The Philosophical Significance of Triangulation: Locating Davidson’s Non-Reductive Naturalism

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  THE PHILOSOPHICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF TRIANGULATION:LOCATING DAVIDSON’S NON-REDUCTIVE NATURALISM ROBERT SINCLAIR Abstract:  Donald Davidson has emphasized the importance of what he calls‘‘triangulation’’ for clarifying the conditions that make thought possible. Variouscritics have questioned whether this triangular causal interaction between twoindividuals and a shared environment can provide necessary conditions for theemergence of thought. I argue that these critical responses all suffer from a lack of appreciation for the way triangulation is responsive to the philosophical commit-ments of Davidson’s naturalism. This reply to Davidson’s critics helps clarifyseveral metaphilosophical issues concerning the overall significance of this use of triangulation. I illustrate how the network of commitments that make upDavidson’s conception of non-reductive naturalism inform the respective prob-lems and issues that triangulation is introduced to address. This then serves as anexample of the way metaphilosophical considerations are useful in clarifying thestatus of a respective philosophical position and for understanding the philoso-phical debates surrounding it.Keywords: Davidson, naturalism, non-reductivism, triangulation.To understand a philosophical position and evaluate it fairly requires under-standing the network of commitments that constitute it; for these commitmentsorganize its domain, frame its problems, and supply standards for the solutionof those problems. F Catherine Z. Elgin In many of his recent writings, Donald Davidson has emphasized theimportance of what he calls ‘‘triangulation’’ F a triangular causal interac-tion between two individuals and an external object. By appealing to thesocial and causal dynamics present in such triangular interactions, David-son thinks that he can resolve a wide array of philosophical issues, includinghow thought depends on language and how thought is possible. Ratherthan determine whether triangulation can successfully deal with suchproblems, my aim here is to deal with several metaphilosophical issuesthat concern the overall significance and status of triangulation itself. Morespecifically, I illustrate how the network of commitments that make upDavidson’s conception of non-reductive naturalism inform the respective r Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005.Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USAMETAPHILOSOPHYVol. 36, No. 5, October 20050026-1068 r Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005  problems and issues that triangulation is introduced to address. It is bystressing the connections between Davidson’s more fundamental commit-ment to philosophical naturalism and his introduction of triangulation thatwe will be able to clarify its central philosophical point and purpose.In order to draw out these connections, I will first introduce some of the issues that have led to Davidson’s introduction of triangulation,specifically focusing on the way triangulation helps specify the conditionsthat make thought possible. I continue by demonstrating how this useof triangulation is motivated by the commitments that make up David-son’s conception of non-reductive naturalism. Finally, I exploit thisinterpretation in order to counter several recent criticisms that questionDavidson’s claim that the conditions depicted within triangulation arenecessary for thought. It will gradually emerge that all of these criticismssuffer from a lack of appreciation for the way triangulation is responsiveto the philosophical commitments of Davidson’s naturalism. It is furtherclaimed that the conditions Davidson deems necessary for thought canonly be recognized as such once we view triangulation as contributing to anaturalistic depiction of how thought itself emerges. Through thisexamination of where these criticisms fail, we will then be able torecognize the way Davidson’s non-reductive conception of philosophicalnaturalism provides the motivation behind his further introduction anduse of triangulation.In replying to Davidson’s critics, my aim is not to offer a definitivedefense of Davidson’s view but to focus discussion on some metaphilo-sophical issues concerning the status of his position. What this discussionhelps to reveal is the way the prior commitments of a philosophicalviewpoint help shape its very formulation, by indicating what problemsrequire resolution and by setting the standards for what is understood asan adequate solution to a philosophical problem. By focusing on howDavidson’s use of triangulation is conditioned by the commitments of hisphilosophical naturalism, we can begin to appreciate the way metaphilo-sophical considerations are often useful in clarifying the status of aphilosophical position and for understanding the philosophical debatessurrounding it. 1. Triangulation, Objectivity and the Emergence of Thought The significance of Davidson’s use of triangulation is best introduced byfocusing on his recent attempt to deal with the problem of objectivity, andby further illustrating how this contributes to his reflections on theemergence of thought. 1 The main problem centres on what explains our 1 The nature of objectivity, truth, and thought are the central focus of many of Davidson’s recent articles, including his 1989, 1991a, 1991b, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997a,1997b, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 1999d, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2004a and 2004b. Triangula-tion is first introduced as helping with these issues in Davidson 1982. r Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005THE PHILOSOPHICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF TRIANGULATION  709  grasp of the concept of objective truth. How is it that we come torecognize the difference between what we believe and what is the case(Davidson 1995a, 204)? Davidson’s treatment of this issue begins bynoting the difference between the ability to discriminate and the ability touse concepts. We can think of many examples where we see an animalinteracting with the world, such as a squirrel scurrying up a large tree,thereby revealing its ability to discriminate between different objects. Wetoo have such an ability. However, does the presence of this ability showthat a squirrel, or even we, possess the concept of an objective reality?Davidson thinks it does not: ‘‘The power to discriminate does not implypossession of the corresponding concept’’ (1993, 608). We use concepts toclassify things, and with this ability to categorize our surroundings comesthe possibility that what is in fact classified may not belong to thatparticular category. Davidson emphasizes that it is this possibility of misapplying a concept and thus of making an error that distinguishesconceptualization from mere discrimination.This ability to apply concepts and its ensuing potential for error isconnected to the concept of truth, since to form a judgment through theapplication of concepts is to know under what conditions that judgment istrue. But this in turn leads us to the concept of objectivity itself, sincegrasping the concept of truth, and therefore knowing under what condi-tions a judgment is true, indicates a further recognition of the fact that a judgment is true or false independently of our beliefs. For Davidson, ourability to use concepts is, then, intimately tied both to the possibility of error and to the concepts of truth and objectivity (1995a, 210). 2 While this analysis of the relationship among thought, truth andobjectivity is potentially useful for clarifying the relationship amongsuch concepts, it has not taken us any further with regard to the centralquestion at issue. Davidson thinks we must take further steps if we are toprovide some insight into how such an ability is possible, that is, werequire a fuller description of the details concerning what makes possibleour ability to use the concepts of objectivity and truth. The central issueturns on the problem of describing in an informative way exactly whatneeds to be added to our powers of discrimination so that they yieldconceptualization. Davidson suggests that we deal with this difficulty byexamining how it is that conceptual thought itself could emerge byconsidering a situation devoid of thought in order to determine what, if anything, can be added to this situation, which will suggest to us thatthought is now present. Put succinctly, the aim is to elucidate the natureof thought, by revealing some of the conditions needed for its emergence.Davidson begins by asking us to consider a pre-linguistic, pre-cognitivesituation that he takes to exist independently of thought, which can then 2 Davidson elaborates on these points in several of his recent articles, most notably in his1995a, 201–12, and 1999a, 7–11. r Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005ROBERT SINCLAIR 710  reasonably be seen as preceding it (1999a, 12). One such example mightconsist of a monkey’s behaviour as it reacts in certain ways whenrecognizing a predator nearby. The monkey proceeds to send out awarning call to other monkeys in the area in order to alert them of thedanger that is currently present. The other monkeys then take appro-priate action by either running for cover or perhaps by climbing up thenearest tree. Davidson thinks that such situations begin to indicate thetype of interaction that is needed for thought to emerge: ‘‘Th[is] basicsituation is one that involves two or more creatures simultaneously ininteraction with each other and with the world they share; it is what I call triangulation  . . . each creature learns to correlate the reactions of theother with changes or objects in the world to which it also reacts’’ (1999a,12). In this case, the monkeys are demonstrating a learnt reaction thatdepends on another viewing a predator in their vicinity, which then causesthe other monkeys to react in the right way given their ‘‘awareness’’ of thedanger in the area.It is important to remember that in this primitive case we areconsidering the way that complex reactions to the surrounding environ-ment lead to this triangular arrangement among creatures. The creaturesthemselves have no concepts or propositional attitudes but are reacting totheir surroundings by means of complex discriminatory abilities, some of which are learnt. The creatures themselves are in no position to describeanything at all, being devoid of the needed concepts. 3 Nevertheless,Davidson thinks that this basic form of triangulation found in the animalkingdom is useful, since it describes a case where primitive interactionswith the environment give rise to activities suggestive of thought. Butclearly more is needed. Further steps can be taken by examining the roletriangulation plays for the child first learning a language.Initially, a child would produce meaningless utterances that eventuallyresemble the meaningful words each one of us speaks: ‘‘The child babbles,and when it produces a sound like ‘table’ in the evident presence of atable, it is rewarded; the process is repeated and presently the child says‘table’ in the presence of tables’’ (Davidson 1992, 262). 4 An importantpart of this learning process is the child’s ability to notice certain objectsas relevantly similar to others; in this particular example we can note thatthe child finds tables similar. However, there is a problem concerning the 3 Davidson thinks that in this situation we may say that signaling is taking place, whatothers call animal communication. See his 2001b, 294. 4 This does not mean that all words are learned in this way, and it does not rule outclaims concerning the innate mechanisms that aid children in learning language. With thisidea of ostensive learning Davidson is insisting only on a much weaker claim, that we are notborn with anything like a contentful language. For further discussion of this point seeDavidson 1997, 18–22. Davidson also mentions that nothing depends on his amateurpsychology; all that matters is that individuals generalize in similar ways through interactionwith the world. See his 2001d, 118. r Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005THE PHILOSOPHICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF TRIANGULATION  711  location of the stimulus. From our current standpoint, or from theviewpoint of the child’s parental tutor, there is no reason to claim thatthe tables are the stimulus for the child, since it could just as well bepatterns of stimulation at the child’s surface that prompt the child’sreactions. In addition, it seems that we should pick this proximal cause asthe relevant stimulus, since such patterns of stimulation at the child’ssurface always produce the required behaviour, while more distant causes,such as tables, would provide a response only in ideal circumstances.Nevertheless, it does seem natural for us to take the table as the objectto which the child is responding. Why? Simply because it is built into ourvery nature as human creatures that we pick out certain classes of objectsas the appropriate stimulus: ‘‘We find the child’s mouthings of ‘table’similar, and the natural (for us) class we find in the world thataccompanies those mouthings is the class of tables’’ (Davidson 1992,263). Elsewhere, Davidson explains that it is an empirical fact abouthuman creatures that we possess such an ability to classify objectstogether in these ways. 5 The situation we have been describing involvesthree classes of object whose members are found similar by the child andby us (or the child’s teacher). We find tables similar, the child finds tablessimilar and we find the child’s responses to tables similar to our ownresponses. With these three patterns of response we can now pinpoint thesalient stimuli that cause the child’s responses. In this case, the objectsthat we find similar are tables, which are then matched up with theresponses of the child that we also find similar. Davidson depicts thesituation in these terms: We may think of it as a form of triangulation: each of two people is reactingdifferentially to sensory stimuli streaming in from a certain direction. If weproject the incoming lines outward, their intersection is the common cause. If the two people now note each others’ reactions (in the case of language, verbalreactions), each can correlate these observed reactions with his or her stimulifrom the world. (1991b, 159–60) At this point, however, nothing in this description shows that the childhas the capacity to conceptualize, since we have been considering a childwho has not yet developed propositional thought and language but isbeginning to take the needed steps through verbal stimulation. Never-theless, Davidson thinks that such triangulation provides us with a way todescribe some of what is needed. In fact, he makes the following claim:‘‘Here is my thesis: this interconnected triangle . . . constitutes a necessarycondition for the existence of conceptualization, thought and language. Itmakes possible objective belief and the other propositional attitudes’’ 5 In ‘‘Epistemology Externalized’’ he writes: ‘‘[I]t is we, because of the way we areconstructed (evolution has something to do with this) that we find these responses naturaland easy to class together’’ (1991a, 200). r Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005ROBERT SINCLAIR 712
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