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In a 2003 obituary, Anna Sherrat described one of my many philosophy heroes, Donald Davidson, as “one of the greatest American philosophers.” She did an excellent job of summarizing one of the perspectives of one of the most respected philosophers of the 20th century, as follows:

[W]e can ascribe beliefs to a speaker only on the basis of prior assumptions about meaning, and vice versa…there will be many different assignments of meaning and belief that fit equally well with a given speaker’s behaviour.

I understand that Wittgenstein transformed the field of philosophy of language with his insight that while objective definitions consists of language, we understand linguistic utterances by interpreting subjective meanings, and we do that according to our individual histories of learning how those utterances were used by the people we’ve known to use them. In fewer words, meaning derives from usage.

As he wrote in Philosophical Investigations, 1953, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Quoted here by Anat Biletzki). He invented the term “language games” to refer to the many different ways that language may be used.

In his IEP article on philosophy of language, Michael P. Wolf reflects a consensus in the field that Wittgenstein’s theory, developed over half a century ago, has yet to be superseded:

[I]t can be safely said that Wittgenstein rejected a picture of language as a detached, logical sort of picturing of the facts and inserted a concern for its pragmatic dimensions. One cannot look at the representational dimension of language alone and expect to understand what meaning is. https://www.iep.utm.edu/lang-phi/#SH3b

My question is: Does anyone here know of any philosophy book or article (published in that last fifty years), which offers cogent criticism to refute or weaken these theses?

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    How does the IEP quote on Wittgenstein "reflect a consensus in the field that Wittgenstein’s theory, developed over half a century ago, has yet to be superseded"? I don't see it. – Eliran Apr 21 at 19:12
  • @Eliran I'm guessing that this is because W's theory goes beyond the minimalism of D's theory by adding modal imagination to our concept of meaning. – Nick Apr 21 at 19:29
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    "Refute" is a strong word. Are you asking about criticisms. – Nick Apr 21 at 19:30
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    It would help if you didn't have off-topic asides like the sentence about Sherrat complimenting Davidson. And this first paragraph is over-laboured too. – curiousdannii Apr 21 at 23:23
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    @Rortian Of course I'm not certain all my beliefs are absolutely true. Not sure what that's got to do with improving this question and helping you make it more focused and concise. – curiousdannii Apr 21 at 23:45
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Colin McGinn, in his book The Philosophy of Language, discusses at least four criticisms of Davidson's theory.

  1. Is it enough to say that knowledge of meaning is knowledge of truth conditions - especially when we restrict ourselves homophonic statements of truth conditions? Can't we ask what this knowledge of truth conditions itself involves?

  2. We need to assign more than reference to a name if we are to capture its full meaning. We need something like sense. But Tarski's semantic apparatus does not specify sense. How then can it function as a theory of meaning. At best it is a theory of reference.

  3. Davidson's theory provides no explanation of how words come to have semantic properties. The axioms say things like "'Hesperus' denotes Hesperus", but nothing in the theory tells us how it is that a word like "Hesperus" acquires reference. Similarly for predicates and satisfaction. The axioms do not explain what gives marks and sounds the semantic features they have.

  4. Davidson distinguishes sharply between giving logical forms for sentences and giving analysis of individual words. But how robust is that distinction? The intuitive idea that Davidson is working with is that in attributing logical forms we do not break words down into parts, but in lexical analyses we do. [Yet] Davidson's own theory of adverbs construes sentences containing adverbs as quantifications over events with predicates of events. The logical form here is quite different from the superficial syntax of the sentence. The paraphrase finds hidden semantic complexity in adverbs. Why isn't this a case of lexical analysis?

  • Thanks for this. I'd be happy to think a bit about it, but I'd need to have the words that Davidson and Colin used in order to deal with the meanings of the criticisms (and I have other priorities...!), but if you want to work with me we can figure this out. I have some questions about your questions, though. Is it enough to say that knowledge of meaning is knowledge of truth Does this use of the term ‘knowledge’ refer to uncertain knowledge? Can't we ask what this knowledge of truth conditions itself involves? Umm, why wouldn’t we? Preconceptions don’t work in my perspective. – Rortian Apr 21 at 20:50
  • 2.We need to assign more than reference to a name if we are to capture its full meaning. We need something like sense. But Tarski's semantic apparatus does not specify sense. How then can it function as a theory of meaning. At best it is a theory of reference. Does "full meaning" refer to objective meaning? In the absence of "full" objectivity, I'm not clear that Davidson would dispute this...are you clear about what Davidson would think? Unfortunately, he won't be able to tell us...we can be fairly certain and quite correct about that... – Rortian Apr 21 at 20:57
  • 3. Umm, didn't Davidson accept Wittgenstein's approach? Does McGinn agree? – Rortian Apr 21 at 20:59
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    @Rortian McGinn's book is an introductory, undergraduate level text which surveys ten classic papers in the philosophy of language. I don't think he has an agenda, as such. He characterises Davidson's response to such criticisms as being that from the point of view of philosophical semantics he has achieved his aim - namely, to specify meanings systematically and show how an "infinite mastery can proceed from a finite basis." According to McGinn, Davidson leaves it to psychologists to say more about linguistic meaning. I currently lack sufficient understanding to add to McGinn's comments. – Nick Apr 21 at 22:00
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    Although Davidson's and Wittgenstein's language philosophies are both in the pragmatic vein, they disagree both on the nature of language (truth conditional vs language games) and its acquisition, see e.g. Verheggen, How social must language be? For a comprehensive recent critique of the private language argument see Azzouni, The Rule-Following Paradox and its Implications for Metaphysics. – Conifold Apr 22 at 5:39

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