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Principle of Charity

In philosophy and rhetoric, 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 (source).

The principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker's statements to be rational 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 subject's sayings."

Neil L. Wilson named the principle in 195859. 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, which he explained as making maximum sense of the words and thoughts of others by interpreting 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.

Since the time of Quine and Davidson, other philosophers have formulated at least four types of the principle of charity. These alternatives may conflict with one another, so that charity becomes a matter of taste rather than an exact system. The four principles are:

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