charity, principle of

Principle named by Neil L. Wilson – in Review of Metaphysics (1958-59), page 532 – that when interpreting another speaker, especially of an unknown language, we should make those assumptions about his intelligence, knowledge, sense of relevance and so on, that will make most of what he says come out true.

Also see: principle of humanity

G Sundholm, ‘Brouwer’s Anticipation of the Principle of Charity’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1984-85), 264-68


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’.[3]

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? […] Let us suppose that somebody (whom I am calling “Charles”) makes just the following five assertions containing the name “Caesar.” […]

(1) Caesar conquered Gaul. (Gc)
(2) Caesar crossed the Rubicon. (Rc)
(3) Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March. (Mc)
(4) Caesar was addicted to the use of the ablative absolute. (Ac)
(5) Caesar was married to Boadicea. (Bc)

[…] And so we act on what might be called the Principle of Charity. We select as designatum that individual which will make the largest possible number of Charles’ statements true. […] We might say the designatum is that individual which satisfies more of the asserted matrices containing the word “Caesar” than does any other individual.[4]

Willard Van Orman Quine[5] and Donald Davidson[6] 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 speaker’s utterances when one is unsure of their meaning. In particular, Quine’s use of the principle gives it this latter, wide domain.

Since the time of Quine, other philosophers[who?] 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:

  1. The other uses words in the ordinary way;
  2. The other makes true statements;
  3. The other makes valid arguments;
  4. The other says something interesting.

A related principle is the principle of humanity, which states that we must assume that another speaker’s 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” (Daniel Dennett, “Mid-Term Examination,” in The Intentional Stance, p. 343).

See also

  • Pardes
  • Principle of humanity
  • Precautionary principle
  • Interpretation (philosophy)
  • Cooperative principle
  • Steelmanning

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