Meaning, communication and knowledge by testimony

A central component of ordinary thought about language is that things like English, Japanese and so on exist and that expressions of these languages mean things in them. A familiar philosophical take on this is that communication between speakers is something that happens in such languages and that happens because expressions have meanings in them: one communicates by means of English sentences because these sentences mean something in English. Opposed to this sort of philosophical common sense are two closely related lines of thought. The first, commonly associated with Chomsky (e.g. 1986) and with Weinrich’s famous quote that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” is that natural languages are too poorly individuated to do the explanatory work the “commonsense” view requires of them, and are certainly too poorly individuated for serious study of language, or of its role in communication and behavior. For serious purposes, something better defined is required. This first thought leads directly into the second, on which any notion of a language suited for serious study should also bear a closer relationship to the attitudes and abilities of the individual speaker then a nebulous construct such as English could. If whatever meaning an uttered sentence has is determined by relatively “local” facts about the speaker, her intentions and beliefs, and the context of the utterance, language promises to be more closely tied to the speaker, and, one might think, better individuated for it. A move to treating the speaker’s idiolect (or even the idiolect at a time relative to conversational partner) as basic for the study of language is thus motivated both by both individuative and explanatory demands on the notion of a language. On this view, commonly associated in one way with Grice (e.g. 1989) and in another with Davidson (e.g. 2005), but shared by many others, shared languages are simply irrelevant to the determination of meaning, ordinary and philosophical prejudice to the contrary notwithstanding. I find the argument that shared language is irrelevant to the determination of meaning most persuasive in the following form..
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