Monday, November 13, 2017

The Principle of Charity

Look at the pictures above and answer the following question: Which of these three birds is not an owl?

Once I was in an educational park somewhere in Germany and in a corner of the park there were bird pictures hanging in the trees; pictures like those above. I got the same question as I just asked you. The answer? The bird at the right is not an owl. I didn’t understand, for the picture on the left shows a long-eared owl, the one in the middle a barn owl, and on the right you see a tawny owl. Why shouldn’t a tawny owl not be an owl? The name says already that it is! And everything I know about birds says that a tawny owl is an owl. It is simply irrational to say that an owl is not an owl. It’s incomprehensible for me to do so.
Then I read the explanation of the answer. The birds are called – in German – from left to right:
Waldohreule - Schleiereule - Waldkauz,
and a “Kauz“ is not an “Eule”.
Now I understood: In German a special word is used for some owls. They don’t call them “Eule” (owl) but “Kauz”. So it was a matter of naming, that the bird on the right was not an “owl” (“Eule”). Nevertheless, I still found it irrational and weird, for there is no ornithological reason for calling a tawny owl a “Kauz” and not an “Eule”. Ornithologically, all the three birds are owls.

Problems like the one just discussed often happen inside and outside philosophy. We see someone doing or saying something weird or we read a text that we don’t understand. We can react by saying: What that person is doing or saying, or what I read here is stupid. It’s not in agreement with what I do, so it’s not rational. Indeed, we can react that way, but it is more practical and reasonable to think: Maybe that person is not really irrational, for most of the time, what people do, say or write has sense for them. Let’s try to find out what this sense is. And usually we do find a meaning of what we first considered irrational: A meaning for that “irrationally” acting, talking, writing person. Although we don’t need to agree with it, the “irrationality” makes sense.
As the American philosopher Donald Davidson made clear to us, we make this kind of reinterpretations of what others do, say and write not only now and then, but we make it “all the time”. We make the actions by others understandable by “deciding in favour of reinterpretation of [those actions] in order to preserve a reasonable theory of belief” (1984, p. 196). And, no surprise, philosophy has a name for this reinterpretation: It’s called the Principle of Charity. The term has been coined in 1959 by Neil L. Wilson, but better known is the development of the idea by William Van Orman Quine and especially the development by Davidson. As Davidson – who thinks of what a person says in the first place – tells us: “if all we know is what sentences a person holds true, and we cannot assume that his language is our own, then we cannot take even a first step towards interpretation without knowing or assuming a great deal about the speaker’s beliefs. Since knowledge of beliefs comes only with the ability to interpret words, the only possibility at the start is to assume general agreement on beliefs. We get a first approximation to a finished theory by assigning to sentences of a speaker conditions of truth that actually obtain (in our own opinion) just when the speaker holds those sentences true. The guiding policy is to do this as far as possible, subject to considerations of simplicity, hunches about the effects of social conditioning, and of course our common-sense, or scientific knowledge of explicable error” (1984, p. 196) A charitable interpretation of the other is not an option but a condition to make communication possible, so Davidson (1984, p. 197). Moreover, a charitable interpretation is not simply a matter of benevolence or politeness. We need it also or just when we don’t agree with the other “Crediting people with a large degree of consistency cannot be counted mere charity: it is unavoidable if we are to be in a position to accuse them meaningfully of error and some degree of irrationality.” (1980, p. 221).
In plain words: We have first to find out what someone stands for from his or her point of view and how his or her ideas fit together. Only then we know to what extent we agree and disagree and only then we can meaningfully criticize him or her if we feel the need. Only after we have interpreted what someone says in a charitable way, we can say why his or her words are irrational, for instance why it’s weird to call a “Kauz” not an owl.

- Davidson, Donald, “Mental Events”, in Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 207-227.

No comments: