Beyond radical interpretation: Individuality as the basis of historical understanding

European Journal of Philosophy 17 (4):489-503 (2009)
Abstract
Owing in part to Rorty’s energetic promotional efforts, Davidson’s philosophy of language has received much attention in recent decades from quarters most diverse, creating at times a sense of an almost protean versatility. Conspicuously missing from the rapidly growing literature on the subject is a sustained discussion of the relationship between Davidson’s interpretive theory and history: an omission all the more surprising since a comparison between Davidson and Gadamer has been pursued at some length and now, it seems,abandoned—all without as much as a mention of history, which does, of course,play a prominent role in Gadamer’s thought. The issue, moreover, is hardly negligible. Davidson understood his work as an attempt to reconcile the demands of rigorous naturalism with the Kantian picture of human rationality,thereby salvaging what he considered to be important and interesting features of the human world from mechanistic reduction. For many thinkers of the 20th century, including Dewey and Gadamer, the irreducibly human had to do with the historical being of mankind, with historicity as the unique mark of our species. Yet, Davidson has virtually nothing to say about history and, in fact, a recent study by Giuseppina D’Oro (2004b), comparing Collingwood and Davidson, concludes that Davidson’s model of interpretation results in a distorted picture of understanding, as judged by the standards of a historically informed interpretive practice. Examining the causes of their disagreement, then,should help us make some headway towards a clearer sense of what it means to understand historically, by gleaning some additional constraints that the requirement of historicity imposes upon an interpretive theory. We start with D’Oro’s criticism of Davidson and discuss the alternative account of interpretation she proposes. Afterwards, we turn to Collingwood to see if either account does justice to his central insights, ending with some suggestions about the conceptual adjustments required to accommodate them.
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