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On the Frontier

Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation

by Donald Davidson
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 292 pp., $10.95 (paper)

There is no more creative or systematic philosopher at work in America today than Donald Davidson, but most people would find his essays formidable. This is not because they are long, convoluted, or technical, or because they are obscure or self-indulgent. On the contrary, it is because the prose is so plain, sparse, pruned, a prose long in preparation and short in delivery.

These eighteen pieces, averaging fifteen pages each, represent twenty years of thinking about how people communicate. They are matched by fifteen more in a companion volume called Essays on Actions and Events.1 Davidson proceeds by composing small talks that he delivers over and over again in lectures and seminars. Their first publication may be nearly anywhere. I have on my desk one talk recently published in Lawrence, as the Lindley Lecture at the University of Kansas, and another offprinted from a journal published in Graz, on the border between Austria and Yugoslavia. I doubt whether a dozen public libraries have both of these.

After Davidson’s work has had its long and careful larval life, it passes into a dormant chrysalis stage of obscure publication. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation is the occasion for the final metamorphosis into a readily available sequence of sustained arguments. Davidson’s two volumes range over many topics other than language: causation, weakness of the will, belief, human action, mind and body, events, ontology (what kinds of things there are in the world). Language, however, dominates the present collection.

Davidson’s title is exactly right, for truth and interpretation are his fixed points of departure. Yet those very words could mislead many a follower of humanistic studies. “Interpretation” has become a vogue word that rightly goes along with talk of texts and hermeneutics. Those who write about interpretation usually have a thoroughly pluralistic vision, whether they are literary critics, anthropologists, historians, or semioticians. This is because they take it for granted that other people think with concepts that have no place in our own lives. Interpretation becomes the art of moving from one vision of the world to another. Truth becomes relative to a scheme of thought.

Davidson, in contrast, thinks that we need an objective and non-pluralistic theory of truth to understand how any understanding is possible. He denies that it makes sense even to imagine alternative realities, each with its own truths, that cannot be translated into another way of thinking. Thus Davidson differs fundamentally from many of the streams of thought current throughout the humanities today. This is partly because he comes from the heartland of analytic philosophy, which traditionally has been doubtful about non-Western rationality. His book is dedicated to the distinguished analytic philosopher W.V. Quine, “without whom not.”

Davidson is almost a cult figure for many young philosophers, and not only in the United States. His impact on Oxford has been called “the Davidsonic boom.” Last April a four-day conference at Rutgers was dedicated to Davidson, and it was notable both for its high jinks and for the presence of a majority of the most respected philosophers in the English-speaking world who came to talk about Davidson’s work.

Davidson wants to show systematically how a speaker can understand even the most trifling utterance of another person. It is not for him to start with weighty texts. “Snow is white” is his most often repeated handy example of something you can say. But Davidson is no mere technician, striving to be exactly right about a point or two of no importance. The chain of his deductions mercilessly sweeps across the entire field of traditional philosophical concerns.

He begins with deceptively innocent questions. Two people in conversation do more than exchange sounds that stand for words. They understand each other. How do their words mean what they mean? By way of answer, Davidson invites us to think about “radical interpretation,” the problem of two mutually alien people trying to figure out each other’s language from scratch. In this situation, guesses about the meanings of particular words alone are not enough. An interpreter must have some idea about the beliefs and wants of the other.

If I play “interpreter” and you play “informant,” I may take a sentence of yours—“the tides are dangerous here”—to mean that the tides are dangerous here. I do so in part because a roaring riptide is obviously ahead of us; I have to assume that you see that as well as I do. I cannot propose that you think that the waters are calm and that your words mean that. If on other evidence I did infer that you are trying to tell me that the waters are calm, I will tack on some other beliefs about you—that you have a death wish, or more likely are trying to lull me into paddling to destruction in the maelstrom. To generalize: any account of what your words mean goes along with my expectations about your beliefs and desires. Radical interpretation demands not only that we try to match up words, but that we try to form a picture of all pertinent aspects of the person with whom we are interacting.

Such commonplaces would not seem to take us very far until we read the second paragraph of a piece entitled “Radical Interpretation.” “The problem of interpretation is domestic as well as foreign: it surfaces for speakers of the same language in the form of the question, How can it be determined that the language is the same?” When my old English crony says, “The sea is calm today,” how do I know that her words mean that the sea is calm? Davidson forestalls the obvious answer, that she is speaking English, that we speak the same language. For how do I know that? It is just as much interpretation, says Davidson, when I understand her words, “The sea is calm today,” to mean that the sea is calm today, as when I venture to translate the words of a Bulgarian whom I meet at a beach on the Black Sea.

But at least this may seem obvious: in chatting with my friend or guessing what the Bulgarian is saying, I know or conjecture what the words mean. Davidson doubts, however, that talk of knowing the “meaning” of words explains my understanding of them. It is not that he wants to cross the verb “to mean” out of his prose, but that he believes it should be possible to state how I understand another person without using the word “meaning” and its cognates. He is asking, what knowledge must I have in order to understand you? He wants to specify this knowledge without depending on some unanalyzed idea of meaning, for anything less would be circular or question-begging. It is unhelpful to say, for example, that I understand you because I know the meaning of “The sea is calm today,” for what is this “meaning” that I know?

Davidson is not posing the practical questions of a linguist or psychologist about the processes by which people learn and deal with words. He is putting an abstract question about how to represent the knowledge that a person must have in order to understand another person. The answer cannot usefully be that we know what the words of the other person mean, for it is just that kind of knowledge that we are trying to explain.

The explanation that Davidson is groping for has two critical elements. First, he discourages an atomistic, building-block picture of language. We don’t first master “sea” by pointing at huge expanses of water, and then “calm” by some restful examples, and then “today” (how?), and then build up to understanding a whole sentence, “The sea is calm today.” Following the late-nineteenth-century German logician Gottlob Frege, Davidson takes it for granted that the smallest unit of understanding is the whole sentence. More than that—and here Davidson is more radical—understanding cannot limp along, sentence by sentence. I can understand you only by having an implicit theory about how to understand a network of your possible utterances, and this theory, as we have said, must be accommodated to a larger view of your desires and beliefs. Philosophers call such a theory of language holistic, as opposed to atomistic.

After holism, Davidson’s second critical element in the explanation of understanding is his fixed point, truth. In what terms shall a theory about you and your speech be couched? In terms of truth, he argues. Here is the merest sketch of his view. A complete stranger, or my oldest friend, it matters not which, utters a sentence, s. I would know a lot if I knew the conditions under which this sentence would be true, especially if I could say that s is true if and only if , where the blank is completed in my language, in English. If my friend just said “The sea is calm today,” the completed formula would come out as the trivial-sounding statement, “In her language the sentence ‘The sea is calm today’ is true if and only if the sea is calm today.”

But that is not a trifling claim. It could be false because her language may include sentences that sound just like mine but are true only under different conditions. (In her language, the sentence, “The sea is calm today,” may be true if and only if the sun is round.) The assertion that her sentence, “The sea is calm today,” is true if and only if the sea is calm is just as substantive as one about the truth conditions of a Bulgarian sentence. In stating truth conditions, therefore, I do not use the nonexplanatory word “meaning,” but in a noncircular way I have in effect said what the words mean.

Moreover in careful talk of such truth conditions, we avoid an ambiguity. For example, to know the truth conditions of a sentence is not yet to know what the speaker intends, or in the usual sense “means,” on some occasion. If the sea is obviously rough and dangerous when she says, “The sea is calm today,” she may be ironic, mocking the macho canoeist. She may be giving a warning—what she means is that, we’re being observed, don’t trust anything I say from here on in. Thus we distinguish what the words mean in the language from what a person means by using them. What the words mean in the language is given by truth conditions: call that the literal meaning of the words. We can use words to do almost anything, but Davidson holds that a wide range of uses, including irony and metaphor, depend upon their literal meanings, i.e., upon their truth conditions.

We have to put this talk of truth conditions together with Davidson’s holism. When I interpret what another person is saying, I can’t just have a view about this one sentence, “The sea is calm today.” Consistent with his attack on the atomistic view of language, Davidson holds that our sentences are part of a web of sentences, whose truth conditions depend on one another. According to Davidson, therefore, I have, or am trying to construct, a theory about the person’s language as a whole, a theory that will have the truth conditions for this sentence as only one tiny part. Now most ordinary people use a home computer after memorizing a finite list of commands that tell it what to do; but the language of a person is not like that. There is no discernible upper limit to the number of sentences in your language. I could not memorize them all even if I wanted to. Moreover, you are constantly blurting out new sentences that I have never heard anyone say before, yet I commonly understand you without even thinking about it. So the knowledge that I have, when I understand you, cannot be compared to or simulated by a memorized list of truth conditions. I may memorize a vocabulary that is finite—even Webster’s comes to an end—but your possible sentences do not come to an end. So knowledge of your language must follow the model of a system for generating truth conditions of an indefinite number of declarative sentences.

  1. 1

    Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 1980.

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