Wiggins Meets Davidson

There’s a nice connection between Wigginspaper and Davidson’s “Derangement”. Wiggins notes that Davidson, drawing on a suggestion from John Foster, convinces himself that what semanticists are trying to do is specify knowledge of a certain sort: knowledge that, given a few objective contextual parameters, would suffice for interpretation. What Davidson progressively comes to see is that no pre-existing and widely shared knowledge base will turn the trick… So he abandons the original project. Derangement, in short.

But there are two natural alternatives to the instrumentalist turn that Foster provoked. (Wiggins thinks the first of them is what Foster really had in mind all along.): 1) Describe the language as it is, rather than describing knowledge of language. 2) Describe the mental mechanisms underlying speech and comprehension as they actually function, without laying down as a condition that they will suffice for decoding literal meaning. Either way, one eschews instrumentalism and preserves the study of languages.

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2 responses

  1. Well, I don’t think Davidson got his idea of his project from Foster. This is from “Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages”:

    … we are entitled to consider in advance of empirical study what we shall count as knowing a language, how we shall describe the skill or ability of a person who has learned to speak a language. One natural condition to impose is that we must be able to define a predicate of expressions, based solely on their formal properties, that picks out the class of meaningful expressions (sentences), on the assumption that various psychological variables are held constant. This predicate gives the grammar of the language. Another, and more interesting, condition is that we must be able to specify, in a way that depends effectively and solely on formal considerations, what every sentence means. With the right psychological trappings [here he means knowledge of psychological conditions sufficient to identify some product of an agent as a speech act using a sentence of the language], our theory should equip us to say, for an arbitrary sentence, what a speaker of the language means by that sentence (or takes it to mean). Guided by an adequate theory, we see how the actions and dispositions of speakers induce on the sentences of the language a semantic structure. (ITI, p. 8)

    Knowledge of the theory is to put us in a position to understand the language it is a theory for. But on the question whether Davidson was ever trying to describe a theory knowledge of which by speakers explains their competence, the answer is no, not in the early period, not in the middle period, and not late, and not in Nice Derangement. And I don’t think Derangement abandons the original project. That is a misreading of it.

    • Thanks for this Kirk. You know the exegetical details far better than I, but it had long seemed to me that Davidson made a shift between “TMLL” and the papers after Foster: from describing what is actually going on (in the former), to describing what would suffice were it known (in the latter). This specific passage doesn’t suggest otherwise — which isn’t to say that there aren’t others. Related to my sense of a shift was puzzlement about why Davidson’s demand of learnability by folks like us should be retained, once one is solely looking for knowledge that would suffice. Surely a non-finite theory, or one with a trillion axioms, might turn the interpretive trick. And once that demand was gone, the requirement of compositionality and structure could no longer be motivated by learnability considerations. Thoughts?

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