Friday, June 26, 2015
My latest paper (with my views about truth)
It is titled “Naturalism, Realism and Normativity” and it has just appeared in the new Journal of the American Philosophical Association/Volume 1/Issue 02/June 2015/pp. 312-328.
It argues, inter alia, that Tarski’s results do not support deflationism about truth, contrary to what is often assumed. I write there,
“Tarski’s formal methods intuitively draw on and presuppose not just one property of truth, the T-Schema, or Disquotation, but on that property AND the further property that the extension of “true” depends on the extension of “refers”. The concepts of truth and of reference are intimately related, and his entire procedure exploits the relation.”
I also briefly describe and endorse Tyler Burge’s claim that reference is psychologically more primitive and more ubiquitous than language use.
If you are a member of the APA you will receive the journal automatically (it is free to members this first year of publication). If you aren’t, please get your library to subscribe, or at least to get online access!
This paper is directly relevant to my current posts on Davidson and on truth-evaluable content.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
For those who haven’t read the previous posts, I repeat the first two sentences of the last one: This series of posts about contextualism (or “occasion-sensitivity”) was inspired by Sanjit Chakraborty’s request that I say more about what I call the “truth-evaluable content” of sentences on occasions of utterance. Formulating what I want to say in response led me back to Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (NDE), a paper I discuss for its own sake as well.
(I strongly recommend you read the previous three posts, starting with June 2nd’s.)
As I argued in the previous post, the question as to the nature of meanings shouldn’t be understood an ontological question (what sort of object is “a meaning”), it should rather be “What information should a good semantic theory provide about the words and constructions of a language?”
Davidson agreed with this throughout his career. Moreover, although I do not agree with his identification of truth-evaluable content and meaning (see previous post, again), I think that NDE does contain a reasonable answer to the similar question [in my terminology rather than Davidson’s] about “truth-evaluable content”,viz.,”What information should a good semantic description of the truth-evaluablecontent of an utterance on a particular occasion provide?”
Davidson’s answer is that a good description of the truth-evaluable content of the sentences that are uttered on a particular occasion is nothing more or less than a “passing theory” (which has the form a a Tarskian truth-theory) for those sentences and the indefinitely large totality of sentences that can be derived from them by the familiar recursive devices.
MY QUESTION ABOUT DAVIDSON: The truth-evaluable content of a sentence on a particular occasion is, then, given by its truth-condition, as specified by a passing theory that does WHAT?
One might expect Davidson to answer, “that describes tacit (implicit) knowledge of the speaker concerning his or her own words, but Davidson rejects this (as do I, but for different reasons, which I will give in the next post). Instead, he says that the passing theory in question must “model the speaker’s competence”. Davidson’s reasons are stated briefly:
“To say that an explicit theory for interpreting a speaker is a model of the interpreter’s linguistic competence is not to suggest that the interpreter knows any such theory. It is possible, of course, that most interpreters could be brought to acknowledge that they know some of the axioms of a theory of truth; for example, that a conjunction is true if and only if each of the conjuncts is true. And perhaps they also know theorems of the form ‘An utterance of the sentence ‘‘There is life on Mars’’ is true if and only if there is life on Mars at the time of the utterance.’ On the other hand, no one now has explicit knowledge of a fully satisfactory theory for interpreting the speakers of any natural language. In any case, claims about what would constitute a satisfactory theory are not, as I said, claims about the propositional knowledge of an interpreter, nor are they claims about the details of the inner workings of some part of the brain. They are rather claims about what must be said to give a satisfactory description of the competence of the interpreter.” [NDE 256]
But this doesn’t tell us what “modeling competence is”; it only tells us that it isn’t describing either knowledge or brain-machinery.
(to be continued)
Sunday, June 21, 2015
On Davidson (continued)
This series of posts about contextualism (or “occasion-sensitivity”) was inspired by Sanjit Chakraborty’s request that I say more about what I call the “truth-evaluable content” of sentences on occasions of utterance. Formulating what I want to say in response led me back to Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (NDE), a paper I discuss for its own sake, as well.
In a short paper I published in 1974, just two years after “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”. I wrote that, like Sellars (not to mention Wittgenstein, Quine, and many others) I didn’t think that meanings are objects. And I added that my reason isn’t that one couldn’t identify them with objects, but that the identification would be even more arbitrary than the identification of the number one with the unit set of the null set. In sum, the question as to the nature of meanings shouldn’t be understood an ontological question (what sort of object is “a meaning”), it should rather be “What information should a good semantic theory provide about the words and constructions of a language?” Davidson agreed with this throughout his career.
However, a significant difference between my views and those of the Davidson of NDE is that for me (1) there are such things as languages, and there is such a thing as good description of the grammar and semantics of a natural language, but it does not have the form of a Tarskian truth-theory, and it does not pretend to specify the truth-evaluable content of the sentences of a language on a particular occasion of utterence, while for NDE the meaning of a sentence must by given by a truth theory, and what we learn from a lexicon (our “prior theories”) and what we might take ourselves or someone else to mean on a particular occasion (our “passing theories”) are both occasion-sensitive. It is because I identify the meaning of sentence (i.e. the information provided by a good lexicon) with a description of such things as the semantic markers and the stereotypes associated with the words, and not with a set of recursively specified truth conditions (as Davidson does, before and after NDE) and Davidson identifies it with the latter, that for me “truth-evaluable content” and “meaning” come apart, while for Davidson they are the same. Thus for him the occasion-sensitivity of truth-evaluable content is ipso facto the occasion-sensitivity of meaning, and hence the non-existence of socially shared meanings..
(To be continued)
My discm pleased to join the happy chorus of those who don't think meanings are objects. Not that one couldn't identify them with ob-
jects, just that the identification will be even more arbitrary and uncon- vincing than, say, the identification of the number 1 with singleton the nullpleased to join the happy chorus of those who don't think meanings are objects. Not that one couldn't identify them with ob-
jects, just that the identification will be even more arbitrary and uncon- vincing than, say, the identification of the number 1 with singleton the null set.
 “Comment on Wilfrid Sellars”, Synthese 1974.
 ““As speaker and interpreter talk, their prior theories become more alike””, quoted in my previous post, and “…knowing a passing theory is only knowing how to interpret a particular utterance on a particular occasion.”, NDE 260 (in The Essential Davidson)
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
Davidson and “contextualism” (aka “occasion-sensitive semantics”)
In my previous post I claimed that “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (NDE) marked a “contextialist turn” in the thought of Donald Davidson. (Charles Travis, who introduced me to what I call “contextualism” many years ago, refers to contextualism as “occasion-sensitive semantics”, hence the “aka” in the title of this post.) This is not to say that there aren’t any significant points on which I would disagree with NDE, and I will talk about those points later in this series of posts. Nevertheless, I will defend a reading of NDE on which it agrees with the following theses of “contextualism”, agrees, however, on particular interpretations that depend on Davidson’s famous claim that semantics should be thought of as Tarskian truth-theory – I have indicated this by means of comments in square brackets, what is outside the square brackets is from the statement of those “theses” in the previous posts:
(1) In some sense it must be true that a speaker (as we say) “knows the meaning” of each sentence that he or she is able to use prior to using it or understanding another speaker’s use of it in a new context (i.e. on a new occasion of use) and that this “knowledge of its meaning” plays an essential role in enabling the speaker to know what the sentence is being used to say on that occasion.
(2) Meanings should not be thought of as either platonic objects or as mental objects; talk of meanings is best thought of as a way of saying something about competences that speakers possess. [For Davidson, those comptences are modeled by a Tarskian semantic theory that assigns truth-conditions to a potentially infinite set of sentences. The “meanings” described in (1) – the meanings speaker assigns to the sentences of another speaker prior to entering into a particular conversation, are called “first meanings” in NDE.]
(3) The thesis of contextualism is that in general the truth-evaluable content of sentences depends both on what they mean (what a competent speaker knows prior to encountering a particular context) and on the particular context, and not on meaning alone.” [In NDE this becomes the claim that hearers’ theories of another speakers' first meanings (their “prior theories”) have to be replaced by different theories (“passing theories”) in the course of each conversation. The right passing theory for a particular conversation will be one on which both speaker and hearer converge. The truth conditions of sentences depend both on their first meanings and on the way those first meanings have to be modified in a particular conversation; they are not not, in general, the truth conditions assigned by the prior theory. [Moreover, there is not, according to NDE just one conventionally fixed prior theory shared by all speakers of a language. (“As speaker and interpreter talk, their prior theories become more alike” – see n.1, below.) This leads Davidson to the famous “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed.” (ibid. 265)
This is what I will be discussing.
 “The passing theory is where, accident aside, agreement is greatest. As speaker and interpreter talk, their prior theories become more alike; so do their passing theories. The asymptote of agreement and understanding is when passing theories coincide.” NDE, 260 (in The Essential Davidson).