Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Davidson’s Semantic Externalism: From Radical Interpretation to Triangulation [Special Issue]

Topics: History of Analytic Philosophy, Philosophy of language, Theoretical philosophy
Keywords: meaning, Radical interpretation, semantic externalism, triangulation


The received interpretation of Donald Davidson’s philosophy has it that his thoughts underwent a significant change between his early work and his later work, in particular, between his work on radical interpretation and his work on triangulation. It is maintained that the kind of semantic externalism Davidson advocated in his later work is importantly different from that advocated in the early work. Indeed, it is sometimes even maintained that his semantic externalism emerged only, roughly, in his later work. I argue that Davidson’s semantic externalism has always been not only holistic and historical, but also social and nonreductionist. His work on triangulation, by supplementing the early work, reinforces these earlier conclusions and vindicates some of his early assumptions, in particular, his claims that language and thought are essentially public and that their possession requires having the concept of objectivity. I end the paper by  articulating what I take to be the most significant differences between Davidson’s version of externalism and more orthodox versions.

In the last forty years of his life, Donald Davidson developed a highly distinctive version of semantic externalism, which has been largely unrecognized as such, and which has important consequences for his philosophy unrecognized by Davidson himself. The main purpose of this paper is to correct these lacunae.


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