The Principle of Charity

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

Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson

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:

 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.

Willard Van Orman Quine

Willard Van Orman Quine

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: You can also read his obituary in Britain’s Guardian Newspaper here:

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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17 Responses to The Principle of Charity

  1. Amer says:

    I don’t think that is true. We can read a piece of writing without any preconceptions and we use rational or logical tools to decipher what is being said. Syllogistic logic does not even attempt to go down the route of finding the underlying beliefs of a person. What is being suggested here is that it is possible for us to irrationally evaluate others. Or if we truly did doubt someone then we can flank their sayings with the if term to arrive at various possibilities. Instead of assuming we can say if ‘by this’ he means ‘that’ then … It would be terribly inefficient to go through every possible understanding … But I’m sure prosecuting barristers, and psychologists treating or diagnosing patients with mental problems will be using such tools all the time.

    • Marianne says:

      On the contrary syllogistic logic relies on being able to understand beliefs – if the premises and the conclusion are not expressions of belief then what is the point of them? Do they have meaning at all?

      The process of thinking ‘if by this he means that’ is the process of trying to make sense of the person – i.e assuming that there are reasons of some kind behind his saying what he said.

  2. Two comments:-
    1) Did Davidson really say that “in order to understand others we MUST assume them to be rational”? Or just that we should always consider that they might be, and the appearance of irrationality might be due to our false interpretation of them?
    2) Someone whose beliefs were ALL false would not be just “uninterpretable”. Is it possible there could be such a person?

    • Marianne says:

      He said we must assume them to be rational. But that is consistent with the possibility that they are not at the time exercising their reason, or that they are not exercising it well. Don’t forget it is not possible to be IRRATIONAL unless you are rational (a table can’t be irrational: it does not use reason at all, so cannot use it badly. To be irrational is to use reason badly).

      I suspect that were we to meet such a being we would not think it rational, we COULD not think it rational perhaps.

  3. John-Brian Vyncent says:

    On this account, Davidson’s statement is irreconcilably obtuse. The key part of his statement is, “(all by our own lights it goes without saying),”as it confers the ability to have any belief rooted in consistency, truth and good irrespective of their perceived rationality to any other person.

    The implications of Davidson’s statment on critical reasonsing is clear: There is no such thing as irrational as we are all made rational by our own lights.

    • Marianne says:

      Hm. I think you are not extending charity to Davidson John-Brian. In trying to make sense of you of course I can only use my own notion of rationality. But In using charity I am open to learning that my own notion of rationality is incorrect – Davidson’s charity tells us what counts as evidence for error in interpreting others – it is evidence of falsehood and irrationality. But the error, of course, might be our own.

  4. Amer says:

    Amazing, but when I re-read the same blog post I got a completely different understanding … It appears that I was myself thinking silly when I should have been questioning my own bad …

    I see how this links on to the concept of “charity” – it is giving others benefit of the doubt – perhaps they have not expressed themselves clearly, or perhaps one has not understood them properly.

    There is a saying from my own circles that “we cannot get to know another until we live with them, work with them or travel on long journeys with them”. It’s the entrainment of minds when exchanges of thought take place.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Amer,

      Forgive my tardiness in replying to this. Charity is indeed giving others the benefit of the doubt. But it is more than this too. Our only evidence for error (our own error) is in our disagreements with others). If we constantly assume we are right and others are wrong (or that we are wrong and others are right) we will not be able to extend, correct and confirm our pictures of the world). I like your quotation.

      It is amazing how one can read something one day and get one message, then the very same thing the next getting a quite different message. You are not the only one!


  5. I think the principle is less founded on the likelihood of a correct interpretation than the assumptions necessary for constructive engagement. Increasingly, I do think there are people who do not deserve the benefit of the doubt and who I would be better off not extending that benefit to. These are not people I wish to engage in constructive dialogue with, however. Anyone I am actively trying to engage, I think I get further by following the principle of charity.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Daniel,

      The Principle of Charity does not entail that we should never doubt anyone. That would just be silly. It rather asks us not to dismiss someone’s views simply because they disagree with your own. Having engaged ith them there are numerous reasons for deciding that this person is not a worthy collaborator in the pursuit of truth.


  6. Pingback: Principle of Charity | Philosophical Notes

  7. Karel says:

    Thank you Marianne for this topic. I agree with Donald Davidson. I think that is a certain condition for studying critical reasoning. A man whose all beliefs are false means that his beliefs are based on a false God. God is not true, it is just an illusion.

    • Marianne says:

      I think you are missing the points of Davidson’s claim. He is saying there CANNOT be a person all of whose beliefs are false.

      • Karel Konečný says:

        Thanks to Marianne for explaining that I misunderstood the meaning of the sentence.
        Surely some of that man’s beliefs are true. I thought about it when that person’s thought base is false.

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