Semantics for Natural 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)

 Semantics for Natural Languages

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Davidson rehearses the demands for an acceptable theory of meaning for a natural language—that it give the meaning for each (actual and potential) utterance in the language, that it do so by finite means and shed light on the structural workings of the language (see Essay 2)—and argues that a theory of truth for that language provides ‘a precise, profound and testable answer’ to these demands. In addition, he demands that the stock of concepts used by metalanguage in which the truth theory is stated (its ‘ideology’) extends minimally beyond, and ideally includes, that of the object language (cf Essay 14); he looks at how alternative semantic programs fare under this constraint (cf Essay 5). He then addresses the more general question of how truth‐theoretic semantics copes with recalcitrant, i.e. non‐extensional, locutions current in natural languages, and addresses Tarski's pessimism of formal frameworks to ‘tame’ them. He concludes by stressing, as he did in Essay 2, that recognizing the role played by logical form (as analysed in truth theories) for the analysis of sentential meaning is all‐important; and questions whether this form or ‘deep structure’ of the sentence can be identified, as Chomsky suggested, with an underlying psychological mechanism in the speaker.

Keywords: Chomsky; finiteness requirement (philosophy of language); ideology (philosophy of language); logical form; natural languages; theory of meaning; theory of truth

Chapter.  4428 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Language

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