Volume 6, 2007
María Rosario Hernández Borges
The Principle of Charity, Transcendentalism and Relativism
Relativism has usually been presented as linked to the limits of translation and understanding. The Principle of Charity was developed to decide the reference of words or the best translation of a sentence. However, the principle has been defined in, at least, two different ways: a naturalistic one, as a pragmatic maxim that guides the interpreter generally; or a transcendental one, as an a priori, necessary condition for someone to be understood. In this paper I will focus on the latter approach, taking Donald Davidson's arguments and his transcendental interpretation of the Principle of Charity as a representative case. Although different versions of the principle can be found in Davidson's writings, and some of them would seem flexible enough to give an account of how interpreter and speaker have different beliefs, all of these versions put understanding and intelligibility at risk. The reason is that the Principle of Charity has a wide scope: to conceive a person as rational, as having beliefs and desires, or as saying something, we have to interpret his/her utterances as revealing a set of beliefs consistent and true, and that maxim is applied to the whole system of sentences. So charity is necessary, we cannot choose it and if we spell out the Principle of Charity in sociological or psychological terms, that is, in empirical terms, we are changing the subject. The transcendental character of the principle has received criticism from various authors who understand it in a naturalistic way. I will conclude that an empirical description of how we use the Principle of Charity when we interpret a speaker's utterance would show the psychological and sociological relevance of relativism.