Friday, 6 March 2015

Michael Dummett on Donald Davidson's Radical Interpretation

The way Michael Dummett puts Davidsonian ‘interpretation’ makes it sound far too complex and even ludicrous.

I’m not using 'interpretation' is the way that Davidson does. For Davidson, the hearer’ interpretation is constructing a whole theory of meaning for the speaker, selecting between the possible interpretations, the interpretations which language leaves us to do on the basis of probability and so on.” (222)

Fancy being required to “construct a whole theory of meaning” before one could possibly understand what it was the speaker actually said.

Wasn’t Donald Davidson primarily talking interpretation as it occurs between a member of the home language and that of an alien language of some kind? In that case, it's a feasible and believable idea that one would be required to construct a whole theory of meaning for the utterances of the alien speaker. If it's only about understanding our fellow English speakers, on the other hand, this can’t be the case.

It's of course the case that even in the case of our fellow English speakers that there may be many possible interpretations we can adopt of what it is the English speaker is saying. This too seems to reinforce the other position of the “indeterminacy of meaning”; though that may not be that directly connected to that thesis.

In addition, Dummett talks says that in Davidson the interpretation we choose is found on the “basis of probability”. That is, the probability that the speaker was saying x rather than y. And, according to Davidson’s ‘principle of charity’, we are much more likely to choose x rather than y if our interpretation y commits us the belief that the speaker is, say, irrational or speaking about something that's obviously false.

The implication again seems to be that the existence of abstract thoughts or propositions will get us out of this Davidsonian bind in that if such things exist, then this will severely limit the number and type of interpretations available to us or which we will choose. Perhaps it follows from this that if Davidson didn't believe in propositions or thoughts, then it is bound to be the case that we will have many possible ways of interpreting what it is the speaker has said. However, this can also applied to Dummett’s position even though he believes in thoughts or propositions. Dummett himself concedes this point. That is, even if abstract thoughts or propositions do in fact exist, their existence alone doesn't guarantee the fact that we will get them right or interpret their linguistic expressions correctly.

Dummett then goes on to offer his own alternative to Davidson’s position:

That’s not at all what I mean. He would be very silly if he were saying that, you realise. You do so without thinking, you rule out interpretations which would make someone else’s remarks just silly.”

It's a very strong claim to say that non-Davidsonian interpretation occurs “without thinking”. Really? How would that work? How can one interpret a speaker without thinking? Does he mean this literally? If he does, then it doesn't seem to make sense at all. Perhaps any thinking that does go on in interpretation is ‘tacit’ or ‘implicit’ thinking; though thinking nonetheless. Interpretation is, after all, an act of thinking or of thought.

Dummett also seems to borrow Davidson’s ‘principle of charity’ when he says that “you rule out interpretations which would make someone else’s remarks just silly” (222). That is, we may initially think that the speaker has indeed made a “silly remark”. However, we come to realise, quite quickly, that he or she simply couldn’t have said or meant what we thought he or she said or meant. Clearly this would apply to a sentence such as “I’m going to swallow the colour blue”. However, things aren't quite that simple with sentences such as “I die every day” or sentences which contain other metaphors or poeticisms. We interpret such utterances both routinely and easily without even for a second believing that the speaker really thinks that he dies every day. There are of course locutions that are even more subtle and difficult than that. For example, “I can’t do that!” Does the speaker really mean that he can’t do something; or, say, that he simply doesn't want to do something (perhaps breaking a law).

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