Christopher Peacocke

  • Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson edited by Ernest LePore
    Blackwell, 520 pp, £29.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 631 14811 6

Ernest LePore, who must count by now as a leading entrepreneur of analytical philosophy, has edited the proceedings of the 1984 Rutgers conference on the philosophy of Donald Davidson. The scale of that conference is reflected in the size of this volume, which contains 28 substantial papers. And this is but half the story: a companion volume of similar size, drawn from the same conference, and dealing with Davidson’s essays on actions and events, was published simultaneously with Truth and Interpretation. Despite the size, many of the papers in the volume under review repay careful study: the book is a fitting tribute to the distinguished writings it discusses.

The editor has usefully reprinted two relatively inaccessible papers by Davidson, and included a new one. After an editorial introduction locating the subsequent essays in relation to Davidson’s work, the volume is divided into five sections: on truth and meaning; on the application of Davidson’s ideas in semantics; on radical interpretation; on epistemology; and on ‘the limits of the literal’. Instead of commenting on every paper, I will consider a few in slightly more detail. But within the many successful papers not mentioned below, the contributions of Akeel Bilgrami, Tyler Burge, Michael Dummett and James Higginbotham include some particularly penetrating points.

A major question arises for every type of content a belief may have. What is the relation between theories of those contents which individuate them by reference to truth conditions, and theories which claim to individuate them without any such reference? Are such theories in competition, or not? And if not, how should theories of each sort relate to one another? In many areas, our current understanding is not sufficiently far advanced to allow very precise theorising on these issues. But our understanding in the special case of logic is better than elsewhere, and these questions are ones which arise in connection with Gilbert Harman’s paper ‘The Meanings of Logical Constants’.

Harman argues that the meaning of a logical constant such as ‘and’, ‘not’, ‘for all’, is determined by the relations of immediate implication in which it stands. Immediate implication is a psychological notion: an immediate implication is one that can be immediately recognised. So – to take the easiest case – conjunction can be defined as that operator which applied to two sentences P and Q yields a sentence with these three properties: it immediately implies P, it immediately implies Q, and is itself immediately implied by the set consisting of P and Q. Harman displays considerable ingenuity in developing the account for harder cases. He says that the meanings of logical constants are not given by the contribution they make to the truth conditions of sentences containing them. He is led to the conclusion that truth conditions are no more relevant to the meaning of logical words than they are to the meaning of non-logical predicates such as ‘horse’.

Details aside, is Harman offering something incompatible with a truth-conditional theory? A view contrary to Harman’s would be that what he is doing is giving a substantive account of what is involved in understanding constants whose sense is specified by a theory of truth conditions. In fact, precisely the classical assignment of contributions to truth conditions would validate the transitions Harman classifies as immediately obvious. A truth-condition theorist should not say that one can simply read off the correct substantive account of understanding a particular expression from its truth-theoretic clause. His position should rather be that the correct substantive account – an account of what Harman would call its conceptual role – determines its contribution to truth conditions.

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