Theories of radical interpretation in outline
Radical interpretation is an inferential investigation into the meanings of
utterances of an unknown language.
The evidential base of radical interpretation
The investigation begins from information that makes no use of
linguistic concepts such as meaning, interpretation, and synonymy.
Hence, not even the meanings of expressions in one’s own language
are allowed.
Presuppositions of radical interpretation revealed by this starting point
It is thus presupposed that one can describe the world, and particularly
the behaviour of language using creatures, without using linguistic
Because radical interpretation maintains that semantic facts, i.e., facts
about meaning, are determined by non-linguistic facts, a dualistic
theory of content is false, and may even be unintelligible. A dualistic
theory of content says that there are facts about the meanings of a
physical system’s utterances in virtue of the physical system being
related to an unobservable entity, or has an unobservable property.
Thus, a theory of radical interpretation is committed to a materialist,
non-eliminativist theory of mind, i.e., a theory which says that the
mind is a material thing and that has beliefs, desires, thoughts, etc.
The context of Davidson’s discovery of radical interpretation
In ‘Truth and Meaning’ Davidson emphasises that natural languages contain a
potential infinite variety of sentences, and we are creatures with finite
cognitive capacities.
From these observations, Davidson concludes that a theory of meaning for a
natural language, a theory that would suffice as a theory of understanding for
creatures like us, a theory would have to be finitely axiomatisable utilising a
finite stock of words. Thus, a theory of meaning is one that is compositional:
sentences are complex items whose meanings are determined by the meanings
of their parts.
A Tarskian style theory of truth meets these requirements and could therefore
serve as a theory of meaning for natural languages. So, a theory of meaning
should issue theorems of the form: S is true iff p.
So, on this account a theory of meaning is empirically confirmed if it issues in
true biconditionals of the form: S is true iff p.
But a Tarskian style truth theory does not seem to suffice as a theory of
meaning, for there could be different theories which are extensionally
equivalent, i.e., issue only true biconditionals of the form ‘S is true iff p’, but
only one of them seems to be a theory of meaning.
Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation provides a response to this
objection: a theory of meaning is no longer adequate if it merely issues in true
Tarskian biconditionals, it must also respect the Principle of Charity, which
says that we should interpret others so that their utterances are largely true and
that they are rational. (The seeds of principle this might be found in ‘Truth
and Meaning’, pp. 25-27.) With the Principle of Charity in play, the
extensionally equivalent but non-meaning giving theories are ruled out.
Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation
The evidential base of Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation is the
observation of a subject holding true an utterance S. That is, the subject is
willing to sincerely assert S.
The radical interpreter then seeks to systematise the utterances that the subject
holds true in order that she might determine patterns in the subject’s
These patterns then serve as the guidelines for constructing a theory of truth
for the subject’s utterances.
This theory of truth will consist in a finite number of axioms and a finite
number of words that characterise the semantic properties of the subject’s
In constructing this theory, the theorist is constrained by the Principle of
Charity, that is, the theorist must construe the subject is both: (i) largely right
about the world and (ii) is rational.
The Principle of Charity then provides the vital link between the interpreter
observing the subject holding S true and S’s being true.
With this link in place, the interpreter can observe the subject holding S true;
then infer that S is true; observe the truth condition of S, namely, ‘S is true iff
p’; and then infer the meaning of the subject’s utterance of S, which is its truth
Consequences of Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation
Meaning is a normative concept.
Meaning is indeterminate, in some respects.