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«History and Theory 43 (May 2004), 198-208 © Wesleyan University 2004 ISSN: 0018-2656 RE-ENACTMENT AND RADICAL INTERPRETATION GIUSEPPINA D’ORO ...»

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History and Theory 43 (May 2004), 198-208 © Wesleyan University 2004 ISSN: 0018-2656




This article discusses R. G. Collingwood’s account of re-enactment and Donald

Davidson’s account of radical translation. Both Collingwood and Davidson are concerned

with the question “how is understanding possible?” and both seek to answer the question

transcendentally by asking after the heuristic principles that guide the historian and the radical translator. Further, they both agree that the possibility of understanding rests on the presumption of rationality. But whereas Davidson’s principle of charity entails that truth is a presupposition or heuristic principle of understanding, for Collingwood understanding rests on a commitment to internal consistency alone. Collingwood and Davidson diverge over the scope of the principle of charity because they have radically different conceptions of meaning. Davidson endorses an extensional semantics that links meaning with truth in the attempt to extrude intensional notions from a theory of meaning. Since radical translation rests on a truth-conditional semantics, it rules out the possibility that there may be statements that are intelligible even though based on false beliefs. Collingwood’s account of re-enactment, on the other hand, disconnects meaning from truth, thereby allowing for the possibility of understanding agents who have false beliefs. The paper argues, first, that Davidson’s account of radical translation rests on inappropriately naturalistic assumptions about the nature of understanding, and that Davidson commits this error because he develops his account of radical interpretation in response to an epistemological question that is motivated by a skeptical concern: “how can we know whether we have provided the correct interpretation?” Second, that in the twentieth century far too much philosophizing has been driven by epistemological concerns that have obscured attempts to provide adequate answers to the sort of conceptual question with which Collingwood is concerned, namely: “what does it mean to understand?” In the following I wish to offer a comparative discussion of R. G. Collingwood’s account of re-enactment1 and Donald Davidson’s account of radical interpretation.2 Whereas the latter is widely regarded as broaching crucial issues that lie at the crossroads between the philosophy of action and the philosophy of language, and has accordingly provoked considerable discussion, the former has largely been seen as addressing narrow issues in the philosophy of history, and has consequently failed to reach a wider philosophical audience. Although Collingwood’s account of re-enactment sometimes features in discussions concerning the nature of explanation in the social sciences, it still remains the preR. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), especially the “Epilegomena.”

2. D. Davidson, “Radical Translation,” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 2001).


serve of a narrow group of scholars. The goal of this paper is twofold. First, I wish to show that Collingwood’s account of re-enactment addresses crucial issues that go well beyond the confines of a philosophy of history. Second, I wish to argue that Collingwood’s account effectively reveals that Davidson’s account of radical interpretation rests on inappropriately naturalistic assumptions about the nature of understanding.

Collingwood and Davidson ask a very similar question. In its most general terms the question can be formulated as follows: “how is it possible to understand others?” Davidson frames the question by asking how it is possible to translate from a completely unknown language. The idea of translation from an alien language is a device employed to make clear that interpreters should not presuppose what they are supposed to show, that is, the meaning of the words employed by the agents whose linguistic behavior they are trying to interpret. Interpreters, for Davidson, cannot assume that others mean the same things as they do when using certain words; this is most clearly the case when the language requiring translation is a completely unfamiliar language. The idea of an alien language, therefore, is fundamentally a way of making the epistemological point that interpretation must establish what the speaker means, not presuppose it. Hence all translation, including translation from familiar languages, is radical translation, and all interpretation, including interpretation of linguistic behavior in the interpreter’s own language, requires radical translation.

Collingwood frames the question by asking how it is possible to understand the thoughts of historical agents, agents who live in a distant past and who may not share with the historian the same system of beliefs. Re-enactment is discussed in a historical context but, as is the case with Davidson’s account of radical translation, the problem it addresses is much broader. Re-enactment, for Collingwood, underpins not only the possibility of understanding the thought of agents living in a distant past, but of all agents: “it is by historical thinking that we re-think and so rediscover the thought of Hammurabi or Solon; it is in the same way that we discover the thought of a friend who writes us a letter, or a stranger who crosses the street.”3 Collingwood introduces the idea of a distant past not to delimit the scope of re-enactment to the past rather than the present, but as a device to show that historians should not presuppose that they share the same assumptions as the agent whose thoughts they are trying to understand. Just as for Davidson all translation is radical translation, so too for Collingwood all understanding is historical understanding. The term “historical” in “historical understanding,” like “radical” in “radical translation,” therefore, is rather like the adjective “true” in the expression “a true friend”: it does not simply specify a kind of friend (a true rather than a false friend), but the very nature of friendship.

For Davidson all translation is radical translation because interpreters do not have prior access to the meaning of the words they have to translate into their own language; for Collingwood all understanding is historical understanding because we cannot presuppose that interpreters and the agents whose thoughts are to be interpreted reason from the same premises.

3. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 219.

200 GIUSEPPINA D’ORO Collingwood and Davidson may, on the surface, appear to be concerned with very different things: Davidson with the meanings that the speaker of (an alien) language attaches to the words, Collingwood with the assumptions from which (historical) agents reason. Yet the problem they are tackling is similar, since both meanings (in the case of Davidson) and assumptions (in the case of Collingwood) are not amenable to empirical observation. We observe behavior, whether linguistic or non-linguistic, but we do not directly observe either the meaning of words (Davidson) or the premises of an argument underpinning an action (Collingwood). Despite surface differences, Davidson’s account of radical interpretation and Collingwood’s account of re-enactment do tackle a similar question.

Moreover, the similarities do not end here. Both Collingwood and Davidson seek to answer this question transcendentally, by asking after the conditions of the possibility of (radical) translation and (historical) understanding respectively. The answer they provide is the result of a regressive argument to presupposed grounds, or a search for the heuristic principles that necessarily guide Davidson’s radical translator and Collingwood’s historian in each case. Further, they both seem to agree that there is an ineradicably normative element that is presupposed by both (radical) translation and (historical) understanding. The agents whose words (Davidson) and whose actions (Collingwood) need to be interpreted must be assumed to be rational. This normative ideal plays an important role in both Collingwood’s account of re-enactment and Davidson’s account of radical interpretation. But there the similarities end. For there are at least two important differences in the way in which Collingwood and Davidson set out to answer the question “how is understanding possible?” First, Davidson develops his account of radical interpretation in response to an epistemological question that is motivated by a skeptical concern: “how can we know whether we have provided the correct interpretation?” Collingwood, by contrast, develops his account of re-enactment as an answer to a conceptual question that is governed by the desire to eliminate confusions about the nature of understanding: “how should we construe the science of understanding in order not to conflate it with natural science?” The goal of Collingwood’s account of reenactment is not to specify the conditions under which historical claims are correct, but to clarify what it means to understand historically. For Collingwood, the question to be posed is not whether one has achieved the correct interpretation, but whether one has provided the correct kind of interpretation, one that is appropriate to the subject matter in question. The goal of the account of re-enactment is conceptual/clarificatory rather than epistemological/anti-skeptical.4

4. It is clear that Collingwood was not driven by skeptical worries when we consider passages such as this: “as an actual experience of his own, Plato’s argument must undoubtedly have grown up out of a discussion of some sort, though I do not know what it was, and been closely connected to such a discussion. Yet if I not only read his argument but understand it, follow it in my own mind re-enacting it with and for myself, the process of argument which I go through is not a process resembling Plato’s, it is actually Plato’s so far as I understand him correctly” (Collingwood, The Idea of History, 301). As the last clause “so far as I understand him correctly” makes clear, Collingwood’s concern here is with the nature, rather than with the correctness, of the interpretation.


Second, there are important differences in the way in which Collingwood and Davidson understand the content of the normative ideal that guides radical interpretation and re-enactment, respectively. According to Davidson the possibility of radical translation rests on the “principle of charity.” The principle of charity bids us to assume that the alien language speaker has the same (true) beliefs as the translator. This assumption is necessary, as radical translation relies on inductive generalizations based on repeated observations of the circumstances in which certain linguistic behavior occurs. If the speakers of the alien language repeatedly utter the word “gavagai” in the presence of a rabbit, this will provide good inductive evidence for claiming that they mean “rabbit.” But such inductive generalizations are possible only on the assumption that the speakers are not systematically mistaken in what they believe. If the speakers of the alien language were systematically mistaken about what is in their presence, that is, if they had systematically false beliefs, they would use the word “gavagai” inconsistently to refer to different objects on different occasions, and this would make the radical translator’s inductive inferences unreliable guides to meaning. This is why the principle of charity is a necessary postulate of radical translation.

Collingwood too, like Davidson, believes that there is a crucial normative ideal underpinning the possibility of (historical) understanding, but he interprets the content of this normative ideal in a very different way. Historical explanations are rational explanations,5 that is, explanations in which the relationship between the explanans and the explanandum is logical or conceptual. The possibility of historical understanding rests on the assumption that agents act on valid practical arguments, or that they are rational in the minimal sense that they are capable of drawing valid inferences, not in the more substantial sense that they must draw such inferences from true epistemic premises. Collingwood links the possibility of understanding to the historian’s ability to rethink the thoughts of historical agents, independently of whether such thoughts are true or false. An invalid thought process is not one that can be rationally reconstructed6 and hence rethought or re-enacted by the historian; a practical argument, however, whose conclusion has been inferred from false premises, is well within the scope of rational reconstruction, provided the inferential process is valid. Collingwood is

explicitly critical of the idea that truth should play any heuristic role in the reconstruction of thought processes. As he puts it:

if the reasons why it is hard for a man to cross the mountains is because he is frightened of the devils in them, it is folly for the historian, preaching at him across a gulf of centuries, to say “this is sheer superstition. There are no devils at all. Face facts, and realize that there are no dangers in the mountains except rocks and water and snow, wolves perThe term “rational explanation” was coined by W. H. Dray. See “Historical Understanding as Rethinking,” University of Toronto Quarterly 27 (1958), 200-215; Laws and Explanation in History (London: Oxford University Press, 1957); “The Historical Explanation of Actions Reconsidered” in Philosophy and History, ed. S. Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1963); and “R. G.

Collingwood and the Understanding of Actions in History,” in Perspectives on History (London:

Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 9-26. See also his more recent History as Re-enactment: R. G.

Collingwood’s Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

6. Since Collingwood identifies thought with rational processes, thought proper is normative or criteriological. Hence, invalid thought processes are not, strictly speaking, thought processes, since they are not rational processes.

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