Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Further remarks about Davidson

What I have said so far, in essence, is that although “A Nice Derangement” of Epitaphs did mark a radical change in some of Davidson’s views (the most famous change being his denial that there are “languages” as philosophers think of languages, namely as requiring conventions shared by a linguistic community that determine the meanings of the sentences), the central doctrine of Davidsonianism remains fixed, namely that the way to think of meanings (of sentences, again – why ‘sentences’ and not words is something I explain at the end of this post) is to think of them as truth conditions generated by a Tarski-style semantic theory. But in NDE the semantic theory is no longer held to be valid for a whole community, or even for an individual speaker: there is now a semantic theory that an individual speaker assumes when she begins to talk to another member of the community (her “prior theory”) and a theory that the speaker and the hearer ideally converge on in the course of a particular conversation or on a particular occasion (their “passing theory”). Thus Davidson became a “contextualist” (his semantics became “occasion sensitive”, in my terminology), but semantics was still a là Tarski.

I said in the previous post that I didn’t agree with Davidson that meanings should be identified with truth-conditions. I agreed, however, that truth-conditions are occasion-sensitive (so Davidson would be right that meanings are equally occasion sensitive if meanings were truth conditions). But I won't repeat all that.

I also argued that Davidson does not really say in what sense a particular speaker’s competence is “modeled” by a passing theory. He only emphasized that it is not known by the speaker.

But let us go a little farther.  For me the main locus of occasion sensitivity, as I explained in my June 2nd post [“Occasion-sensitivity and productivity are not incompatible”] is the reference of names and predicates. Sentences,”E.g., there is milk on the table” have occasion sensitive truth-conditions because the words they contain have different references; e.g.,  a little spilled  milk may or may not count as “milk” for the purpose of evaluating the truth or falsity of “there is milk on the table” on a particular occasion.

Davidson, however, endorsed Quine’s unfortunate doctrine of the indeterminacy of reference.. That is why Davidson says so little about the semantics of individual words; words like "pig", "blue", "home", "coffee" are primary referring expressions in English, for example. And reference is not a dubious metaphysical notion, as Quine thought. Give me that, and it is not hard to say something (of course, not everything) about what a passing theory has to do to “model a speaker’s competence"): it has to tell us what his or her words referred to on the relevant occasion.
   (to be continued)


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