Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages

Donald Davidson

in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation

Published in print September 2001 | ISBN: 9780199246298
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191715181 | DOI:

Series: The Philosophical Essays of Donald Davidson (5 Volumes)

 Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages

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Davidson asks what properties a language must have to be learnable. He criticizes a (then) popular response that models the order of language acquisition on the epistemological priority of the types of expressions learnt; he labels this position the ‘building‐block theory’ (see further Essay 16). He discusses Strawson's critique of Quine's elimination of singular terms and shows how it is likewise premissed on the questionable derivation of claims about language learning from purely a priori considerations. On the positive side, Davidson proposes that a language is learnable by a creature with finite means if the language's number of semantic primitives or undefinables is finite. Using this criterion, he demonstrates that various theories in the philosophy of language introduce an infinite number of semantic primitives into the language and thus make it unlearnable; theories he alleges of this error (1) model quotations on names of expressions (Tarski, Quine; cf Essay 6), (2) analyse belief attributions in terms of linguistic marks (Scheffler, Carnap) or distinct one‐place predicates for each attributed belief (Quine; cf Essay 7), or (3) postulate intensional entities into their overall semantic framework (Frege, Church).

Keywords: building‐block theory (philosophy of language); finiteness requirement (philosophy of language); elimination of singular terms; Frege; intensional contexts; learnability of language; Quine; quotation; Strawson; Tarski

Chapter.  5442 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Language

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