The very notion of conceptual schemes still faces a more serious challenge from Davidson, namely, his criticism of the Kantian scheme-content dualism. I agree wholeheartedly that some sort of scheme-content dualism should be the backbone of any viable notion of conceptual schemes and any coherent form of conceptual relativism. However, why does it have to be the Kantian scheme-content dualism? Let me make it clear upfront that I have no intention of defending the Kantian scheme-content dualism. It is only too clear today that the notion of the pre-schematic empirical content is indeed objectionable. Of course, Davidson has a much bigger fish to fry than the Kantian scheme-content dualism; he wants to undermine conceptual relativism by removing its foundation, namely, any form of scheme-content dualism. To claim a victory, Davidson has to show us that any attempt to disjoin a scheme from its content is doomed to failure. In other words, Davidson needs to convince us that no scheme-content distinction of a certain sort can be drawn, which is innocent enough to be immune from the charge of the third dogma of empiricism, but is solid enough to supply a foundation for conceptual relativism. Davidson has not done so. In fact, following the suggestions from John McDowell (1994) and Maria Baghramian (1998), I believe there is at least one kind of non-Kantian scheme-content dualism that can sustain conceptual relativism.
4.1. THE COMMON-SENSE EXPERIENCE
Are there other kinds of empirical contents, neither E1 nor W1, available for a non-Kantian scheme-content dualism under consideration? How about our common-sense experience or the world as it is experienced by us? Begin with experience. Sense data such as a patch of color, an indescribable sound, or a fleeting sensation are not our lived experience like the perception of a yellow ball, loud music, or a feeling of love. Sense data are what William James (1909, p. 68) and C. I. Lewis (1929, p. 30) called ‘thin experience of immediate sensation,’ while our lived experiences are so-called ‘the thick experience of everyday life,’ such as our reflection of happiness and sadness and our perceptions of trees, rivers, and other people, etc. Davidson never seriously entertains the possibility of thick experience as the empirical content of a scheme. He always speaks of ‘experience’ in the sense of ‘thin experience.’ Even when he does mention experience with plurality, which is thick experience by nature –‘events like losing a button or stubbing a toe’– he dismisses it right away by reducing it to thin experience (Davidson, 1974, p. 192).
However, Davidson does touch, I think, the notion of thick experience under a different name, i.e. the world as it is experienced by us. By challenging the Kantian scheme-content dualism, Davidson's wants to ‘restore the unmediated touch’ with the world, not the Kantian world-as-it-is, but the world full of the familiar objects like trees, tables, people, rocks, and ‘knives and forks, railroads and mountains, cabbages and kingdoms.’ In this sense, Davidson's notion of the world is much like the pragmatist notion of ‘funded experience’–‘those beliefs which are not at the moment being challenged, because they present no problems and no one has bothered to think of alternatives to them’ (Rorty, 1972, p. 13). As Richard Rorty (1972) notes, Davidson seems to perform the conjuring trick of substituting the notion of ‘the unquestioned vast majority of our beliefs’ for ‘the notion of the world.’ Since the vast majority of our common beliefs must be true (the charity principle), the vast majority of the objects that our common beliefs are about must also exist. It turns out that we can start with ‘the unquestioned vast majority of our beliefs,’ which is just ‘our funded experience’ or ‘thick experience,’ but end with the world as it is experienced by us. For this reason, I will place both ‘thick experience’ and ‘the world as it is experienced by us’ under one roof as (E2) our common-sense experience or (W2) our common-sense world, the world that the unquestioned vast majority of our beliefs are thought to be about.
Could E2/W2 be the empirical content of a non-Kantian scheme-content dualism that we are proposing? It is certainly innocent enough to rebut Davidson's charge of the third dogma of empiricism. Since the world we experience is the empirical content that our conceptual schemes process, there is not any unconceptualized ‘given’ as epistemological intermediary inserted between our world and us. Obviously, such a dualism does not prevent us from having direct contact with the world. The remaining question is whether E2/W2 is too ‘innocent’ to qualify as a proper empirical content of scheme-content dualism. Based on his reading of the upshot of Davidson's arguments against the third dogma of empiricism, Rorty thinks so:
The notion of ‘the world’ as used in a phrase like ‘different conceptual schemes carve up the world differently’ must be the notion of something completely unspecified and unspecifiable – the thing-in-itself. In fact, as soon as we start thinking of ‘the world’ as atoms and the void, or sense data and awareness of them, or ‘stimuli’ of a certain sort brought to bear upon organs of a certain sort, we have changed the name of the game. For we are now well within some particular theory about how the world is. (Rorty, 1972, p. 14)
To fully understand Davidson's and Rorty's rejection of E2/W2 as a possible content of scheme-content dualism, we need to unearth one basic assumption that they associate with the dualism. Conceptual relativism apparently presupposes some sort of commonality underlying competing schemes: If there are many competing alternative conceptual schemes, there must be one common element for them to conceptualize. I do not think this commonality requirement of conceptual relativism is objectionable as long as it is modest. What is controversial is how to explain it. Does ‘to be common’ mean ‘to be neutral to any schemes or be free of any interpretations or conceptualizations’? Davidson thinks so; to him, for the notion of alternative conceptual schemes to make sense at all, there has to be some common element shared by all possible conceptual schemes, and such a common element has to be ‘something neutral and common that lies outside all schemes. . . . The neutral content waiting to be organized is supplied by nature . . .’ (Davidson, 1974, pp. 190–91). This is Davidson's basic assumption of scheme-content dualism:
(K) The empirical content of scheme-content dualism must be neutral to and beyond all schemes, theories, languages, and ideologies, and not contaminated by any concepts or interpretations.
Furthermore, if the content as ‘the scheme-neutral input’ or ‘the theory-neutral reality’ is ‘untouched by conceptual interpretation,’ then it logically follows that the scheme-content distinction has to be fixed and sharp; not any overlapping or intertwine between scheme and content is possible. It has become a common wisdom since Kant that there cannot be any purely unconceptualized content to our experience. Despite the decline of Kant's transcendental philosophy, the Kantian doctrine of concept-ladenness of experience is still very much alive today. This is why Davidson insists that E2/W2 cannot be the content of scheme-content dualism since it is not neutral and universal to all concepts and theories. For Rorty, when conceptual relativists introduce E2/W2 into the scene, the rules of ‘the game’ set up by K ‘are violated’ (Rorty, 1972, p. 14).
Davidson apparently attempts to present a dilemma to conceptual relativism: To make sense of scheme-content dualism, we need to clarify its empirical content, which is either concept-neutral (as with E1/W1) or concept-laden (as with E2/W2). If it is the former, it is a harmful metaphysical myth or a third dogma of empiricism; if it is the latter, it does not qualify as the content required by scheme-content dualism.
Conceptual relativism's response is simply this: Conceptual relativists would face such an inescapable dilemma only if they accepted the assumption K. But conceptual relativists clearly do not have to take the bait. The assumption K is indeed essential for the Kantian scheme-content dualism; but it is by no means essential for a non-Kantian scheme-content dualism. Conceptual relativists can abandon entirely the myth of concept-neutral content without giving up scheme-content dualism. On the contrary, it is exactly due to the abandonment of the concept-neutral content and the denial of a fixed and absolute scheme-content distinction that turns Kantian conceptual absolutism upside down and thus makes conceptual relativism possible.
4.2. A NON-KANTIAN SCHEME-CONTENT DUALISM
If there is no pre-schematic ‘given’ for any conceptual scheme to process, what is the empirical content of our schemes? I have suggested, following many others, that it is our common-sense experience. However, after rejecting the assumption K and its logical corollary, i.e. the rigid, fixed scheme-content distinction, conceptual relativism still faces two unanswered questions. First, if there is no scheme-neutral content and fixed scheme-content distinction, how can we meaningfully separate a scheme from its empirical content if we still want to make sense of the scheme-content distinction at all? Second, how can two competing schemes share a common empirical content if the content itself could be the very making of the schemes involved?
To address those concerns, we need to work out a non-fixed, relative scheme-content distinction. For this purpose, we had better consider the scheme-content distinction along with another closely related distinction, the analytic-synthetic distinction. Imagine that a scheme functions as a conceptual filter (a thought processor) between the world/experience (the empirical content of a scheme, the input) and the beliefs/thoughts (the cognitive content of a scheme, the output) in the way that a scheme organizes its empirical content to form its cognitive content. The scheme-content distinction is epistemic by nature, namely, the distinction between our conceptual apparatus and the world/experience. However, it is very tempting to confuse the distinction with a closely related semantic distinction, i.e. the analytic-synthetic distinction between sentences being true in virtue of their meanings/concepts involved alone and sentences being true in virtue of both their meanings/concepts and their empirical content.14 Although Davidson realizes correctly that scheme-content dualism could well survive after the fall of the analytic-synthetic distinction, he is wrong to allege, ‘giving up the analytic-synthetic distinction has not proven a help in making sense of conceptual relativism’ (1974, p. 189). On the contrary, it is exactly due to the denial of a fixed, absolute analytic-synthetic distinction that makes alternative conceptual schemes possible. Quine's rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction (Quine, 1951) leads to abandoning the rigid distinction between concept, meaning, or language on the one hand and belief, thought, or theory on the other. It is no longer a novel idea today that all concepts themselves are empirical and none a priori; concepts we deploy upon experience are themselves the products of empirical inquires. In other words, concepts are theory-laden, fact committal, and change with theories. Accordingly, conceptual schemes change and evolve with corresponding theories. Thus, the Kantian absolute conceptual scheme gives away to relative, alternative conceptual schemes.
However, even if scheme-content dualism neither necessitates nor presupposes the analytic-synthetic distinction, a total abandonment of all forms of the analytic-synthetic distinction would render the very notion of a conceptual scheme unintelligible. If meaning is contaminated by theory as Kuhn and Feyerabend have convinced us, then ‘giving up the analytic-synthetic distinction as basic to the understanding of language is to give up the idea that we can clearly distinguish between theory and language’ (Davidson, 1974, p. 187). However, if a scheme is defined as a conceptual or linguistic framework to form its cognitive content by organizing its empirical content, we must be able to distinguish somehow a scheme from its cognitive content (belief or theory) as well as from its empirical content. This in turn implies a distinction between the language used to describe a scheme and the theory used to describe experience. Furthermore, without some kind of analytic-synthetic distinction and scheme-content distinction in place, there is no way to tell whether two alleged conceptual schemes contain different concepts or simply embody different beliefs. Therefore, complete abandonment of the analytic-synthetic distinction and the scheme-content distinction would lead to self-destruction of the very notion of conceptual schemes.
It may be true that the meanings of expressions used in the formulation of a theory are introduced, changed, or redefined by the theory itself, but it does not follow that no distinction can be made between the language used to formulate a theory and the theory couched within the language. After we abandon the fixed, sharp analytic-synthetic distinction, the organizing role that was exclusively attributed to analytic sentences and the empirical content that was supposedly peculiar to synthetic sentences are now seen as shared and diffused by all sentences of a language. However, it does not mean that all sentences play equal roles in forming our beliefs. Use Quine's metaphor of ‘a web of beliefs’: Sentences in the center of the web are those we are most reluctant to give up and are primarily used to describe the scheme of concepts. Those sentences play primarily the organizing role in the formation of beliefs. Confronted with the conflict of experience, we would prefer to keep those sentences fixed by comparison to the sentences on the fringes that we would more easily revise in the light of experience. We can still call the former ‘analytic sentences’ in a modified sense that the truths of those sentences are widely accepted and fully protected by their users, but they are subject to revision also.
To illustrate such a non-fixed, fuzzy analytic-synthetic distinction, Wittgenstein's riverbed metaphor comes in handy.15 Wittgenstein asks us to imagine our worldview as a riverbed, where the bed of a river represents certain ‘hardened propositions,’ which is the scheme or the essential conceptual core of the worldview, while the river running on the bed represents the mass of our ever-changing belief systems. ‘The river-bed of thoughts may shift. But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division between one or the other’ (Wittgenstein, 1969, p. 15e). On the one hand, our conceptual schemes are relatively fixed and firm over a certain period within a certain context. They form and guide our beliefs. On the other hand, our beliefs, as the rushing waters of the river could slowly change the shape of the riverbed and alter the course of the river, could change our schemes over time. Therefore, the distinction between the scheme/language and its cognitive content (belief and theory) can be drawn relatively: There is a non-fixed, fuzzy distinction between the statements about the scheme of concepts, i.e. the language on the one hand and the statements expressing beliefs of reality/experience, i.e. the theory on the other. Our concepts are no longer thought of being a priori, but being posteriori in the sense that meaning and concepts are both bearers and the products of our factual beliefs; concepts are not only the tools of inquiry but also its products.
A similar dialectical interaction exists between a scheme and its empirical content. Our concepts are products of our experience in the form of an unquestioned vast majority of our beliefs about nature. But our experience itself is richly endowed with conceptual inputs. We will never encounter situations with a conceptual tabula rasa. There can be no rigid, sharp distinction between a scheme and its empirical contents, namely, between the Kantian a priori scheme and preschematic experiential input. Nevertheless, it does not mean for one moment that no meaningful distinction between certain schemes and experience can be drawn at all. In fact, our conceptual framework consists of multiple layers of schemes. At the bottom is our most fundamental set of concepts, dispositions, pre-judgments, or presuppositions, which I call basic experiential concepts. Like P. F. Strawson's basic concepts, these experiential concepts may constitute ‘a certain minimal conceptual structure’‘essential to any conception (comprehensible to us) of the experience of self-conscious beings’ (Strawson, 1992, p. 26). They are highly general and pervasive, permeate every facet of our sensory experience, and presupposed by our experience in general. In this sense, the basic experiential concepts can be plausibly said to ‘structure’ or ‘schematize’ experiential input from nature, whatever it may be.
However, unlike the Kantian categorical concepts that are a priori, independent of any experience, the scheme of our basic experiential concepts is globally a posteriori as a product of our experiences. They evolve through human interaction with the natural and social environment during millions of years of human evolution. Unlike the Kantian concepts that are absolutely basic, i.e. having a fixed and invariant structure, basic experiential concepts are not absolutely basic in a Kantian sense. Instead, they are hypothetically or historically basic in the sense that based on our past evolutionary history and current structure of environment, those concepts are foundational – that is, universally presupposed by our experience. But we acknowledge that changes in the nature of those concepts could occur over time – for example, if our evolutionary path is altered in the future due to some unforeseeable dramatic environment change. Although I cannot give an exhaustive list of all basic experiential concepts here, they are concepts mostly related to our sense perceptions and individuation, duration, and identity of objects within space and time. For example, to experience the lovely, beautiful flower in front of me right now on the table, I need to have a concept of differentiation (such that I can distinguish the flower from its background), a concept of relative stability of the object (I know that it will not melt into thin air in the next moment), a concept of identity (I know it is the same flower sent to me by my lover yesterday), a concept of myself (I am the subject who is enjoying the flower), a concept of space and time, and so on. We can safely assume, based on Darwinian evolution theory, that there are some basic experiential concepts shared by human cultures and societies.16 In this sense, they are global or universal.
Accordingly, our common-sense experience is the product of the dialectical interaction between our basic experiential concepts and experiential input from nature, whatever it may be, such that there is no way to separate which is form and which is content. The notion of ‘experiential input from nature’ is, borrowing Rescher's comment on the notion of scheme-independent reality, ‘not constitutive, not as a substantial constituent of the world – in contrast with ‘mere appearance’– but a purely regulative idea whose function to block the pretensions of any one single scheme to a monopoly on correctness or finality’ (Rescher, 1980, p. 337). In other words, I intend to use the notion to emphasize the empirical root of our basic experiential concepts. Our common-sense experience thus can be thought to be a common content shared by other higher-level schemes. Hence, we can have commonality without neutrality.
Besides our basic experiential concepts as the foundation of our conceptual and experiential life, there are some more advanced sets of concepts or metaphysical presuppositions associated with cultures, intellectual traditions, or languages. Some of those conceptual schemes are radically distinct and schematize our rudimentary common-sense experience in different ways to form diverse worldviews, cosmologies, or ways of life. The presence of different conceptual schemes manifests itself most dramatically when we come across some different ways of categorizing what seems to be the common experience. A best-known case would be classification of color in different cultures. As the literature on color amply demonstrates, apparently individually identifiable color samples, which two cultural groups presumably experience in the same way – assuming they all have normal vision, are often categorized into very different color systems in terms of different concepts of color. Similar examples are plentiful in anthropological and historical literatures that have often been discussed by scholars in other areas, such as cognitive scientists, psychologists, and linguists. If not only what one experiences determines what one believes, but also what one believes shapes what one experiences (the thesis of the theory-ladenness of observation), communities that adopt two radically distinct conceptual schemes and accordingly different worldviews would have different ‘more conceptually enriched experiences,’ so to speak. This is the reason why Thomas Kuhn makes a seemingly absurd claim that those communities ‘live in two different worlds.’