Home > mcgill, mpw, philosophy of language > Juhani Yli-Vakkuri – Knowing Meanings and Knowing Truth Theories

Juhani Yli-Vakkuri – Knowing Meanings and Knowing Truth Theories

October 21, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

McGill Philosophy Workshop

Juhani Yli-Vakkuri
Knowing Meanings and Knowing Truth Theories

How is linguistic meaning related to truth? A number of influential philosophers have held that there is a link via knowledge and understanding: they have held that a speaker x’s knowledge of a finitely axiomatized truth theory for a language L might have some role in x’s understanding of L. In particular, it has been suggested that knowing a Tarski-style truth theory for a language L would be sufficient for understanding L (or at least the declarative sentences of L). This claim – call it the Sufficiency Thesis (ST) – was first made by Donald Davidson some 40 years ago, and it has been used to justify a particular approach to natural language semantics: the construction of Tarski-style truth theories for fragments of natural languages (truth-theoretic semantics). Due to some very straightforward counterexamples, almost no one accepts ST today, but nonetheless many philosophers and linguists continue to endorse truth-theoretic semantics on grounds similar to ST. In response to  counterexamples to ST, some philosophers, beginning with Davidson  himself, proposed Modest Sufficiency Theses (MSTs), which take the form: “Knowing a truth theory for a language L and knowing that ____ is sufficient for understanding L.” The blank here is filled in differently by different authors. The idea is, that is, that to understand a language L it’s not quite enough to know a truth theory for L; one must in addition know something else. This paper criticizes MSTs, but not by arguing that they are false. It is argued instead that if MSTs are true, then they are uninteresting in that they leave no role for knowledge of truth theories in linguistic understanding,   because knowing that ____ all on its own would be sufficient for understanding a language. MST advocates, then, are forced to  acknowledge that knowledge of a truth theory for a language is neither sufficient nor necessary for understanding it. This is not a happy situation for those who wish to use MSTs to justify truth-theoretic semantics for natural languages.

Tuesday, October 28 at 12:30 PM, Leacock 927.

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