Skip to main content

Truth and Meaning

  • Chapter

Part of the Studies in Cognitive Systems book series (COGS,volume 2)

Abstract

It is conceded by most philosophers of language, and recently even by some linguists, that a satisfactory theory of meaning must give an account of how the meanings of sentences depend upon the meanings of words. Unless such an account could be supplied for a particular language, it is argued, there would be no explaining the fact that we can learn the language: no explaining the fact that, on mastering a finite vocabulary and a finitely stated set of rules, we are prepared to produce and to understand any of a potential infinitude of sentences. I do not dispute these vague claims, in which I sense more than a kernel of truth.1 Instead I want to ask what it is for a theory to give an account of the kind adumbrated.

Keywords

  • Natural Language
  • Object Language
  • Singular Term
  • Semantical Concept
  • Truth Predicate

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

An earlier version of this paper was read at the Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in December, 1966; the main theme traces back to an unpublished paper delivered to the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1953. Present formulations owe much to John Wallace, with whom I have discussed these matters since 1962. My research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-2727-8_5
  • Chapter length: 19 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   299.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-94-009-2727-8
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   399.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

References

  1. Elsewhere I have urged that it is a necessary condition, if a language is to be learnable, that it have only a finite number of semantical primitives: see Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages’, in Proceedings of the 1964 International Congress for Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1965, pp. 383–394.

    Google Scholar 

  2. A ‘structural description’ of an expression describes the expression as a concatenation of elements drawn from a fixed finite list (for example of words or letters).

    Google Scholar 

  3. The argument is essentially Frege’s. See A. Church, Introduction to Mathematical Logic, Vol. I, Princeton 1956, pp. 24–25. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the argument does not depend on any particular identification of the entities to which sentences are supposed to refer.

    Google Scholar 

  4. It may be thought that Church, in ‘A Formulation of the Logic of Sense and Denotation’, in Structure, Method and Meaning: Essays in Honor of H. M. Sheffer (ed. by Henle, Kallen and Langer), Liberal Arts Press, New York, 1951, pp. 3–24, has given a theory of meaning that makes essential use of meanings as entities. But this is not the case: Church’s logics of sense and denotation are interpreted as being about meanings, but they do not mention expressions and so cannot of course be theories of meaning in the sense now under discussion.

    Google Scholar 

  5. For a recent and instructive statement of the role of semantics in linguistics, see Noam Chomsky, ‘Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar’, in Current Trends in Linguistics (ed. by Thomas A. Sebeok), Vol. III, The Hague 1966. In this article, Chomsky (1) emphasizes the central importance of semantics in linguistic theory, (2) argues for the superiority of transformational grammars over phrase structure grammars largely on the grounds that, although phrase structure grammars may be adequate to define sentencehood for (at least) some natural languages, they are inadequate as a foundation for semantics, and (3) comments repeatedly on the ‘rather primitive state’ of the concepts of semantics and remarks that the notion of semantic interpretation “still resists any deep analysis”.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Assuming, of course, that the extension of these predicates is limited to the sentences of L.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Alfred Tarski, ‘The Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages’, in Logic, Semantics, Metamathematics, Oxford 1956, pp. 152–278.

    Google Scholar 

  8. But Quine may be quoted in support of my usage: “… in point of meaning… a word may be said to be determined to whatever extent the truth or falsehood of its contexts is determined.” ‘Truth by Convention’, first published in 1936; now in The Ways of Paradox, New York 1966, p. 82. Since a truth definition determines the truth value of every sentence in the object language (relative to a sentence in the metalanguage), it determines the meaning of every word and sentence. This would seem to justify the title Theory of Meaning.

    Google Scholar 

  9. To give a single example: it is clearly a count in favor of a theory that it entails ‘“Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white’. But to contrive a theory that entails this (and works for all related sentences) is not trivial. I do not know a theory that succeeds with this very case (the problem of ‘mass terms’).

    Google Scholar 

  10. This sketch of how a theory of meaning for an alien tongue can be tested obviously owes its inspiration to Quine’s account of radical translation in Chapter II of Word and Object, New York 1960. In suggesting that an acceptable theory of radical translation take the form of a recursive characterization of truth, I go beyond anything explicit in Quine. Toward the end of this paper, in the discussion of demonstratives, another strong point of agreement will turn up.

    Google Scholar 

  11. So far as I am aware, there has been very little discussion of whether a formal truth definition can be given for a natural language. But in a more general vein, several people have urged that the concepts of formal semantics be applied to natural language. See, for example, the contributions of Yehoshua Bar-Hillel and Evert Beth to The Philosophy of Rudolph Carnap (ed. by Paul A. Schilpp), La Salle, 111., 1963, and Bar-Hillel’s ‘Logical Syntax and Semantics’, Language 30, 230–237.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Tarski, ibid., p. 165.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Ibid., p. 267.

    Google Scholar 

  14. The rapprochement I prospectively imagine between transformational grammar and a sound theory of meaning has been much advanced by a recent change in the conception of transformational grammar described by Chomsky in the article referred to above (note 5). The structures generated by the phrase-structure part of the grammar, it has been realized for some time, are those suited to semantic interpretation; but this view is inconsistent with the idea, held by Chomsky until recently, that recursive operations are introduced only by the transformation rules. Chomsky now believes the phrase-structure rules are recursive. Since languages to which formal semantic methods directly and naturally apply are ones for which a (recursive) phrase-structure grammar is appropriate, it is clear that Chomsky’s present picture of the relation between the structures generated by the phrase-structure part of the grammar, and the sentences of the language, is very much like the picture many logicians and philosophers have had of the relation between the richer formalized languages and ordinary language. (In these remarks I am indebted to Bruce Vermazen.)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Quine has good things to say about this in Methods of Logic, New York 1950, See § 8.

    Google Scholar 

  16. For an up-to-date bibliography, and discussion, see A. N. Prior, Past, Present, and Future, Oxford 1967.

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  17. There is more than an intimation of this approach to demonstratives and truth in Austin’s 1950 article Truth’, reprinted in Philosophical Papers, Oxford 1961. See pp. 89–90.

    Google Scholar 

  18. These remarks clearly derive from Quine’s idea that ‘occasion sentences’ (those with a demonstrative element) must play a central role in constructing a translation manual.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Authors

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 1967 Kluwer Academic Publishers

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Davidson, D. (1967). Truth and Meaning. In: Kulas, J., Fetzer, J.H., Rankin, T.L. (eds) Philosophy, Language, and Artificial Intelligence. Studies in Cognitive Systems, vol 2. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-009-2727-8_5

Download citation

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-009-2727-8_5

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Dordrecht

  • Print ISBN: 978-94-010-7726-2

  • Online ISBN: 978-94-009-2727-8

  • eBook Packages: Springer Book Archive