Quine’s [historic[ importance does … depend upon his being right in one central claim, a claim which he expressed by saying that there is no sensible distinction between analytic and synthetic truths but which he should have expressed by saying that there is no sensible distinction between a priori and a posteriori truths.
Erasing the line between the analytic and the synthetic saved philosophy of language as a serious subject by showing how it could be pursued without what there cannot be: determinate meanings.
Quine’s writings are the point of departure for the familiar doctrine that goes by the name 'meaning holism'. This doctrine contrasts with meaning atomism, according to which a linguistic expression e in a language L has its meaning 'Auf Eigene Faust' (viz., in and by itself) by virtue of a symbol-world relation independent of, and (metaphysically) prior to, whatever role e has in L. For meaning atomism, reference (however specified), then, is primitive, and the role of e in L is determined by, and derivative from, the meaning e acquires in virtue of that relation. In opposition, according to meaning holism, a linguistic expression e in a language L has its meaning in virtue of its (however specified) relations with other expressions in L; that is, in virtue of its role in L. For meaning holism, since the role of e in L constitutes e’s meaning, reference becomes derivative from, and (metaphysically) posterior to, the role e plays in L.
Donald Davidson's work on the theory of meaning has been enormously influential since the publication of “Truth and Meaning” in 1967. His central proposal was that an understanding of what it is for “words to mean what they do” (Davidson 1984b, p. viii) can be pursued by way of constructing and confirming for a speaker an axiomatic truth theory, modeled on a Tarski-style axiomatic truth definition, for his language. In this chapter, we first discuss the background of Davidson's famous suggestion, initially introduced in “Truth and Meaning.” We begin with his arguments for the importance of attending to the compositionality of natural languages in §1, then turn in §2 to his criticisms of traditional approaches to the theory of meaning. In §3, we discuss Davidson's introduction of a truth theory as the vehicle for a compositional meaning theory; in §4, we explore some interpretive issues that arise about his intentions, specifically the question of whether Davidson intended to replace the traditional project (providing an account of meaning) with a more tractable one (providing an account of truth conditions), or whether he intended to pursue the traditional project by novel means. We argue that, though Davidson has been widely misunderstood, his intention is clearly the latter, and, specifically, that his goal has always been to give an account of what illuminating constraints a truth theory can meet that would suffice for it to be used to understand any potential utterance of an object language sentence.
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