Davidson, Indirect Discourse, and “That”

In this post I will explain Davidson’s analysis of sentences containing indirect discourse and how we ought to treat their logical form.  This will pay close attention to the role of samesaying with an utterance.  The analysis here will reveal how sentences containing indirect discourse are a type of performative utterance.  Bringing these observations to bear, we will explain how and when we can substitute co-referring terms in that-clauses on Davidson’s account.  Finally, we will assess the adequacy of Davidson’s analysis by considering the similarity between samesaying and sense and reference, in order to show that Davidson’s prima facie anti-intensionalist stance is, in fact, intensional; and discuss how Davidson might reply.

The problem with sentences containing indirect discourse is that surface grammar does not adequately account for their meaning.  In “Scott said that Venus is an inferior planet”, we can substitute “is an inferior planet” for “is identical with Venus or Mercury” and not affect the truth of the sentence (for the former is co-extensive with the latter) (204).  But intuitively, this seems illegitimate because it no longer seems to represent what it is that Scott said, and so the meaning of the whole sentence has changed (204).  An adequate theory of meaning for utterances with that-clauses will specify how the meaning of the utterance depends upon the meanings of its finite component elements and syntactic structure (205) (so that we can construct a finite set of truth-conditions).  And the theory must also explain when the substitution of co-referring terms in a that-clause is permissible.

For Davidson, a sentence containing indirect discourse involves (1) an utterance referring to a speaker S in a context, (2) an utterance conveying the content of a that-clause, (3) an utterance of S with the same content of (2).  I say, “Galileo said that the earth moves”.  S is Galileo in context, and “the earth moves” conveys the content of an utterance of Galileo’s.  What Davidson wants to bring out here is that there is some judgment of synonymy between (2) and (3).

Such synonymy is what Davidson calls samesaying.  Samesaying is when you use words of the same “import here and now” as someone else used them “then and there” (210).  So in indirect discourse, when I say “Galileo said that the earth moves”, I am trying to represent Galileo and I as samesayers by attributing an expression to him (“the earth moves”) that is the same in purport to what he said – that is, synonymous, or has precisely the same content.  This is the key to appropriate substitution of co-referring terms, discussed later.

In light of our new notion of samesaying, how should we think about the logical form of utterances containing indirect discourse?  Suppose Galileo uttered, “eppur si muove”, and I say that “the earth moves”.  Then Galileo and I are samesayers, for our words are of the same import relative to our respective contexts – but this is not to say that it has been asserted that we are samesayers, just that it is so.  Because we are samesayers, there must exist an utterance asserting that Galileo and I are samesayers.  The logical form of such an utterance is: ∃x(Galileo’s utterance x and my utterance y make us samesayers) (210).  So I can attribute any utterance x to Galileo, provided that an utterance of mine y, corresponds to x (is the same in import as x) (210).  So consider (210):

(1) The earth moves.

(2) ∃x(Galileo’s utterance x and my last utterance make us samesayers).  Note that ‘y’ has been substituted for my last utterance, namely “the earth moves”.

If we abbreviate the second line, we get:

(1) The earth moves.

(3) Galileo said that.

How does it get abbreviated this way?  “That” is a demonstrative singular term which refers to an utterance, viz. the utterance of Galileo’s such that it samesays with my last utterance, (1).

So how does this inform the logical form of an utterance containing indirect discourse?  Such utterances consist in (a) an expression referring to a speaker (e.g. “Galileo”), (b) the two-place predicate “said”, and (c) a demonstrative “that”, referring to an utterance of the referent of (a) which samesays with the content of the that-clause (e.g. “the earth moves).  So it should be analyzed and recognized as two semantically distinct sentences, viz. “Galileo said that” and “the earth moves” (212).  From the logical form and the semantic distinctness of clauses of utterance with indirect discourse, it follows that these kinds of utterances are performatives.

A performative is an expression which introduces an utterance in a particular kind of way..  For example, “this is a joke: knock-knock…”.  The “this is a joke” functions to introduce the following utterance, “knock-knock…”, as (importantly) something other than just an assertion, viz. that it is a joke (and perhaps not to be taken seriously) (211).  Intuitively, “Galileo said that” and “the earth moves” looks like an introducing clause and an introduced clause (211).  “Galileo said that” is the performative part of the utterance (211); it’s point is to announce a further utterance in a particular way.  In this case, it introduces my further utterance as one that conveys the content of another’s utterance (Galileo’s), and must function as such.  This is to say that I announce my utterance of “the earth moves” as an action which samesays with an utterance of Galileo’s.  Notice that performative utterances have truth-values.  Suppose I said, “Galileo said that Obama is Kenyan”; this must be false, as clearly Galileo said no such thing.  Likewise, if I said, “this is a joke: Trump won the Republican Primary”, then I said something false, for Trump’s victory is a fact and not a joke (or at least not a funny joke).  So in both cases the entire performative utterance is false.

Now that we have explained samesaying, the logical form of an utterance containing indirect discourse, and why utterances of indirect discourse are performatives, we now have the resources to explain legitimate substitution of co-referring terms in a that-clause.  Consider the utterance “Quine said that Cicero wrote beautiful prose”.  This expression (a) refers to a speaker (Quine), (b) has a two-place ‘said’ relation, and (c) ‘that’ refers to an utterance of Quine’s.  We divide the sentence into “Quine said that” and “Cicero wrote beautiful prose”.  “Cicero” and “Tully” are co-referring terms; would substituting “Cicero” for “Tully” be a legitimate substitution?  So consider “Quine said that” and “Tully wrote beautiful prose”.  “Quine said that” announces the following utterance, “Tully wrote beautiful prose” in such a way that the entire performative utterance is true iff “Tully wrote beautiful prose” samesays with an utterance of Quine’s.  So we need to look at the conditions under which “Cicero wrote beautiful prose” (which we assume is what Quine actually said) and “Tully wrote beautiful prose” samesay.  They samesay iff the “Tully” in our substitution is used with the same import as “Cicero” in Quine’s utterance.  But to know if they have the same import, we will have to know something about Quine.  Namely, we will have to know whether Quine believes that “Cicero” and “Tully” co-refer to the Roman orator or not, when he made his utterance.  Suppose he did believe that “Cicero” and “Tully” co-refer.  Then, for him, “Tully” will have all the import of “Cicero”, and consequently “Tully wrote beautiful prose” and “Cicero wrote beautiful prose” will samesay and our substitution will be legitimate.  But suppose he did not believe that “Cicero” and “Tully” co-referred.  Rather, the only “Tully” he knows is a delinquent undergraduate.  So for Quine, “Cicero” and “Tully” cannot have the same import when he uses them.  Consequently, our substitution of “Tully” for “Quine” is illegitimate, for if you asked Quine if he had said that “Tully wrote beautiful prose” he would deny it (for no delinquent undergraduate writes beautiful prose). This is how Davidson would characterize the substitution of co-referring terms in a that-clause.  If the substitution preserves the import (of Quine’s utterance) – samesays – then the substitution is successful.  But if the substitution does not samesay, then the substitution is not successful (for if the substitution does not samesay with the speaker’s utterance, then it falsely attributes an expression to the speaker).

But Davidson’s account is not immune to criticism.  His notion of samesaying is particularly suspect.  If we take samesaying to be “using words the same in import ‘here and now’ as his ‘then and there’”, then this just sounds like a matter of using some combination of words with the same sense and reference as words spoken by the attributed speaker.  It is not as though import could be the semantic value of an expression, for that’s just a truth-value.  Nor could import mean the corresponding extension, for then we would not have said anything about the problem of substitution of co-referring terms.  So it seems most natural to think of import as sense or mode of presentation.  But if this is so, then this creates a problem for Davidson.  Sense is a Fregean notion, and is the “thought” grasped in virtue of hearing the utterance.  “Tully” and “Cicero” are two different ways of thinking about the same individual, and consequently one could believe that “Cicero wrote beautiful prose and Tully did not”.  That is, the words may be of different import.  But if import just is sense, then Davidson’s account cannot be successful.  This is because Davidson is committed to Tarski’s truth criterion: the meaning of the utterance depends upon the meanings of its finite component elements and syntactic structure.  “Cicero” and “Tully” denote the same individual, so they must mean the same thing.  But if they mean the same thing, then I could not believe that “Cicero wrote beautiful prose and Tully did not”.  But if I could believe that “Cicero wrote beautiful prose and Tully did not”, then I must have different ways of thinking about “Tully” and “Cicero” – that is, the expressions must differ in their senses.  Consequently, what determines the legitimacy of samesaying between expressions is the manner in which each expression is thought of.  And this violates Tarski’s truth criterion because manner of thought is not truth-functional notion, so Davidson’s account cannot be successful.  

In light of this, Davidson might respond by offering a more robust characterization of “import”.  Take “import” to be the truth-conditions of an utterance and reconsider “eppur si muove” and “the earth moves”.  Each is true iff the earth moves; intuitively they have the same import.  Now consider “Cicero wrote beautiful prose” and “Tully wrote beautiful prose”.  The former is true iff Cicero wrote beautiful prose; the latter is true iff Tully wrote beautiful prose.  So substitution of “Tully” for “Cicero” is illegitimate.  In this way, Davidson preserves his account without invoking sense, and so conforms to Tarski’s truth criterion.  Samesaying relies on identity between the concrete – truth-conditions – not some abstract, like mode of presentation.

But this is not an effective reply.  For if we intend to samesay with an utterance of Quine’s, then we will need to know what Quine took the truth-conditions of his utterance to be.  But we cannot always know what the speaker to whom we’re attributing an utterance takes the truth-conditions of his utterance to be.  So we cannot always know when it is legitimate to substitute co-referring terms because we do not know if we will preserve identity of truth-conditions of the attributee’s utterance.  So we cannot determine whether our performative utterance is true or false.  For me to truly assert that “Quine said that Tully wrote beautiful prose”, I must know that Quine believed that “Tully” and “Cicero” co-refer for our utterances to samesay.  While it will often be the case that we know what the truth-conditions of the speaker’s (to whom utterance is attributed) utterance are, this is not always so (as suggested by Tully the delinquent undergraduate).  

It seems that we want a way to attribute utterances to speakers when we do not have sufficiently reliable knowledge of the contents of their beliefs.  One way of accomplishing this might be to revise samesaying such that when there is not reliable knowledge of the content of the speaker to whom the utterance is attributed’s beliefs, then samesaying will instead be: when my utterance conveys the same content to the hearer as the attributed-speaker’s utterance conveyed to himself.  On this view, it is legitimate for me to substitute “Tully” for “Cicero”, even if Quine did not believe that they co-referred, because to the hearer, the utterance just means the same thing as “Cicero wrote beautiful prose”.  And now the hearer knows something true about Quine, namely that he thought that Cicero wrote beautiful prose.  He is just ignorant of the fact that Quine does not believe that “Tully” and “Cicero” co-refer.

But I think that this move starts to veer off-track.  The notion of samesaying begins to looks more broad, less clear, and more context dependent.


Works Cited

Martinich, Aloysius, and David Sosa. The Philosophy of Language. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.


One thought on “Davidson, Indirect Discourse, and “That”

  1. Pingback: Is the Present King of France Bald? | Reflecting Light

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