Interpretation and Skill: On Passing Theory

In G. Preyer, G. Peter & M. Ulkan (eds.), Concepts of Meaning: Framing an Integrated theory of Linguistic Behavior. Kluwer Academic Publishers (2003)
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Abstract
I argue that Donald Davidson's rejection of the notion of language, as commonly understood in philosophy and linguistics, is justified. However, I argue that his position needs to be supplemented by an account of the development and nurture of pre-linguistic communicative skills. Davidson argues (in 'A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs' and elsewhere) that knowledge of a language (conceived of as a set of rules or conventions) is neither sufficient nor necessary for 'linguistic' communication. The strongest argument against the initial formulation is that while Davidson may have shown that knowledge of a language is not sufficient, he failed to show that it is not necessary. Subsequently, Davidson has invoked his 'triangulation' thesis, to show that understanding can rest on the apprehension of mutuality in a shared objective world, and does not presuppose the sharing of rules or practices. I argue that the starting position arrived at from the triangulation thesis itself presupposes the possibility of communication. The triangulation thesis needs, therefore, to be supplemented by a (non-reductive) naturalistic account of non-linguistic communicative skills. In such an account we must posit shared practices (practices of mutual engagement with a shared world), but not an account of practices conceived on the model of rules or conventions. I note, finally, that by adopting such an approach we offer a way of explicating the formulation of passing theories, which in Davidson's account are the point at which communicative understanding occurs.
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