Davidson’s Deranged Argument Against Linguistic Conventions

Donald Davidson, back in the mid-80’s, provided an argument that there are no languages, and no such thing as specifically linguistic competence. Drawing attention to successful communicative interaction despite malaprops and new coinages, he writes: “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language… There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. …I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions” (p. 265)

I’ve long thought the argument a bit of a mess. A first point is that the picture he attacks is by no means standard. It definitely isn’t that of, say,  Chomsky or Fodor. The more usual picture was best explained and popularized by Sperber and Wilson: yes, speaker and hearer know codes/conventions of language which more or less overlap, but knowing the code is (almost?) never sufficient even for arriving at the literal content of the speech act. In Chomsky’s terms, linguistic competence, the I-language, never suffices for comprehension even of perfectly ordinary, literal talk – the latter being a performance phenomenon. Malaprops et al. provide no evidence against this more modest role for shared, learned languages: they merely reinforce a main tenet of the view, namely that semantics should not be in the business of trying to provide interpretations of speakers. (Lots of pragmatics is required for that.)

The second point relates to this. Davidson’s inference seems to be…

P1: If so-called linguistic competence is to play a role in talk exchanges then: a) it is systematic/compositional; b) it is shared; c) it is learned in advance; d) it suffices for understanding literal utterance meaning.

P2: Nothing meets all of (a)-(d).

C: So-called “linguistic competence” does not play a role in talk exchanges.

In “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, Davidson spends all his time on P2. But P2 is not that controversial, at least within standard linguistics. Indeed, as I say, P2 is a consequence of the Chomsky’s own competence/performance distinction! (It’s like: “Knowledge of grammar alone won’t get you the facts about which sentences sound good”. Fair enough. But we don’t conclude that knowledge of grammar therefore does not exist.)

What’s really dubious, I think, is P1. In particular, (d): why should the fact that the “code” is not sufficient entail that it isn’t necessary? (Compare: Why should we infer from the insufficiency of one cause that it doesn’t play a role in achieving the effect?) But without P1 there’s no support for C.


4 responses

  1. Why on earth does Davidson just assume P1? I’ve never been sure. He seems to take it to be part of the definition of “a language” that it suffices for interpreting people. Put another way, he takes the whole project to be the provision of the “decoding algorithm” for a speaker: that’s what it is to describe the semantics of the language.

    He writes, for instance: “The interpreter thus has a system for interpreting what he hears or says. You might think of this system as a machine which, when fed an arbitrary utterance (and certain parameters provided by the circumstances of the utterance), produces an interpretation. One model for such a machine is a theory of truth, more or less along the lines of a Tarski truth definition. It provides a recursive characterisation of the truth conditions of all possible utterances of the speaker, and it does this through an analysis of utterances in terms of sentences made up from the finite vocabulary and the finite stock of modes of composition. I have frequently argued that command of such a theory would suffice for interpretation.” (p. 256)

    Also: “The sharing comes to this: the interpreter uses his theory to understand the speaker; the speaker uses the same (or an equivalent) theory to guide his speech. For the speaker, it is a theory about how the interpreter will interpret him.”

    • Hi Rob,

      Haven’t reread it recently, but I always took him to be arguing that P1 sums up a conception of language lots of folks have, but there’s nothing that satisfies that. So, *if* that’s what a language is, there’s no such thing. It hardly follows that there’s no such thing as a language or that linguistic competence plays no rule in communication; for one could reject that conception of language or of linguistic competence, which is what he does. Or no? (In your quote, you have of course elided the bit after ‘there’s no such thing as a language’ where he adds something to the effect of: if a language is something that meets the various conditions folks have taken it to have to meet. –Of course, Davidson could be wrong about how many people, and just what people, have thought of language in that way.)

    • A couple of comments Rob.

      1. Davidson wrote this piece at the same time that he wrote “Communication and Convention”, and in both papers his is grappling, I think, with the idea of the role of convention in linguistic communication. The target, who is named in C&C, is David Lewis, and his book Convention: A Philosophical Study. Maybe Lewis’s account is not the standard one, but Davidson, I think, thought so. Another target would be Dummett, and they had an exchange of papers on this topic after Derangements was published. (The target is not Chomsky or Fodor or Sperber and Wilson).

      2. It is my view that Davidson, in Derangements, is attempting to refute the claim that linguistic conventions are necessary for communication (you seem to be emphasizing sufficiency–your point (d) (sufficiency) does not occur in Davidson’s characterization of first meaning: first meaning, he says, is systematic, shared and prepared). As malapropisms are counter-examples to the claim that one needs to be prepared with a meaning theory to understand the utterances of others, it can’t be the case that linguistic competence is necessarily conventional. The conclusion, though, is not, as you claim, that linguistic competence does not play a role in talk exchanges, but rather that conventions are not necessary for linguistic competence (for understanding others). If languages are essentially conventional (as Davidson thinks Lewis and others maintain), then, he famously concludes, there are no such things. There still remains linguistic competence–its the ability to figure out, using whatever resources you have available to you, what someone means by their words. And the emphasis in this paper with respect to linguistic competence is that we need to focus more on grasping linguistic intentions of individual speakers as opposed to conventions.

      • Hi Jay. Steven too. I grant that this is a fine way to read the paper. It fits with many things Davidson says; it fails to fit with other things he says. So it goes with Davidson exegesis. I guess there are two issues I care about. First, whether there are arguments in “Derangement” that threaten linguistics as practiced by just about anybody. (Davidson takes himself to reject languages if they are “anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed”. That seems a mighty claim, not a vapid one.) My sense, shared by Lepore and Ludwig, is that there aren’t any — because what he demands of “a language” is so out of whack. Of course there aren’t languages in that sense. The second thing I care about is that the larger world hear the news about the extremely limited target of Davidson’s argument. For one hears all too often, “But didn’t Davidson in ‘Derangement’ show that there are no conventional public languages?” You two know he showed no such thing. Ditto Lepore and Ludwig. You all, however, are a benighted minority!

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