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Substantive Truth and Knowledge of Meaning


Deflationists have been hard at work convincing us that the concept of truth is far less interesting, and therefore far less mysterious, than long-lasting debates as to its true nature have made it seem. By denying that there is a substantive notion of truth expressed by our uses of the word `true,' deflationism promises to dissolve a number of explanatory hurdles.

Donald Davidson rejected deflationism. He grew increasingly sceptical of attempts to assimilate our understanding of truth to any definition or schema, and came to see his own approach to meaning as crucially dependent on a substantive notion of truth.

Exactly how, and where, does Davidson's approach to meaning depend on the availability of a substantive notion of truth? One of my goals is to answer this question. Another is to explain why it has proved so hard to answer it. A third goal is to bring to light what it would really be like to be a deflationist--in particular, what linguistic competence would look like if we took deflationism seriously.

In Chapter 1, I clarify Davidson's proposal to use truth theories as meaning theories. I explain this proposal as rooted in a certain conception of a meaning theory as an account of a speaker's understanding of her own sentences, and of this understanding as at least partly consisting in the speaker's knowledge of the truth-conditions of her sentences. In Chapter 2, I argue that deflationism does not allow us to describe competent speakers as knowing the truth-conditions of their sentences. If this is right, deflationism is incompatible with Davidson's conception of truth theories as theories of linguistic competence, but not for the reason usually given. That is, it is not because deflationism explains knowledge of truth-conditions as a trivial by-product of linguistic competence rather than being constitutive of it, since deflationism does not even allow us to ascribe such knowledge to speakers.

In Chapter 3, I argue against the widespread assumption that Davidson's proposal concerning the form to be taken by a meaning theory is primarily an answer to the question: what knowledge would enable us to interpret any utterance in a given language? This assumption underlies recent attempts to exhibit Davidson's approach to meaning as hospitable to a deflationary account of truth. However, as I explain, it undermines the distinction Davidson insists on between meaning theories and translation manuals, and thus cannot be right. Chapter 4 further argues that the methodology of radical interpretation does not, by itself, explain the need for a substantive notion of truth, contrary to what some (including Davidson) have suggested. Finally, in Chapter 5, I highlight some consequences of these results for both our understanding of Davidson's philosophy of language, and our understanding of deflationism.

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