Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Apologies for the Interruption in this series of posts, and More on Davidson’s famous paper, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”

In June (between June 2nd and June 25th to be exact) this blog consisted of a series of posts on contextualism[1], comparing my version and the version in Davidson’s famous paper (henceforth, NDE). I had planned to continue blogging on this subject at once, but my friend Mario DeCaro and I received word that Harvard University Press is prepared to publish another collection of my papers, to be edited by DeCaro, under the title, which is also the title of the paper whose appearance in the Journal of the APA I announced in my last post (and which will be the first chapter in the new collection),  Naturalism, Realism, and Normativity. Moreover, HUP asked for a file of the whole collection by yesterday, July 13th! Mario and I did not quite meet that deadline, but we will have a file in the hands of the Press this week (and we are both happy that the Press is eager to expedite the publication). But making final emendations to the papers and formatting them to meet the style of the Press was a full time job, and so blogging had to be interrupted. But I will now continue this series of posts.

In those June posts, I said that I do not agree with Davidson’s identification of truth-evaluable content and meaning, but that NDE does contain a reasonable answer to a question [in my terminology rather than Davidson’s] about “truth-evaluable content”,viz.,”What information should a good semantic description of the truth-evaluable content of an utterance on a particular occasion provide?”

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 compositional devices.)

One might expect Davidson to add, “that describes the implicit knowledge of the speaker concerning his or her own words, but Davidson apparently rejects this. [I say, “apparently”, because NDE only mentions explicit knowledge.]  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]

And my comment on this took the form of a question:

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?

That is where my June 2015 series of posts left off. To resume, then, let me say why Davidson’s reasons for denying that speaker’s have propositional knowledge of the passing theory that gives the truth-evaluable content of the relevant sentences in a particular conversation seem off the mark to me.

Davidson’s reasons, just quoted, are that (1) no speaker “now has explicit knowledge of a fully satisfactory theory for interpreting the speakers of any natural language”; and (2) “, claims about what would constitute a satisfactory theory are not, as I said, claims about the propositional knowledge of an interpreter” (THUMP). Reason (1) ignores the fact that a passing theory is not supposed to be a truth-theory for a whole natural language, but only for a fragment large enough to contain the sentences used in a particular conversation, and (2) just repeats the claim that “modeling” a speaker’s competence is not describing his or her propositional knowledge (or what goes on in his or her brain), but does not say WHAT it is instead.

I say these reasons are off the mark, because they do not challenge the idea that the meanings of  the sentences in a particular conversation are the sort of thing that could be propositional knowledge. Maybe no one has “a fully satisfactory” version of that knowledge today, and maybe only a small number of speakers know the relevant Tarskian technicalities, but neither of these facts shows that the passing theory on which a speaker and a hearer converge couldn’t be someone’s  explicit propositional knowledge.

What I would say about all this depends on the “semantic externalism” (aka “anti-individualist” view) that Kripke and I independently arrived at in the late 1960s. On an externalist and anti-individualist view, knowing what the word “gold” means doesn’t require one to know a description of the metal of the kind a physicist would give today, and it doesn’t even require that the physics or metallurgy be developed beyond the point at which at least some people, people recognized by the linguistic community as experts, can distinguish examples of gold from other metals and alloys.  A truth-theory (“passing theory’) that describes what someone means by “gold” in a particular conversation might say that “gold” refers to gold, but to say of an English speaker that she knows what “gold refers to isn’t to say that she knows that theory; it is to say that she is able to use the word properly, and that involves, not knowledge of a description that is synonymous with “gold”, but social-know-how, including linkage to other members of the community who are in turn linked to samples of the metal itself and who can identify it. (Depending on the context, the appropriate passing theory might also says that "gold" refers to a color, or to a currency standard, etc.) The truth-evaluable content of sentences of a particular occasion can be formalized as a truth-theory; that is how we logicians formalize such things, but the “know” in “know what a word refers to” does not normally refer to propositional knowledge at all. It is because Davidson was unwilling to accept anti-individualist semantics that the contextualism of NDE has such a strange shape.

[1] In one of those posts [June 17th] I wrote: 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 speaker's 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. In NDE,  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”.) 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)
    In my view, as early as “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,” the prior knowledge a competent speaker has of the semantics of a sentence includes such properties as the categories to which the words belong – .e.g, “gold is the name of a metal”, and the “stereotypes” associated with the words, but (contrary to Davidson) not any such thing as one particular context-independent truth condition of the sentence. Nevertheless, the Davidson of NDE and I are in agreement that on any particular occasion of use, the truth-evaluable content of a sentence on that occasion is not fixed by the prior knowledge/prior theory of the speaker qua speaker of the language, but depends on the occasion (the “context”). That is the sense in which we are both “contextualists”, despite our disagreements on other issues.


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