This piece is based on the section on The Principle of Charity in chapter one of my e-book Critical Reasoning: A Romp Through the Foothills of Logic
Here is the philosopher Donald Davidson talking about what we do (or should do) when we try to understand another person:
“In our need to make him make sense we will try for a theory that finds him consistent, a believer of truths, and a lover of the good (all by our own lights it goes without saying).”(p. 222 ‘Mental Events’, in Davidson’s Essays on Actions and Events. Available freely here: http://www.uruguaypiensa.org.uy/imgnoticias/961.pdf)
The ‘theory’ Davidson is talking about here is the theory (or interpretation) you construct as you try to understand another person. So, as you observe their behaviour and listen to them talk, you decide that they believe certain things, that they want certain things, that they like and dislike certain things and so on. Every time they move or speak you will be able to add to your theory about their mental states (your interpretation of them) until, when you know them very well, you will often be able successfully to predict what they will say or do next.
Davidson is suggesting that when you first start trying to understand someone, if your interpretation portrays them as evil, inconsistent and/or a believer of falsehoods then you should at least consider the possibility that you have misunderstood them. As Davidson’s mentor W.V. Quine argued “your interlocutor’s silliness is less likely than your bad interpretation” (Word and Object Chapter 2 page 59)
Davidson wasn’t naïve. He knew that some people are evil, all of us are occasionally inconsistent and we all have some false beliefs. But he firmly believed that, because we are rational, most people are such that, most of the time, most of the beliefs they have are true and consistent, and most of their desires benign.
He argued that it is a necessary condition of our successfully understanding others that we start by assuming they are rational and that most of their beliefs are consistent and true. He also argued that anyone all of whose beliefs were false would be completely uninterpretable.
But was Davidson right? Must we, in order to understand others, assume they are rational, and that most of their beliefs are consistent and true? Would someone all of whose beliefs are false be uninterpretatble?
What implications do you think this has for the study of critical reasoning?
Donald Davidson, who died in 2003, was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, you can read the Stanford Encyclopaedia entry on him here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/davidson/ You can also read his obituary in Britain’s Guardian Newspaper here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2003/sep/04/guardianobituaries.highereducation