This chapter focuses on the continuity of Davidson’s thought. My goal is to show that two commonly held conceptions of Davidson’s philosophy, one to the effect that there is a shift from radical interpretation to triangulation, in particular, a shift from reductionism to non-reductionism, the other to the effect that Davidson’s non-reductionism is incompatible with constructive philosophizing, are in fact misconceptions. I argue that, though Davidson’s account of meaning, being non-reductionist, does not spell out non-circular sufficient conditions for any particular utterances to have the meaning they have, and for someone to have a language and thoughts at all, it is nonetheless non-quietist, for it does give us necessary conditions for these phenomena to occur. These necessary conditions first emerge from Davidson’s reflections on radical interpretation and are further articulated in his writings on triangulation, which also demonstrate that radical interpretation is but an instance of triangulation, since they make clear that successful radical interpretation in effect requires triangulation.
- Radical interpretation
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As he writes: “meaning, and by its connection with meaning, belief also, are open to public determination. I shall take advantage of this fact…and adopt the stance of a radical interpreter when asking about the nature of belief. What a fully informed interpreter could learn about what a speaker means is all there is to learn; the same goes for what the speaker believes” (Davidson 1983, 148).
Note that my focus throughout the paper will be on language rather than thought, but, for Davidson, whatever is true of language is true of thought propositionally conceived. The question what it is for words to mean what they do is equivalent to the question what it is for concepts (conceived as elements of propositional thoughts and attitudes) to have the content they have.
As we shall see later, strictly speaking, the theory tells us how words contribute to the meaning of the utterances in which they occur.
As I suggested above, and as we shall see, this claim will come to be augmented in the writings on triangulation.
An exception is Michael Dummett when he was seeking a semantic theory that does not “give the interpretation of the language to someone who already has the concepts required” (Dummett 1975, 102).
See Davidson (1967, 35–36), for an initial catalogue of these difficulties.
Radical interpretation has had many detractors, among the most virulent of whom are Fodor and Lepore (1993). Though Davidson has said that the criticisms were sometimes based on misunderstandings, he himself acknowledged that “neither [his] terminology nor [his] views have held absolutely steady” (Davidson 1993, 77 fn2). In a constructive spirit, I am myself putting the best possible spin on the thought experiment.
See Davidson (1967, 22–23).
Davidson makes no sharp distinction among the concepts of belief, objective truth, objectivity, truth, and error. He certainly thinks that one cannot have one of them without having them all. The basic idea is that of having “the concepts of objects and events that occupy a shared world, of objects and events whose properties and existence is [sic] independent of our thought” (Davidson 1991a, 202), or of being aware of “the contrast between true and false, between appearance and reality, mere seeming and being” (Davidson 1991b, 209), where this awareness may be “inarticulately held” (Davidson 1995, 4).
Note that Kathrin Glüer recently changed her mind about this. See Glüer (2018, 227).
Primitive triangulation is the kind of triangulation even non-linguistic creatures can engage in. It occurs when creatures are reacting simultaneously to each other and to common stimuli in their surroundings, as in Davidson’s example of two lionesses trying to catch a gazelle and coordinating their behaviour by watching each other and the gazelle and reacting to each other’s reactions (Davidson 2001b, 7). Linguistic triangulation is a subset of interpersonal linguistic communication.
See also Davidson (1997, 83).
Note that the triangulation argument shows that meaning is essentially social, but not essentially communitarian. That is, it shows that, in order to have a language, one must have understood and been understood by others, but one need not mean the same thing as others by the same words. I discuss this further in Myers and Verheggen (2016, Chap. 3).
Not every word or concept that refers to an external item must have been used in triangulation for its meaning to be fixed. For instance, “the contents of the belief that a guanaco is present [may have been] determined, not by exposure to guanacos, but by having acquired other words and concepts, such as those of llama, animal, camel, domesticated, and so forth. Somewhere along the line, though, we must come to the direct exposures that anchor thought and language to the world” (Davidson 1991a, 197).
I have said more on the continuous aspects of Davidson’s externalism in Myers and Verheggen (2016, Chap. 3).
Understood in this way, the triangulation argument becomes much less vulnerable to objections. I have said more about this in Myers and Verheggen (2016, Chap. 1).
Thanks to Pedro Rui Abreu, Robert Myers, and Olivia Sultanescu for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
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Verheggen, C. (2021). The Continuity of Davidson’s Thought: Non-reductionism Without Quietism. In: Yang, S.CM., Myers, R.H. (eds) Donald Davidson on Action, Mind and Value. Logic in Asia: Studia Logica Library. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-7230-2_8
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