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Donald Davidson: Theory of Meaning and Radical Interpretation - class notes by Professor Bernard Weiss

Donald Davidson: Theory of Meaning and Radical Interpretation - class notes by Professor Bernard Weiss

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04/07/2013

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 Radical Interpretation1. Constraints on an Adequate Theory of Truth
The claim we had isolated as central to Davidson’s view of the theory of meaning isthat an adequate theory of truth is a theory of meaning. A theory of truth, we noted,will be a systematic specification of truth-conditions for each sentence in thelanguage. Many theories of truth cannot be treated as theories of meaning. So whatqualifies a theory of truth as adequate and therefore as a theory of meaning?
1.1 Compositionality
Davidson wants a theory of meaning which will make sense of the idea that themeaning of a sentence is determined by the meanings of its parts and the way they arecomposed in the sentence. Without such an account, he claims, we would be bereft of an explanation of speakers’ ability to learn language and their ability to understandnovel utterances. These accomplishments are explained by supposing that whatunderlies or constitutes speakers’ linguistic capacities are competencies which relateto a finite vocabulary and to ways in which these elements may be combinedgrammatically with one another. A speaker’s ability to understand novel utterances isan ability to deploy these components of linguistic understanding in hithertounencountered ways. The
theory
of meaning reflects this aspect of speakers’understanding by providing the resources for deriving a meaning specification for every sentence of the language from a finite set of axioms. The axioms will bespecifications of the meanings of the expressions in the basic vocabulary andrecursive clauses specifying the meanings of allowable combinations of expressionsin terms of the meanings of the expressions being combined. A theory of meaning of this form will be called compositional.Davidson is, as remarked, concerned to make some sense of this line of thought. But he recognizes that the thought is crude and somewhat vague. It isn’t precisely clear just what epistemological principle is being invoked in insisting thatthe complex linguistic ability
must 
be seen as a complex of simple abilities: what ismeant by ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ here? And as long as this is unclear it is not clear when we will have provided an adequate compositional theory of meaning. Secondly,it is plausible to suppose that the meaning of a word just
is
its contribution to themeaning of a sentence in which it occurs
1
. So the meanings of words are derived fromthe meanings of sentences. In this case it is hard to see how we could
explain
themeaning of a sentence in terms of the meaning of the words it contains. For, to do so,we would need to think of the meaning of the sentence as based on the meaning of thewords and that would make the whole account circular.
1.2 Interpretationality1.2.1 Interpretation vs Translation
It is important to be clear that Davidson’s programme is one of 
interpretation
not oneof 
translation
. That is, he is not concerned to pair off synonymous expressions in twolanguages; rather he wants to be able to interpret the utterances of native speakers. Atranslation only yields an interpretation if we assume an understanding of the
1
Cf. the discussion of the Context Principle in chapter five.
 
language into which the translation is made and this language need not be thelanguage of the theory: we could present a translation manual between French andGerman in English. In contrast a theory of interpretation will be framed in a homelanguage—since all theories are framed in some language—but will interpretutterances of the native speakers. One way in which this difference is made clear is inan adaptation of Tarski’s procedure to natural language. Natural language involvesmany indexical devices which give rise to sentences whose truth values may varyfrom one occasion of utterance to another. But a theory is a body of standingsentences: sentences whose truth value is stable. So whilst one might
translate
thesentence ‘J’ai faim’ as ‘I am hungry’ (i.e., ‘J’ai faim’ means the same as ‘I amhungry’) one couldn’t have a truth
theory
which includes the following:‘J’ai faim’ is true iff I am hungry.Since the sentence on the RHS is a sentence in the theory, we would then have atheory which includes indexical elements: the sentence ‘I am hungry’ will alter itstruth value from one occasion to another. Or, put differently, the biconditionalsentence will be true on any occasion of utterance but the truth-condition we ascribeto the French sentence will depend on who utters the English sentence. So we won’t be able to think of ourselves as having a truth theory for French, since the
content 
of the theory varies from one context of utterance to another. The clause winds up beingfalse if it is applied to numerous utterances of the French sentence by French speakers —whether or not Jacque’s utterance of ‘J’ai faim’ is true does not depend on whether or not
 I 
am hungry—and thus can only be used to interpret my current utterances of the French sentence. The source of the problem is that it is muddled to think that theFrench
 sentence
has a truth-condition; what has a truth-condition is the
utterance
of the sentence on a specific occasion. So we shall have to change the goal of our theory;instead of giving a theory of truth of 
 sentences
, we shall give a theory of the truth of asentence
as uttered by a certain speaker at a certain time
. So we’ll get:‘J’ai faim’ as uttered by x at t is true iff x is hungry at t.Here the indexical element has (supposedly) been removed: the sentence ‘x is hungryat t’ is either true or false once x and t have been determined. In essence, theindexicality of ‘J’ai faim’ is eliminated by explicitly stating the relevant context,which Davidson supposes is given by a speaker and a time. So the sentence on theright doesn’t
translate
the indexical sentence named on the left, it
interprets
anutterance of that sentence. Now it is an essential feature of Davidson’s programme that we should be ableto eliminate indexicality in this way. What is clear is that indexical expressions causesentences in which they occur to have unstable truth values because the indexicalexpression has a different reference (or semantic value) on different occasions of use.And this is because the reference of an indexical expression is determined by thecontext of use. Davidson’s assumption is that we can give a complete account of thesecontextual features (essentially he thinks that all the work can be done by filling in thecontext of the speaker and time of utterance). And one might well doubt this: is itclear that the reference of a demonstrative (e.g., ‘this’ or ‘that’) is determined by thespeaker and time of utterance rather than intentional aspects of the situation, e.g., thespeaker’s perceptions (and what is salient among those perceptions), interests and purposes?
 
We had advertised the truth-conditional account by claiming that we canreplace the ‘filling’ in clauses such as ‘s means that p’ by ‘is true iff’, provided thatthe specification of truth conditions has been managed in the ‘right’ way.Consequently, the question, which we need to go on to address, is: what we mightmean by ‘right’? However we should notice the effect that the treatment on indexicalshas. It is implausible to suppose that we might replace ‘is true iff’ in the above clause by ‘means that’:‘J’ai faim’ as uttered by x at t means that x is hungry at t.The clause on the right clearly is not synonymous with the sentence on the left nor isit clear that it
 gives the meaning 
of x’s utterance. My utterance of ‘x is hungry at t’surely does not have the same meaning as x’s utterance; x may be unaware of the timeor even that he is x. Rather there is a much looser sense in which my utterance isinterpretative of x’s: it is how I would report what x had said; it gives my ‘best’specification of the truth-conditions of x’s utterance. Thus there is a sense in whichthe notion of meaning retreats into the shadows. What we are concerned with is theconstruction of a theory of truth which is
interpretative
; that notion now occupiescentre stage.
1.2.2 Interpretation and the Evidence for Interpretation
For a theory of truth to do service as a theory of meaning it must be interpretational; itmust, that is, enable one to interpret speakers’ utterances. But what is it for a theory toenable interpretation? And, how does the theorist or interpreter (as we’ve learned sheis) plausibly arrive at an interpretative theory?One thing one might be tempted to say is that a theory is interpretative just incase it issues in clauses of the form:S is true iff p,where p is a sentence which translates the sentence named by S. That is we might justinsist on satisfaction of Tarski’s Convention-T. But of course, appealing to a notion of translation, of synonymy, of sameness of meaning is illegitimate when we are in the process of setting out constraints on a theory of meaning and thus are searching for constraints which can be applied independently of knowledge of meanings. So our  problem is this: how do we guarantee that p translates S without assuming we have ahandle on meanings at all? Davidson’s imagined scenario is that of the
radical interpreter 
, a character who has the task of interpreting speakers but who isdisallowed any assumptions about the meanings of their utterances and so of similarities between the community’s meanings and her own
2
.An attempt to interpret an utterance will involve seeing that utterance in thecontext of a speaker’s non-linguistic environment and activities. So we need to lighton evidence provided by these which is plausibly available to an interpreter inadvance of any insight into the speaker’s meanings. But now we seem to face animpenetrable barrier. We could surely make progress in interpreting a speaker’sutterances if we knew her beliefs, since we could then take a speaker’s sincereassertions to be expressions of her beliefs. However to gain access to a speaker’s beliefs we would need to know what her words mean, since many of her beliefs are
2
See his (1984: essay 9)

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