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Davidson, Donald (2001) Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, second ed. Oxford University Press, xxiii+ 296pp, paperback ISBN 0-19-924629-7, $21.95 (first ed. 1984).
Asunciï¿½n ï¿½lvarez, Dpto. de Lï¿½gica y Filosofï¿½a de la Ciencia, Universidad Complutense de Madrid
''What is it for words to mean what they do?'' Thus opens the Introduction to a book which has become, in the less than twenty years since its first publication in 1984, a classic in the field of the Philosophy of Language. What can one say about a classic? Widely quoted, hotly contested and discussed, but in any case hugely influential, the place of these essays within the modern philosophical canon remains as yet unchallenged.
Davidson's thesis in these essays is that, in order for a theory to answer his question, it would have to satisfy two demands: (a) providing an interpretation of all utterances, actual or potential, of a speaker or group of speakers; (b) being verifiable without knowledge of the detailed propositional attitudes of the speaker.
The first demand, according to Davidson, acknowledges the holistic nature of linguistic understanding. The second condition is a filter against the introduction into the foundations of a semantic theory of concepts ''not too closely allied to the concept of meaning''.
The limited space afforded in this review precludes any reference worth the while to the enormous amount of literature (both favourable and unfavourable) which has been generated by this book alone. I shall therefore restrict myself to a summary of its contents, and to how they fit into Davidson's project of an adequate semantic theory. There is, however, a difference worth noting between this second edition and its predecessor -- a new introduction, commenting on the first edition's reception and misprints, and an unpublished appendix (written in 1974) to essay 10.
The book contains eighteen essays, divided into five sections, ''Truth and Meaning'', ''Applications'', ''Radical Interpretation'', ''Language and Reality'', and ''Limits of the Literal''. This second edition includes also an Appendix to Essay 10, in which Davidson replies to Quine and Lewis's comments on this essay.
TRUTH AND MEANING Essay 1. Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages (1965) In this essay, Davidson argues that the finite nature of human powers sets a limit to the basic vocabulary which a semantic theory must discover in the verbal phenomena which it interprets. According to Davidson, Frege's analysis of oblique contexts, Church's logic of sense and denotation, Tarski's treatment of quotation, and, possibly, standard theories of adverbial modification fail to meet this condition of treating the potential infinity of sentences as derived from a finite number of items in a vocabulary.
Essay 2. Truth and Meaning (1967) A modified version of a Tarskian theory of truth is argued for here. Davidson's (now famous) thesis that theories of truth can do as theories of meaning was first expressed in this essay.
Essay 3. True to the Facts (1969) This essay poses the question of whether a Tarskian theory of truth can be legitimately called a correspondence theory.
Essay 4. Semantics for Natural Languages (1970) In essay 4, Davidson argues in favour of truth theories as potentially able to provide natural languages with a formal semantics analogous to Chomsky's formal syntax. The deep structure of a sentence -- which was then thought to be the vehicle for semantic representation, it is suggested, should correspond to the logical form which a truth theory would assign to that sentence.
Essay 5. In Defence of Convention T (1973) This essay argues for the convenience of Tarski's Convention T as an instrument for the testing of truth theories.
APPLICATIONS In this section, Davidson attempts a semantic treatment of ''three related but recalcitrant idioms'': quotation, indirect discourse, and mood operators.
Essay 6. Quotation (1979) This essay proposes a ''demonstrative'' theory of quotation, by which quotation would be a special case of the demonstrative reference of words to other words in the verbal context.
Essay 7. On Saying That (1968) Essay 7 proposes a paratactic solution to the problem of sentences expressing propositional attitudes which bears much resemblance to the theory of quotation suggested in the previous essay.
Essay 8. Moods and Performance (1979) Here Davidson emphasizes the ''often neglected'' distinction between grammatical mood on the one hand and speech-act theory illocutionary force on the other. According to Davidson, only grammatical mood is of interest for a theory of word meaning: he goes on to suggest a ''paratactic'' analysis of imperatives which includes our instinctive feeling as speakers that imperatives have no truth value but which remains within the boundaries of a truth theory.
RADICAL INTERPRETATION This section deals with the question of verification without presupposition, that is, of ''whether a theory of truth for a speaker can be verified without assuming too much of what it sets out to describe''. The essays in this section also describe and defend devices enabling the separation between belief and meaning which is required for communicative ends. All these devices, argues Davidson, are ultimately based on the Principle of Charity, which, according to Davidson, Quine applied primarily to the interpretation of logical constants.
It is at this point where Davidson diverges from Quine. Unlike Quine, Davidson states that the aim of interpretation is not agreement, but understanding: ''My point has always been that understanding can be secured only by interpreting in a way that makes for the right sort of agreement. The 'right sort', however, is no easier to specify than to say what constitutes a good reason for holding a particular belief.'' (''Introduction'', pg. xix).
Essay 9. Radical Interpretation (1973) This essay supports Quine's thesis on the indiscernibility of meaning and belief in sentences, even if we restrict our attention to verbal behaviour revealing the conditions in which the speaker gives credence to his sentence. It is Davidson's claim that only a theory incorporating -- in addition to the interpretation of each sentence and its associated attitudes -- the pattern of assents to sentences can make possible the double account of belief and meaning required.
Essay 10. Belief and the Basis of Meaning (1974) In this essay, Davidson stresses the equal weight of belief and meaning in the description of verbal behaviour. Also, and most interestingly, it develops a striking parallel between Bayesian theories of decision and theories of meaning, giving reasons why the two theories should be considered mutually dependent. This essay is supplemented by an Appendix giving Davidson's replies to David Lewis's and Quine's reactions.
Essay 11. Thought and Talk (1975) Here Davidson deals with the mutual dependence between a speaker's understanding of the words of a language and his beliefs. A dependence, he speculates, which has as a consequence that only creatures possessing a language can be said to have schemes of propositional attitudes.
Essay 12. Reply to Foster (1976) This essay acknowledges the fact that, if a theory of truth is to suffice for interpretation, it must be more than true: its axioms and theorems must be natural laws. Thus, an interpreter knowing such theory could use it to understand another speaker -- but only with the proviso that the theory's pronouncements be considered nomic, i.e. law-like in nature.
LANGUAGE AND REALITY Essay 13. On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme (1974) Essay 13 argues against the idea that different languages constitute widely-differing conceptual systems. Davidson's argument is based on the common nature of our view of the world: ''We individually and communally may go plenty wrong, but only on condition that in most large respects we are right. It follows that when we study what our language -- any language -- requires in the way of an overall ontology, we are not just making a tour of our own picture of things: what we take there to be is pretty much what there is''.
Essay 14. The Method of Truth in Metaphysics (1977) This essay takes up the idea set forth in essay 13 regarding the common nature of our conceptual systems. Thus, argues Davidson, one way of pursuing metaphysics is to study the general study of language -- a long-standing tradition honoured by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Russell, Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, and Strawson.
Essay 15. Reality Without Reference (1977) Here Davidson sets forth the idea that the way in which a theory of truth maps non-sentential expressions onto objects is indifferent as long as the conditions of truth are not affected. Accordingly, ''the question what objects a particular sentence is about, like the questions what object a term refers to, or what objects a predicate is true of, has no answer''.
Essay 16. The Inscrutability of Reference (1979) Davidson's position concerning the referentiality of terms -- expressed in essay 15 -- makes him agree with Quine's thesis of the inscrutability of reference. However, this essay warns against the dangers of employing the inscrutability of reference as an excuse to relativize the reference and ontology of singular terms and predicates: ''For since nothing can reveal how a speaker's words have been mapped on to objects, there is nothing to relativize to; and interpretation being unaffected, there is no need to relativize.''
LIMITS OF THE LITERAL Essay 17. What Metaphors Mean (1978) In this essay, Davidson discusses his famous thesis that the fact that we understand words in metaphor can only be explained by assuming that they have the same meanings as in non-figurative contexts. ''We lose our ability to account for metaphor, as well as rule out all hope of responsible theory, if we posit metaphorical meanings''.
Essay 18. Communication and Convention (1984) This essay deals with the question of interpretation in linguistic encounters, which Davidson claims takes place by a constant on-the-spot adjustment of the interpreter's theories. ''The principles of such inventive accommodation are not themselves reducible to theory, involving as they do nothing less than all our skills at theory construction''.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Asunciï¿½n ï¿½lvarez holds a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Linguistics from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Cognitive Science at the same university. Her research interests include the philosophy of language and mind, logic, and the relationships between linguistic, philosophical, and psychoanalytic thought.