Radical Interpretation and Alternative Conceptual Schemes



This handout presents an argument against the possibility of alternative conceptual schemes that is strongly suggested by Donald Davidson. It relies on his concept of a radical interpreter and a thesis about the nature of linguistic meaning.


What is a radical interpreter? A radical interpreter is a person who meets the following description: they know a language; they interpret the linguistic behaviour of speakers of a certain other language, without prior knowledge of that language, without dictionaries to help them and without being taught the other language; they are able to detect assent to sentences and dissent from them; on the basis of this evidence, they assign meanings to sentences in the other language; they assign meanings rationally.


What is the thesis about meaning? The thesis is that the meaning of a sentence is the meaning which would be assigned to it by a radical interpreter. Consider the possibility of me uttering a sentence and using a familiar word in that sentence but intending to use it in an unfamiliar sense. Does the word, when I use it, mean whatever I intend it to mean? According to the thesis, it is possible that the word does not mean what I intend it to mean (see Talmage 1996). For if a radical interpreter who is aware of all the relevant behavioural evidence would not interpret the sentence in a way that reflects this intended meaning, then the word does not have this intended meaning. Note: it is possible that a radical interpreter would assign more than one meaning to it, in which case it is ambiguous.


Why endorse this thesis? The reason for endorsing it is as follows: the meaning of a sentence that someone utters is publicly accessible, rather than something only they can possibly know; the meaning of a sentence is not a mysterious phenomenon, within a worldview that does not feature supernatural things; if one is committed to these two ideas, then one should think that a person who does not know anything about another language can, if they have all the relevant behavioural evidence and proceed rationally from that evidence, correctly identify the meanings of sentences in that language.


What is the argument against alternative conceptual schemes? In ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, Davidson associates having a conceptual scheme with having a language. If others have an alternative conceptual scheme to ours, the sentences of theirs which they assent to express radically different beliefs to our beliefs. The argument from radical interpretation begins with the principle that the meanings of these sentences are the meanings which would be assigned to them by a radical interpreter. The argument is that a radical interpreter who speaks our language could never interpret their sentences as expressing radically different beliefs to our beliefs, hence others cannot have an alternative scheme. (I will remark on this inference towards the end of the handout.)


Why would the radical interpreter assign familiar beliefs? The answer I shall present to this question is a simplified version of Davidson’s thinking. The radical interpreter observes others assenting to certain sentences in certain conditions. (The sentences they initially focus on are ones which readily command assent.) The only rational way in which they can begin assigning meanings to these sentences is by assuming that others are expressing beliefs that correspond to the interpreter’s beliefs in those conditions. For example, if a sentence is asserted when and only when there is a rabbit, the radical interpreter who speaks our language will take the sentence to mean the same as our sentence, ‘There is a rabbit.’ But this approach leads to a picture of others as expressing familiar beliefs, hence not having an alternative scheme.


This explanation does not properly state the principle of charity, which is a principle that the radical interpreter must rely on in order to rationally achieve the goal of understanding the language being learnt, according to Davidson. The principle of charity is that one should interpret others as expressing beliefs that one regards as true whenever it is plausible to do so. I have also not fully explained why the radical interpreter must rely on this principle, omitting holism of belief considerations.


Won’t assigning familiar beliefs lead the radical interpreter to miss differences in belief? In ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, and elsewhere, Davidson responds to this worry by appealing to his view that in order to make sense of others as disagreeing with us over some matter or other, we must attribute to them many common beliefs. A disagreement depends on a foundation of agreement. For example, if two people disagree over the colour of a coat, one saying that the coat is brown and the other saying that the coat is grey, they agree that there is a coat, that it not transparent, that it is of one colour, etc.


One concern about Davidson’s response is that some of the differences which interest advocates of alternative schemes are not obviously disagreements. If one group and another have different concepts for dividing up the colour spectrum, this is not obviously a disagreement. There are other concerns about the radical interpretation argument against alternative schemes, but in this handout I shall present only one more.


Is the inference valid? Even if a radical interpreter who speaks our language – English, let us suppose – could never interpret the sentences of others as expressing radically different beliefs to ours, is there a valid path from this claim to the conclusion that others cannot possibly have an alternative conceptual scheme? Even if we grant the thesis about meaning identified above, could there not be a radical interpreter whose native language is significantly different and who assigns different meanings to the same sentences being radically interpreted, such that the sentences on their interpretation express radically different beliefs to our beliefs? If so, the inference from what our radical interpreter cannot do to the impossibility of others having an alternative scheme is invalid. But perhaps it will be said that the public nature of meaning entails that all radical interpreters arrive at the same meaning assignments.



Davidson, D. 1984. On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme. In Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Talmage, C. 1996. Davidson and Humpty Dumpty. Noûs 30: 537-544.