Truth-Theoretic Semantics and Its Limits

Argumenta (3):21-38 (2017)
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Donald Davidson was one of the most influential philosophers of the last half of the 20th century, especially in the theory of meaning and in the philosophy of mind and action. In this paper, I concentrate on a field-shaping proposal of Davidson’s in the theory of meaning, arguably his most influential, namely, that insight into meaning may be best pursued by a bit of indirection, by showing how appropriate knowledge of a finitely axiomatized truth theory for a language can put one in a position both to interpret the utterance of any sentence of the language and to see how its semantically primitive constituents together with their mode of combination determines its meaning (Davidson 1965, 1967, 1970, 1973a). This project has come to be known as truth-theoretic semantics. My aim in this paper is to render the best account I can of the goals and methods of truth-theoretic semantics, to defend it against some objections, and to identify its limitations. Although I believe that the project I describe conforms to the main idea that Davidson had, my aim is not primarily Davidson exegesis. I want to get on the table an approach to compositional semantics for natural languages, inspired by Davidson, but extended and developed, which I think does about as much along those lines as any theory could. I believe it is Davidson’s project, and I defend this in detail elsewhere (Ludwig 2015; Lepore and Ludwig 2005, 2007a, 2007b, 2011). But I want to develop and defend the project while also exploring its limitations, without getting entangled in exegetical questions.

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Kirk Ludwig
Indiana University, Bloomington


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