In Defence of Modesty

  • John McDowell
Part of the Nijhoff International Philosophy Series book series (NIPS, volume 25)


A modest theory of meaning for a language — in the technical sense introduced by Michael Dummett — is one that gives no account of the concepts expressed by primitive terms of the language. We should note that the use of ‘concepts’ here is not Fregean, in two ways. First, Fregean concepts are associated only with predicative expressions, whereas Dummett’s considerations are meant to apply to meaningful expressions in general. Second, Fregean concepts belong to the realm of reference, whereas the concepts Dummett is concerned with would belong to the realm of sense; they are determinants of content — determinants of the thoughts expressible by sentences containing the associated words.


Object Language Implicit Knowledge Background Language Linguistic Practice Predicative Expression 
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  1. 1.
    See ‘What is a Theory of Meaning?’, in Samuel Guttenplan, ed., Mind and Language (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975) pp.97–138, at pp.101–2, 127. I shall cite this paper as ‘WTM’.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See W.V. Quine, Philosophy of Logic (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1970) p.10–13.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    For the extension to other modes, see, for instance, my ‘Truth Conditions, Bivalence, and Verificationism’, in Gareth Evans and John McDowell, eds., Truth and Meaning (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976) pp.42–66, at p.UM. The sentences we have singled out for special attention should not be thought of as selected on the basis of superficial syntax; we ought to leave room for not crediting sentences like, say, ‘Vanilla ices are nice’ with conditions of truth. David Wiggins, in ‘What Would be a Substantial Theory of Truth?’, in Zak van Straaten, ed., Philosophical Subjects: Essays Presented to P.F.Strawson (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980) pp.189–221, gives considerations which I should like to describe as showing why the bare idea of disquotation yields an insufficiently substantial notion of truth if we apply it to a category of indicative sentences marked out by superficial syntax. The ingredients of Wiggins’s more substantial treatment of truth (which, for present purposes, I should like to transpose into a more substantial specification of the appropriate category of sentences) are fully congenial to the main point of this paper: see especially his pp.220–1.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    For ‘core’, see Dummett, ‘What is a Theory of Meaning? (II)’, in Evans and McDowell, eds., op.cit., pp.67–137, at pp.72–6. I shall cite this paper as ‘WTM (II)’.Google Scholar
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    See ‘Truth’, in Truth and Other Enigmas (Duckworth, London, 1978) pp.1–24, at p.7.Google Scholar
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  9. 14.
    On the early Wittgenstein, who is sometimes saddled with a conception of truth on these lines, see Brian McGuiness, ‘The So-Called Realism of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus’, in Block, ed., Perspectives on the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (1950), pp.60–73. For Frege, consider his arguments against the correspondence theory of truth in ‘Thoughts’, translated by P.T.Geach in Logical Investigations (Black-well, Oxford, 1977). For Davidson, see ‘True to the Facts’, Journal of Philosophy LXVI (1969), pp.748–64.Google Scholar
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    cf. section 45 of W.V. Quine, Word and Object (M.I.T.Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1960).Google Scholar
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    Disallowing appeals to simplicity may be reminiscent of an aspect of Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation that has attracted complaints; see, for instance, Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Blackwell, Oxford, 1980) pp.203–4. The prohibition that is in question here can be understood only against the background of an aspiration to avoid both psychologism and behaviourism. This background is missing from Quine, who in effect equates mentalism (the rejection of behaviourism) with psychologism (the conception of the mental as hidden), and is thus left with nothing — apart from an apparently dogmatic physicalism — to justify a refusal to allow ordinary scientific methods of resolving indeterminacies in theorizing about meaning and mind.Google Scholar
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    See WTM, p.114; cf. Davidson, ‘Reply to Foster’, in Evans and McDowell, eds., op.cit., pp.33–41, at p.37.Google Scholar
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    Although the equation does seem appropriate in the case of Quine: see From a Logical Point of View (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1961) p.42.Google Scholar
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    Op.cit., pp.18–19; see also pp.565–9.Google Scholar
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    See Taylor, op.cit., pp.3–11.Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1987

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  • John McDowell

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