Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


Cognitive Literary Science

Edited by Michael Burke and Emily T. Troscianko

Cognitive Literary Science "Brings together researchers in cognitive-scientific fields and with literary backgrounds for a comprehensive look at cognition and literature."

New from Cambridge University Press!


Intonation and Prosodic Structure

By Caroline Féry

Intonation and Prosodic Structure "provides a state-of-the-art survey of intonation and prosodic structure."

Review of  Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation

Reviewer: Asuncion Alvarez
Book Title: Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation
Book Author: Donald Davidson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 13.945

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting
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).

Asunci�n �lvarez, Dpto. de L�gica y Filosof�a de la Ciencia,
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

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.

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.

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.

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
''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.

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

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

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.''

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''.
Asunci�n �lvarez 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.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0199246297
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 320
Prices: U.K. £ 16.99