The Myth of the Subjective

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Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective: Philosophical Essays Volume 3 Donald Davidson
Print publication date: 2001 Print ISBN-13: 9780198237532 Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: Nov-03 DOI: 10.1093/0198237537.001.0001

The Myth of the Subjective
Donald Davidson

DOI: 10.1093/0198237537.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords
This chapter is a direct attack on the idea of a subjective–objective dichotomy resulting in a fundamental distinction between uninterpreted experience and an organizing structure of concepts. Consequently, Davidson attacks the foundation of all metaphysical and epistemological dualisms and the philosophical stances based upon them. He attempts to make a case for their replacement by a view that combines the denial of objects before the mind with the claim that empirical knowledge does not and need not have an epistemological foundation. Keywords:   concepts, empirical knowledge, epistemological foundation, metaphysical and epistemological dualisms, subjective–objective dichotomy

This is an essay on an old topic, the relation between the human mind and the rest of nature, the subjective and the objective as we have come to think of them. This dualism, though in its way too obvious to question, carries with it in our tradition a large and not necessarily appropriate burden of associated ideas. Some of these ideas are now coming under critical scrutiny, and the result promises to mark a sea change in contemporary philosophical thought. The present essay, while clearly tendentious, is not designed primarily to convert the skeptic; its chief aim is to describe, from one point of view, a fairly widely recognized development in recent thinking about the contents of the mind, and to suggest some of the consequences that I think follow from this development. Page 1 of 15

The Myth of the Subjective

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Minds are many, nature is one. Each of us has his own position in the world, and hence his own perspective on it. It is easy to slide from this truism to some confused notion of conceptual relativism. The former, harmless, relativism is just the familiar relativism of position in space and time. Because each of us preempts a volume of space‐time, two of us cannot be in exactly the same place at the same time. The relations among our positions are intelligible because we can locate each person in a single, common world, and a shared time frame. Conceptual relativism may seem similar, but the analogy is hard to carry out. For what is the common reference point, or system of coordinates, to which each scheme is relative? Without a good answer to this question, the claim that each of us in some sense inhabits his own world loses its intelligibility. For this reason and others, I have long held that there are limits to how much individual or social systems of thought can differ. If by conceptual relativism we mean the idea that conceptual schemes and (p. 40 ) moral systems, or the languages associated with them, can differ massively—to the extent of being mutually unintelligible or incommensurable, or forever beyond rational resolve—then I reject conceptual relativism.1 Of course there are contrasts from epoch to epoch, from culture to culture, and person to person, of kinds we all recognize and struggle with; but these are contrasts which with sympathy and effort we can explain and understand. Trouble comes when we try to embrace the idea that there might be more comprehensive differences, for this seems (absurdly) to ask us to take up a stance outside our own ways of thought. We do not understand the idea of...
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