Interpretation and Idea of the Shared World

Just an attempt in progress to clarify an argument regarding the plausible dependence of pragmatist theories of intentionality on phenomenological worlds.


Interpreters can differ in many ways that are irrelevant to their interpreterhood – differences in language, embodiment, gender, etc. However, if there are essential features common to all interpreters these might show up in the way subjects relate to the world and to other subjects. Phenomenology has traditionally been viewed as a powerful method for describing such relations. So if there are minimal conditions for being an interpreter, maybe phenomenology can help us spell them out.

Let’s put more bones on this. Condition 3 in the paradox of the Radical Alien corresponds to what Donald Davidson calls “the observability assumption”. This states that “an observer can under favorable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b, 99) In other words if x is an agent, x must be interpretable given ideal conditions.

This view finds it home a family of broadly pragmatist, post-Cartesian positions according to which the role of concepts such as meaning, belief, desire or intention is to render agency intelligible in the light of reasons. Having intentionality is, at some level, just the ability to conform to standards of rational agency. If so there is no secret to being an agent – beliefs and thoughts are not hidden states of the soul. At a bare minimum, an agent must be an intentional system; one that, as Dennett puts it, is “voluminously predictable”when assessed as a rational subject of belief or desire. A being that could not show up as exhibiting this skill would have failed to exhibit agential abilities.

This buys us local correlationism: an entity whose overt behaviour would be unintelligible the light of normative assessments wouldn’t qualify as an agent! However, for Robert Brandom, Dennett’s intentional stance approach gives us a very sparse and incomplete picture of what it is to be an agent because it is widely applicable to systems like Maze-running robots or fly-catching frogs, thermostats, or written texts, whose intentionality seems observer-relative rather than intrinsic to the observed system. Most obviously, it fails to account for the capacity that allows intentional systems to show up as such: namely the capacity to interpret. For Brandom, as for Davidson, intentionality and real agency require understanding as well as the ability to be understood; and this requires the capacity to interpret verbal behaviour and actions in the light of reasons.

For both philosophers, one of the conditions for such understanding is that both interpreter and interpretee have a structured language. Davidson presents a particularly terse argument for this connection:

Belief is an attitude of “holding” true some proposition: for example, that there is a cat behind that wall. Thus a true believer must have a grip on the concepts of truth and error. It follows that only those with a concept of belief can have beliefs. We cannot have a concept of belief without exercising it. Thus we cannot believe anything without the capacity to attribute to others true or false beliefs about common topics (Davidson 1984: 170; 2001b: 104).

This, in turn, requires a language. For beliefs and thoughts can only be interpreted by those who can compare their take on a topic with those held by the interpretee. Language affords this theatre of perspectives; expressing  facts about things and semantic facts about how things are referred to or represented. It makes explicit that “one can want to be the discoverer of a creature with a heart without wanting to be the discoverer of a creature with a kidney” (Davidson 1984: 163).

Interpretation requires “a coherent pattern in the behaviour of an agent” –  between what agents do, believe or express and the conditions under which action and expression occurs (Davidson 1984,: 159). Were agents systematically duped or confused about the world, this pattern would be lacking; their behaviour would reveal nothing about what they wanted to say, what they believed or desired. Not only is this rapport a condition of interpretation, so is the presupposition that it obtains. To have a concept of belief that I can apply in the second person or the first, I must understand or see the other as engaging with things that I am or could be cognisant of.  The (in)famous principle of Charity just is the assumption of shared cognisance. This is not an ethical embrace of cultural otherness, then, but another way of expressing the pragmatist idea that mentality is the ability to engage with the world in a rationally evaluable way.

The assumption of charity is only possible,, then, if the interpretee is assumed to live among and think about commonly identifiable things. Understanding that you might have true or false beliefs about things I have beliefs about requires that I locate us a shared field of actual or possible topics. As Davidson puts it again:

Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world. But the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs. (Davidson 2001, 105)

For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of? Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?

Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

____1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.

____2001a. Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

9 thoughts on “Interpretation and Idea of the Shared World

    1. Interesting site. I’ve added it to my rss reader. That said, I think the post is in error when it says that Davidson “was adamant … that there could be no more than one conceptual scheme” As the title of his famous essay implies, he objected to the very idea of a scheme/content dualism implied by this.

  1. I think this is why the science of non-human cognition is one place where we have to look. There is intentionality without language. There is just enough theory of mind to get ahead of other animals (viz crows who know that I can look through that little window to the next crow, who can reciprocate, so I should hide food over here). But not enough to cooperate in the longer term. Or just enough language to work out where the nectar is (all the bees have the same genetically constrained vocabulary, and agree on a shared world, otherwise they won’t be here any more). But not a mechanism to expand the language, except by mutation.

    1. Do you think the shared world assumption plays a role in our interpretation of nonhumans? It seems to. After all, we think frogs are fly catchers rather than just tripping to retinal shadows, or whatever. When Von Uexküll delineates the tick umwelt he must describe it in a way that means nothing to the tick: “The approach of her prey becomes apparent to this blind and deaf bandit only through her sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, works on the tick as a signal that causes her to abandon her post (on top of the blade of grass/bush) and fall blindly downward toward her prey.” We think of them zeroing in on one and the same world even if we are aware that our parsing of it is utterly different.

  2. sure we assume a common-world with critters tho we don’t need theories of minds with them anymore than we do with people, we just ‘read’ their actions in contexts.

  3. “Do you think the shared world assumption plays a role in our interpretation of nonhumans?”…to which dmf commented “we just ‘read’ their actions in contexts”:
    I think that is where the psychology/neuroscience comes in – we can _prove_ (well sometimes) that action in context is not enough, we also need inference and the cheapest way to do this is by an “internal model”. The crow hasn’t seen another bird spying on him, he infers it could happen because he could do it in the other direction. The rat has a spatial model in his head, so he doesn’t bother trying some turnoffs in the maze.

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