06 September 2008

The Late Davidson

I've finally gotten around to looking at "Truth and Predication", which is Davidson's first and posthumous book. Up until now, the only place I've seen the book so much as mentioned was in its NDPR review from when it first came out; I've wondered why it seemed neglected.

It turns out that the first half of the book is a reprinting of Davidson's Dewey Lectures, previously published as "The Structure and Content of Truth". I had thought it was odd that these lectures hadn't been included in any of the Davidson essay collections; mystery solved. This also explains why the book hasn't been mentioned much: Half of it is old material.

Davidson mentions in the Introduction that he's left the lectures basically untouched, since they've already been widely cited & commented upon; he says that the few changes he's made have mostly been in footnotes. Apart from one marginal note at the end of the third lecture, I only found a single revision of possible substance.

Here's the footnote as it appears in chapter three of "Truth and Predication", p.51: "The step from observed assents to inferred attitude [sic] of holding true is not, I think, in Quine."

And here it is in "The Structure and Content of Truth" p. 318: "The step from observed assents to the inferred attitude of holding true is not, I think, explicit in Quine." (my emnphasis)

Now, given that the sentence has lost an article in the transition from article to book, it's possible that this is just a printing error. If so, it's an amusing one.

(Well, I was amused.)

The marginal note at the end of the third chapter (which equals the last of the Dewey Lectures) is obscure; Davidson was noting some things he wanted to incorporate "in chapter 2 or 3". But there is this rather nice bit in it: "I want to make clear that my 'solution' isn't a basic one. It is an alternative to deflationary, epistemic or correspondence theories not in proposing a better definition (or short summary) but in suggesting a different approach which relates the concept of truth to other concepts."

I haven't gotten around to reading the "Predication" parts of the book yet, though the introduction makes clear that Davidson thinks that something Tarskian will do the job (and nothing else has -- most of this part of the book is historical/critical).

The introduction also features Davidson excusing himself from addressing the semantic paradoxes. I'd wondered what he had to say about those; it did seem a little odd that he'd written so much about truth without addressing "this sentence is not true". I'll just reproduce the passage, because I am too tired to summarize and I have to get up early in the morning to move things into a truck:

I have been chided more than once for leaving out the semantic paradoxes. The honest reason is that I have nothing new to say; I like the proposals of Burge and Parsons. How can I say the concept of truth is so clear? Well, relatively clear. The paradoxes don't intrude in our ordinary talk. Why not? They arise when we try to assign truth values to sentences containing the concept of truth. But sentences are already a long way from most ordinary speech. We don't utter sentences, but rather tokens of sentences. Since communication depends on what we make of the tokens of others, and communication often succeeds, we can normally assume that others mean what we would mean if we uttered those sentences. This is something we can and do check up on, consciously or not, all the time. But it remains the case that we succeed only to a degree (there are many dimensions). Truth, whether of sentences or of utterances, is relative to a language, and we never know exactly what the language is.

It is not my view that therefore the concept of truth is ambiguous. No more, anyway, than in the case of any word. Our words are clear enough in the circumstances in which they have been used. When we test the limits, we are typically not asking "what does it mean?" but "how shall we use it now that these difficulties have come up?"

As for sentences without a truth value, and names without a reference: again, this is a topic on which I do not feel I have any serious and original thoughts. We know the semantic role of names that do refer; it's one of the first things we learned. But this is of no help in deciding whether sentences containing proper names have a truth value. Our intuitions, based on our knowledge of their role when they do refer, prompt one (me) to hold a sentence like 'Zeus does not exist' as true if there is no one who fulfills certain usually adequate properties, and false if someone does. But I intuitively treat the sentences in Homer that recount some of Zeus's sexual misbehaviour as neither true nor false. But of course the context is all. I do not mean it is pointless to consider seriously the semantic role of proper names. Just as this book illustrates two different routes into the simplest sentential structures, starting with reflections on the role of proper names might end up doing the same thing. "The Problem of Proper Names" might then have taken the place of "The Problem of Predication." [marginal note here: "Certainly, for Quine; maybe for Russell."]


Duck said...

Our words are clear enough in the circumstances in which they have been used. When we test the limits, we are typically not asking "what does it mean?" but "how shall we use it now that these difficulties have come up?"

I continue to be amazed that Davidson namechecks Wittgenstein so rarely. If you had just posted this passage and mischievously told us you had run across it in LW's Nachlass, then we'd be all "So? That view's fairly explicit in PI too."

As for why "T & P" seems neglected, perhaps it's because it's a slim, pricey hardcover with half old material. That's why *I've* neglected it, anyway. (But don't go sending it to me now!) Also, I remember hearing that the book pushes his old project of unifying semantics with decision theory, reducing everything to a primitive attitude, "desiring true," which never turned me on. Is that right?

Have fun moving. I used to move a lot, and the phenomenology of moving always freaked me out: you think you're almost done, and you realize that your "empty" room still has stuff you have to move, as your perception shifts things from "part-of-the-background" to "must-be-picked-up-and-moved".

Daniel Lindquist said...

The Davidson/Wittgenstein connection is an interesting bird. I suspect that the reason Davidson doesn't mention Wittgenstein much is because he didn't write anything specifically about Wittgenstein that he wanted to publish -- and if you just attribute something to Wittgenstein without giving some explicit support for your reading, well, that's the sort of thing that people can pounce on. So he just footnotes Kripkenstein occasionally with a half-hearted "something like the view I have in mind is mentioned in this". Which is red meat for nobody. But on the few occasions that Davidson does mention Philosophical Investigations, it's always with high praise -- I think it's clear that he really did gain a lot from his grapplings with PI; he just never found "claiming" Wittgenstein an attractive proposal.

I suppose T&P has a $30 list-price and is rather short; the Dallas library actually had a copy, which is how I'm reading it. (Oddly, they don't seem to have most of Davidson's stuff -- just Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation and T&P (and Lepore & Ludwig's big blue $60 hardback on Davidson, which I read maybe fifty pages of before tossing aside). They also have Articulating Reasons, but not Making it Explicit. And the Central Branch had eight or nine copies of the Critique of Judgment, and two or three of Critique of Practical Reason. I have no idea how they make their philosophy book-purchasing decisions.)

I've not yet gotten far enough in to encounter "desiring true" or anything like that (I'm still forcing my way through the Freud I have to read -- twenty pages to go in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and then eighty-odd in The Ego and the Id and I'm home-free, thank God). I don't dislike what little of his early decision-theory work I've read though (one of his essays with Suppes, basically). I'm sure I'll post on it again if I get through it before I do something else instead.

I always notice myself kinda disassociating while moving -- I just let my mind drift and wait for it all to be over. It's always a shock when I'm actually done moving, because it's hard to tell if it took a long time or went quickly. It feels like both. I tend to lie down and take a nap at that point. (That nap is pretty clearly overdetermined.)

Incidentally, forecast for monday (the day I move in to my apartment) is thunderstorms and coldness. Auspicious start.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Lindquist said...

"Also, I remember hearing that the book pushes his old project of unifying semantics with decision theory, reducing everything to a primitive attitude, "desiring true," which never turned me on. Is that right?"

No, nothing like that is in the second part of the book at all. Most of the second part of the book is historical material: how various figures have tried to solve the "problem of the unity of the proposition". Decision theory (or even interpretation) really don't show up at all. It's just Tarski and what lead up to Tarski. It was a pleasant enough read, at least.