Donald Davidson- Three Varieties of Knowledge Submitted By: Nathan Copeland- 500349268 Submitted to: Prof. Checkland PHL550 April 15, 2013 In Donald Davidsons Three Varieties of Knowledge, he sets out to more or less prove that “A community of minds is the basis of knowledge; it provides the measure of all things. " (Davidson, 218). This is done by first categorizing knowledge into three distinct categories. There is knowledge of ones own mind, knowledge of another’s mind, and knowledge of the shared physical world around us. He argues that no one could exist without the others.
According to Davidson, knowledge of ones own mind differs from the other two types of knowledge in the sense that one knows the contents of their own mind without any study or evidence in most cases. On the other hand, the minds of others and the physical world may only be interpreted through the senses, at least initially. He also notes that certain aspects of our physical world can be interpreted almost instantaneously, our example being distinguishing colours, while many aspects of another’s mind contents are done through physical observation of actions and words, which we then reconcile with our own knowledge to make inferences.
This makes the latter two types of knowledge open to a degree of uncertainty that is rarely experienced in matters of your own mind. He also acknowledges the asymmetry that is apparent between coming about knowledge of our own minds and knowledge of other minds. They are both minds, yet we come to understand our own in a very unique way. He criticizes the solution that the actions and behavior or others is sufficient for inferring certain mental states to others, but those same actions and behaviours carried out by our selves are irrelevant when we attempt to describe ourselves.
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An issue being- If both types of knowledge come about so differently, how can we believe that others mental states are comparable to our own. He sets out to paint a picture that includes all three types of knowledge, and shows how they are related in hopes of solving these issues. Davidson claims that “what we could not do is get along without a way of expressing, and thus communicating, our thoughts about the natural world” (Davidson, pg. 208). He also proposes that in order for a creature to have a belief, they must also posses the idea of objective truths.
He then draws on Wittgenstien to say that “the source of the concept of objective truth is interpersonal communication” (Davidson, pg. 209). This is based on the assumption that thought cannot exist without language. Davidson argues that without the distinction between objective truth and what one thinks to be the case, there is no thought at all, and since there cannot be objective truth without the confirmation on the correct use of words through communicating, there cannot be thought without communicating, in his example language.
It is argued that in order for communication to work, the speaker and interpreter must share an understanding of what is meant by what is being said. Davidson then uses an example of how one would go about learning a new language to illustrate how we come about having an understanding of the words we use. In this case, we assign words and sentences we know in our native tongue to the utterances and actions made by a foreign speaker. With trial and error we come to understand what is meant by these utterances and how they relate to ‘reality’.
This process of connecting ones own thoughts with the thoughts of another through some aspect of the external world is regarded by Davidson as triangulation. “it takes two points of view to give a location to the cause of a thought, and thus define its content” (Davidson, pg. 213). He believes this to be the only way that one can know another’s mind or the external world, making the two mutually dependent. He points out that there is the limitation of perception at play here, with no way to look in from outside the standard to see if its write, but we may consult a third and forth party and so on to lessen the chance of an error being made. Davidson, pg. 217) Davidson then goes on to say that “knowledge of the propositional contents of our own minds is not possible without the other forms of knowledge, since there is no propositional thought without communication” (Davidson, pg. 213). Furthermore, knowledge of others cannot be inferred unless we have knowledge of ourselves, as the process of coming to know another’s mind is done by matching evidence from others behaviour to our knowledge of our own, thus showing that knowledge of our own minds and others is also mutually dependent.
He acknowledges that there are a great deal of possible ways that we could assign our native language to the language and behavior of another to come about an understanding. He relates this to the measurement of weight in the sense that no matter what system you use for measurement; kilograms, pounds ounces, etc. , the invariable factor, in this case the actual weight of the object, is the fact of the matter, not the arbitrary units of measure. His point is that there will likely always be indeterminacy in our translations, but we will often get the general idea.
He also believes that there are no strict laws that connect mental states with physical ones, stating that such laws can exist “only when concepts connected by the laws are based on criteria of the same sort” (Davidson, pg. 215). This all leads to the fact that we will never be able to agree on how sentences and thoughts should be structured to describe other sentences or thoughts, as the very process of discussing how we would do this is ultimately done with the very thoughts were discussing, leaving it perpetually open to interpretation.
As such “A community of minds is the basis of knowledge; it is the measure of all things. It makes no sense to question the adequacy of this measure, or to seek a more ultimate standard. ” (Davidson, pg. 218). Analysis I agree with the general idea of what Davidson is saying, with a few exceptions. I would agree that ‘advanced’ knowledge can only come about with the all three types of evidence, but I also believe that basic knowledge can be acquired by just a person and the observable world. Suppose I live in a world with no other living creatures.
I have no formal language. If I walk across a bed of sharp rocks, my nervous system will say “ouch”, and it wont take long to figure out that sharp rocks hurt my feet. I am aware of this with no need to confirm with another. I am also in contention with the idea that “language is essential to thought” (Davidson, pg. 209). My dog ‘thinks’ its going for a walk every time I put my boots on. I suppose that may be considered language, or some may argue that my dogs actions have no thought, but it seems to me that to make such a claim demands more evidence.
I also had an issue with the claim that “enough in the framework and fabric of our beliefs must be true to give content to the rest” (Davidson, pg. 214). Although I agree that ‘enough’ of our beliefs are true, I don’t see this as a necessary condition. What if everything we think is wrong, or we’re a brain in a vat. The claim is overly definitive for my liking. Going back to my ‘only creature’ idea, I find the statement “there is no propositional thought without communication” (Davidson, pg. 213). Perhaps on this lonely planet I have a rock, which I am in love with.
I may possess the thought, as primitive as it may be, that I love this rock. We don’t communicate, but the thought remains. This may be argued as a feeling, not a thought, but I’m not sure I know the difference. Finally, I have another idea that is in opposition to Davidsons claims, although I’m not sure if I believe it myself. He seems to think there are three distinct categories of knowledge, with knowledge of ones self coming mostly from inside, and knowledge of the world and others minds coming indirectly.
My idea is this; all of the thoughts, behaviors, desires etc. , of any living creature is merely a manifestation of very complex processes happening in our brains. Our brains are chemicals and axons and neurons and much more that we are not 100% about. I’m proposing that theoretically, if we can observe the brain all the way down to each and every atom, we could see how your brain looks for any given idea, memory, feeling, and document the physical state relating to each and every instance.
The only difference between the three states is how we go about knowing them, and with this theory we could even come to know our own minds without having to think internally about how we feel, but by merely observing our brains. Tying this back to my ‘alone in the world’ scenario, if I had the capability to observe my own brains inner workings while feeling the mental manifestations of such neurological reactions, I could correlate the pictures with feelings the ame way we correlate others words with objects in the world. If I became well enough versed at this, I could then look at the brain of someone else whom I’ve never seen, and come to know their mind as well. This theory is in contradiction with Davidson’s statement that there are no strict laws that connect mental states to physical ones, but even he acknowledges that this topic “has understandably been found inconclusive by critics” (Davidson, pg. 216), myself included.
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