Meaning, expression and thought

Meaning, expression and thought. By Wayne A. Davis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 653. ISBN 9780521039048. $55.

Reviewed by Alessandro Capone, University of Messina

This book was written by a distinguished philosopher. It is difficult, nowadays, to find books that, in addition to displaying enormous erudition, exhibit clarity of thought and expression. Davis’s is one such book. The book is about a rational approach to language and communication and engages the readers with continuous attempts to revisit and revise the views on meaning by the great philosophers of the twentieth century, such as, for example, Paul Grice. This is an important volume that should be widely read.

This book deals with the principles of semantics and develops the classical doctrine that words conventionally stand for mental states, principally thoughts and ideas. Meaning consists in their expression. This ‘expression theory of meaning’ is put forward through the classical Gricean program. The author explains the meanings that words have in terms of speaker meaning. The book also deals with the important notion of (a speaker) having a certain intention in uttering a sentence. The intention underlying meaning is the intention to indicate in some way that certain thoughts and thought parts (‘ideas’) are entertained by the speaker. D argues that this definition can avoid the problems caused by the Gricean definition. This may very well be true, but some may argue that this theory is too weak to be really useful. Communication surely involves commitment to beliefs, not just to having ‘ideas’. A written utterance on the lecture room blackboard saying ‘Napoleon is an ass’ surely communicates somebody’s idea that Napoleon is an ass, but in default of an individual’s commitment to the belief ‘Napoleon is an ass’, I would take this to be a case of imperfect (or partial) communication (as are all cases of anonymous letters and messages).

Notions such as communication and reference are discussed at length in the book. D argues that the notion of thought crucial to meaning is a fundamental cognitive phenomenon that must be kept separate from belief and desire. He produces various arguments in support of the view that thoughts are complex units, and that the complexity of thought is at the basis of the compositionality of meaning. His thesis is distinguished from many other ‘language of thought’ theories. Finally, the author defends ideational and mentalistic theories of the sort he develops against the most influential objections.

One criticism I have is that D might have written a more informative section on propositional attitudes; but he will surely smile at this point, since he has written another thick book on similar topics (Nondescriptive meaning and reference, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

I am persuaded that this is a very balanced, critical, and informative book. It is a monumental volume and I must recommend it to all philosophers and linguists.