Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Davidson and “contextualism” (aka “occasion-sensitive semantics”)
In my previous post I claimed that “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (NDE)  marked a “contextialist turn” in the thought of Donald Davidson. (Charles Travis, who introduced me to what I call “contextualism” many years ago, refers to contextualism as “occasion-sensitive semantics”, hence the “aka” in the  title of this post.)  This is not to say that there aren’t any significant points on which I would disagree with NDE, and I will talk about those points later in this series of posts. Nevertheless, I will defend a reading of NDE on which it agrees with the following theses of “contextualism”, agrees, however, on particular interpretations that depend on Davidson’s famous claim that semantics should be thought of as Tarskian truth-theory – I have indicated this by means of comments in square brackets, what is outside the square brackets is from the statement of those “theses” in the previous posts:

(1) 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 (i.e. on a new occasion of use) 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 on that occasion.

(2) Meanings should not be thought of as either platonic objects or as mental objects; talk of meanings is best thought of as a way of saying something about competences that speakers possess. [For Davidson, those comptences are modeled by a Tarskian semantic theory that assigns truth-conditions to a potentially infinite set of sentences. The “meanings” described in (1) – the meanings  speaker assigns to the sentences of another speaker prior to entering into a particular conversation, are called “first meanings” in NDE.]

(3) 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.  [In NDE this becomes the claim that hearers’ theories of another speakers' first meanings (their “prior theories”) have to be replaced by different theories (“passing theories”) in the course of each conversation. The right passing theory  for a particular conversation will be one on which both speaker and hearer converge.[1] The truth conditions of sentences depend both on their first meanings and on the way those first meanings have to be modified in a particular conversation; they are not not, in general, the truth conditions assigned by the prior theory. [Moreover, there is not, according to NDE  just one conventionally fixed prior theory shared by all speakers of a language. (“As speaker and interpreter talk, their prior theories become more alike” – see n.1, below.) This leads Davidson to the famous “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed.” (ibid. 265)

This is what I will be discussing.

[1]The passing theory is where, accident aside, agreement is greatest. As speaker and interpreter talk, their prior theories become more alike; so do their passing theories. The asymptote of agreement and understanding is when passing theories coincide.” NDE, 260 (in The Essential Davidson).


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