In his “What is a theory of meaning? (I)”, Dummett attributes an argument to Davidson about the inadequacy of a translation manual for meaning. The argument goes that one could have a complete translation manual from a language one doesn’t understand into a language one doesn’t understand. One could use this manual to get a perfectly adequate translation without understanding either the source or the target sentences. Since a theory of meaning is supposed to double as a theory of understanding for a language, it follows that translation manuals can’t be all there is to meaning. This argument is used by Dummett against Davidson when he claims that (a) Davidson wants a theory of meaning to be modest (in the sense that you must already have the concepts in question to use it) and (b) that a modest theory of meaning does nothing over and above a translation manual. Premiss (a) is true. Most of the relevant argumentation goes to supporting (b), since convincing us of that will get Dummett to the conclusion that a theory of meaning should be full-blooded, as this is the only other option.

I don’t know where this argument comes from in Davidson’s work. I’d like to know. Dummett doesn’t have a citation. It sounds like something that could be there. It seems like the thrust of the argument can be put another way. Translation manuals are solely syntactic (in the logician’s sense). They map strings to strings (or if we have a fancy manual, phoneme sequences to phoneme sequences, or syntactic structures to syntactic structures). At no point in the use of a translation manual does meaning come into consideration. Of course, the use of a translation manual would require that source sentences be disambiguated and parsed properly. This job might require recourse to meanings, but apart from this possible presupposition there is no mention of meanings. So, Davidson’s argument comes down to saying that syntax by itself can’t take care of meaning cause syntax can’t explain understanding. I fear there is some misinterpretation going on because I’ve just made Davidson sound like Chinese Room Searle. But, this might not be too far off base since Davidson’s writings on truth emphasize the indispensability of the semantic in interpretation and in our theories of the world. See his “Material Mind” and “Mental Events” for examples of this.

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