Common Knowledge 25 (1-3):423-423 (2019)

Authors
Barry Allen
McMaster University
Abstract
The ideas of the late Donald Davidson are beginning to be appreciated beyond their origin in Analytic philosophy of language. Davidson doesn’t make appropriation easy. He was an Analytic philosopher’s philosopher, intricately technical, indifferent to questions outside a narrow specialization. As prose, Davidson is elegant, spare, subtle, and indirect. A great deal is left unsaid. If Quine were H. L. Mencken, Davidson would be Henry James. To follow the argument carefully, you need a course in logic, maybe more than one. The effort is worth it. It’s been a long time since there was a really new idea about truth. Philosophers have recycled between Plato and Protagoras for two thousand years. Davidson credits logician Alfred Tarski, but without Davidson the ideas would have been lost, for Tarski himself didn’t see the most important thing, and would have learned as much from Davidson as the rest of us have. Before Tarski it seemed inevitable to think of truth in terms of relations extending beyond language. With Tarski truth becomes an artifact of the logic of language. The only way to explain what it is for a sentence to be true is to show how it relates to an infinite set of other sentences. The account never strays from relations of language to language. The result is an idea of truth that’s as unconditional as any purist could ask for, yet supports no metaphysical interpretation. Instead, metaphysical ideas of truth stand exposed as extravagantly superfluous. Davidson’s question in these lectures is the point of is. What’s this particle doing in language? There’s no obvious answer. He decides that we never know exactly what is means because we never know what is true means. We would know both if only we knew what our language is, but we never will.
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DOI 10.1215/0961754x-7312321
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