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Volume 11, 1998

Cognitive Semantics II

Ron Wilburn
Pages 120-148

Knowledge, Content, and the Wellstrings of Objectivity

In a number of recent papers, Davidson cultivates a new-found interest in “external world.” Starting from a naturalistic “attitude and method,” he purports to show that the skeptic's doubts are vacuous because the skeptic "does not understand his own doubts. ” His argument for this invokes a theory of cognitive content on which the traditional Cartesian picture of inference from inner to outer domains is allegedly turned on its head. On Davidson's alternative account, propositional thought is only made possible by a prior understanding of "objective truth,” where this notion is itself only given content by the presupposition of communicative exchange between speakers disparately located in a common spatio-temporal setting. What allegedly emerges is a comprehensive system within which the preconditions of meaningfulness effectively double as the preconditions of knowledge, providing an account of knowledge within which the skeptic has no room to maneuver. My concern in this paper is both with the semantic aspects of this account and with the epistemological consequences that Davidson sees as following from them. The story he tells, I argue, fails to prevent an alternative form of skepticism from arising from within his own naturalistic account of the nature and acquisition of knowledge. This is because a central contention of the account he provides is not only capricious, but implicitly at odds with his long-held views on the anomalousness of the mental.