Davidson’s contribution to the philosophy of language

Gilbert Harman

in Donald Davidson on Truth, Meaning, and the Mental

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780199697519
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191742316 | DOI:
Davidson’s contribution to the philosophy of language

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Donald Davidson made a number of important contributions to philosophy of logic, language, and mind, and in this chapter some of them are presented. First, he argued persuasively that there can be only finitely many primitives in a language, otherwise the language could not be learned by a finite being. He showed that this would rule out a variety of linguistic analyses, including certain analyses of direct and indirect quotation, Frege’s account of intentional contexts, and certain theories of adverbial modification. More positively, he suggested that an account of the meanings of expressions in a language could be achieved through an extensional theory of truth with finite axioms, and showed that such a theory could account for certain adverbial modification by treating the relevant adverbs as predicates of events. He also suggested analyzing statements of indirect discourse of the form “S says that P” as using two sentences, “S says that” and “P”, where the first contains a demonstrative reference to the second. Following Quine, Davidson also supposed that interpretation of someone else involves translation into one’s own terms, but he disagreed with Quine in certain respects. Like Quine, Davidson believed in indeterminacy of translation. Some have supposed that such indeterminacy is incoherent, but it can be seen to be perfectly coherent if what Quine calls “immanent linguistic notions” are distinguished from transcendent notions, and if things that prompt observation (or occasion) sentences are not assumed to be what these sentences refer to. Finally, Davidson differed from Quine in thinking that any meaningful expressions in any language can be translated into a meaningful expression in our language.

Keywords: finite primitives; quotation; intentional contexts; theory of truth; adverbial modification; interpretation, translation

Chapter.  4828 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Language

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