A malapropism also called a malaprop or Dogberryism is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance. An example is the statement by baseball player Yogi Berra , " Texas has a lot of electrical votes", rather than " electoral votes ". Philosopher Donald Davidson has said that malapropisms show the complex process through which the brain translates thoughts into language. Humorous malapropisms are the type that attract the most attention and commentary, but bland malapropisms are common in speech and writing.

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Donald Davidson was one of the most important philosophers of the latter half of the twentieth century and with a reception and influence that, of American philosophers, is perhaps matched only by that of W. His work exhibits a breadth of approach, as well as a unitary and systematic character, that is unusual within twentieth century analytic philosophy.

The breadth and unity of his thought, in combination with the sometimes-terse character of his prose, means that Davidson is not an easy writer to approach.

He died suddenly, as a consequence of cardiac arrest following knee surgery, on Aug. Remaining both physically and philosophically active up until his death, Davidson left behind a number of important and unfinished projects including a major book on the nature of predication.

The latter volume was published posthumously see Davidson b , together with two additional volumes of collected essays Davidson , a , under the guidance of Marcia Cavell. Davidson completed his undergraduate study at Harvard, graduating in His early interests were in literature and classics and, as an undergraduate, Davidson was strongly influenced by A. He subsequently held positions at Princeton — , Rockefeller — , and the University of Chicago — From until his death he worked at the University of California, Berkeley.

Davidson was the recipient of a number of awards and fellowships and was a visitor at many universities around the world. Indeed, he argues that reasons explain actions just inasmuch as they are the causes of those actions. This approach was in clear opposition to the Wittgensteinian orthodoxy of the time. On this latter account causal explanation was viewed as essentially a matter of showing the event to be explained as an instance of some law-like regularity as we might explain the whistling of a kettle by reference to certain laws involving, among other things, the behaviour of gases under pressure.

Since rational explanation was held, in general, not to involve any such reference to laws, but rather required showing how the action fitted into some larger pattern of rational behaviour, explanation by reference to reasons was held to be distinct from and independent of explanation by reference to causes.

Thus, my action of flipping the light switch can be explained by reference to my having the belief that flipping the switch turns on the light in combination with my having the desire to turn on the light for most explanations explicit reference to both the belief and the desire is unnecessary.

An action is thus rendered intelligible through being embedded in a broader system of attitudes attributable to the agent — through being embedded, that is, in a broader framework of rationality. As with the concept of a primary reason the idea here is simple enough: one and the same action is always amenable to more than one correct description. This idea is especially important, however, as it provides a means by which the same item of behaviour can be understood as intentional under some descriptions but not under others.

Thus my action of flipping the light switch can be redescribed as the act of turning on the light under which it is intentional and also as the act of alerting the prowler who, unbeknown to me, is lurking in the bushes outside under which it is unintentional. Generalising this point we can say that the same event can be referred to under quite disparate descriptions: the event of alerting the prowler is the same event as my flipping the light switch which is the same event as my moving of my body or a part of my body in a certain way.

It is precisely because the reason is causally related to the action that the action can be explained by reference to the reason. Indeed, where an agent has a number of reasons for acting, and yet acts on the basis of one reason in particular, there is no way to pick out just that reason on which the agent acts other than by saying that it is the reason that caused her action.

Understood as rational the connection between reason and action cannot be described in terms of any strict law. Yet inasmuch as the connection is also a causal connection, so there must exist some law-like regularity, though not describable in the language of rationality, under which the events in question fall an explanation can be causal, then, even though it does not specify any strict law.

Davidson is thus able to maintain that rational explanation need not involve explicit reference to any law-like regularity, while nevertheless also holding that there must be some such regularity that underlies the rational connection just inasmuch as it is causal. Moreover, since Davidson resists the idea that rational explanations can be formulated in the terms of a predictive science, so he seems committed to denying that there can be any reduction of rational to non-rational explanation.

To argue, as does Davidson, for the compatibility of the original principles is thus also to argue for the truth of the third, that is, for the truth of anomalous monism.

Davidson holds that events are particulars such that the same event can be referred to under more than one description. He also holds that events that are causally related must be related under some strict law. However, since Davidson takes laws to be linguistic entities, so they can relate events only as those events are given under specific descriptions.

There is, for example, no strict law that relates, under just those descriptions, the formation of ice on the surface of a road to the skidding of a car on that road, and yet, under a different description a description that will employ a completely different set of concepts , the events at issue will indeed be covered by some strict law or set of laws.

But while nomological relations between events relations involving laws depend on the descriptions under which the events are given, relations of causality and identity obtain irrespective of descriptions — if the icing-up of the road did indeed cause the skid, then it did so no matter how the events at issue are described.

The form of description — whether mental or physical — is thus irrelevant to the fact that a particular causal relation obtains. It follows that the same pair of events may be related causally, and yet, under certain descriptions though not under all , there be no strict law under which those events fall. In particular, it is possible that a mental event — an event given under some mental description — will be causally related to some physical event — an event given under a physical description — and yet there will be no strict law covering those events under just those descriptions.

My wanting to read Tolstoy, for instance, leads me to take War and Peace from the shelf, and so my wanting causes a change in the physical arrangement of a certain region of space-time, but there is no strict law that relates my wanting to the physical change. Similarly, while any mental event will be identical with some physical event — it will indeed be one and the same event under two descriptions — it is possible that there will be no strict law relating the event as described in mentalistic terms with the event as physically described.

In fact, Davidson is explicit in claiming that there can be no strict laws that relate the mental and the physical in this way — there is no strict law that relates, for instance, wanting to read with a particular kind of brain activity. This does not mean, of course, that there are no correlations whatsoever to be discerned between the mental and the physical, but it does mean that the correlations that can be discerned cannot be rendered in the precise, explicit and exceptionless form — in the form, that is, of strict laws — that would be required in order to achieve any reduction of mental to physical descriptions.

The lack of strict laws covering events under mental descriptions is thus an insuperable barrier to any attempt to bring the mental within the framework of unified physical science. However, while the mental is not reducible to the physical, every mental event can be paired with some physical event — that is, every mental description of an event can be paired with a physical description of the very same event.

Put more simply, events that cannot be distinguished under some physical description cannot be distinguished under a mental description either. In fact anomalous monism has proved to be a highly contentious position drawing criticism from both physicalists and non-physicalists alike. A belief or desire in the mind of one person can cause a belief or desire in the mind of another without this compromising the rationality of the mental.

Davidson suggests that we should view the same sort of relation as sometimes holding within a single mind. If events are indeed particulars then an important question concerns the conditions of identity for events. Although Davidson wrote on a wide range of topics, a great deal of his work, particularly during the late s and early s, is focussed on the problem of developing an approach to the theory of meaning that would be adequate to natural language.

Providing a theory of meaning for a language is thus a matter of developing a theory that will enable us to generate, for every actual and potential sentence of the language in question, a theorem that specifies what each sentence means. Since the number of potential sentences in any natural language is infinite, a theory of meaning for a language that is to be of use to creatures with finite powers such as ourselves, must be a theory that can generate an infinity of theorems one for each sentence on the basis of a finite set of axioms.

Indeed, any language that is to be learnable by creatures such as ourselves must possess a structure that is amenable to such an approach. Consequently, the commitment to holism also entails a commitment to a compositional approach according to which the meanings of sentences are seen to depend upon the meanings of their parts, that is, upon the meanings of the words that form the finite base of the language and out of which sentences are composed.

Compositionality does not compromise holism, since not only does it follow from it, but, on the Davidsonian approach, it is only as they play a role in whole sentences that individual words can be viewed as meaningful.

It is sentences, and not words, that are thus the primary focus for a Davidsonian theory of meaning. Developing a theory for a language is a matter of developing a systematic account of the finite structure of the language that enables the user of the theory to understand any and every sentence of the language. A Davidsonian theory of meaning explicates the meanings of expressions holistically through the interconnection that obtains among expressions within the structure of the language as a whole.

Instead such theorems will relate sentences to other sentences. It is at this point that Davidson turns to the concept of truth. Truth, he argues, is a less opaque concept than that of meaning. Moreover, to specify the conditions under which a sentence is true is also a way of specifying the meaning of a sentence.

And just as a Davidsonian theory of meaning treats the meaning of whole sentences as dependent on the components of those sentences, so a Tarskian theory of truth also operates recursively by means of the technical notion of satisfaction — a notion that stands to open sentences expressions containing unbound variables as does truth to closed sentences expressions that contain no variables other than bound variables — such that the satisfaction conditions of more complex sentences are seen to depend on the satisfaction conditions of simpler sentences.

A Tarskian truth theory defines truth on the basis of a logical apparatus that requires little more than the resources provided within first-order quantificational logic as supplemented by set theory. However, these features also present certain problems. Davidson wishes to apply the Tarskian model as the basis for a theory of meaning for natural languages, but such languages are far richer than the well-defined formal systems to which Tarski had directed his attention.

In particular natural languages contain features that seem to require resources beyond those of first-order logic or of any purely extensional analysis. While Tarski uses the notion of sameness of meaning, through the notion of translation, as the means to provide a definition of truth — one of the requirements of Convention T is that the sentence on the right hand side of a Tarskian T-sentence be a translation of the sentence on the left — Davidson aims to use truth to provide an account of meaning.

But in that case it seems that he needs some other way to constrain the formation of T-sentences so as to ensure that they do indeed deliver correct specifications of what sentences mean. Since the meaning of particular expressions will not be independent of the meaning of other expressions in virtue of the commitment to compositionality the meanings of all sentences must be generated on the same finite base , so a theory that generates problematic results in respect of one expression can be expected to generate problematic results elsewhere, and, in particular, to also generate results that do not meet the requirements of Convention T.

This problem can also be seen, however, as closely related to another important point of difference between a Tarskian truth theory and a Davidsonian theory of meaning: a theory of meaning for a natural language must be an empirical theory — it is, indeed, a theory that ought to apply to actual linguistic behaviour — and as such it ought to be empirically verifiable.

Satisfaction of the requirement that a theory of meaning be adequate as an empirical theory, and so that it be adequate to the actual behaviour of speakers, will also ensure tighter constraints if such are needed on the formation of T-sentences.

Indeed, Davidson is not only quite explicit in emphasising the empirical character of a theory of meaning, but he also offers a detailed account that both explains how such a theory might be developed and specifies the nature of the evidence on which it must be based.

Normally the task of the translator is aided by prior linguistic knowledge — either of the actual language to be translated or of some related language. Quine envisages a case in which translation of a language must proceed without any prior linguistic knowledge and solely on the basis of the observed behaviour of the speakers of the language in conjunction with observation of the basic perceptual stimulations that give rise to that behaviour.

It is intended to lay bare the knowledge that is required if linguistic understanding is to be possible, but it involves no claims about the possible instantiation of that knowledge in the minds of interpreters Davidson thus makes no commitments about the underlying psychological reality of the knowledge that a theory of interpretation makes explicit. It seems that we must provide both a theory of belief and a theory of meaning at one and the same time.

The process of interpretation turns out to depend on both aspects of the principle. Inasmuch as charity is taken to generate particular attributions of belief, so those attributions are, of course, always defeasible. The principle itself is not so, however, since it remains, on the Davidsonian account, a presupposition of any interpretation whatsoever. Charity is, in this respect, both a constraint and an enabling principle in all interpretation — it is more than just a heuristic device to be employed in the opening stages of interpretative engagement.

So, for example, when the speaker with whom we are engaged uses a certain sequence of sounds repeatedly in the presence of what we believe to be a rabbit, we can, as a preliminary hypothesis, interpret those sounds as utterances about rabbits or about some particular rabbit. Once we have arrived at a preliminary assignment of meanings for a significant body of utterances, we can test our assignments against further linguistic behaviour on the part of the speaker, modifying those assignments in accordance with the results.

Using our developing theory of meaning we are then able to test the initial attributions of belief that were generated through the application of charity, and, where necessary, modify those attributions also. This enables us, in turn, to further adjust our assignments of meaning, which enables further adjustment in the attribution of beliefs, … and so the process continues until some sort of equilibrium is reached. The development of a more finely tuned theory of belief thus allows us to better adjust our theory of meaning, while the adjustment of our theory of meaning in turn enables us to better tune our theory of belief.

Through balancing attributions of belief against assignments of meaning, we are able to move towards an overall theory of behaviour for a speaker or speakers that combines both a theory of meaning and of belief within a single theory of interpretation. Since it is indeed a single, combined theory that is the aim here, so the adequacy of any such theory must be measured in terms of the extent to which the theory does indeed provide a unified view of the totality of behavioural evidence available to us taken in conjunction with our own beliefs about the world rather than by reference to any single item of behaviour.

This can be viewed as a more general version of the same requirement, made in relation to a formal theory of meaning, that a theory of meaning for a language address the totality of utterances for that language, although, in the context of radical interpretation, this requirement must be understood as also closely tied to the need to attend to normative considerations of overall rationality.

Moreover, indeterminacy is not to be viewed merely as reflecting some epistemological limitation on interpretation, but rather reflects the holistic character of meaning and of belief. Such concepts refer us to overall patterns in the behaviour of speakers rather than to discrete, entities to which interpretation must somehow gain access. The latter are most simply characterised as attitudes specifiable by reference to a proposition believing that there is eggplant for dinner is a matter of holding true the proposition that there is eggplant for dinner; desiring that there be eggplant for dinner is a matter of wanting it to be true that there be eggplant for dinner and so the contents of attitudes of this sort are always propositional.

Davidsonian holism is thus a holism that applies to meanings, to attitudes, and also, thereby, to the content of attitudes. Davidson argues, however, that the indeterminacy of interpretation should be understood analogously with the indeterminacy that attaches to measurement. Such theories assign numerical values to objects on the basis of empirically observable phenomena and in accordance with certain formal theoretical constraints.

Where there exist different theories that address the same phenomena, each theory may assign different numerical values to the objects at issue as do Celsius and Fahrenheit in the measurement of temperature , and yet there need be no difference in the empirical adequacy of those theories, since what is significant is the overall pattern of assignments rather than the value assigned in any particular case.

Similarly in interpretation, it is the overall pattern that a theory finds in behaviour that is significant and that remains invariant between different, but equally adequate, theories. An account of meaning for a language is an account of just this pattern. Michael Dummett has been one of the most important critics of the Davidsonian position see especially Dummett More recent criticisms have come from Jerry Fodor, amongst others, whose opposition to holism not only in Davidson, but in Quine, Dennett and elsewhere is largely motivated by a desire to defend the possibility of a certain scientific approach to the mind see especially, Fodor and Lepore The heart of a Davidsonian theory of interpretation is, of course, a Tarskian truth theory.


A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs

Don't have an account? This essay argues that in linguistic communication, nothing corresponds to a linguistic competence as summarized by the three principles of first meaning in language: that first meaning is systematic, first meanings are shared, and first meanings are governed by learned conventions or regularities. There is no such a thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language users acquire and then apply to cases, as well as the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions. Oxford Scholarship Online requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books within the service. Public users can however freely search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter. Please, subscribe or login to access full text content.



Jason Bridges. University of Chicago. Phil, Wlecture notes. Davidson on conventionalism and shared languages. Use and convention. Partly this is because they are not quite clear on what it is Davidson is denying.


Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson was one of the most important philosophers of the latter half of the twentieth century and with a reception and influence that, of American philosophers, is perhaps matched only by that of W. His work exhibits a breadth of approach, as well as a unitary and systematic character, that is unusual within twentieth century analytic philosophy. The breadth and unity of his thought, in combination with the sometimes-terse character of his prose, means that Davidson is not an easy writer to approach. He died suddenly, as a consequence of cardiac arrest following knee surgery, on Aug.

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