Random thoughts on random topics


Semantic solipsism

Davidson’s analysis in ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’ marks a goodbye to the idea of a compositional (recursive) theory of meaning. Why? To answer this question we must answer another one first: Why did we want such a theory in the first place? The answer seems to be because we wanted an a priori characterisation of semantic competence, i.e., an account which deliberately disregards factual use. For such an abstract, non-situated analysis the potential infinity of language constitutes a major problem. In other words, it is the assumption of a pure, individual-based language which creates the problem, for which compositionality provides a solution (one that is intuitive, though arguably not the only one possible). If we drop this assumption this argument for compositionality at least vanishes (there may be other ones). Of course, another issue takes its place: How are we able to create ever new passing theories? Here Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations come to bear directly on Davidson’s approach. It seems that Davidson has managed to back himself into a corner by not dropping the individual bias: meaning tends to get locked up inside each individual speaker, and a serious threat of semantic solipsism arises.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: 05-1997