Thursday, June 25, 2015

Truth-Evaluable Content

For those who haven’t read the previous posts, I repeat the first two sentences of the last one: This series of posts about contextualism (or “occasion-sensitivity”) was inspired by Sanjit Chakraborty’s request that I say more about what I call the “truth-evaluable content” of sentences on occasions of utterance. Formulating what I want to say in response led me back to Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (NDE),  a paper I discuss for its own sake as well.
(I strongly recommend you read the previous three posts, starting with June 2nd’s.)

As I argued in the previous post, the question as to the nature of meanings shouldn’t be understood an ontological question (what sort of object is “a meaning”), it should rather be “What information should a good semantic theory provide about the words and constructions of a language?”

Davidson agreed with this throughout his career. Moreover, although I do not agree with his identification of truth-evaluable content and meaning (see previous post, again), I think that NDE does contain a reasonable answer to the similar question [in my terminology rather than Davidson’s] about “truth-evaluable content”,viz.,”What information should a good semantic description of the truth-evaluablecontent of an utterance on a particular occasion provide?”[1]

Davidson’s answer is that a good description of the truth-evaluable content of the sentences that are uttered on a particular occasion is nothing more or less than a “passing theory” (which has the form a a Tarskian truth-theory) for those sentences and the indefinitely large totality of sentences that can be derived from them by the familiar recursive devices.

MY QUESTION ABOUT DAVIDSON: The  truth-evaluable content of a sentence on a particular occasion is, then, given by its truth-condition, as specified by a passing theory that does WHAT?

One might expect Davidson to answer, “that describes tacit (implicit) knowledge of the speaker concerning his or her own words, but Davidson rejects this (as do I, but for different reasons, which I will give in the next post). Instead, he says that the passing theory in question must “model the speaker’s competence”. Davidson’s reasons are stated briefly:

To say that an explicit theory for interpreting a speaker is a model of the interpreter’s linguistic competence is not to suggest that the interpreter knows any such theory. It is possible, of course, that most interpreters could be brought to acknowledge that they know some of the axioms of a theory of truth; for example, that a conjunction is true if and only if each of the conjuncts is true. And perhaps they also know theorems of the form ‘An utterance of the sentence ‘‘There is life on Mars’’ is true if and only if there is life on Mars at the time of the utterance.’ On the other hand, no one now has explicit knowledge of a fully satisfactory theory for interpreting the speakers of any natural language. In any case, claims about what would constitute a satisfactory theory are not, as I said, claims about the propositional knowledge of an interpreter, nor are they claims about the details of the inner workings of some part of the brain. They are rather claims about what must be said to give a satisfactory description of the competence of the interpreter.” [NDE 256]

But this doesn’t tell us what “modeling competence is”; it only tells us that it isn’t describing either knowledge or brain-machinery.
(to be continued)

[1] However, I would add: “over and above the information provided by a good semantic theory of the language”. NDE famously rejects  the notion of a language as something with socially share rules.


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