Can the figure of the radical interpreter cast any light on the notion of meaning? 


Before I can discuss whether the radical interpreter can cast any light on the notion of meaning, I have to land on a particular concept for "the notion of meaning" involved.  There are three notions of meaning that might qualify for consideration in understanding the essay's title question.  Next I will have to present a description of just what the figure of a radical interpreter is, and what job she has been given in contributing to a theory of meaning.  Finally, I will have to distinguish between two different classifications of a theory of meaning.  Only then, once these three ambiguities in the title question are resolved, can I offer any suggestion as to what light the figure of the radical interpreter can cast on the notion of meaning.

Regardless of what one might think of Paul Grice's program of conversational implicature(1), it is undeniable that he has altered the landscape of any discussions on the nature of "meaning".  He has separated the concept into three different (although related) sub-concepts.

First, there is "speaker's-meaning".  This is a concept of meaning that is expressly psychological in nature.  Utterances, or sentence tokens, are generated by a speaker according to that speaker's beliefs, desires and other propositional attitudes.  More formally --

(G)       "By uttering x, S meant that P" is to be analyzed as "S uttered x intending that A form the belief that P"

Where S is the speaker, A is the audience, x is the utterance, and P is the proposition.  "Speaker" and "utterance" are to be understood quite generally.  Any production of a sign intended to communicate is regarded as an "utterance" generated by some "speaker", regardless of the nature of the sign or the form of the "utterance".  I should also note in passing that I mean nothing mysterious by "proposition".  I am using this word as a general term for the things people assent to, reject, find doubtful, accept for the sake of argument, attempt to verify, deduce things from, and so on.

I have provided here, of course, just the first clause of Grice's formalized statement of the theory.  Grice goes on to add a number of complicating conditions to the basic idea, involving second and third order intentions, in order to deal with unusual counter-examples.  But for the purposes of this essay, this simplified version will do and I will ignore the complications.

Second, there is "audience-meaning".  Whatever the intentions of the speaker in his/her effort to communicate to an audience, those intentions will be frustrated unless the audience can gain from the speaker's utterance enough evidence (given the context) to reach some reasonably accurate conclusions as to the nature of P.  Regardless of what x consists of, A must be able to interpret that utterance as indicating that S intends A to form the belief that P.  The first part of this (that S intends A to form a belief) is straight forward given the minimal context of communication.  But the problem arises in figuring how A comes to know what P is.  So in parallel with the utterance having a "speaker's-meaning" reflecting the intentions, beliefs, desires, and other propositional attitudes of the speaker, the utterance also has an "audience-meaning" reflecting the conclusions that the audience infers with regards to what the speaker intends for him to form a belief about -- the contents of P.

Third, there is "literal-meaning".  This is the necessary common understanding between speaker and audience resting with the sub-sentential parts of sentences -- words or common phrases.  It is the fact that parts of sentences have this "literal meaning" that gives languages their compositional nature.  Both uttered and never before uttered sentences have a "literal meaning" that can be built up from the conventionally agreed meaning of the individual parts (along, or course, with the conventionally agreed rules of sentence syntax). 

This resting of the literal meaning of sentences on the conventionally agreed "literal-meaning" of words (or common phrases) meshes nicely with the way that we all learn new words in our own language, or in another language.  We learn new language elements either ostensibly (these rough looking rocks here we call "painite") or by using other words in a description (as in the dictionary definition of "kainotophobia" as a fear of change).  So as long as the speaker (S) builds the utterance (x) using words or phrases that the audience (A) is familiar with, there will be little opportunity for a significant disconnect between speaker's-meaning and audience-meaning. 

The concept of a radical interpreter was introduced by Donald Davidson(2).  It was meant by him to suggest an important similarity to W.V.O. Quine's concept of radical translation, a concept in Quine's work on the indeterminacy of translation.  Quine's notion of radical translation is the translation of a speaker's language, without any prior knowledge of that language, using only empirical observation of the speaker's use of the language in context(3).  Quine was a devoted empiricist, and his notion of radical translation was a specifically behaviorist concept.  It did not rely on any mentalist notions of speaker's beliefs or desires, or any ontological notions about "meanings".

Davidson was less restrictive in this regards.  Similar to Quine's notion, Davidson's notion of radical interpretation was the interpretation of a speaker from scratch, without relying on translators, dictionaries, or specific prior knowledge.  But unlike Quine, he includes in the work of the interpreter the attribution of beliefs and desires to speakers, and meanings to their words.  To Davidson, radical interpretation is a process of interpreting the linguistic behavior of a speaker without reliance on any prior knowledge either of the speaker's beliefs or the meanings of the speaker's utterances.  Davidson's intention is to isolate the minimum knowledge required if linguistic understanding is to be possible.  And his intention is to base that effort on only the publicly available evidence.  It is clear, therefore, that the radical interpreter's contribution to "meaning" is intended by Davidson to address the concept of what a Gricean would call "literal-meaning" -- the meaning of a sentence divorced from any context of utterance.

Davidson's strategy is to base his general theory of interpretation on the more formal structure of a Tarskian style truth theory.  In Davidson's lexicon, a "theory of meaning" is a truth theory meeting a modified version of Alfred Tarski's Convention T, for the speaker's idiolect.(4)  He uses as his empirical basis the idea of a speaker's attitude of holding particular sentences true in particular circumstances.  The radical interpreter infers from an exhaustive body of such behavioral evidence a "theory of meaning" by finding under what circumstances the speaker holds-true a particular sentence.  Ernest Lepore and Kirk Ludwig(5) characterize this as inference from sentences of the form:

Ceteris paribus, S holds true s at t if and only if p.

to corresponding T-sentences of the form

s is true (S,t) if and only if q

where s is a sentence in the idiolect (object language) of the speaker S, t is a time, and p and q are filled in with sentences in the meta-language (language of the interpreter).

Davidson's approach means that a speaker's beliefs and speaker's meaning are interdependent.  One cannot assign meanings to a speaker's utterances without knowing what the speaker believes (holds-true), while one cannot identify beliefs without knowing what the speaker's utterances mean(6).  Davidson's solution to this difficulty is his "principle of charity" (or "principle of rational accommodation").  The principle can be seen as combining two notions: (i) a holistic assumption of rationality in belief (in other words, a "coherence" notion of rationality) and (ii) an assumption of causal relatedness between beliefs (especially perceptual beliefs) and the objects of belief (in other words, a "correspondence" notion of truth)(7).

There are thus two related consequences of this "principle of charity".  Assignments of literal-meaning to sentences, and attributions of hold-true beliefs on the part of speakers must be mutually consistent.  But they must also be consistent with the evidence afforded by the interpreter's knowledge of the speaker's environment.  The interpreter must assume, according to Davidson, that the causes of a speaker's hold-true beliefs must (in the "most basic cases") be what the interpreter identifies as the objects of those beliefs.  In other words, the radical interpreter must assume that the speaker's beliefs (at least in the simplest cases) are largely in agreement with her own.  And so must assume that they are largely true.  (It is inconceivable that the interpreter would consider that her own beliefs are largely false.)  Provided that the radical interpreter can identify the attitude of "holding true" in the studied population of speakers, then the interconnection between belief and meaning enables the interpreter to use her own beliefs as a guide to the meanings of the speaker's utterances.  This means that Davidson cannot tolerate the notion that this interdependence between interpreter's beliefs and speaker's literal-meaning can fail.  In fact, he has argued(8) that intertranslatability is a necessary condition for langaugehood.  This will have a significant impact on the kind of light that the radical interpreter can cast on the notion of "literal meaning".

In "General Semantics," David Lewis wrote

"I distinguish two topics: first, the description of possible languages or grammars as abstract semantic systems whereby symbols are associated with aspects of the world; and, second, the description of the psychological and sociological facts whereby a particular one of these abstract semantic systems is the one used by a person or population. Only confusion comes of mixing these two topics."(9)

Echoing Lewis, there clearly is a distinction between the questions "What is the meaning of this symbol (for a particular language group)?" and "In virtue of what facts about the world does the symbol have that meaning?"  This gives us two different kinds of a "notion of meaning".  One kind, employed by a "semantic theory" of meaning, is a specification of the meanings of the words and sentences of some (object) language in terms of another (meta-)language.  The other kind, employed by a "foundational theory" of meaning, is a specification of what about the world of some language group gives the symbols of their language the meanings that they have.  Obviously, the two kinds of theory place constraints on each other.  But that does not change the fact that semantic theories and foundational theories are simply different sorts of theories, designed to answer different questions.(10)

We already determined above, that the figure of the radical interpreter is concerned only with the "public-" or "literal-meaning" of sentences.  Having now distinguished between the two kinds of theory of meaning, we can determine that the radical interpreter is concerned only with a "semantic theory" of meaning.  Given the radical interpreters preoccupation with building a Tarski-style truth-theory with T-sentences, equating a sentence in the object language with a sentence in the meta-language, it is obvious that she is concerned only with a semantic theory of meaning and not a foundational theory of meaning.  Davidson even admits this --

"Like many others, I wanted answers to such questions as "What is meaning?", and became frustrated by the fatuity of the attempts at answers I found . . .  So I substituted another question which I thought might be less intractable: What would it suffice an interpreter to know in order to understand the speaker of an alien language, and how could he come to know it?"(11)

So, it may be a good thing to know that "der schnee ist weiss" is true if and only if snow is white.  And it may provide a good explanation of what "der schnee ist weiss" means in English.  But it does not provide any explanation of how the right side of that equivalence gains the meaning it has.  The radical interpreter will discover the meaning of the symbol in quotes ("der schnee ist weiss") by specifying the truth conditions in some other language (snow is white).  What the radical interpreter is not trying to provide, however, is a foundational theory of meaning.  Specifying the truth conditions for a sentence of the object language does not help to understand that object-language sentence, if one does not already understand the meaning of the meta-language sentence in which those truth conditions are specified.

So, given all the constraints on the performance of the radical interpreter, what light can she cast on the notion of meaning?  The radical interpreter considers that the basic unit of meaning is the sentence and not the word.  Words, therefore, she understands as having only derivative meaning.  Because the radical interpreter must depend on her own beliefs to derive meanings of sentences in the object language, she must assume that the object language is a compositional language similar to her own.  This means she must assume that the meaning of novel sentences must be compilable out of the meanings of its parts.  So sub-sentential parts must have their own meanings, but those meanings are derived from the use of those parts in sentences.  This means that novel words (novel to some audience -- the intepreter) must be used in sentences to derive their meaning.  So words like "painite" or "kainotophobia" get their meaning by being used, not ostensibly or by dictionary entries.  (And if the words have never yet been used in a sentence to mean something, then what?)

The other consequence of the necessary interdependency of interpreter beliefs and interpreted meanings is that the radical interpreter must assume that the conceptual schema of the studied population has to be similar to her own.  If there is any significant mismatch in conceptual schema between the object language and the meta-language, radical interpretation will fail.  An obvious challenge when the object language is alien while the meta-language is familiar, it might appear to be less so when the object and meta-language are in the same family of languages (say, English).  But it does rear its ugly head when the possibility is contemplated that the concepts being expressed in the sentences being interpreted are alien to the interpreter -- whether the object and meta-language are in the same family or not.

Finally, and most significantly, the radical interpreter understands the "notion of meaning" from the perspective of a truth-theoretic semantic theory -- giving the meaning of sentences in the object language in terms of sentences in the meta-language.  What the radical interpreter cannot provide is a notion of meaning that explains what it is about the world (or about some language group) that gives the sentence "snow is white" (in the meta-language) the meaning that it has.

So it turns out that the figure of the radical interpreter can shed much less light on the notion of meaning (simpliciter) than is usually thought, advocates of truth-theoretic semantics not withstanding.


Notes & References

(1)  Grice, H. Paul; "Meaning" in The Philosophical Review, Vol 66 (1957), pp 377-388. (Reprinted in his Studies in the Way of Words.)

            "Utterer's Meaning, Sentence Meaning, and Word Meaning" in Foundations of Language, Vol 4 (1968), pp 225-242. (Reprinted in his Studies in the Way of Words.)

(2)  Davidson, Donald;  "Radical Interpretation" in Dialectica,Vol  27 (1973), Pp. 314-28. Reprinted in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation,  Pp 125-139.

(3)  Quine, W.V.O.;  Word and Object, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1964. ISBN 978-0-262-67001-2.

(4)  Wikipedia contributors;  "Radical interpretation" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(5)  Lepore, Ernest & Ludwig, Kirk;  Donald Davidson: Meaning, Truth, Language and Reality. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 2005. ISBN 978-0-199-20432-8.  Kindle Edition.

(6)  Malpas, Jeff, "Donald Davidson" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

(7)  Davidson, Donald;  "Three Varieties of Knowledge" in Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, Vol 30 (Sept 1991), Pp 153-166.

(8)  Davidson, Donald;  "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47 (1973 -1974), pp. 5-20

(9)  Lewis, David;  "General Semantics" in Synthese, Vol 22 (1970), Pp 18--67.

(10)  Speaks, Jeff;  "Theories of Meaning" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

(11)  Davidson, Donald;  "Radical Interpretation Interpreted" in Philosophical Perspectives, Vol 8 (1994), Pp 121-128.


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