Radical Interpretation

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)

 Radical Interpretation

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Davidson asks what knowledge suffices for redescribing an uninterpreted utterance as an interpreted one, a process he terms ‘radical interpretation’. He explores how best to construe the evidential base on which this process operates, wavering between too thick or too thin a base, i.e. intensions and purely physical characterizations, respectively, the latter leaving it mysterious how the evidence is ‘related to what it is surely evidence for’. The inverse difficulty, of too thick a base, is not to pre‐suppose what we set out to verify; i.e. we must not individuate the evidential base by reference to facts we have no access to prior to radical interpretation. Davidson argues that most speakers’ propositional attitudes or intentions fall into this category, and this precludes an intention‐based approach to semantics (made famous by Grice and Strawson). After discarding Quine's approach of ‘radical translation’ as inapt for the task at hand because of its neglect of the semantic structure of interpreted utterances, Davidson proceeds to outline his own truth‐theoretic approach on which the interpretation of speech and attribution of propositional attitudes must proceed simultaneously (see Essay 10); he answers three queries about truth theories on which his approach is based: (1) whether such theories can be given for a natural language as a whole (cf Essay 4), (2) whether the evidence on which their verification proceeds, and the technical machinery of satisfaction and related notions they introduce, meet the above constraints, and (3) whether they can really serve the task of radical interpretation.

Keywords: Grice; intention‐based semantics; Quine; radical interpretation; radical translation; semantics; Strawson; truth‐conditional

Chapter.  6479 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Language

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