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Inquiry, 45, 16184

What is Radical Interpretation? Davidson,

Fodor, and the Naturalization of
Robert Sinclair
Simon Fraser University

Jerry Fodor and Ernest Lepore have recently criticized Davidsons methodolog y of
radical interpretatio n because of its apparent failure to reflect how actual
interpretatio n is achieved. Responding to such complaints , Davidson claims that he is
not interested in the empirical issues surroundin g actual interpretatio n but instead
focuses on the question of what condition s make interpretatio n possible. It is argued
that this exchange between Fodor and Lepore on one side, and Davidson on the
other, cannot be viewed simply as a naturalis t reaction to non-naturalis t philosophica l
inquiry. Through a careful excavatio n of the hidden assumptions and commitments
underlyin g this debate, we recognize a more serious disagreemen t over the
intellectua l obligations of naturalism ; a position with a firm hold on current
philosophica l imaginations . In the process, we gain a new appreciatio n for how such
commitments shape these naturalis t positions, and recogniz e that any resolutio n to
this specific debate will require careful attention to the divergent commitments that
are its real source.

Introduced almost 30 years ago, the philosophica l status of Davidsons

idealization known as radical interpretation, continues to be questioned. An
instructive example is Fodor and Lepores recent Is Radical Interpretation
Possible?. Fodor and Lepore question the usefulness of radical interpretation
on the grounds that it fails to re ect how actual interpreters understand the
speech of others. However, this criticism would seem to rest on the
assumption that radical interpretation is presented as an account of how we
actually proceed in situations of communication; as a theoretical explanation
of how we actually go about understanding the utterances of others.
Responding to this sort of charge, Davidson claims that he has never been
concerned with such empirical issues and that Fodor and Lepore are confused
if they take him to be interested with the empirical question of how
interpretation is achieved.
Given Davidsons claim that he is not investigating the workings of actual
interpretation it may be hard to understand why Fodor and Lepore criticize
radical interpretation along their lines. Have they simply misread Davidsons
use of radical interpretation? The answer, I will suggest, is more complex than
Davidsons response would indicate. Within current naturalistic studies of
mind and language, the project does indeed seem strange; how can an
# 2002 Taylor & Francis


Robert Sinclair

idealization like radical interpretation, a situation no actual interpreter is ever

in, somehow reveal important insights into the nature of communication?
That it does, is a claim to which Davidson is fundamentally committed. This
suggests a deep disagreement concerning philosophical method. What further
complicates matters in an interesting way is the fact that Davidsons radical
interpretation is also articulated within a naturalist perspective. So the
exchange between Fodor and Lepore on one side and Davidson on the other
cannot be viewed simply as a naturalist reaction to non-naturalist
philosophical inquiry.
What we need is a perspective on this debate that makes plain how the
philosophical commitments and motivations of each side contribute to such
different perceptions of the point and purpose of radical interpretation. Here I
attempt to provide this philosophica l backdrop through a metaphilosophical
investigation designed to elucidate the methodological commitments present
on both sides. What gradually emerges is that the debate turns crucially on
differing conceptions of what a commitment to a naturalist view of
philosophy demands. Fodor and Lepores criticism of radical interpretation
follows from an understanding of philosophy that places a certain kind of
empirical constraint on philosophical investigations. This understanding
causes them to read radical interpretation as addressing a question that is
responsive to the empirical evidence provided by actual cases of interpretation. Davidsons elaboration and use of radical interpretation is also informed
by a commitment to a naturalistic view of philosophy, but one that does not
look to a uni ed scienti c methodology as the sole model for explanation.
This then loosens the constraints on what counts as legitimate explanation,
making room for a kind of inquiry that is not itself part and parcel with natural
science. This is precisely the type of inquiry that Davidson pursues with his
use of radical interpretation. It will turn out, then, that Fodor and Davidsons
disagreement over the usefulness of radical interpretation stems from
divergent conceptions of philosophica l inquiry. What makes this divergence
interesting and worth exploring is that both conceptions, as I show in what
follows, are expressions of naturalistic commitments of a recognizably
Quinean kind.
Several important conclusions are drawn. Despite common Quinean roots,
Fodor and Davidson end up with very different conceptions of what it means
to be a naturalist. This reaf rms my central claim that the proper source of
their debate is a more deep-seated divergence over what a commitment to
naturalism requires. Focusing on radical interpretation, while indicative of an
important disagreement, has a potentially distracting effect on our ability to
recognize the naturalist commitments that ultimately shape the positions
involved. What this demonstrates is that a proper resolution to this debate
cannot ignore the way in which differing naturalist commitments give rise to
this con ict. While I will not propose any resolution to this debate here,

What is Radical Interpretation?


clarifying the proper metaphilosophical context in which it arises does, I

think, place us in a better position to move forward. Instead of simply siding
with one perspective or the other, and thereby stipulating what is to count as a
proper naturalist account, we can better acquaint ourselves with the wider
metaphilosophical context behind this debate, recognizing the need for
further re ection on the proper commitments of naturalism itself. Resolving
this disagreement will then require carefully weighing the advantages and
disadvantages of these two (and perhaps other) versions of naturalism, but
this can only be fully appreciated by recognizing their metaphilosophical
roots. If this is generalizable, then we have also learnt something signi cant
about the structure of philosophical thinking and the way in which it can lead
to con ict and subsequent disagreement.

I. Fodor and Lepores Critique of Radical Interpretation

With their article Is Radical Interpretation Possible? (1994), Jerry Fodor and
Ernest Lepore question the possibility of radical interpretation. They think
that defenders of radical interpretation fail to give an account of the epistemic
position of the radical interpreter which demonstrates that radical
interpretation from that position is possible (1994, p. 102). This section
outlines the major reasons Fodor and Lepore give for this sceptical conclusion
concerning radical interpretation and then makes explicit the assumptions and
philosophical commitments on which it rests.1
Fodor and Lepore begin their critique by indicating the strategy they think
is used to show that radical interpretation is possible: The idea is to so
construe radical interpretation that it is plausible that the stipulated epistemic
condition of the radical interpreter is the actual epistemic condition of
children learning a rst language or of linguists and translators in the eld
(1994, p. 103). They think that in defending radical interpretation, its
advocates claim that what the radical interpreter knows is, in fact, what the
eld linguist translating an alien tongue or the child learning a rst language
also knows. Such a defense of radical interpretation is then completed by
relying on the obvious fact that translators do succeed in their translations and
children do in fact learn languages: Since children really do learn natural
languages, and eld linguists really do translate them, it follows, on this
construal, that the radical interpretation of natural languages must be
possible (1994, p. 103).
Fodor and Lepore describe the evidence available to the radical interpreter
as consisting of singular hold true sentences (SHTs):
E: Kurt holds true Es regnet on Saturday at noon and it is raining near Kurt on Saturday at
noon. (1994, p. 105)


Robert Sinclair

It is such SHTs as correlations of linguistic utterances with the environment

which serve as the primary evidence for interpretation. Hence, they claim, the
argument for radical interpretation will only work if SHTs exhaust the
empirical information that the radical interpreter is supposed to have about
the informant (1994, p. 105). Once we look at the actual evidence available
to linguists, we nd that their resources consist of much more than Davidsons
SHTs. The linguists background theory concerning the empirical factors that
restrict the variance of natural languages not only plays a key role in
interpretation, but is justi ed by its past ability to provide correct
interpretations of a natural language.2 It therefore seems that the eld
linguist does not rely only on SHTs in the process of interpretation, but SHTs
plus all the background empirical theory that he has learned through his
training. The eld linguist is then not in the epistemic position of a radical
interpreter, so Fodor and Lepore conclude that from such actual cases of
interpretation it does not follow that radical interpretation is possible.
The same conclusion is drawn by Fodor and Lepore when they consider the
case of the child learning a rst language: It seems perfectly possible that he
too approaches the language learning situation with a background of, perhaps
innate, contingent assumptions about what the character of a conspeci cs
dialect can be, and that these assumptions substantively constrain his choice
of a translation manual (1994, p. 109).3 With such background assumptions
at their disposal, children do not rely only on SHTs in order to learn a
language and therefore are not in the epistemic position of radical
interpreters. As with the case of the eld linguist, close scrutiny of the
childs resources when learning a language reveal that the child is not a
radical interpreter, therefore the conclusion is the same as before; it does not
follow that radical interpretation is possible. Fodor and Lepore explain that to
take seriously the possibility that both the linguist and child bring background
assumptions to the task of interpretation is to, jeopardize . . . the argument
that radical interpretation is possible (1994, p. 111).
Fodor and Lepores argumentative strategy has now been made clear. They
assume that a defense of radical interpretation depends on the identi cation of
the radical interpreter with the position of actual interpreters. They then
continue by examining situations of actual interpretation in order to see
whether this is, in fact, correct. They nd, as we have seen, that actual
interpreters are not in the epistemic position of radical interpreters. Any
appeal to situations of actual interpretation in order to defend the possibility
of radical interpretation fails, precisely because actual interpreters are not
radical interpreters. Fodor and Lepore conclude that we have no reason to
think that radical interpretation is possible and therefore no reason to think
that it offers insight into the nature of linguistic communication.
This reconstruction of Fodor and Lepores argument provides us with the
material needed to articulate the assumptions and commitments that

What is Radical Interpretation?


characterize Fodor and Lepores naturalism. Despite the fact that Fodor and
Lepore explicitly recognize Davidsons claim that radical interpretation is
concerned with the question of what makes interpretation possible, they
assess the idea of radical interpretation by considering whether it accurately
describes the situation of actual interpretation. This move makes explicit the
key dialectical problem of this article; how can Fodor and Lepore recognize
Davidsons interest in the conditions that make interpretation possible yet
continue to question this account on the grounds that it presents an inaccurate
picture of how interpretation actually is done? My suggestion is that it is
precisely Fodor and Lepores naturalist commitment that causes them to
evaluate the question in this speci c way. As a result, they proceed to assess
radical interpretation on empirical grounds in order to determine whether it
can provide genuine explanatory truths concerning the phenomena with
which it deals. This can be shown by focusing more closely on the
commitments present in Fodors naturalist conception of philosophy.4
Like many recent forms of naturalism, Fodors owes much to Quines
elaboration and defense of this position. Quine explains his view in the
following way: . . . my position is a naturalistic one; I see philosophy not as
an a priori propaedeutic or groundwork for science, but as continuous with
science.. . . There is no external vantage point, no rst philosophy (1969, pp.
1267). On this construal, naturalism maintains a certain understanding of the
relationship between philosophy and science where there is no independent a
priori philosophical perspective that remains insulated from scienti c inquiry.
To engage in philosophica l investigation is to work from within the same
understanding of the world provided by science, and to reject the claim that
philosophy can justify the results offered by science. Call this the continuity
Many naturalists build on this requirement of continuity between
philosophy and science by claiming that natural science has a methodological
priority over other disciplines, imposing constraints on the conditions under
which these disciplines may claim to provide literal truths. Fodor explains the
reasons for this methodological priority in the following way:
[S]cience is privilege d not because the scienti c method is infallible , but because the
natural realm is the only realm there is or can be; everything that ever happens . . . is the
conformity of nature to law. And our science is the best attested story about the conformity of
nature to law that we know how to tell. (1998, p. 4)

This passage clearly indicates a naturalist commitment to which Fodor

himself subscribes. Here, scienti c method is taken as the most successful
account of how the natural realm works, because it displays phenomena as
instances of the workings of law. This introduces a further commitment to the
primacy of nomic empirical explanation; to offer empirical explanations of
natural phenomena involves the production of lawlike generalizations that
subsume the phenomena in question. It is a requirement on explanation,


Robert Sinclair

emphasized by this sort of naturalism, that it strive for the discovery of nomic
connections between the phenomena being investigated. Call this the nomic
priority requirement.
A nal commitment of Fodors naturalism is the claim that phenomena can
legitimately count as real only if they can be characterized as dependent on
more basic underlying phenomena. To accomplish this is to construe
phenomena in terms of a vocabulary that is more fundamental than the one in
which they are initially characterized. A vocabulary is more fundamental, in
the relevant sense, in so far as it allows for the formulation of laws of greater
generality than those we can frame in terms of the vocabulary we initially
used to introduce these objects. Now, we have seen that Fodor takes genuine
explanation as requiring nomic characterization since everything that happens
is the conformity of nature to law. The most general theory of the world
would provide a complete description of natures conformity to law; it would
be the most basic or fundamental vocabulary in terms of which we can
account for any event as an instance of some perfectly general physical law.
Taking physics as supplying this sort of generality leaves it with the
responsibility of providing the closest possible articulation of how nature
conforms to law. Since it strives for this more general account of how nature
conforms to law, all other levels of nomic explanation need to be shown to
depend on it. Such a requirement places constraints on the type of explanation
one can give at higher levels of explanation. Psychological laws or the laws of
any other special science are constrained by the existence of more basic
physical processes that implement such laws. If there are intentional laws, the
regularities they articulate must in turn be explananda of accounts that appeal
to underlying, more basic regularities. In other words, that there are
psychological (or other higher-level) laws of a particular sort needs to be
explained in terms of more basic laws. It should be noted that, in Fodors case,
these constraints on psychological theories do not result in their theoretical
reduction to physics, but that all genuine, real phenomena are ontologically
dependent on physical phenomena. Call this the ontological dependency
Let us, then, take Fodors naturalism to involve the three main components
that I have called the requirements of continuity, nomic priority, and
ontological dependency. Underlying this naturalist commitment is a more
fundamental metaphysical commitment, which results in the speci c
naturalist view outlined above. This metaphysical view is a form of
essentialism, the ontological doctrine that posits a world consisting of a xed
totality of mind-independent entities admitting of only one true and complete
description (Putnam [1981, p. 49]). This prior essentialism has a signi cant
impact on Fodors naturalism; it informs a certain reading of the continuity
requirement, which then leads to the further requirements of nomic priority
and ontological dependency. In other words, the continuity requirement alone

What is Radical Interpretation?


does not imply the further requirements of nomic priority and ontological
dependency. Since Fodor is committed to all three, there must be an
additional assumption that when combined with the continuity thesis leads to
these further requirements. I suggest that we nd Fodors essentialism playing
this role. Recently he has emphasized that Science discovers essences . . .
(Fodor [1998, p. 5]) revealing that it is this speci c essentialist reading of the
task of science that underwrites his distinctive conception of naturalism.
This essentialism takes there to be only one true description of a world
independent of ourselves, one level of description in which all genuine truths
can be expressed. When combined with the continuity requirement, the view
that philosophical investigations are continuous with the world described by
science, this results in a methodological priority given to natural science as
the method for arriving at that one true description of reality. In turn, this
gives rise to the nomic priority thesis, because by giving methodological
priority to natural science we are now committed to striving for nomic
empirical explanation. That is, nomic explanation now serves as the criterion
for legitimate explanation, because scienti c explanation just is nomic
empirical explanation. Finally, this gives rise to Fodors ontological
dependency requirement. With methodological priority given to natural
science, combined with the essentialist view that there is only one true
complete description of reality, we need to demonstrate how any level of
explanation, including intentional explanation, derives its force and
legitimacy from the form of description that seeks to provide us with the
most general theory of the world. Once this essentialism is in place,
philosophical attempts to characterize the intentional realm as amenable to
natural science involve, in part, the task of specifying how this characterization is dependent on the most general theory of the world, now viewed as the
one true description of reality.
Fodors essentialism then has a signi cant impact on his brand of
naturalism. However, the fact that Fodors essentialism is an ontological
doctrine accepted quite independently of the continuity requirement suggests
that it is not a necessary part of a commitment to naturalism. This leaves open
the possibility for a conception of naturalism devoid of such a requirement.
The next section presents Davidsons naturalism as anti-essentialist, rejecting
the need for any ontological legitimization of the sort required by a
commitment to essentialism.
Returning to Fodors conception of naturalism, we can further note that it
takes philosophica l investigations about mind and language as requiring that
science be brought to bear on these issues if they are to provide genuine
explanations: . . . philosophical problems about mind and world have to be
situated within the general scienti c enterprise, if literal truth is what
philosophers aim for (Fodor [1998, p. 4]). Philosophical investigations
concerning the nature of thought and language are, in part, a kind of


Robert Sinclair

transformation process; our initial concerns are transformed or redescribed as

ones that are open to empirical scienti c investigation. This reformation
process is a naturalization of philosophy; its point is to allow us to use
available scienti c tools in order to determine what the truth is. Fred Dretske
has recently provided a clear statement of this view: Naturalism in
philosophy . . . has the goal of articulating the application conditions of
puzzling concepts (like knowledge and perception) so that empirical
(scienti c) methods can be used to answer questions we have about the
things to which we apply these concepts (2000, p. x). This naturalist
commitment is at the very core of Fodors philosophy of mind, resulting in his
famous attempt to scienti cally vindicate folk psychology. Details aside,
Fodor thinks that such a vindication requires, initially, an empirical
psychology which can provide intentional laws, that is, laws which quantify
over the intentional properties characteristic of propositional attitudes.
Further vindication requires explanation of the mechanisms of such
regularities in terms of lower level laws.
Fodors account of the mind thus proceeds according to the claim that
philosophical concerns about the nature of the mind be transformed into
scienti c questions that can be answered using the best empirical scienti c
methods available.5 The related naturalist commitments of continuity, nomic
priority, and ontological dependency inform the kind of psychological
explanation that Fodor thinks is acceptable. Methodological continuity
suggests that we adhere to the methods and resources of natural science in
constructing such theories, and the primacy of nomological explanation
requires that such theories provide lawlike characterizations if they are to be
truly explanatory. Accordingly, physics, with its interest in providing
complete generality, forces us to characterize psychological theory so that
it is clear how such phenomena are the result of basic underlying physical
phenomena. For Fodor, any philosophica l theory of the mind or philosophical
psychology that does not adhere to these naturalist commitments has no
chance of providing the truth about the mental. Consequently, any such view
would place the mental outside of the natural realm and by virtue of that fact
be completely unilluminating.
Not surprisingly, this type of naturalist commitment has a notable impact
on Fodors criticism of radical interpretation. Since the point for Fodor is to
transform our philosophical concerns into scienti c ones, and speci cally to
enable us to display mental events as instances of law, any philosophical
account of the mental, including radical interpretation, should be evaluated by
that naturalist standard. This is precisely the orientation from which Fodor
evaluates the radical interpretation model of linguistic competence. To the
extent that this model of linguistic competence provides truths about
linguistic or mental phenomena, it must do so by bringing such phenomena
under the purview of the empirical sciences.

What is Radical Interpretation?


We can now understand the context in which Fodor and Lepore examine
and then criticize radical interpretation. They treat it as an account that is
responsive to their conception of naturalism, and therefore read radical
interpretation as providing the philosophica l transformation required for the
empirical resolution of these issues. Whether radical interpretation is possible
ought then to be an empirical question, to be assessed by an appeal to the
relevant empirical data. If it does not proceed in this way, then how could
radical interpretation hope to bring the mental under the scope of natural
science? Seen from this perspective the question of the possibility of
interpretation viewed from within the epistemic constraints imposed by
radical interpretation, must itself be brought into contact with relevant
empirical evidence. This move is signaled with Fodor and Lepores remark
that: The epistemic situation of the radical interpreter is thus the epistemic
situation in which languages are actually interpreted (1994, p. 103). By
understanding the defense of the possibility of radical interpretation as
contingent on actual situations of interpretation, Fodor and Lepore have
transformed the question so that empirical evidence is now relevant for our
answer. Once they approach the issue from this standpoint, they proceed to
consider different cases of actual interpretation, the eld linguist and child,
demonstrating that in these actual cases interpreters do not operate within the
constraints given in radical interpretation. Hence, there is little reason to think
that interpretation from that standpoint is possible. They conclude that the
project captured under the heading radical interpretation has failed to
receive the empirical support required, that is, it has failed to provide a
naturalistic transformation of the phenomena with which it deals.
Davidson himself seems to have a very different view of the motivations
and philosophical point of his use of radical interpretation. He claims that
Fodor and Lepore badly misread him when they proceed to read his question
as an empirical one. Here he is explicit: I do not think I have ever con ated
the (empirical) question how we actually go about understanding a speaker
with the (philosophical) question what is necessary and suf cient for such
understanding. I have focused on the latter question . . . (1994b, p. 3).
However, I think this dialectic is more complicated than Davidsons dismissal
of Fodor and Lepore suggests.6 Let us again consider Fodor and Lepores
reading of radical interpretation.
Taking a commitment to naturalism as involving a transformation of
philosophical concerns into questions susceptible to natural-scienti c
investigation, Fodor and Lepore read Davidsons use of radical interpretation
as if it were supposed to be contributing to such a transformation. The claims
then made in the name of radical interpretation qualify as legitimate truths
about communication only if they receive the sort of empirical support that
this scienti c transformation of philosophy demands. On this score, the
failure of radical interpretation appears complete; assessed as an attempt that


Robert Sinclair

allows us to bring natural science to bear on its questions it is completely

Davidson rejects this reading of his project out of hand. He claims that it
rests on a confusion of which he himself has never been guilty. Here
Davidson is asking us to note an important distinction between two kinds of
questions, an empirical question concerned with how we actually proceed in
interpretation and his concern over the philosophical issue of what conditions
make such understanding possible. One might expect the naturalist, invoking
Quines continuity-demand, to question the point of this distinction. Is there
really this sort of philosophical question presented here over and above a
concern with how we actually go about interpreting one another? Thinking
along these lines, one might think that Fodor and Lepore doubt the legitimacy
of any question other than the important empirical one concerning how
interpretation actually works. This impression, however, is wrong. Fodor and
Lepore do not disallow Davidsons distinction, nor the point of the question
concerning what makes interpretation possible. Nevertheless, while they
purport to address Davidsons concern with determining the conditions that
make interpretation possible, they do so by reading this question in terms of
their own naturalist commitment. In effect, they naturalize this distinction, or
more speci cally, naturalize Davidsons question, taking it to be a question
about the real conditions that enable actual interpreters to perform their task.
So understood, the question of the possibility of radical interpretation
becomes the question whether we have reason to think it is possible for actual
interpreters to perform the complex task speci ed as radical interpretation.
This question, it appears, should be decided on just the sort of evidence that
Fodor and Lepore extract from their consideration of the resources of actual
interpreters. Davidsons how-possible question is situated, in Fodor and
Lepores reading, in the context of an effort to reinterpret philosophical
questions about meaning as questions more or less directly susceptible to
empirical science. Hence the question must itself be responsive to empirical
evidence and focus our attention on particular sources of such evidence if it is
to be of any use in explaining how we actually successfully interpret one
another. It is precisely this sort of attitude with guides their reading of radical
interpretation, revealing their implicit naturalist commitment and resulting in
their unfavourable verdict concerning its usefulness.
It is now apparent that the dispute over the nature of radical interpretation
between Fodor and Lepore, on one side, and Davidson, on the other, suggests
a fundamental disagreement concerning proper philosophical method.
Davidsons dismissive rebuttal that presents Fodor and Lepore as simply
confusing the central question is hasty and does not help us get to the heart of
the disagreement. It is not simply that Fodor and Lepore fail to distinguish a
philosophical question about conditions of possibility and an empirical one
about actual, contingent, phenomena. Rather, recognizing Davidsons

What is Radical Interpretation?


question they transform it into an empirical question concerning the actual

possibility of radical interpretation. For in the context of Fodor and Lepores
naturalism, Davidsons how-possible question looks like a question about the
actual, contingent constraints on the abilities of actual interpreters.
It may seem as if Fodor and Lepore are imposing a naturalist framework
where it does not belong, and, consequently, simply mistaking Davidsons
intent. Indeed, Davidsons insistence that there is an additional question to be
pursued here beyond an empirical concern with actual interpretation is not
easy to make sense of in naturalist terms. And elsewhere, in describing his
philosophical interests, Davidson notes: This is a question about the nature of
thought and meaning which cannot be answered by discovering neural
mechanisms, studying the evolution of the brain, or nding evidence that
explains the incredible ease and rapidity with which we come to have a rst
language (1995a, p. 14). Such remarks reinforce the impression that
Davidsons views cannot be fairly construed within a naturalistic framework.7
However, this impression is wrong; Davidson has made several recent
statements explaining his commitment to naturalism. Hence, we must
consider what sense can be made of this commitment and how the
idealization known as radical interpretation helps with this naturalist project.
The next section situates Davidsons use of radical interpretation within his
general naturalist framework. I attempt to show that Davidsons use of a
priori principles, such as the principle of charity, is informed by empirical
facts about us human creatures. As a result, radical interpretation with its
appeal to the principle of charity, should be properly viewed as part of the
naturalist tradition initiated by Quine. This will allow us to recognize a
fundamental divergence between Davidson and Fodor over naturalism itself,
and how this is the real source of their disagreement over the usefulness of
radical interpretation.

II. Radical Interpretation and Naturalism

Davidson introduces the radical interpretation model of linguistic competence
in order to show how his proposed theory of meaning can be, veri ed without
assuming too much of what it sets out to describe (1984, p. xvi). Motivated
by the idea that a Tarskian theory of truth can serve as the formal structure for
a theory of meaning, Davidson continues to develop his semantic project by
considering what is needed for such a theory to be empirically testable.
The idealization labeled radical interpretation helps in the pursuit of the
empirical component of this project, by introducing a situation where an
individual attempts to interpret the speech of another without knowledge of
the language in question and without any detailed understanding of what that
individual is thinking. It is these constraints which allow any substantive


Robert Sinclair

claims to be made in the name of this idealization. That is, it is only by

assuming the interpreter initially knows very little about the speci cs of the
intentional states, and their linguistic expressions, of the subject that he will
put himself in a position to say something signi cant about how this theory of
meaning could have empirical application, and in turn point to some
signi cant necessary elements required for communication.8 It is important to
note that the radical interpreters constrained position does not limit his
knowledge of interpretation, or of meaning and belief generally. The radical
interpreter knows how to communicate, he himself being the speaker of a
language, and as a result he also has general knowledge of what meanings are
and what beliefs are.9 What is crucially missing from his knowledge is an
understanding of each episode of linguistic interaction he now faces. In order
to make progress in communication the radical interpreter must proceed on
the basis of what he observes the alien speaker do and the sounds that he
hears. A useful place to begin is through establishing correlations between the
utterances of the alien speaker and the parts of the surrounding environment
which give rise to this utterance. Davidson requires the radical interpreter to
create hypotheses taking the form of T-sentences or rather T-sentences that
relativize truth to time and place. Such a T-sentence would look like the
(T) Es regnet is true-in-German when spoken by x at time t if and only if it is raining near x at
t. (Davidson [1973, p. 135])

It is, of course, reasonable to ask how the radical interpreter is able to

establish such correlations and then proceed to construct these T-sentences. It
is clear that within his constrained position the interpreter must make some
assumptions in order to proceed with this project. A rst assumption becomes
evident with Davidsons claim that in radical interpretation interpreters are
able to recognize when a speaker makes an assertion (Davidson [1974a, p.
144]).10 Although the radical interpreter has no knowledge of the content of
the assertions made by an alien speaker, it is assumed that he still can
recognize when the speaker is making an assertion. Without such an
assumption, interpretation could never get off the ground, since without a set
of utterances to which he can assign the predicate true, the interpreter would
be unable to determine the extension of such utterances and therefore could
not formulate a semantic proposal which consists in part of a set of rules for
generating T-sentences. After having identi ed the attitude of holding a
sentence true, the interpreter needs to make a second assumption; that the
speaker believes that the sentence he has uttered is true. Furthermore, only
through assuming that the speaker not only believes himself to be, but is also
actually correct in his assertion, can the interpreter establish a hypothesis that,
by means of the truth predicate, connects this utterance with the features of
the surrounding situation that is taken to have caused it. To view assertions as

What is Radical Interpretation?


lies, or sincerely uttered falsehoods, prevents him from taking the external
environment as a direct source of evidence for the truth-conditions of the
utterance in question. These assumptions work in tandem to overcome the
central problem of the interdependence of belief and meaning:
[A] speaker holds a sentence to be true because of what the sentence (in his language) means,
and because of what he believes. Knowing that he holds the sentence to be true, and knowing
the meaning, we can infer his belief; given enough information about his beliefs, we could
perhaps infer the meaning. (Davidson [1973, p. 134])

Normally making our way into this interdependence of belief and meaning
is unproblematic, but in radical interpretation it becomes serious, since the
evidence which is to serve as the basis for our theory of interpretation crucially
does not depend on assumed knowledge of meanings or of detailed knowledge
of beliefs. The problem is solved through the use of our assumptions, by rst
identifying the intention to utter a true sentence and then, second, taking the
speakers utterance just made as in fact a correct one. This does not violate any
of the restrictions of our approach since we have not appealed to any detailed
knowledge of the speakers beliefs or intentions, but we do take the creature
before us as having beliefs and intentions that are causally related to states of
the external environment. At this juncture we still have no detailed knowledge
of their beliefs, or of the content of their words, but we have put ourselves in a
position to provide empirical support to our theory.
Consider the radical interpreters attempt to interpret Es regnet. Whatever
this happens to mean on the occasion in which it is uttered, it can only count
for evidence of (T) if we assume that Es regnet is used correctly on that
occasion. Once we take it that an individual could be wrong in asserting Es
regnet, then the right side of the T-sentence gains no support from this
utterance, since we would now have to realize that the circumstances of
utterance are of no use for the establishment of the truth conditions of this
utterance. Therefore, assuming that the interpreter can identify true assertions
is not enough to provide evidence for our theory; we need to further take the
speakers utterance to be in fact true. Proceeding in this way, we notice that
Kurt utters Es regnet when it is raining in the near vicinity, and conclude
that this provides evidence for a T-sentence of the language in question. From
this initial starting point we continue to develop our theory, isolating more
evidence of the sort required and constructing the relevant T-sentences on that
basis. Davidson is well aware that at best this gives us only truth-conditions,
when what we want are interpretations. However, as we proceed to construct
our theory to t the total evidence available, the holistic constraints found in
language will permit acceptable interpretations to emerge in the form of
T-sentences. 11
We have seen how the second assumption involved taking the speaker as
being largely correct concerning what he asserts and therefore what he
believes. This so-called principle of charity highlights the rational interests


Robert Sinclair

that consist of the non-empirical features of our intentional vocabulary. The

status of this principle is then crucial for elucidating Davidsons naturalist
commitment and it will then be useful to examine its status in more detail.
Davidson has characterized charity as involving two principles called the
principle of coherence and the principle of correspondence (1991, p. 158).
The principle of coherence requires that when interpreting another we strive
to discover a suf cient degree of logical consistency in their thought.
Davidson takes thought itself as de ned by such norms of rationality and a
failure to adhere to them to a large enough degree leaves us with no way to
discern an object as rational. The key point here is not what exactly such
norms must be, but that each of us has, at least, a basic and perhaps largely
inarticulate understanding of what they are and that we cannot recognize
rationality without using them.12
The principle of correspondence recommends that we take a speaker to be
responding to parts of the world in ways that we would ourselves respond to if
placed in similar circumstances. Here we are required to take the speaker
before us as having a suf cient degree of true beliefs about the world around
him, which is, of course, based on our own understanding of the same world.
The point is not that we must nd others believing everything we do, from the
simplest sentence to the most obscure philosophical argument. The claim is
that at a basic level we need to share a number of beliefs, where basic level
here is pointing to the initial concepts learnt by ostension which enable us to
make sense of our practical involvement with the world. Without this much in
common, there would be no standard against which we could form
disagreement, because without this much shared knowledge there is nothing
we could be wrong about, which is to say there is nothing in the picture that
requires an appeal to rationality. Both these principles are described as
aspects of the principle of charity, which is a general normative constraint on
the possibility of recognizing rationality whatsoever. The norms of rationality
embodied in the principle of charity are constitutive of rationality; actions and
thoughts can be deemed rational because they in general adhere to these
Stating the necessity of charity in such terms has suggested to some that it
be read as a kind of transcendental principle, and, further, such commentators
take Davidsons defense of this point as involving a transcendental proof or
argument.13 Those who make such claims generally emphasize the af nities
between Davidsons and Kants philosophica l method. What is purportedly
shared within their approaches is the attempt to provide an argument designed
to elucidate the conditions for the possibility of some fundamental
phenomenon whose existence is uncontroversial. Pursuing such a strategy
involves establishing arguments which begin with a premise asserting the
existence of the phenomena in question and then move to a conclusion
concerning the sort of enabling conditions required for this speci c type of

What is Radical Interpretation?


phenomena. 14 While my discussion might be seen as aligning Davidson

within the terms of this general strategy, once we look more speci cally at the
role the non-empirical principles play in his account we see why Davidson
should not be seen as working within such a transcendental methodology.
To bring this out, I would like to consider a more speci c Kantian reading
of Davidsons emphasis on the constitutive principles at work within
interpretation. According to such a reading, transcendental principles are
viewed as formal presuppositions of the possibility of experience. Friedman
describes this understanding of transcendental principles as maintaining . . .
the characteristic constitutive function Kant rst articulated the function
of making rigorous formulation and con rmation of properly empirical
theories in natural science rst possible (1997, p. 13). More speci cally, it is
this a priori background of concepts and principles that enables the rigorous
formulation and testing of the empirical hypotheses characteristic of
empirical science. If we extend this view of transcendental principles to
Davidsons principle of charity, it can now be read as a formal presupposition
that provides the framework necessary for our interpretive practices. Such a
reading maintains a clear division between the a priori and the empirical in
the way that these constitutive principles play a special a priori role in
establishing the general framework within which empirical claims can be
made. While such a priori principles may be revisable through the substitution
of one set for another, yielding a relativistic constitutive a priori, their
constitutive nature suggests that they are immune to any direct revision based
solely on empirical grounds.15
However, this Kantian reading betrays a misunderstanding of the way in
which non-empirical principles are meant to function within Davidsons
philosophy. The most telling point against this reading is the lack of a clear
divide between the a priori and empirical in Davidsons work, a divide that is
needed for this reading to be maintained. We need to recognize that
Davidsons use of a priori principles maintains a much tighter connection
with the empirical by being responsive to empirical facts about us humans.
This moves us away from a transcendental reading of Davidsons principles
and properly locates Davidson within the naturalist tradition initiated by
Davidsons introduction of non-empirical principles stems from an
elaboration of the purposes that are served by our mental vocabulary and
continues by explaining exactly how these purposes can be ful lled through the
use of this vocabulary. With radical interpretation our central aim is the
identi cation of the contents of peoples minds and of their utterances in order
to successfully interpret what they are saying. This situation illustrates the
paramount importance of an appeal to charity in helping us succeed with this
speci c goal. It is only through taking a speaker as largely correct about what
they think and say that we are able isolate the evidence needed for the


Robert Sinclair

construction of a theory of interpretation. The need for charity then falls out of
our prior interest in successfully communicating with others and the principle
of charity is then revealed as a truth about our mental vocabulary that is built
into the very successful application of the concepts we use to interpret others.
The explanation for our adherence to charity involves a particular description
of the speci c interests found in our attempts to describe one another as rational
agents and in the process we recognize that charity is unavoidably built into
these attempts, making that vocabulary exactly what it is, a level of description
designed for displaying events as rational.
This discussion helps bring out the way in which Davidsons use of howpossible questioning helps him delineate the, admittedly, a priori constitutive
conditions that are built into our use of this vocabulary. In asking how such an
activity as interpretation is possible, Davidson elucidates the constitutive
principles that inform our intentional vocabulary. These are claims made
about the nature of a vocabulary, and explain how it achieves its point and
purpose from the sort of principles that comprise the vocabulary. Here,
Davidson is making explicit important features of our intentional vocabulary
by describing the ways that such features connect up with general kinds of
human interests. They express the fundamental nature of these interests, in
this case the rational interests that comprise intentional vocabulary, and
re ect the way that these interests shape the particular vocabulary in question.
However, and this is the crucial point, the support for such principles is, at
least, indirectly empirical, in the sense that their status depends on the
explanatory power with which they give the account of the vocabulary to
which they belong as a de ning feature. This involves, in part, an analysis of
this vocabulary that is able to account for our success in using a certain class
of concepts, the kind of inferences and intuitions that are built into their use
and partly a matter of how these interests allegedly served can be tied to a
scienti cally respectable picture of creatures like us. It is this second aspect
that adds a noticeably naturalistic component to this type of inquiry. The
speci cation of the non-empirical elements that comprise the de ning
interests of this vocabulary is naturalistic in the sense that the plausibility of
the analysis, with its substantive appeal to various concrete human interests,
will depend in some measure on our empirical picture of what type of
creatures we are. Given this fact, the constitutive principles at the very core of
the proposed account of a vocabulary are themselves subject to empirical
revision, as our very conception of the vocabulary in question may change as
a result of a change in our empirical view of what we are.
This understanding of the relationship between Davidsons use of
constitutive principles and empirical facts demonstrates why they are not
properly read as formal presuppositions for the possibility of interpretation.
Such a reading depends on a clear division between the non-empirical and the
empirical, since it is the a priori structure that is to serve as the framework

What is Radical Interpretation?


within which empirical revision can take place. However, Davidsons

constitutive principles are themselves susceptible to empirical revision, since
they are responsive to empirical features of human biological creatures.
Empirical discoveries that suggest changes in our understanding of ourselves
may then prompt changes to these constitutive principles, since they may no
longer adequately gel with central aspects of our scienti c understanding of
ourselves. Rather than indicate the formal presuppositions of a certain
phenomenon, these constitutive principles make explicit the explanatory
interests at work when we use intentional vocabulary and thus indicate what
viewing the world through such a vocabulary commits us too. Our satisfaction
of these commitments and the interests that give rise to them will contain a
central empirical component, the empirical facts that comprise our understanding of the kind of creatures we are. It is this connection between the
empirical and non-empirical that counts against reading Davidsons use of
these principles as transcendental, formal presuppositions.
This discussion should make clear that Davidsons use of radical
interpretation highlights the normative concerns that comprise our intentional
vocabulary rational concerns that are informed by empirical facts about us
human creatures. This naturalist reading of Davidsons project can be further
developed by way of comparison with Fodors naturalist commitment. Like
Fodor, Davidsons naturalist commitment owes much to the work of Quine
with the claim that philosophy should be thought of as continuous with
scienti c pursuits. We saw this methodological continuity emphasizing how
philosophy is not viewed as an a priori method that is somehow distinct from
science. Philosophy operates completely within the natural realm described
by science and no longer is depicted as involving a radical break from the
methods and ontology revealed within the natural sciences. It is important to
note that the way in which one reads this continuity requirement can lead to
divergent accounts of what a proper commitment to naturalism entails. We
saw how in Fodors case his commitment to continuity is informed by a prior
commitment to metaphysical essentialism and that this gives rise to his
further commitment to the requirements of nomic priority and ontological
dependency. The result is a naturalism that gives methodological priority to
natural science, which holds nomic explanation as the standard for legitimate
explanation and requires that all descriptions be explanatorily dependent on
the most general scienti c theory available.
Davidsons understanding of the requirements of a naturalist perspective
lack the assumptions present in Fodors essentialism and therefore do not lead
to the further requirements of nomic priority and ontological dependency.
What Davidson and Fodor share is a commitment to the continuity
requirement, and the important claim that physics strives for complete
nomological generality. However, because Davidson does not accept Fodors
essentialism he does not take this nomological interest of physics as the sole


Robert Sinclair

measure of what counts as a legitimate explanation. Here he is explicit: A

perfected physics must comprehend every object and event, but this is an
ontological and nomological requirement that de nes the aim of physics; it
says nothing about the interests that may demand other ways of characterizing
things (Davidson [1997, p. 112]). This claim results in what we might call
Davidsons anti-essentialism, and it suggests a different understanding of the
continuity requirement that forms part of a commitment to naturalism. For
Davidson the continuity between philosophy and science gives way to the
realization that we must work from within the various accepted resources at
hand in order to meet our diverse explanatory interests. This is to deny the
possibility of a stronger, sturdier foundation for our various practices than
what we can provide using our already accepted modes of understanding and
knowledge. He explains how naturalism starts by accepting common sense
(or science) and then goes on to ask for a description of the nature and origins
of such knowledge (Davidson [1995b, p. 206]). This conception of
naturalism rejects attempts to explain, describe, or justify commonsense or
science on some imagined foundation from outside, but instead work from
within our standard accepted modes of understanding in order to describe how
we have gained this understanding. We then proceed to examine and justify
such abilities through a description aimed at understanding how we could
come to have such abilities.
Having accepted this naturalist position means that we accept our abilities
as often successful in their endeavours, and then turn to the crucial
philosophical question of how they are possible for creatures like us. Here we
are involved in trying to elucidate the nature of our capacities, where we try to
explain how such abilities as thought, rationality, and interpretation can be
construed as natural capacities. Here naturalization does not require an
ontological dependence on something more basic, such as the laws of physics.
However, it does require a characterization of normative phenomena which
demonstrates how they can be seen as the product of natural capacities,
capacities that are explained through scienti c methods. This is an important
aspect of radical interpretation not often emphasized, where our interpretive
abilities are depicted as the result of natural capacities, and as being the
product of innate and learnt traits. Radical interpretation purports to show
how it is possible for us, given such natural capacities, to accomplish our
interpretive feats successfully. This idealization should then be seen as
providing a way to look at our interpretive practices that does not place them
in con ict with science, but as, in fact, the result of natural capacities
discussed in science.
We have seen that Davidsons use of radical interpretation reveals the
interpretation of speech, and actions in general, as subject to a general norm
of rationality that has as its de ning concern to make sense of its objects as
rational beings, that is, as creatures who thoughtfully control their actions.

What is Radical Interpretation?


This type of explanation is not interested in understanding its objects as

subject to prediction and control a de ning feature of the natural sciences.
Noting the different set of norms that operate within the natural sciences and
within intentional explanation, respectively, makes plain why the methods of
the natural sciences fail to reach Davidsons philosophical interest in
communication, as these enterprises are carried out under con icting
explanatory interests. An attempt to illuminate the nature of interpretation,
in terms of what normative rational demands make this practice possible, and
which proceeds according to norms which are not directed at detecting
rationality, fails to address the very kind of interests at issue. The fundamental
error stems from thinking that a method that is predicated on understanding
phenomena as mindless objects adhering to lawlike constructions can also be
used for those phenomena that we wish to understand in rational terms. This
could never work for Davidson, since these investigations are based on
different constitutive interests that offer alternative perspectives on the
phenomena before us.16 From such a perspective the mental emerges as an
irreducible and ineliminable form of categorization needed to meet our
interest in viewing the world in rational terms. This conception of the mental
then needs to nd a place within a non-reductive form of naturalism, since our
understanding of the mental cannot take the route of a reduction to something
else. In place of such a reductive account we proceed by providing an analysis
of the way in which normative rational concerns inform our mental
vocabulary, as is made explicit within radical interpretation and also by
appealing to empirical facts about human creatures.
I have tried to suggest the way in which this emphasis on rational interests
that inform our intentional vocabulary is signi cantly informed by empirical
considerations about us biological creatures. Davidsons interest in what
makes interpretation possible can then be captured in this question: what
conditions need to be ful lled so that creatures like us, creatures with a
speci c evolutionary history, certain inherited, and learned traits, are able to
participate in the activity known as interpretation? The principle of charity
emerges as an answer to this question, not solely based on a priori
considerations but by paying close attention to our nature as biological
creatures. Necessary should be read here as necessary for creatures like
ourselves, creatures with a certain evolutionary history, and a speci c set of
sensory modalities and traits that are speci c to us. It is in this way that
Davidsons use of radical interpretation needs to be seen as forming part of
his non-reductive conception of philosophica l naturalism.

III. Locating Naturalism

This discussion of the way in which Davidsons use of radical interpretation is


Robert Sinclair

responsive to a non-reductive conception of naturalism helps make plain the

differences between Davidsons and Fodors commitment to naturalism. This
disagreement over the usefulness of radical interpretation is indeed one over
proper philosophical method, where this now can be viewed as a
disagreement over a proper naturalist method within philosophy. It is then
evident that this debate over the status of radical interpretation is re ective of
a much more signi cant and deep-seated divergence over the nature of
naturalism. Despite common Quinean roots over the continuity between
philosophy and science and emphasizing the full coverage of all events as the
central aim of physics, Fodor and Davidson end up with very different
conceptions of what it means to be a naturalist. Fodors essentialism
combines with the continuity thesis, resulting in a naturalism that gives
methodological priority to the natural sciences, emphasizes the need for
nomic empirical explanation and the further requirement of ontological
dependency on all higher level explanations. Davidsons view that intentional
explanation is constituted by irreducible rational interests causes him to resist
the idea that these concerns can be addressed solely according to the
explanatory concerns that animate natural science. This combined with
Quines continuity thesis yields Davidsons non-reductive naturalism, where
physical and mental vocabularies constitute two compatible yet distinct
explanatory frameworks.
These differing commitments have a signi cant impact on the corresponding disagreement concerning the central aim of radical interpretation. We
have seen that Fodors naturalism requires that radical interpretation be
responsive to relevant empirical evidence, if it is to be of any use in
explaining how we actually successfully interpret one another. However,
Davidsons conception of naturalism recognizes a set of rational normative
concerns that cannot be addressed within the explanatory interests of natural
science. By asking what makes interpretation possible, Davidson uses his
model of radical interpretation to highlight these important irreducible
features of our intentional vocabulary, features that re ect our interest in
viewing others as rational agents. The project is also informed by our
empirical conception of ourselves as biological creatures, demonstrating that
our view of ourselves as agents cannot be separated from important empirical
features concerning the type of creatures we are.
There are larger lessons that can be learned from this particular example of
philosophical disagreement. I have argued that the proper context for this
disagreement is a difference over the commitments that comprise
philosophical naturalism and that this requires recognizing Davidsons use
of radical interpretation as responsive to an alternative conception of
naturalism. If correct, then the current widespread commitment to
philosophical naturalism should not blind us to the often signi cant
differences that are involved within such positions. In the current case,

What is Radical Interpretation?


Fodors naturalist perspective places empirical constraints on radical

interpretation that disqualify it from offering legitimate insights concerning
the questions with which it deals. However, from Davidsons naturalist
perspective, such empirical constraints are inappropriate, not because radical
interpretation is an example of non-naturalist inquiry, but because it is
articulated from within a conception of naturalism that does not view the
methods of natural science as the sole model for legitimate explanation. The
rational interests that inform intentional vocabulary, and which are
highlighted within Davidsons use of radical interpretation, are not dealt
with from within the explanatory interests found with the natural sciences.
From this perspective, Davidsons use of radical interpretation makes perfect
sense; in order to theorize adequately about rationality will in part require an
analysis into the kind of rational interests that accompany our use of
intentional language and then further consider how these normative
constraints t with acknowledged empirical facts about us human creatures.
Given the way that each of these naturalist perspectives provide the standards
from which the use of radical interpretation makes sense or not, a proper
resolution to the debate cannot simply appeal to one or the other naturalist
viewpoint. To do so would be to accept the evaluative standards that
accompany that naturalist perspective and thus x the standards for what
counts as a proper philosophica l approach.
This indicates that any resolution to this debate cannot ignore the way in
which a commitment to shared starting points can lead to crucial
philosophical differences, resulting in what we have seen here as two quite
different versions of naturalism. Focusing exclusively on radical interpretation, while clearly symptomatic of a signi cant disagreement, has a
potentially distracting affect on our ability to recognize the underlying
naturalist commitments that ultimately contribute to this debate. Resolving
this disagreement will then require a careful weighing of the advantages and
disadvantages of these two versions of naturalism, with their differing
demands for what properly should be viewed as a naturalistic account. This
would result in a more informed decision concerning the debate, because we
have not then simply chosen one side over the other and thereby xed the
standards concerning what makes philosophical sense. Instead, we will have
better acquainted ourselves with the metaphilosophical context behind the
debate, thereby allowing us to fully recognize the need to re ect on the proper
commitments of naturalism itself. Such an evaluation will need to appreciate
the metaphilosophical roots underlying this debate, since it is only by coming
to grips with what these suggest for the ideology known as naturalism that
we can come to see what is at stake in this debate, and perhaps more
importantly help us recognize what it is about philosophical naturalism that
makes it such a pervasive position within our current intellectual climate. By
focusing on these commitments and the way they inform these two different


Robert Sinclair

conceptions of what it is to do philosophy may also teach us something

important about the structure of philosophical thinking and the way in which
hidden fundamental commitments and assumptions often lead to con ict and
subsequent disagreement.17

1 Fodor and Lepore offer several critical points against radical interpretation , but here I focus
on the arguments that are directly relevant for elucidatin g the naturalist conception s of
philosophy at work in this debate.
2 This background theory includes facts about the cognitive psychology of conspeci cs, how
language learning works, laws concerning linguistic change, and the existence of linguistic
universals. All these facts are acquired through the linguists professiona l training (Fodor
and Lepore, p. 107).
3 Fodor and Lepore mention that innatenes s is not the only possibility . Here they appeal to
the work of Piaget (1926) and Bruner (1983) which claims that in order to learn a rst
language the child needs rst to acquire a whole host of conceptual and social capacities.
4 Although Lepore (1982) has defended Davidsons truth-theoretica l approach to semantics,
he appears to share the assumptions and commitments of Fodors naturalism . For the
purposes of this article, I will assume this is the case.
5 For more on Fodors attempt to scienti cally vindicate folk psychology , see his (1987),
(1990), and (1994).
6 Davidsons reply (1994a) to Fodor and Lepores article is less dismissive and indicates his
varied misgivings with their reading of radical interpretation .
7 One notable dissenter is Richard Rorty. See his essays on Davidson in (1991).
8 See Davidson (1974a, p. 143), (1974b, p. 195), and (1990a, p. 315).
9 Davidson is explicit on this point: I have stressed that a radical interpreter already has a
language , and . . . has the concepts of truth, of intention, of belief, of desire and of assertion
(and many, many more) (1994a, p. 125).
10 This assumption gains in plausibilit y once we remember that the radical interprete r knows
much about interpretatio n and meaning in general. See note 9.
11 For more on these additional constraints , see essays 2, 9, and 12 in Davidson (1984).
12 This point is made in Representatio n and Interpretation : . . . the point is . . . that we all
have such norms, and that we cannot recognize as thought phenomena that are too far out of
line (Davidson [1990b, p. 24]).
13 Recent articles that claim Davidson offers transcendenta l arguments include Cutrofello
(1999), Genova (1999), and Maker (1991).
14 This brief sketch is not meant to do justice to the various accounts given for why Davidson
should be counted as part of the transcendenta l tradition. However, I think it does capture
the general framework that many take as comprising Davidsons alleged transcendentalism .
15 Friedman himself does not offer this Kantian reading of Davidson. However, given his
recent attempts to defend a neo-Kantia n constitutive a priori in the face of Quinean
naturalis m (1997, 2000), it is not surprising to see him emphasize in a footnote what he
describe s as, Davidsons genuinel y novel contribution : the attempt to show how our
constitutiv e ideal of rationality can survive in a post-Quinea n context (1996, p. 458).
16 This is precisely why Davidson question s the point of illuminating the mental by an appeal
to physical standards: Would this science differ from, or add to, ordinary physics? Not in
any way. The laws would be those of physics, and all the phenomena treated would be
describe d in physical terms. But what would such a science tell us about intentional
action? (Davidson [1987b, p. 48]). He makes a similar remark in (1987a, p. 447).
17 I thank Michael Arciszewski, Donald Davidson, Paul Forster, Philip Hanson, Mathieu
Marion, Bjrn Ramberg, Judith Stapleton, and Neil Williams for their helpful comments on
earlier drafts of this paper. Financial support from the Fonds pour la Formation de
Chercheurs et LAide a` la Recherche is also gratefull y acknowledged .

What is Radical Interpretation?


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Robert Sinclair

Rorty, Richard 1991. Objectivity , Relativism and Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Received 24 July 2001
Robert Sinclair, Department of Philosophy , Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C. Canada
V5A 1S6. E-mail: resincla@sfu.c a