Principle of charity: what it is and why it is useful in conversation

Imagine that in the middle of a conversation, someone gives a wide variety of data (for example, descriptive or biographical data about a person that could match the description of two different people). Therefore, two different people come to mind, so we should consider which option makes the most sense given the context of what it tells us is valid.

The principle of charity demands that the statements made by another person be interpreted as rational and, in case of dialectical conflict, that the interpretation of the same that has greater solidity is taken into consideration, avoiding that making irrational attributions, errors with a lack of logic or any falsity on the statements of other people.

In this article we will see what the principle of charity consists of and what is this for ?

    What is the principle of charity?

    In the realms of rhetoric and philosophy, the principle of charity demands that statements made by an interlocutor be interpreted as rational and, in case of dialectical conflict, the interpretation of it that has greater solidity must be taken into consideration.

    Therefore, if we stick to its strictest sense, the purpose of this principle would be to prevent irrational attributions, fallacies without logic or any falsehood about the words of others when in reality it would be possible that an interpretation is made rational and coherent of the same.

    To try to understand this concept better, let’s give an example: if another person presents us with an argument that could be interpreted in two ways, one being logical and the other fallacious, we should assume that the interpretation we have interpreted as “logical” would then be the one that we will take into account as the one that this person actually intended to transmit and not the other, siempre y cuando se hacerlo reasonable.

    In this way, practicing the principle of charity in various interactions could be beneficial in a wide range of scenarios, because it helps us to foster adequate, cordial dialogue and productive discussions or debatesat the same time that the argumentative capacity of the participants in these debates could be improved.

      The origins of the principle of charity

      The principle of charity was first defined in the 1950s by Neil L. Wilson. For him, this new concept served to determine a referent of a proper number, so that this principle had been developed as a semantic rule.

      Let’s see an example of the principle of charity based on the Wilsonian conception of this concept and which could be useful to students when preparing for an exam. To do this, we think of a number like “Miguel” and then we choose a referent called that to expose 5 sentences about the life of someone who could be called Miguel and who is known to the people we are doing the task with ( it is usually performed with famous people):

      • Miguel was born in Bilbao.
      • Miguel wrote a novel called “Niebla”.
      • Miguel was professor and rector of the University of Salamanca.
      • Miguel is exiled to Hendaye.
      • Miguel wrote “El Quixote”.

      As we have been able to verify, to use the principle of charity, we had to select a person who serves as a referent (“designatum”) according to the choice of a proper number, which in this case will make a greater number of statements about the number “Miguel”. Then other people should think of illustrious people, whose main name is Miguel, and so they could verify that the first 4 sentences refer to the writer Miguel de Unamuno, while the last sentence refers to the writer Miguel de Cervantes.

      Although this is just one example, since we could have taken other examples such as Miguel Ángel Buonarroti (artist), among others. Moreover, this principle can be applied with any number (for example, “Caesar”, in which case perhaps the most representative character could be the emperor Julius Caesar of ancient Rome).

      These examples would demonstrate a simple use of the principle of charity, namely that when someone’s statements include a number that could potentially refer to multiple people, we should assume it is referring to the person that makes the most sense in the context of the statement.

      Next, the American philosophers Willard Can Orman Quine and Donald Davidson developed other different formulations to that which Wilson had made on the principle of charity. Davidson speaks of this principle as a tool that we could use to try to understand what a speaker is saying when we are not sure of its meaning (principle of rational accommodation). Instead, Quine uses the principle of charity in a broader sense, giving it an empirical interpretation.

      Later, several philosophers made a formulation of at least 4 different versions of the principle of charity, so this principle can be used differently depending on the purpose of the conversation. These principles are:

      • Other people use words in an ordinary, normal way.
      • Other people make statements that are true.
      • The other people present arguments that are considered valid.
      • Other people say something interesting.


        The benefits of practicing the principle of charity

        Practicing the principle of charity could be a good resource because it is a possible mental shortcut to interpreting what others tell us, trying to find meaning in what we hear. In addition, This principle could help us to be more understanding with othersbecause over time, if we choose to use this principle frequently, we would be better trained to identify the best possible interpretation of what others are communicating to us, which is very important in the field of psychology.

        On the other hand, the principle of charity can help people to improve your ability to construct your own arguments, so that they are more solid and coherent. Indeed, in addition to being important to know how to detect and counter all those illogical errors that others tell us, it is also important not to focus only on this and for this we must try to develop our reasoning skills and of argument.

        Additionally, the principle of charity could improve the quality of our conversations and, therefore, our interpersonal relationships, since other people will prefer to talk to someone who makes a genuine effort to really understand what others are trying to say. . than talking to a person who is only focused on identifying problems or errors in what others are saying in order to counter-attack their arguments and thus “win” the discussion.

        Finally, it should be noted that implementing the principle of charity in our conversations encourages others to be willing to listen to what we have to say. This is due to the fact that people will show themselves to be closer to us and predisposed to have a conversation and listen to us thanks to the fact that we tend to approach the best possible interpretation of their arguments. On the other hand, if we had focused on other less relevant aspects, these people would have had less interest in talking to us and would not have listened to us openly when we wanted to tell them something that we considered important.

        In short, one could say that the principle of charity promotes the development of conversations between two or more people with superior quality, thanks to a more open, coherent and thorough interpretation, centered on what is really important for the parties concerned. This principle rejects the search for counter-arguments that lead to “victory” in a debate or a dialectical dispute, nor does it focus on the argumentative errors of what others say; however, here what is sought is to understand what others are saying in the best possible way

        Bibliographic references

        • Barturen, CS (2014). The principle of charity, scope and limits. National Mayor University of San Marcos.
        • OnlineBlackburn, S. (2016). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
        • Davidson, D. (1984). Investigations into truth and interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
        • Effectiology (nd). The principle of charity: assume the best interpretation of people’s arguments. Effectiology.
        • Hernandez, MR (2005). The principle of charity and values: towards a relativism beyond interpretation. Laguna magazine, 17, p. 79-97.
        • Krebs, V. (2008). Principle of charity or hubris? Journal of Philosophy, 26(60), p. 61-90.
        • OnlineMonteagudo, C. (2013). The possible dialogue between two traditions. Between “listening to others” and the “principle of charity”, Areté, 25(2), pp. 267-282.
        • Neil LW (June 1959). “Substrateless Substances”. The Review of Metaphysics, 12 (4), pp. 521–539.
        • Rey, DA, Duica, W. & Meléndez, R. (2007). Principle of charity and cultural relativism. Saga – Student review of philosophy, pp. 151-162.
        • Rincón, E. (2008). Construction of the world: interpretation and the principle of charity. P, 4(6), p. 79–95.

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