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Charity and interpretation

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Charity and Interpretation



Rational agents interpret and assign meaning to other rational agents’ speech; the interpreter’s ability to assign meaning is in accordance with his/her own beliefs and rationality.  The principle of charity, also referred to as the principle of “rational accommodation” by Donald Davidson, entails that in each instance of interpretation, the interpreter employs a theory of belief and a theory of meaning simultaneously in order to identify the beliefs of the speaker.  The speaker is considered a rational agent and the utterances of the speaker are accommodated as being meaningful.  Davidson’s charity principle acts as a guide in the act of interpretation, which prescribes that we interpret a speaker as having true beliefs.  This principle enables rational agents to assign an optimal agreement between the interpreter and the subject being interpreted.  



The process of interpretation is dependent on two notions that comprise the principle of charity.  Davidson’s first conception is the holistic assumption of rationality in belief (‘coherence’), which presupposes the rationality of the interpreter and the interpreter’s beliefs.  In order to be rational, the agent requires the concept of a belief, and must have beliefs about the world.  The second conception is the assumption of causal relatedness between beliefs (‘correspondence’), which is particularly the case in perceptual beliefs and the objects of beliefs.  The concept of ‘correspondence’ is the presupposition that the speakers’ beliefs are connected to each other and, more importantly, to reality.  This causal relatedness is necessary for the interpreter to assume that the speaker is rational and has true beliefs.



The charity aspect of interpretation requires the interpreter to attribute beliefs and meaning to the speaker in order to optimize an agreement between each.  The purpose of the principle is to ensure that the meaning interpreted is consistent with the speaker’s meaning and overall behaviour.  Davidson juxtaposes this concept with radical interpretation, which is the act of interpreting a speaker without any prior linguistic knowledge.  Radical interpretation is the notion that an agent cannot assign meaning to a speaker without knowing the beliefs of the speaker, and cannot identify beliefs without knowing what the speakers’ utterances mean.  It is in light of the concept of radical interpretation that Davidson employs the principle of charity.  The principle prescribes a basic assumption: that the speaker is rational and the speaker’s beliefs are in agreement with the interpreter’s beliefs.  This assumption allows the listener to understand and interpret the utterances of the speaker.  Beliefs act as a guide to the speaker’s utterances insofar as belief and meaning share interconnectedness.  As such, the agent can use his/her own beliefs about the world as a source for attributing meaning to the speakers’ statements.  



In interpreting other rational agents, then, the rational agent must believe that the speaker is uttering true beliefs, and must also have their own set of beliefs to be able to attribute meaning.  Otherwise, there would be no methodological way of assigning meaning to a speaker.  As a result, Davidson proposes the principle of charity as a means to interpret other rational agents.  It is a device that enables a new speaker to be interpreted correctly and optimally in the commencement of a linguistic engagement.  This principle allows us to encounter a new speaker, and interpret the speaker as being rational and having true beliefs.  Utilizing these two assumptions, the speaker can be interpreted accurately, and in accordance with the meaning being conveyed.  Davidson’s formulation is summarized as such: “we make maximum sense of the words and thoughts of others when we interpret in a way that optimizes agreement.”




- Melissa Dixon, University of Toronto






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