ⓘ Principle of charity. In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity or charitable interpretation requires interpreting a speakers statements in the most ..


ⓘ Principle of charity

In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity or charitable interpretation requires interpreting a speakers statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to the others statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available. According to Simon Blackburn "it constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subjects sayings."


1. Application

The first to state this hermeneutic principle was Rabbi Meir, a tanna of the fourth generation 139–163, who declared, in Arachin 5b: A person does not say things without reason.

Neil L. Wilson gave the principle its name in 1958–59. Its main area of application, by his lights, is determining the referent of a proper name:

How should we set about discovering the significance which a person attaches to a given name? We might say the designatum is that individual which satisfies more of the asserted matrices containing the word "Caesar" than does any other individual.

Willard Van Orman Quine and Donald Davidson provide other formulations of the principle of charity. Davidson sometimes referred to it as the principle of rational accommodation. He summarized it: We make maximum sense of the words and thoughts of others when we interpret in a way that optimises agreement. The principle may be invoked to make sense of a speakers utterances when one is unsure of their meaning. In particular, Quines use of the principle gives it this latter, wide domain.

Since the time of Quine et al., other philosophers have formulated at least four versions of the principle of charity. These alternatives may conflict with one another, so which principle to use may depend on the goal of the conversation. The four principles are:

  • The other says something interesting.
  • The other uses words in the ordinary way;
  • The other makes true statements;
  • The other makes valid arguments;

A related principle is the principle of humanity, which states that we must assume that another speakers beliefs and desires are connected to each other and to reality in some way, and attribute to him or her "the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances".

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