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Objections to Davidson’s Theory of Radical Interpretation

(1) No account of social cognition when the targets are wordless agents.

Minds without words

Dennett: his account is fine for targets of interpretation who lack words, but it offers no way of exploiting evidence about linguistic behaviours in his account of radical interpretation.
Davidson: his view has the converse weakness. (Why is this a weakness? Our inability to use words in communicating with an alien species would not necessarily prevent us from coming to know much about their minds and actions.)
An adequate theory of radical interpretation ought to avoid both weaknesses: it should characterise inferences for targets of interpretation without words, and it should characterise the additional complexities for radical interpretation entailed by the use of words.
(2) No account of non-propositional mental phenomena, such as the unfolding of emotions.

Emotions unfold

What is the point of being there with someone while it’s happening to her? Being there with someone often enables you to know and to regulate---and even to share, sometimes---what she’s feeling. ...
Why is this an objection to the claim that Davidson’s accounnt of Radical Interpretation is a fully adequate computational description of social cogntion in humans? Let me explain ...

1. On Radical Interpretation (and the Intentional Stance), the outputs of social cognition are (i) propositional attitude ascriptions and (ii) action predictions.

2. Emotions unfold ...

3. ... and this is not comprehensible as a series of changes in propositional attitudes.

So: 4. Understanding the way emotions unfold is not a matter of ascribing propositional attitudes or predicting actions.

But: 5. Humans do sometimes understand the way anothers’ emotions are unfolding.

So: 6. Radical Interpretation (and the Intentional Stance) is not a fully adequate computational description of human social cognition.

(3) Indeterminacy of reference

Indeterminacy of reference

On Davidson’s account of radical interpretation, we can think of its upshot as an assignment of propositions to sentences. The propositions give the truth conditions, or meanings, of the sentences and so enable us to identify the target’s beliefs and other propositional attitudes.
Because the evidence Davidson considers is attitudes towards whole sentences, it turns out that, for any assignment of propositions to sentences, there are ways of generating an alternative assigment of propositions to sentences which is exactly as well supported by the evidence as the original assignment of propositions to sentences is.
So on Davidson’s account of radical interpretation, there is no possibility of uniquely determining the truth conditions, or meanings, of sentences.
This is analogous to having a computational theory of a GPS device on which there is just no possibility of the device distinguishing between its being here and its being at the same point on the opposite side of the earth.
Let me illustrate how the indeterminacy arises ...

names‘Beatrice’ refers to Beatrice‘Beatrice’ refers to shadow-Beatrice
predicates ‘... is happy’ - is true of happy things ‘... is happy’ - is true of things that are the shadows of happy things
[Use Shoemaker’s shadows.]
Incidentally, a similar objection involving indeterminacy arises for Dennett.
What does the objection tell us? If I gave you a computational theory of the GPS device that suffered from indeterminacy, you would rightly reject that theory because the device can, as a matter of fact, determine which side of the planet it is on. But should we take the same attitude towards Davidson’s theory. He says not ...

‘It makes no sense, on this approach, to complain that a theory comes up with the right truth conditions time after time, but has the logical form (or deep structure) wrong. We should take the same view of reference.’


Davidson (1977, p. 223)

But pointing ...
(4) A dilemma about The Evidence: actions or joint displacements

A dilemma about The Evidence: joint displacements or actions

The evidence Davidson starts from is changes in the attitude of holding a sentence true. To be detectable, such changes must involve the target of interpretation uttering a sentence. How are such events represented at the outset of radical interpretation?
If they are represented merely as sequences of joint displacements, bodily configurations and sounds, then we need an account of how it is determined which events are changes in the attitude of holding a particular sentence true.
If, on the other horn, they are represented as intentional actions, then we are presupposing some insight into the contents of the target of radical interpretation’s intentions. We know that she has an intention to express a particular attitude towards a particular sentence.

‘a radical interpreter is not, at the beginning of his study, informed about any of the basic propositional attitudes of his subject.’


Davidson (1984, 17)

‘The important limitation is that [the radical interpreter] doesn’t know in detail the contents of any of the propositional attitudes of the person to be interpreted: she doesn’t know what he intends, believes, wants or means by what he says.’ \citep[p.~]{Davidson:1994ff}
Davidson might take this horn of the dilemma and just insist that his view of what an account of radical interpretation aims to achieve is a bit less exciting than I have been suggesting. It doesn’t start from no insight into what someone intends, just relatively little.
I think this response would be unsatisfactory given our interests in social cognition. The hardest part is surely to understand the step from *no* insight into others’ minds and actions to *some* such insight. If Davidson’s account of radical interpretation is really just about the step from *some* insight into others’ minds and actions to a bit more insight, it might be interesting but it isn’t the theory we were looking for. It won’t after all provide us with a computational theory of social cognition.
Can Davidson instead take the first horn of the dilemma and say that the changes in attitude are represented merely as sequences of joint displacements, bodily configurations and sounds?
He might insist that as long as there is some account of how we get from the joint displacement to the changes in attitude towards the sentence, there is no problem.
So on this horn, Davidson’s radical interpretation project is the computational theory of social cognition which we are looking for. But it is incomplete because it doesn’t include an account of the transition from joint displacements, bodily configurations and their effects (such as sounds) to changes in attitude towards the truth of sentences.
On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like there’s going to be an objection to Davidson here. But things get very interesting when we consider what is currently known about how this transition is made. Essentially, we will see that the capacities involved in getting from joint displacements, bodily configurations and their effects (such as sounds) to goal-directed actions provides a significant form of social cognition in its own right.
[This line of objection leads beautifully into speech perception and the motor theory!]


I think all of these objections arise from a single source. Davidson’s account of radical interpretation starts and ends with linguistic expressions of changes in attitudes towards whole sentences. It doesn’t consider simple object-directed actions like reaching for a mug or catching a ball, and it doesn’t consider nonlinguistic communicative activities like pointing; nor does it consider expressions of emotion like some smiles and grimaces.