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Volume 17, 2002

Semantic Theory and Reported Speech

Corey Washington
Pages 138-152

Content Partialism and Davidson’s Dilemma

Hartry Field, Jerry Fodor and others differ with Donald Davidson over the question of how a theory of content should be structured. Field and Fodor maintain that a theory should begin by following the compositional structure of a sentence in reducing the semantic properties of complex expressions to the semantic properties of their simplest parts and complete the job by reducing the semantic properties of the parts to non-semantic ones. Davidson describes this approach as the ‘Building-Block method’ and maintains that it cannot possibly succeed. He holds that a theory of content should ‘give up reference’ by treating the semantic properties of basic expressions as a purely technical devices with no direct relation to non-semantic phenomenon. In this essay, I examine what I call “Davidson’s Dilemma”, the conflict between the apparent soundness the arguments for the view that a theory must treat reference as a point where linguistic and non-linguistic reality meet and the equally apparent soundness his argument that reference cannot possibly play this role. I propose a resolution to the dilemma that grants the validity of Davidson’s arguments against the building-block theories but is, I believe, more palatable to mainstream semanticists than Davidson’s solution. This solution, which I call ‘content partialism’ treats the reference of terms as regularities across propositional contents. I show how content partialism is consistent with a Kripkean theory of reference fixing, the touchstone of those who advocate building-block theories.

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