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Temperate Semantic Conventionalism

Pedro Abreu

Abstract

I return to Davidson’s “anti-conventionalism” papers to assess his famous arguments against the sufficiency and necessity of conventions for successful linguistic communication. Davidson goes beyond the common contention that the basic conventional layer of meaning, one that is secured by interlocutors’ shared competence in their common language, must often be supplemented in rich and inventive ways. First, he maintains that linguistic understanding is never exclusively a matter of mere decoding, but always an interpretative task that demands constant additional attention to the indeterminately various cues and clues available. More radically still, Davidson denies that linguistic conventions are even needed. In particular, he argues against the fairly consensual thesis there is some essential element of conventionality in literal meaning. This still represents a very distinctive contribution to the persistent and tumultuous discussion over the relative natures and limits of semantics and pragmatics. I maintain that Davidson is only partially right in his claims. I agree with him about the general insufficiency of conventions for linguistic communication. I develop an argument supporting the thesis that genuine pursuit of linguistic understanding can never take the form of uncritical conformity to a fixed norm. I am also convinced that Davidson is right about the occasional dispensability of conventions. Often enough, as Davidson’s examples show, literal meanings are improvised on the go - that is, interlocutors manage to coordinate on the meaning of some exchanged expression without the benefit of a shared convention governing that use. I reject, however, general non-necessity. I consider in some detail Davidson’s argument from radical interpretation and conclude that it fails.

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Munich/Boston
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