In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but reestablish unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences and opinions true or false. – Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”
I’ve been enjoying the discussion on our last couple posts (here and here), and wanted to break it out via a different vein of American philosophy and science: the history of the idea of the “conceptual scheme.” It was suggested to me when Lukas quoted W.V.O. Quine’s “On What There Is” to clarify what philosophers mean by “ontology.” As Lukas (and Quine) suggest, ontology has long been a metaphysical problem about what there is and the categories that apply to it.
|Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000|
This problem changes, I think, if we move a few years later and look at Quine’s most famous paper: 1951’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” Without going into Quine’s indictment of the analytic-synthetic distinction or the reductionism of Carnap’s Der Logische Aufbau der Welt, let me highlight a claim I think will shed light on our ongoing discussion of ontology:
“As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries — not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer” (41, emphasis added).
Here we have an articulation of the “conceptual scheme,” a philosophical term of art Quine (and others) credited to Lawrence Henderson but which I think I can show originated, in something like its modern sense, by William James. “The conceptual scheme,” he wrote in his Principles of Psychology, “is a sort of sieve in which we try to gather up the world’s contents” (I.482).
Interestingly, it’s still somewhat unclear what a “conceptual scheme” is. For James, it’s a “sieve” for gathering “the world’s contents”; for Quine, “[p]hysical objects are conceptually imported” into it. Its name suggests that it’s some sort of mental web through we interpret the physical world, but telling a compelling story about its constitution remains confusing.*
It’s this general framing with which Donald Davidson took issue in what might be his most famous paper: 1974’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” In it, Davidson introduced the conceptual scheme as “the third dogma” of empiricism, since it mediated unnecessarily between ourselves and the world (as expressed succinctly in the quotation with which I began).
|Donald Davidson, 1917-2003|
Davidson argues, against “conceptual relativism,” that “the very idea of a conceptual scheme” implies multiply points of view on a given, pre-schematic (or pre-scientific) reality. What’s wrong with that? It seems, to Davidson (and to many of his readers), that we have no basis for comparing or even differentiating such schemes, since to do so requires an interchangeability the foundation of which belies the implied differentiation from the start.
What’s this got to do with the ontology of blood and bones (and brains)? I think Davidson’s expansion of Quine’s holism–and the resulting blurring of the boundary between “scheme and world”–sits in an interesting relationship with the sorts of claims Lukas and Joanna were making vis-a-vis the ontology of scientific specimens.
While that holism seems to buttress their shared suspicion of Hacking’s division between natural and social kinds, it also implies that the very idea of “ontologies” still distinguishes theories and things in a problematic way. In brief, resurrecting this midcentury conversation might force us to ask what assumptions lie behind a view that takes for granted the multiplicity and material impact of ontologies today.
*I have more to say about how James framed his version of the “conceptual scheme,” and how his close attention to brains provided him with a (partially unintentional) material account of what such a scheme might consist in and how it might interact with physical stimuli. Suffice it to say, here, that it suggests a way brains and minds differ profoundly as objects of inquiry and ontological kinds from either bones or blood.
**Extra note: The images come from Steve Pyke’s wonderful gallery of twentieth-century philosophers. Check them out starting here.