Monday, June 15, 2015
In my post of April 21, 2014 (to which I referred in the previous post) I explained “contextualism” thus:
“ [contextualism] does not, of course, claim that the meanings of sentences vary from context to context, or at least it does not claim that in every sense of that multiply ambiguous word “meaning,” the meaning of a sentence that one understands changes whenever one finds oneself in a new context. In some sense it must be true that a speaker (as we say) “knows the meaning” of each sentence that he or she is able to use prior to using it or understanding another speaker’s use of it in a new context and that this “knowledge of its meaning” plays an essential role in enabling the speaker to know what the sentence is being used to say in the context.
(Let me also say here that I do not think of meanings as either platonic objects or as mental objects; in my view, talk of meanings is best thought of as a way of saying something about certain world-involving competences that speakers possess. [See references in the April 21 post.] And corresponding to those competences, there are constraints on what can be done with sentences without, as we say, “violating” or at least “extending” or “altering” their meaning.)
What contextualism does deny is that the “meaning” of a sentence in this sense determines the truth-evaluable content of that sentence. The thesis of contextualism is that in general the truth-evaluable content of sentences depends both on what they mean (what a competent speaker knows prior to encountering a particular context) and on the particular context, and not on meaning alone.”
The contextualists I mentioned in previous posts were J.L.Austin, Charles Travis, and Wittgenstein. But it is a remarkable fact that in “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” Donald Davidson seems to (and I think does) express agreement with all of these claims. And he is aware that “These phenomena threaten standard descriptions of linguistic competence (including descriptions for which I [Davidson] am responsible).” In the coming posts I shall discuss this contextualist turn on Davidson’s part. (One thing he saw clearly is that contextualism and productivity do not conflict, which was the point of my previous post.) I will discuss this paper, not only because Davidson was an important philosopher and because “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” is a brilliant if baffling essay, both of which are true, but because I think he answered the question I have been promising to deal with, “what is truth-evaluable content” (though not in those words, of course), in a way one can build on and improve, but which I think is fundamentally the right way.
(To be continued)