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Meaning, Evidence, and Objectivity

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Donald Davidson on Action, Mind and Value

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This chapter addresses the question of what, according to the conception of meaning offered by Donald Davidson, makes expressions meaningful. It addresses this question by reflecting on Kathrin Glüer’s recent response to it. It argues that Glüer misconstrues both the evidence for meaning that the radical interpreter must rely on and the way in which the principle of charity must be deployed. The articulation of the correct construal of the evidence and the principle reveals the thoroughly non-reductionist aspect of Davidson’s conception of meaning. This aspect becomes even clearer in his later work, through the articulation of the triangulation argument. The chapter shows how this argument, which is reconstructed in accordance with Claudine Verheggen’s interpretation of it, helps answer the initial question. It ends with a brief discussion of the question whether the conception has the resources to account for the objectivity of meaning.

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  1. 1.

    I shall focus on Glüer (2011, 2017, 2018).

  2. 2.

    See Myers and Verheggen (2016, Chap. 1). See also Verheggen’s contribution to this volume for a more detailed argument to the effect that, contra many interpreters, Davidson’s commitment to non-reductionism spans his entire philosophical career.

  3. 3.

    Mark Greenberg helpfully distinguishes between full constitutive accounts of a phenomenon and modest constitutive accounts. The former “purports to give an account of what X is” (2005, 303). The theorist who denies the possibility of such an account might still try, in a more modest spirit, to specify what makes something an instance of X in particular cases. Importantly, the distinction between full and modest accounts is independent from that between reductive and non-reductive accounts. A reductive account is a full constitutive account that is non-circular. But full constitutive accounts need not be non-circular. Davidson clearly aims for a full constitutive account that is non-reductive.

  4. 4.

    As I said before, my focus will be on Glüer (2011, 2017, 2018).

  5. 5.

    See also Pagin (2002), on which Glüer’s discussion of this tripartite distinction is based.

  6. 6.

    See, especially, Davidson (1973, 1974, 1975, 1976).

  7. 7.

    Later on, he writes that “the interpreter can detect one or more nonindividuating attitudes. Examples of the kind of special attitude I have in mind are: holding a sentence true at a time, wanting a sentence to be true, or preferring that one sentence rather than another be true” (1991b, 211).

  8. 8.

    See also Myers and Verheggen (2016, 123).

  9. 9.

    This is an example of Davidson’s. See (1995, 50).

  10. 10.

    See also, e.g., Glüer (2011, 79).

  11. 11.

    See Myers and Verheggen (2016, Chap. 1), for a detailed account of the argument. See also Verheggen (2007) for her initial defence of the claim, which is central to her reconstruction of the argument, that linguistic meanings and propositional contents are bound to remain indeterminate in an individual who lacks the recognition of the distinction between correctness and incorrectness, truth and falsity. Verheggen’s interpretation of the triangulation argument as a unified argument contrasts with Glüer’s, who thinks that there are “a number of more or less different versions of the triangulation idea” (2011, 235) in Davidson’s writings. These, according to her, amount to different arguments, among which are the argument from content determination and the argument from objectivity (2011, 232–244).

  12. 12.

    This view is known as ‘semantic externalism’. See, e.g., Davidson (1991a, 2001b). See Verheggen (2017) for a defence of the claim that a commitment to externalism can be found in Davidson’s early papers and not just in the later ones.

  13. 13.

    See Myers and Verheggen (2016, 18–22). Verheggen is the first one to have insisted on, and to have elaborated on the significance of, the difference between the two problems for a proper understanding of Davidson’s view.

  14. 14.

    See Myers and Verheggen (2016, 33–35) for a discussion of the circularity of the account of meaning afforded by the triangulation argument.

  15. 15.

    All of this suggests that the radical interpreter is not “merely a dramatic device”, but rather “an essential element of the meaning determining relation” (2018, 227). Glüer changed her mind about whether the radical interpreter is merely a dramatic device. She initially thought that it is (2011, 136–138), and later came to deny it.

  16. 16.

    See Wittgenstein (1953, Sect. 201).

  17. 17.

    See, e.g., Pears (1988).

  18. 18.

    He says, for instance, that “what makes communication [and hence meaning] possible is the sharing, inherited and acquired, of similarity responses” (1990a, 61) and that “a condition for being a speaker [and thinker] is that there must be others enough like oneself” (1992, 120).


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I am very grateful to Claudine Verheggen for her comments on earlier drafts of this paper and for our many conversations about Donald Davidson’s conception of meaning. I would also like to thank Christopher Campbell, William Child, Robert Myers, and Sam Steadman for discussion.

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Correspondence to Olivia Sultanescu .

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Sultanescu, O. (2021). Meaning, Evidence, and Objectivity. In: Yang, S.CM., Myers, R.H. (eds) Donald Davidson on Action, Mind and Value. Logic in Asia: Studia Logica Library. Springer, Singapore.

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