8
Truth and Meaning

It is conceded by most philosophers of language, and recently by some linguists, that a satisfactory theory of meaning must give an account of how the meanings of sentences depend upon the meanings of words. Unless such an account could be supplied for a particular language, it is argued, there would be no explaining the fact that we can learn the language: no explaining the fact that, on mastering a finite vocabulary and a finitely stated set of rules, we are prepared to produce and to understand any of a potential infinitude of sentences. I do not dispute these vague claims, in which I sense more than a kernel of truth.1 Instead I want to ask what it is for a theory to give an account of the kind adumbrated.

One proposal is to begin by assigning some entity as meaning to each word (or other significant syntactical feature) of the sentence; thus we might assign Theaetetus to ‘Theaetetus’ and the property of flying to ‘flies’ in the sentence ‘Theaetetus flies’. The problem then arises how the meaning of the sentence is generated from these meanings. Viewing concatenation as a significant piece of syntax, we may assign to it the relation of participating in or instantiating; however, it is obvious that we have here the start of an infinite regress. Frege sought to avoid the regress by saying that the entities corresponding to predicates (for example) are ‘unsaturated’ or ‘incomplete’ in contrast to the entities that correspond to names, but this doctrine seems to label a difficulty rather than solve it.

The point will emerge if we think for a moment of complex singular terms, to which Frege’s theory applies along with sentences. Consider the expression ‘the father of Annette’; how does the meaning of the whole depend on the meaning of the parts? The answer would seem to be that the meaning of ‘the father of’ is such that when this expression is prefixed to a singular term the result refers to the father of the person to whom the singular term refers. What part is played, in this account, by the unsaturated or incomplete entity for which ‘the father of’ stands? All we can think to say is that this entity ‘yields’ or ‘gives’ the father of x as value when the argument is x, or perhaps that this entity maps people on to their fathers. It may not be clear whether the entity for which ‘the father of’ is said to stand performs any genuine explanatory function as long as we stick to individual expressions; so think instead of the infinite class of expressions formed by writing

1 See Donald Davidson (1965), ‘Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages’.

-155-

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The Essential Davidson
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • Philosophy of Action and - Psychology 21
  • 1 - Actions, Reasons, and Causes 23
  • 2 - The Logical Form of Action Sentences 37
  • 3 - How Is Weakness of the Will Possible? 72
  • 4 - The Individuation of Events 90
  • 5 - Mental Events 105
  • 6 - Intending 122
  • 7 - Paradoxes of Irrationality 138
  • Truth, Meaning, and - Interpretation 153
  • 8 - Truth and Meaning 155
  • 9 - On Saying That 171
  • 10 - Radical Interpretation 184
  • 11 - On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme 196
  • 12 - What Metaphors Mean 209
  • 13 - A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge 225
  • 14 - First Person Authority 242
  • 15 - A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs 251
  • Contents List of Volumes of Essays - By Donald Davidson 267
  • Bibliography 272
  • Index 278
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