Davidson, Donald (1917–2003)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 25, 2019, from

4. Theory of meaning

Davidson’s work in the philosophy of language began later than his seminal work in the philosophy of action. I will discuss primarily the first two essays in his 1984 collection, where he identifies an adequacy criterion for theories of meaning for natural languages, and then applies it critically to a number of then-prominent views about natural language. He also sketches a programme in which a Tarski-style truth theory plays the role of a theory of meaning which meets the criterion he initially articulated.

Like the nineteenth-century mathematician/philosopher Gottlob Frege, Davidson requires that we specify what every sentence means by exhibiting its meaning as a function of the meanings of its significant parts (and their arrangement in the sentence). Call any such theory for a language ‘a compositional meaning theory’ for that language (see Compositionality). That there must be a compositional meaning theory for natural languages, such as English, seems mandatory because natural languages are spoken by finite speakers without magical abilities, but natural languages themselves have an infinity of meaningful (and nonsynonymous) sentences, each one of which, at least potentially, a speaker understands (at a given time). This seems to require that our knowledge of meanings be based on (a finite number of) rules which determine from a finite set of semantical primitives what count as meaningful compositions, where an expression is semantically primitive if the ‘rules which give the meaning for the sentences in which it does not appear do not suffice to determine the meaning of the sentences in which it does appear’ (Davidson 1984: 9).

According to Davidson, a compositional theory of meaning for a language L is such that anyone who knows it is in a position to understand every sentence of L. By specifying the meaning of a sentence S in L, it is clear that what Davidson has in mind requires that the specification enable anyone who understands the language in which the specification is given, to understand S. Davidson’s idea is that to provide a compositional meaning theory, we can produce a Tarski-like truth theory for L (see Tarski, A.). A theory is a truth theory for language L if and only if for each sentence S of L, the theory entails a ‘T-sentence’ of the form:

  • (T) S is true-in-L iff p,

where the sentence (T) is in a metalanguage M used to talk about L. An adequate theory of meaning for German, for example, should issue in theorems like (S):

  • (S) ‘Schnee ist weiss’ is true in German iff snow is white.

Davidson’s twist on Tarski is that, instead of requiring (for a compositional meaning theory) that for each T-sentence the condition that ‘p’ translates S is satisfied, Davidson merely requires that each T-sentence be true. While we thus can avoid the danger of circularity attendant on using the notion of ‘correct translation’ in characterizing what it takes to explain meaning, it may seem that the requirement of merely issuing in true T-sentences is too weak. All the ‘iff’ in a T-sentence requires is that the sentences surrounding it are either both true or both false, so that the following is true, though not at all helpful about meaning:

  • (S*) ‘Schnee ist weiss’ is true in German iff grass is green.

Davidson points out, however, that the need for a finitely stated adequate theory of meaning to contain recursive apparatus plausibly would lead the theory to issue in (S) rather than (S*). Still, he imposes further constraints on an adequate meaning theory, as we will see in the next section (see Meaning and truth).

Citing this article:
Lepore, Ernie. Theory of meaning. Davidson, Donald (1917–2003), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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