meaning & truth

March 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

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robert montgomery

Philosophical questioning has continuously brought us to the fundamental questions of truth and meaning. The analytic tradition was not immune to such struggles. The work of 20th century philosophers like Hartry Field, H.P. Grice and Donald Davidson often focused on language, logic and semantics sometimes by way of Alfred Tarski’s work on truth and semantics. To consider semantics is to think of how language is used and how semantic structures help convey meaning and truth to words and sentences. We’ll give a short look at few of their strategies here.

In the early 1970’s Hartry Field, in his paper “Tarski’s Theory of Truth” hoped to explain the semantics of natural language ultimately in physicalist terms. He did this through an elaborate critique of Alfred Tarski’s[1] semantic notion of truth. Field then had to attempt to unravel Tarski’s conditions for truth by extending his rules to account for more subtleties. We find that midway though Field’s highly technical paper he quotes Tarski who admits that there are problems harmonizing semantics with scientific postulates (403). Field then has to find a way to carefully amend Tarksi’s truth and he finds a physicalist way of doing so by the scientific concept of a “valence” (406). “The valence of a chemical element is an integer that is associated with that element, which represents the sort of chemical combinations that the element enters into” (Field 406). Field meticulously shows that we can extend the use of the combining concept of valence to a linguistic model, suggesting that even if we try to reduce the concept of valance down to its constituent parts we are still left with approximations. “In other words, the main point of the [Field’s] paper survives when we replace the ideal of strict reduction [à la Tarski] by the ideal of approximate reduction [to get to truth]” (Field 413). Essentially Field was concerned with the problem of finding good semantics for words which thereby emphasized the importance of reducing truth to other semantical notions that were formalized logically as Tarski prescribed back in the 40’s. Field writes “I think they [Tarski’s semantical notions] are extremely important, and have applications not only to mathematics but also to linguistics and to more directly ‘philosophical problems about realism and objectivity” (398).

H.P. Grice wants to explain the semantics of natural languages in terms of mental states in his 1957 paper “Meaning.” Grice is slightly less technical than Field and his is not a physicalist analysis. Instead, his ideas are based in the use of ordinary language to convey meaning by means of the intention of the speaker. Grice lucidly writes “perhaps we may sum up what is necessary for A [a speaker] to mean something by x [an uttered sentence with an intended meaning] as follows. A must intend to induce a belief in an audience, and he must also intend his utterance to be recognized as so intended” (288). Oddly, this is the kind of concept that’s better understood when we think of how we are easily misunderstood by the way we intend (or mis-intend) words. Yes we have to admit, words have a meaning before usage, but it’s only when words are coupled with ordinary usage do we comprehend fully what is meant by a speaker’s intention. Two useful terms conceptualize Grice’s intended concept of meaning—type and token. Type meaning is akin to a formal dictionary definition of a word. Token meaning has to do with the way the word gets used in ordinary language. If we are paying attention to the way words are used it’s arguably more of a mental activity to think of a speaker’s usage to know what he means in any number of situations, rather than consulting a dictionary to decode meaning. Usually we think that to derive meaning is to assume that all we have to work with are a bunch of overly formal definitions and delineations of words. However, Grice doesn’t think that either words or sentences are fundamentally needed for successful communication because it’s usually the intention of the speaker’s utterance that conveys the meaning for the listener and for Grice (as mentioned above).

Donald Davidson in his 1967 paper “Truth and Meaning” wishes to arrive at a satisfactory account of the semantics of natural languages by applying abstract logical developments to them. Davidson demonstrates that the meaning of words is mostly dependant on the sentences in which the words are used. “We decided a while back not to assume that parts of sentences have meanings except in the ontologically neutral sense of making a systematic contribution to the meaning of the sentences in which they occur” (Davidson 418). Davidson’s philosophy includes a kind of holism where the parts make sense within the use value of the whole. Alfred Tarski is again summoned and quoted so that Davidson can grapple with the transferability of natural language to a formally logical language to understanding meaning better. “Much of what is called for is just to mechanize as far as possible what we now do by art when we put ordinary English into one or another canonical notation” (422). In other words, once the language is formalized into a meta-language then we can better handle how to contend with how to confer meaning—logically. Davidson is concerned with the problem of finding good semantics for sentences, given a semantics for words. This is characterized by his claim that “it is consistent with the attitude taken here to deem it usually a strategic error to undertake philosophical analysis of words or expressions which is not preceded by […] the attempt to get the logical grammar straight” (424).

Aurelio Madrid


Works Cited

Davidson, Donald. “Truth and Meaning.” The Philosophy of Language. Eds. A.P. Martinich, David Sosa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 416-427. Print.

Field, Hartry. “Tarski’s Theory of Truth.” Martinich and Sosa 398-415. Print.

Grice, H.P. “Meaning.” Martinich and Sosa 285-290. Print.


[1] Tarski, Alfred. “The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics.” 1944.

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