Random thoughts on random topics

Amsterdam

Davidson, indeterminacy and charity

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The question boils down to what follows from the assumptions mentioned about reference. Let’s start with the use of the Tarskian framework. For Davidson this follows from the assumptions he makes concerning the nature of meaning (extensionalism) and the function of a semantic theory (explanation of competence); cf., ‘Truth and Meaning’ for the details. So his view is that if we want a theory of meaning for a language, it has to have that particular form. And that in its turn presupposes that in any language we find a shared logical machinery, consisting of propositional connectives, quantificational apparatus (and the basic distinctions brought along by that) and the logical rules governing their behaviour. But that is all, in particular it does not involve any assumptions concerning the reference of the non-logical vocabulary. Of course, reference is used in stating the Tarskian truth theory, but there it is used only as an auxiliary notion. What the theory defines, or accounts for, is (our knowledge of) truth conditions of sentences. It does so using the auxiliary notion of reference of sub-sentential expressions, but, and this is the important point: it does not define truth on the basis of an independent account of reference. And as Davidson points out, any account of truth along these lines leaves reference essentially underdetermined (a point also made by Putnam and several others): two sentences may have the same truth conditions under different assignments of references to their sub-sentential expressions. (If the sentences are from different languages, we have two translatable sentences which do not allow us to infer any shared reference; if the sentences are from the same language, this means that synonymy does not guarantee unique reference; and as a special (but most important) case we have that it is possible to assign to one and the same sentence the same truth conditions based on attributions of different references to one or more of its component expressions.)

Then charity. Notice that charity, too, concerns sentences, not words. In interpretation, i.e., in actually trying to construct a Tarskian theory of truth for a given language, the empirical data we start from are utterances made in a context (situation). The assumption that truth plays the same role for the speakers of the language we are interpreting as it does for us, these data can be viewed as utterances of sentences held true in that situation. A specific (to be determined!) subset of those will be utterances of sentences held true about that situation, i.e., utterances of sentences that are held true on the basis of certain aspects of the situation in which they are uttered. Each and every sentence uttered is supposed to express a belief. So certain sentences uttered in a situation express beliefs of the speaker about that situation. This is where charity comes in: it allows us to proceed on the assumption that the belief that the speaker expresses in these sentences (but remember, we do not know of every sentence in advance whether it belongs to this set) is a belief that we hold about the situation as well. This is supposed to give us enough common ground to work our way into the language. But, and this is the important point, just as two sentences can have the same truth conditions, yet not share reference of sub-sentential expressions, beliefs too can be shared without a shared set of objects, properties and relations that can be attached in a unique way as references to the expressions that occur in the sentences that are used to express these beliefs.

So neither the Tarskian framework nor charity allows us to venture beyond the level of sentences/beliefs and be confident that we will return with a unique ontology in this particular sense. But for Davidson the conclusion is not that hence there is a relativity of ontological schemes, but rather that the idea behind it, viz., that the beliefs we hold and the meanings of the sentences we use to express those beliefs, are built up from referents in this particular way, is misguided in the first place. In combination with the holistic nature of language and belief that Davidson clearly endorses, this assumption would lead to relativism. But there is, according to Davidson, no reason to make it in the first place.

Martin Stokhof
[from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 10-2003]

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