Truth and Meaning

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)

 Truth and Meaning

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Develops the criterion of learnability proposed in Essay 1 into a constraint for a satisfactory theory of meaning: such a theory must show how, on the basis of a finite stock of semantic primitives, speakers come to understand a potentially infinite number of sentences; more precisely, how the meaning of each and every sentence in the language is owed to the sentence's structural composition. Davidson notes that introducing distinct entities as meanings for each expression (‘intensions’, ‘senses’) does not illuminate these structural workings of the language (this complaint, he says, operates quite independently of ontological reservations about intensions being ‘abstract’ or lacking clear individuation conditions). If, on the other hand, we dispense with intensions, we must define ‘meaning’ by mere appeal to reference; but this clearly won’t work since, if we concede that sentences ‘refer’ to their truth‐values, all sentences alike in truth value would be alike in meaning. Davidson therefore individuates a sentence's meaning by its ‘logical place’ in the language to which it belongs, i.e. by its entailment relations to other sentences in the language; the meaning of a subsentential expression is likewise individuated holistically, namely in terms of the systematic effect the expression has on the entailment relations of the sentence in which it occurs. Since a Tarskian truth theory captures these entailment relations for each sentence (in a specified language) by associating it with its ‘truth‐condition’, the truth theory can be said to give the ‘meaning’ thus construed for each sentence (a fortiori for their subsentential expressions), while meeting both the constraint for finiteness and the restriction to purely referential means. Davidson discusses various objections to this proposal (since called ‘Davidson's programme’), e.g. that it cannot accomodate sentences containing indexicals or contexts in which extensionality breaks down; and he shows its merit in its varied applicability to questions of logical form, the success of which is evaluated by whether the aforementioned entailments are preserved and explained for a variety of sentences (see Essays 6–8, and Essays 6–10 of the companion volume Essays on Actions and Events).

Keywords: Davidson's programme; finiteness requirement (philosophy of language); indexicals; intensions; logical form; sentential structure; Tarski; theory of meaning; theory of truth

Chapter.  9044 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Language

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