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February 27 2017 05:49 PST

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Introduction to Philosophy

The Principle of Charity

Abstract: The principle of charity is a presumption often made in philosophy whereby preconceptions about an argument, a topic, or a belief are set aside in the attempt to gain new understanding.

  1. The Principle of Charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive from before subjecting the view to evaluation.
    1. While suspending our own beliefs, we seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas. 
    2. We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove useful and helpful..
    3. Emphasis is placed on seeking to understand rather than on seeking contradictions or difficulties.
    4. We seek to understand the ideas in their most persuasive form and actively attempt to resolve contradictions.  If more than one view is presented, we choose the one that appears the most cogent.
  2. The principle of charity is a methodological principle—ideas can be critiqued after an adequate understanding is achieved. The original presumption of setting aside our own beliefs and assuming the new ideas are true is only a provisional presumption.
    1. Hence, we should listen and read in the beginning as if we had no personal attitudes. We should seek to be open and receptive.
    2. This attitude, if maintained, frees the conditioned mind and enables it to absorb and understand the new.
    3. In essence, we just start with a simple desire to get a point not understood upon first acquaintance.
  3. Refinements of the principle of charity in philosophy include the principle of rational accommodation whereby we attempt to maximize truth and the principle of humanity where we attempt to maximize intelligibility.
    1. Willard Van Orman Quine's version of the principle is this maxim of translation: "[A]ssertions startingly false on the face of them are likely to turn on hidden differences of languages." (W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, Mass.: The M. I. T. Press, 1960), 59.)
    2. Donald Davidson suggests the principle of charity (or, in his words, "the principle of rational accommodation") should attempt to "maximize" sense and "optimize" agreement when invoked with respect to coherence and factual correspondence of what is said.
      1. Principle of Coherence: seeks "logical consistency in the thought of the speaker."
      2. Principle of Correspondence: seeks the same feature of the world that [we] would be responding to under similar circumstance."
      3. The humanity principle as put forward by Richard Grandy is that we should initially interpret a different philosophical point of view in accordance with the assumption that the interrelation of belief and reality being expressed is similar to our own. As Donald Dennett explains the principle of humanity, "[O]ne should attribute to [the person's whose view we are attempting to understand] … the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances."
  4. Some examples of uses and possible benefits on the application of the principle of charity in the analysis for new ideas:
    1. Feynman writes in his Nobel Prize Lecture about struggling with the notion of backward causation in quantum electrodynamics:

      … all physicists know from studying Einstein and Bohr, that sometimes an idea which looks completely paradoxical at first, if analyzed to completion in all detail and in experimental situations, may, in fact, not be paradoxical.

    2. Dostoevsky writes in his Notes from Underground that what is not in one's own interest may be precisely that which is in one's own interest:

      Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble … we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests … And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes not only may, but even must, consists in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous[?]

      Through consideration of the seemingly contradictory idea that one's advantage can be what is not ones advantage, Dostoevsky reveals the notion of unconscious motivation.
    3. In Hinduism, God may be worshipped as a child when the devotee worships Krishna. A Christian, uncharitably, might be inclined to believe Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. Yet, for the Christian, the notion of the Christ Child could be suggested by the application of the principle of humanity in order to help understand this ideal in Hinduism. Swami Vivekanda writes:

      The next [human representation of the ideal of divine love] is what is known as Vatsalya, loving God not as our Father but as our Child. This may look peculiar, but it is a discipline to enable us to detach all ideas of power from the concept of God. … [T]he Christian and the Hindu can realize [this idea of God as Child] easily, because they have the baby Jesus and the baby Krishna.

      The similarity belief and attitudes between Christianity and Hinduism, in this regard, removes unnecessary difficulties in understanding.
Further Reading:
  • A Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion. Jonathan Davis's useful summary of twelve principles of for open discussion in Usenet debates is drawn from Attacking Faulty Reasoning by T. Edward Damer.
  • Principle of Charity. Philosophical and rhetorical principles are briefly summarized by Wikipedia.
  • Unbeggable Questions. (A PDF file) Some problems with the principle of charity are noted in passing in this paper from Analysis by Roy Sorensen on the fallacy of begging the question.
Top of Page

“… the principle of charity. This policy calls on us to fit our own propositions (or our own sentences) to the other person's words and attitudes in such a way as to render their speech and other behavior intelligible. This necessarily requires us to see others as much like ourselves in point of overall coherence and correctness—that we see them as more or less rational creatures mentally inhabiting a world much like our own.” Donald Davidson, Problems of Rationality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 35.

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