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  • The Structure of Truth: The 1970 John Locke Lectures by Donald Davidson
  • Claudine Verheggen
DAVIDSON, Donald. The Structure of Truth: The 1970 John Locke Lectures. Edited by Cameron Domenico Kirk-Giannini and Ernie Lepore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 120 pp. Cloth, $35.95

This short book consists of the six Locke lectures Donald Davidson delivered at Oxford in 1970, as well as an introduction by the editors, Cameron Domenico Kirk- Giannini and Ernie Lepore, who helpfully summarize the contents of each lecture and connect them to pieces that were published before or after the lectures. It is perhaps no wonder that Davidson himself chose not to see the lectures in print, for much of what they contain was eventually published, if it had not already been at the time of the lectures. But this absence of interest on Davidson's part in seeing the lectures in print does not detract from their interest for anyone eager to understand how one of the great philosophical systems of the twentieth century started developing. For the lectures contain not only an already well worked out semantic program but also the seeds of his metasemantic views and their consequences for metaphysics and epistemology. Moreover, the materials he chose not to publish, pretty obviously because he came to relinquish [End Page 590] the views they advocate, may help the reader to understand better the views he did further develop, and why he developed them, or, alternatively, they may prompt the reader to wonder what different path he may have taken, had he not relinquished those early views.

The first lecture, tellingly called "Speaking the Truth," is, to my mind, the most thought-provoking one, for two reasons. First, it endorses a claim that Davidson would famously come to reject, namely, that literal meaning is essentially conventional. Second, it asserts a claim that Davidson always argued for, though this has not always been recognized by his commentators, namely, that meaning cannot be reduced to any nonsemantic notion. The lecture focuses on Davidson's semantic program and thus the idea that a theory of truth could serve as a theory of meaning for a language (here English), that is, a theory that "gives the meanings of all independently meaningful expressions on the basis of their structure." One remarkable thing about the lecture is that Davidson initially chooses (unlike what he had done in "Truth and Meaning," but anticipating "Radical Interpretation") to describe the relation between truth and meaning in terms of the relation between the conditions under which someone speaks the (literal) truth and what she means by her words. Thus, he initially chooses to describe the relation between meaning and truth by appealing to a kind of speech-act. Speaking the (literal) truth is a speech-act, he says, of a kind different from others, such as assertion; indeed, it is "unique" in that it is the only one we can tell has been performed just by knowing the language in which it has been performed, together of course with the way the world is. And it is the only one that is purely conventional, thus "specially suited to systematic study." Interestingly, aside from this blatant claim about meaning being conventional, and, to some extent, because of that claim, the lecture contains many of the claims for which Davidson subsequently further argued. Most notably, Davidson emphasizes the ideas that literal meaning is autonomous, that is, independent of illocutionary force and ulterior purposes (nonlinguistic intentions), and that illocutionary forces are not "wholly definable in terms of conventional procedures." What is also striking about the lecture is that there is no serious attempt to elucidate the nature of meaning in a foundational way. His main goal, Davidson says, is not to provide a "general" theory of meaning but to see how to construct, for a particular language, a theory that would enable us to understand all the linguistic acts, potential and real, performed by the speakers of that language. Thus, at this stage, Davidson's interests are more semantical than metasemantical. This makes it unsurprising that he takes the conventional aspect of literal meaning for granted. But then it is also unsurprising that this is...