptual Schemes

Article excerpt

Questions regarding the validity of alternative conceptual schemes have long pervaded the philosophy of language. Donald Davidson, in "On the Very idea of a Conceptual Scheme," levels one of the most concerted attacks against the validity of alternative conceptual schemes. His philosophical assault is formulated as a self-refutation argument, sharing many structural similarities with that of Berkeley's Master Argument. He endeavors to undermine the very notion of a conceptual scheme by arguing that to hold the view is to hold a self-contradictory position. Whether this particular argument stands up to in-depth scrutiny and criticism forms the central question of following pages.

This essay is composed of four substantive sections. Section One outlines Davidson's case that the idea of alternative conceptual schemes is nonsensical and self-refuting. Section Two details Nagel's response and defense of differing conceptual schemes. Section Three addresses the defenses against Nagel put forward by Davidson and Crumley. Section Four offers a new fusion of philosophical and scientific principles to elucidate a case for effective conceptual biological determinism, a case that is largely supportive of Nagel. Ultimately, this essay seeks to demonstrate that Davidson's argument against conceptual schemes fails to hold up against Nagel's refutation, particularly in the bolstered form presented in the final section.

One: Davidson's Self-Refutation Argument

Davidson seeks to demonstrate that the idea of conceptual schemes is self-refuting through a straightforward linguistic argument. For Davidson, radically incommensurable schemes would be marked by significant differences between their languages so that, "no significant range of sentences in one language could be translated into the other," (Davidson, 1974, p. 7). Thus we can say we have two differing conceptual schemes when we find two languages with, "parts of one language resisting translation into another," (Crumley, 1989, p. 350). Davidson contends that this incommensurability is impossible. He argues that the very act of envisioning another conceptual scheme involves the imputing of one's own language and understanding onto the hypothetical other scheme. If an alternative conceptual scheme were to exist it would mean that the sentences within it would be "largely true but not translatable" (Davidson, 1974, p. 16). This means that it is fundamentally impossible to even conceive of a truly different conceptual scheme because one would need to conceive of the truth of its sentences when not understanding them at all. He, thus, concludes that the very notion of a conceptual scheme is self-refuting. This argument is outlined concisely by Crumley (1989):

(1) Different conceptual schemes will be evidenced by different languages.

(2) A radically different conceptual scheme will be evidenced by a radically different language, i.e., a wholly untranslatable language.

(3) If there were a radically different conceptual scheme, then a significant portion of the sentences comprising the language which embodies such a conceptual scheme will be true, but nonetheless untranslatable.

(4) Truth cannot be divorced from translatability.

(5) If (4) then (3) does not describe a genuine language.

(6) If (3) does not describe a genuine language, then there could be no evidence for a radically different conceptual scheme.

(7) If there could be no evidence for a radically different conceptual scheme, then we have no way of individuating genuinely alternative conceptual schemes.

(8) If we have no way of individuating alternative conceptual schemes, then the notion of alternative conceptual schemes is unintelligible.

(9) Thus, the idea of a conceptual scheme is unintelligible. (Crumley, 1989, p. 350)

This elegant formulation of a self-refutation argument harkens back to a long tradition of similar formulations, most notably Berkley's so-called Master Argument. …

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