Volume 6, 2007
John Michael McGuire
Malapropisms and Davidson's Theories of Literal Meaning
In this paper I show that two conflicting theories of literal meaning can be found in Donald Davidson's philosophy of language. In his earlier writings, Davidson espoused the common sense idea that words have literal meanings independently of particular contexts of use. In his later writings, however, Davidson insisted that the literal meaning of a word is a function of the speaker's intentions in using it, from which it follows that words do not have literal meanings independently of particular contexts. In this paper I examine and evaluate the transition from Davidson's earlier to his later view of literal meaning. I show that the change in view came about through Davidson's efforts to extend a theory of literal meaning to malapropisms but that Davidson's understanding of malapropisms is seriously flawed. I conclude that Davidson had no good reason for espousing his later intentions-based theory of literal meaning.