Systematic Meaning and Linguistic Diversity: The Place of Meaning-Theories in Davidson's Later Philosophy

Martin Gustafsson
Åbo Akademi University
In 'A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs' Donald Davidson attacks a picture of language which, he says, is prevalent among philosophers and linguists. Davidson's criticism, even if correct, is not radical enough. The common irregularities of everyday language, such as malapropisms, nicknames, and slips of the tongue, not only imply that linguistic meanings are not governed by conventions that are learned in advance of occasions of interpretation, but undermine the very idea that linguistic meaning can be accounted for in terms of systematic meaning-theories. Davidson continues to hold that Tarskian truth-definitions should play a central role in philosophical accounts of language, but if the goal is to describe rather than to improve or otherwise change language, we must give up the aspiration towards theoretical systematicity altogether. In this connection, Davidson's approach is compared with those of Quine and Wittgenstein. It is argued that Davidson's unwillingness to give up the notion that meaning is systematic is best explained in terms of his vacillating between treating meaning-theories as mere representations of the linguistic abilities of a speaker and seeing them as playing a more substantial role in communication.
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DOI 10.1080/002017498321724
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