Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation 
by Donald Davidson.
Oxford, 292 pp., £16, March 1984, 9780198246176
Show More
Show More

It has been said that philosophy of language, or the theory of meaning, should be recognised as the foundation of philosophy in general. That claim may reasonably be viewed with the scepticism that any such claim inspires, but it is certainly true that language is, and has long been, a major matter of concern among analytical philosophers, and few have applied themselves to the subject with the tenacity and thoroughness which, over the last twenty years, Donald Davidson has displayed in the influential series of articles now collected in the present volume. ‘Tenacity’ is here a key word, for there is one idée maîtresse which sets the tone and provides the key to all the arguments and views developed, with impressive force and fertility, from the first essay to the last.

The general topic is announced in the opening sentence of Davidson’s Introduction: ‘What is it for words to mean what they do?’ The governing idea is foreshadowed in the next few sentences: we should have a philosophically satisfactory answer to the question, Davidson suggests, if we knew how to construct a theory which, without incorporating any concept too close to the concept of meaning itself, was capable of delivering an interpretation of any sentence whatever of a given language. What is foreshadowed in this general description soon stands forth revealed. Davidson finds the model for the desiderated type of theory in Tarski’s definition of truth for a formalised language – that is, in effect, for a language whose structure is that of the canonical notation of standard logic; and henceforth the name of Tarski and the idea of a theory of truth along the lines of Tarski’s truth definitions figures in pretty well every article.

It is, of course, not immediately obvious how a definition of truth for a formalised language might help to elucidate the notion of meaning in a natural language. Tarski showed how, from a limited set of axioms, there could be deduced an unlimited set of theorems (‘T-sentences’), having the form ‘s is true if and only if p,’ where, if the metalanguage includes the object language, s is replaced by a quotation or structural description of a sentence of the object language and p is replaced by that sentence itself. The results are trivial, but not trivially obtained, for the demonstration shows how mastery of a finite set of linguistic elements and constructions can generate a limitless grasp of conditions of truth for the sentences of a language, and, mutatis mutandis, this is one of the problems that must be solved by any theory capable of explaining a natural language speaker’s mastery of his native language. The mutanda are two. First, instead of aiming, as Tarski does, at a definition of truth-in-a-language, Davidson suggests that we take the notion of truth in general for granted and seek to show how grasp of a condition of truth amounts to grasp of meaning. Second, it must be shown how a method which demonstrably works for the simple and perspicuous constructions which constitute the grammar of a formalised language can be made to work for the more complex and numerous constructions of natural languages.

The first condition requires that the ‘if and only if’ of a T-sentence has more force than that of simple equivalence of truth-value and yet does not surreptitiously introduce a concept too close to that of meaning itself. Davidson’s solution to the problem takes him into the doctrine of ‘radical interpretation’: that is, of a procedure whereby an inquirer, confronted with a totally alien language, may construct a truth-theory which confers on its T-sentences the force of natural laws, or quasi-laws, governing the alien speakers’ linguistic behaviour. The inquirer, with no antecedent knowledge either of the meaning of the aliens’ sentences or of their beliefs, will be forced, as a condition of achieving an intelligible interpretation, to find a large measure of general agreement between the aliens’ belief-systems and his own. This requirement, which Davidson names ‘the Principle of Charity’, has large consequences.

The second condition imposes a different requirement. Since it seems certain that only a regimented language approximating to the canonical notation of standard logic will lend itself to the simple and elegant deductive form of a Tarski-type truth theory, it will be necessary to find regimented canonical equivalents for the semantically untamed constructions of natural language and mechanical methods for transforming the latter into the former. Davidson addresses himself, with resource and ingenuity, to some of these problems, notably those of indirect speech, quotation, adverbial modification and grammatical mood, but admits that others remain, for the time being, unsolved.

The large consequences which Davidson derives from this theoretical programme bear on metaphysics in general and on the philosophy of language in particular. First, the romantic idea of beings with a radically different conceptual scheme, or world-picture, from our own is dismissed as nonsensical. The argument goes roughly as follows. Thought (or, at least, thought of any degree of complexity) requires language. We could not intelligibly construe alien behaviour as linguistic unless we could understand it as such: that is, interpret it in our own language. But, by the Principle of Charity, interpretation requires a large measure of overall agreement. So, though there is room for much difference in detail, any alien world-picture must be, in its large or general features, in agreeement with our own. Moreover, since we cannot make sense of the idea of objective truth outside of any such context, any such world-picture must be, as our own must be, largely correct. The most general aspects of language are not to be distinguished from the most general aspects of reality. Whatever one may think of the argument against the possibility of radically different conceptual schemes, Davidson surely goes too far, and indeed, as his reference to the most general aspects of language and reality shows, falls into inconsistency, in rejecting, as he does, ‘the very idea of a conceptual scheme’.

The consequences which bear on philosophy of language are somewhat less dramatic. Here again the key is the notion of interpretation which juggles with the interdependent notions of belief and meaning. Since the interpreter is confronted with no evidence but linguistic behaviour and the external circumstances which surround it, and since he operates essentially with the notion of truth for complete sentences, Davidson concludes that the notions of ‘convention’ and of ‘reference’, both standardly regarded as central to the philosophy of language, may both be relegated to a position of relative insignificance.

A theoretical programme as comprehensive and ambitious as the Davidsonian is bound to be met with some scepticism. Such scepticism may take at least two forms, one more extreme than the other. If the basic aim is to elucidate the general nature of linguistic meaning and linguistic understanding, it is not obvious that the aim is best served by the construction of a theory such as Davidson envisages. So the initial assumption stands at least in need of justification. But the extreme sceptics, taking their cue, perhaps, from Wittgenstein’s later work as they understand it, would go further and argue that any attempt at a comprehensive systematic semantics for a natural language is in principle misconceived; that the most that can be achieved, or should be attempted, in this line, is the piecemeal elucidation, using any materials that come to hand, of this or that type of structure or expression. The less extreme sceptics will not share this hostility to the idea of a systematic treatment of the semantic structure of natural language. They will not conclude, from the brilliant success of canonical notation in exposing a part of that structure, that it is an adequate instrument for exploring the whole; and even ingenuity in transforming sentences of a natural language into sentences of the formal language will not convince them that the exercise thereby mirrors the natural understanding of natural language. But they will not despair of finding structural descriptions which do mirror that understanding. What they lose in systematic simplicity by departing from the simple and perspicuous grammar of logic they may hope to gain in realism about both our natural understanding and our natural metaphysics.

In the essay which is the least constrained, though it is not uninfluenced, by the general programme, Davidson discusses the nature and meaning of metaphors. What he says is illuminating, imaginative and true. In the course of his discussion he has occasion to quote, as an example, a famous trope of Virginia Woolf’s: she described a highbrow as ‘a man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea’. The description could hardly be better applied than to Davidson’s own work in this collection of essays. Even if the quarry goes to earth, the chase is exhilarating, and the courage and skill displayed in the course of it are truly admirable.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences