Two dogmas of Davidsonian semantics

Journal of Philosophy 98 (12):613-635 (2001)
In “Truth and Meaning” , ‘Davidson first formulated what was to become known as “Davidson’s programme”. Davidson proposed to elucidate the notion of natural language meaning in general by showing how to construct a theory of meaning for a particular language, i.e. a theory which would allow the interpretation of all the sentences of that language. Davidson’s basic idea was to exploit a technique that Tarski invented in his endeavour to show how truth could be defined for a formal language. This led to the slogan that a theory of truth for a language could “serve as” a theory of meaning for that language. Davidson developed this idea in subsequent years, adding in particular his theory of radical interpretation which was to explain how a theory of meaning for a particular language (in Davidson’s sense) could be empirically confirmed. It is the aim of this paper to re-examine and criticise two doctrines that have become part of the Davidsonian programme, but which are not essential to Davidson’s original idea. They are the result, in my view, of a few wrong turns the development of Davidson’s programme took during early debates in the 1970s. The first of these doctrines is the prima facie absurd view that a theory of meaning for a language does not say what any sentence of that language means. More precisely, this is the view that the target theorems of a theory of meaning for a language ought to take the extensional form of material biconditionals of the form ‘s is true iff p’, so that the theorems of a theory of meaning do not state what the sentences of the language mean (or what their truth-conditions or contents are), but rather they “give the meaning” of sentences and allow us to interpret them if we have further information about these theorems. I shall call this the “biconditional doctrine”. The second doctrine I am discussing is the view that the concept of truth plays a central explanatory role in Davidsonian theories of meaning for a language. I shall call this second doctrine the “truth doctrine”. I shall argue that the original reasons for adopting these two doctrines are flawed, and that there are in fact good reasons for not adopting them. Both doctrines are often uncritically accepted and have almost become part of the Davidsonian legacy. But in fact they are unjustified and the main insights of Davidson’s programme do not depend on them.
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Max Kölbel (2008). "True" as Ambiguous. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 77 (2):359-384.
Claire Horisk (2008). Truth, Meaning, and Circularity. Philosophical Studies 137 (2):269 - 300.

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