Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Outline of Davidson's "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs"

A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs

Donald Davidson

  1. The phenomenon of the malapropism.

"A malapropism is an incorrect usage of a word by substituting a similar-sounding word with different meaning, usually with comic effect."

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A. "What is interesting is the fact that in all these cases the hearer has no trouble understanding the speaker in the way the speaker intends" (p. 473).

B. "The hearer realizes that the 'standard' interpretation cannot be the intended interpretation; through ignorance, inadvertance, or design the speaker has used a word similar in sound to the word that would have 'correctly' expressed his [sic] meaning" (p. 473).

C. Why malapropisms are philosophically important.

"We want a deeper notion of what words, when spoken in context, mean; and like the shallow notion of correct usage, we want the deep concept to distinguish between what a speaker, on a given occasion, means, and what his [sic] words mean. The widespread existence of malapropisms and their kin threatens the distinction, since here the intended meaning seems to take over from the standard meaning" (p. 474).

  1. Popular theory: distinction between speaker's meaning and first meaning.

Davidson refers to first meaning instead of literal meaning, because literal meaning "is too encrusted with philosophical and other extras to do much work" (p. 474).

-First meaning "applies to words and sentences as uttered by a particular speaker on a particular occasion" (p. 474).

-If the first meaning is sufficiently normal or standard, then the first meaning can be found in a dictionary, but "first meaning comes first in the order of interpretation" (p. 474). This means that sometimes it is necessary to investigate the original context to ascertain the first meaning.

Investigating the context also requires an investigation of an understanding hearer.

-In order to narrow first meaning to languages, first meaning requires that hearer(s) share a "complex system or theory with the speaker, a system which makes possible the articulation of logical relations between utterances, and explains the ability to interpret novel utterances in an organized way" (p. 475).

Three principles of first meaning:

1. First meaning is systematic.

2. First meanings are shared.

3. First meanings are governed by learned conventions or regularities.

Problems with the principles:

1. Ambiguity

"Though the verbal and other features of the context of utterance often determine a correct interpretation, it is not easy or perhaps even possible to specify clear rules for disambiguation" (p. 475).

Disambiguation cannot easily be codified into a system or theory.

2. Order of words.

-"The difference between 'They got married and had a child' and 'They had a child and got married' (pp. 475-476).

-Discerning the significance of the order of words cannot easily be codified into a system or theory.

"-No amount of common sense unaccompanied by linguistic lore would enable an interpreter to figure it out" (p. 476).

3. Malapropisms: they "introduce expressions not covered by prior learning, or familiar expressions which cannot be interpreted by any of the abilities so far discussed" (p. 476).


1. A language user has a recursive theory of understanding. The interpreter does not need to be aware that he/she is actually employing any specific theory.

2. "What must be shared is the interpreter's and the speaker's understanding of the speaker's words" (p. 477).

3. An interpreter reflexively revises his/her theory of interpretation if it is inadequate.

This gives up principle #3 because learned conventions or regularities do not account for this response.

Response #3 indicates either:

a. The analysis of first meaning needs a stronger account of the malapropism phenomenon, or

b. We should abandon the distinction between first meaning and speaker's meaning and try something else.

Davidson's problem remains:

-"I want to know how people who already have a language (whatever exactly that means) manage to apply their skill or knowledge to actual cases of interpretation. All the things I assume an interpreter knows or can do depend on his [sic] having a mature set of concepts, and being at home with the business of linguistic communication. My problem is to describe what is involved in the idea of 'having a language' or of being at home with the business of linguistic communication" (p. 479).

  1. Davidson's Proposal

Interpreter's Point of View

1. At any time during a speech transaction, an interpreter has a prior theory of interpretation.

2. The interpreter automatically modifies his/her prior theory in response to empirical evidence as it becomes available.

E.g., "Knowledge of the character, dress, role, sex of the speaker, and whatever else has been gained by observing the speaker's behavior, linguistic or otherwise" (p. 479).

"As the speaker speaks his [sic] piece the interpreter alters his [sic] theory" (p. 479).

3. The theory that an interpreter uses for an occasion is "geared to the occasion" (p. 479).

-This particular theory may or may not be suitable for another occasion. An interpreter will decide whether to abandon or retain a modified theory.

Speaker's Point of View

1. A speaker wants to be understood, so he/she will choose a method of communication that will be interpreted in a predictable way (p. 479).

2. In order to accomplish this predictability, the speaker "forms, or uses, a picture of the interpreter's readiness to interpret along certain lines" (p. 479).

3. 'Certain lines' may include predicting that the interpreter will revise his/her theory of interpretation (p. 479).

Key Terms:

Prior Theory:

"For the hearer, the prior theory expresses how he [sic] is prepared in advance to interpret an utterance of the speaker" (p. 480).

"For the speaker, the prior theory is what he [sic] believes the interpreter's prior theory to be" (p. 480).

Passing Theory:

For the hearer, the passing theory is how the interpreter actually interprets an utterance (p. 480).

For the speaker, the passing theory is the theory that he/she "intends the interpreter to use" (p. 480).

New problem with the principles of first meaning:

-"The distinction between the prior and the passing theory, if taken seriously, undermines this commonly accepted account of linguistic competence and communication" (p. 480).

-Neither the prior theory nor the passing theory satisfy the need for a convention of language.

1. Each communicator has a unique prior theory, and two communicators must possess the same passing theory in order to understand each other. The prior theories may be conventional, but they are never the theories used to achieve understanding in communication, and prior theories are never shared. In addition, the passing theory is not a language, since communicators only use it to understand a transient communication at a given moment.

2. "What interpreter and speaker share, to the extent that communication succeeds, is not learned and so is not a language governed by rules or conventions known to the speaker and interpreter in advance; but what the speaker and interpreter know in advance is not (necessarily) shared, and so is not a language governed by shared rules or conventions" (p. 482).

The missing link: the strategy of getting from a prior theory to a passing theory.

-"What I have been leaving out of account up to now is what Haber calls a 'strategy', which is a nice word for the mysterious process by which a speaker or hearer uses what he [sic] knows in advance plus present data to produce a passing theory. What two people need, if they are to understand one another through speech, is the ability to converge on passing theories from utterance to utterance. Their starting points, however far back we want to take them, will usually be very different--as different as the ways in which they acquired their linguistic skills. So also, then, will the strategies and strategems that bring about convergence differ" (p. 482).

< ? > Maybe 'language' is a 'strategy'?

Davidson says no. A strategy is very foreign from any standard way of characterizing a language.

-"We have discovered no learnable common core of consistent behavior, no shared grammar or rules, no portable interpreting machine set to grind out the meaning of an arbitrary utterance" (p. 482).

-"There are no rules for arriving at passing theories, no rules in any strict sense, as opposed to rough maxims and methodological generalities" (p. 482).

Best solution: give up the principles of first meaning.

-"We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases" (p. 483).

-"We should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions" (p. 483).

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