PHL313: Notes on Davidson, "Truth and Meaning"
Some remarks on Davidson, "Truth and Meaning"
We're going to focus on two kinds of theories of meaning:
truth-based theories (including modal or possible-worlds
theories) and use theories.
There are other kinds of theories. Examples include
ideational theories, or reference theories, or verificationism.
Let me make a distinction between bottom-up theories, which explain
meaning by beginning first with an explanation of the meaning of small
parts of a language (usually words) and then other meanings are
composed of those parts; and top-down theories, which usually begin
first with an explanation of the meaning of large utterances (usually
sentences) and then explain the meaning of the parts of language in
terms of how they play a role in these larger utterances.
A bottom-up ideational theory would typically explain meaning with the
hypothesis that words are labels for ideas. A top-down ideational
theory would explain meaning typically with the hypothesis that
sentences name propositions. Either approach is widely considered
unhelpful because it seems then that we have merely pushed the problem
of explaining the meaning of language back to being a problem of
explaining the meaning of thoughts or propositions.
Verificationism, as we discussed, is largely an epistemlogical view.
Applied to meaning, it holds that utterances have a meaning either
because they are pure logic or they are determined by the kinds of
effects they could possibly have if true. Utterances that we could
never confirm as true or false are meaningless. (Actually, there are
some details I'm skipping here, but they won't change our conclusion.)
There are many problems with this view, one of which is that it
appears too demanding. The very claim itself, for example, fails the
We saw in our discussion of reference why reference alone is not
sufficient for meaning. The only solutions we were offered for
Frege's two puzzles, and Russell's two puzzles, were both dependent
upon terms having not only reference but also meaning. Kripke does
not deny this -- he merely proposes that reference is not itself
determined by meaning. Thus a top-down theory (e.g., sentences refer
to states of affairs, or Frege claims they refer to the true or the
false), or a bottom up theory (e.g., words point at things or
relations between things) are both insufficient.
Truth-based theories are built on the idea that the truth conditions
of a claim determine its meaning; thus, to know what a sentence means
is to know what it is for that sentence to be true. Use theories are
built on the idea that meaning is determined and expressed only in the
use of language.
Davidson's "Truth and Meaning"
OK, friends, don't tell anyone I said this -- don't post it on the web
or anything -- but I think this paper is terrible. I apologize for
requiring you to read it. Even Davidson seems to have known it was
terrible; he keeps referring to this paper inside the paper, as if
trying to explain it to himself and us. I especially appreciated his
observation 1/3rd of the way through that "the path to this point has
been tortuous." Like we hadn't noticed. But, the paper was very
influential, so we're kind of stuck with it.
I'll follow the article in roughly its order, to be of some use
perhaps in reading it. Hopefully with my notes you can beat some
sense out of this thing (I can't promise my notes would have been
acceptable to Davidson, by the way).
Davidson's paper takes roughly the following form:
- Rejection of four kinds of theories of meaning:
- bottom-up reference theory,
- top-down reference theory,
- bottom-up meaning theory (where
we assume some meanings as primitives), and
- a top-down meaning theory.
- Offer of an alternative: a theory that we can explain the
meaning of a language with a theory of what makes the
utterances of a language true.
- Response to three potential objections to this theory.
The Tortuous Background and Sentence Meaning
Davidson begins by asking whether a theory of meaning should explain
the meaning of a sentence in terms of the reference of its parts.
Frege proposed once a view in which the meaning of "Two is even" would
be constituted by both the reference of "two" and the reference of "is
even" being put together. You had to assume that the reference for
"two" and "is even" are fixed. But at least in theory you could find
a finite number of elements to your language which you explain with your
theory of reference or just assume they have a reference, and then you
could show how you could build infinitely many sentences out of these
Some thought there was a bad regress here. The idea of the regress
concern was that to say
the meaning of 'two is even' is given by
putting together 'two' and 'is even'
depends upon "putting together"
having a meaning, which you cannot explain alone. You'll need to use
your theory of meaning to explain what it means to put them together,
and then again to explain your explanation, and so on. I confess I don't
find this very threatening, but Frege addressed this by calling
predicates like "is even" unsaturated, his techincal term for
them being in need of a term to be properly used. This is, I think,
to take "putting together" as a primitive; Davidson says this was to
just restate the problem (which is, I guess, equivalent to complaining
that it means you take the solution as primitive).
More importantly, Davidson argues that functions and presumably
predicates are not objects. We don't need a referent for things like
"the father of".
What about focussing on the sentences? Frege in fact claimed that
the meanings of the parts of sentences arise solely from their role
Here there is a problem: Frege proposed that the referent of true
sentences was the true. Then all true sentences have the same
referent! If meaning is somehow made out of reference, and if we
adopted this theory, this fails (2+2=4 and 4+4=8 do not have the same
So, the obvious move, if we're to keep something like the idea that
meaning starts with sentences, is to drop the notion that the meaning
is constituted by reference. We'll use Frege's distinction between
sense and reference (meaning and reference); and use some basic
meanings instead of basic references to explain meaning.
The problem, however, according to Davidson, is that we don't have a
good account, or even a start of an account, of how the meaning of
sentences is composed of the meaning of words (there is nothing like
the story above explaining the meaning/reference of "Two is even" in
terms of the reference of "two" and "is even").
We want something like "two" means x and "is even" means y, so we can
analyze and explain how "two is even" has meaning and what that
Davidson also claims we can't assume meanings of the parts. He is
concerned that we will use the meanings of words to fix their
reference, and so mix the meaning and reference theories up again.
(He also claims meaning can't "do work" in the meaning theory. This
is really obscure; I think his point here is that it won't explain
anything about meaning if we start by assuming meanings.)
Nor, Davidson claims, will a theory of syntax help. If we had a
syntax for a language, and also the meaning of its smallest parts as
given, you would think the two would give us the meaning of sentences.
He says this is not so because there are sentences like:
Tom believes that Malcolm X was tall.
(my example, not his) that cannot be analyzed with some syntactic
analysis. That is, this sentence has a meaning not at all like, "Tom
runs to his house," thought they would seem to be similar in syntax
(Subject verb object). But otherwise Davidson does not defend his
claim that syntax is insufficient.
Convention T to the Rescue
What we need, Davidson says, is a recursive theory that will tell us
some property that sentences have which relates them one-to-one to
some other sentences that we can identify as their "meaning." He says
Tarski's convention T can do this. Convention T is a criterion for
any theory of truth; Tarski argued any such theory must for every
sentence P allow
"P" is true if and only if P
Davidson wants to run with this, and say a theory of meaning can be built on the idea
that it will provide a series of sentences of the form
"P" is true if and only if s.
Where s is not the sentence (as it is in Tarski's Convention T), but
some kind of analysis of the sentence.
One advantage that Davidson sees is that this approach does not refer
to meaning. Meaning is revealed by this theory, but not taken as a
How would this work? Unstated, but in the background, Davidson is
assuming something like Frege and Tarski's logical work. In a
standard logic with a semantics (a "model"), you have the smallest
basic elements of the language, and then you specify both their
meaning or referents, and how they combine with other elements to form
meaningful larger formulas (typically, sentences). These rules for
combining elements are "recursive" -- which means you can apply them
again and again, and form more and more large sentences.
Here's a simple example. Let P and Q be any sentences. Then, we have
a recursive syntax that says (P and Q) is a sentence. And a recursive
semantics that says that if P is true and if Q is true then (P and Q)
is true. Note now that you can make infinitely many sentences, and
you can tell what is required for them to be true. For example: ((P
and Q) and (P and Q)) is to apply the syntactic rule twice. And so
Davidson is imagining that we would undertake something like this for
English. We would have a theory of how some basic, smallest parts
combined (the syntax) and when those combinations were true or false
(the semantics), and this would be a recursive theory so we would then
be able to determine for any sentence of this language when it
was true (given the truth values of its smallest parts).
This is a huge task, one on which little progress has been made. But
Davidson is claiming only that it is possible and it would be a way to
understand a theory of meaning.
Confronting the Problems with a Logical Theory of Language
But there are problems. Tarski, the great logician that inspires all
this, thought that it was very unlikely we'd ever get a decent
analysis of a natural language with this approach. Two things in
natural langauges made him worry: (1) contradictions and semantic
paradoxes; (2) confusion and vagueness and ambiguities. Davidson
also adds (3) indexicals.
(1) Contradictions and paradoxes are easily said in a natural language.
This sentence is false.
It is meaningful, surely, but if its meaning is based on its
truth conditions, what does it mean? If it's true it's false,
if it's false it's true!
Davidson says we can just rule out those features of a language
that allow for this kind of thing. You can do that in formal
languages and in fact we have done it in many formal languages.
(For what it's worth, I think Davidson is way too quick here. The way
that you rule out in a logic some paradoxes like the one above is largely by
weakening the language very strongly. He says, for example, we'll not
allow "True in this language" to be part of our formal specification
of the meaning for the language. Note then that you would not be able
to extend his theory of meaning to his theory of meaning!)
(2) Davidson argues that the vagueness and ambiguity we can hopefully
handle by letting it go all the way through. So, if I say:
"P" is true if and only if s.
And part of P is ambiguous, I'll have it so that the corresponding
part of s is ambiguous.
(3) For indexicals, such as sentences where the truth conditions depend
upon a time and place or the speaker ("It is raining" or "I am tall"),
he suggests we might put time and place and speaker into the truth
"P" is true as spoken by A at place xyz at time t if and only if
s is true of A at place xyz at time t.
Other reasons that we might have concerns about a truth-based theory
of meaning are that (4) it does not in any obvious way handle
nondeclarative sentences; (5) it is not clear how one handles possibility
and other modal notions; (6) it is in trouble for co-extensive terms.
Defenders of a truth-based theory of meaning have offered several
answers to these problems.
The boldest answer to (4) is to claim that all language can be
understood in terms of truth conditions. Thus, if Jones says, "I
do" at her wedding, we must analyze this as somehow true or false.
For example, it might be analyzed to mean, "Jones sincerely intends
to act as this oath requires" -- or somesuch analysis. You'll
have to ask yourself whether you think it is plausible that sentences
like these can be properly understood as sentences with truth conditions:
Problem (5) concerns the fact that it is not clear how you analyze
something possible in terms of truth value alone. The sentence "Nixon
could have lost the election" might be true, but how could that truth
be given in the relations of its parts? It seems that possibility is
a property of whole sentences, not a part of a sentence that can be
analyzed by itself. Most philosophers think you need to take notions
of possibility and necessity as primitive. The solution to (5) that
is most commonly adopted by the truth-based theorists is to actually
add these in. This is a big benefit because it handles problem (6).
- You suck!
- Open the window.
- Please help me.
- I promise.
- Come this way.
- Don't do that!
Problem (6) concerns a fact we discussed when talking about reference.
We noted that many predicated can be coextensive. Perhaps all the
things that have a liver also have a kidney, and vice-versa. Suppose
this is true. Then "___ has a liver" is coextensive with "___ has a
kidney" -- which is to say, these predicates are true of all and only
the same things. Here then, the truth conditions for both properties
would be the same, but their meaning is different.
One Davidsonian answer is to say that the analysis of "Jones has a
liver" and of "Jones has a kidney" will be different. That means
the stuff on the right side of our biconditional is different in
each case, maybe even in a way that is more than just replacing "liver"
with "kidney." I find this an unconvincing move, but ask that you
note we would then have meaning being more than just truth-conditions;
meaning would also include syntactic analysis.
Problem (6), the problem of coextensive predicates and other elements
of language, is the main inspiration for an alternative version of the
truth based theory: the possible-worlds theory of meaning.