Davidson versus Chomsky: On shared language

Davidson and Chomsky, though differing on much in the study of language, are united in the view that the traditional notion of a shared language, such as English or Norwegian, has no part to play in a scientific or philosophical understanding of linguistic competence and communication. Davidson accepts Chomsky’s ideas about our linguistic ability as underpinned by dedicated and possibly hard-wired aspects of the mind/brain, but does not see this as relevant to a constitutive account of meaning and communication; Chomsky sees Davidson’s philosophy of language, like all others based on semantic notions, as doomed to obscurity. Against this background I subject Davidson’s argument from malapropisms for the view that there are no such things as languages to critical scrutiny. I conclude that it fails to show that communication does not rest on shared languages, but only that we speak a lot more such languages than we are ordinarily inclined to suppose. This consequence, of interest in its own right, also seems absurd. In the context of a Chomsky-Davidson debate, in which one is sceptical of the traditional concept of a language, this provides a corresponding lift for Chomsky’s overall perspective on language and the study thereof.

Keywords: Davidson, Chomsky, shared language, linguistic ability, malapropisms, communication, interpretation, theories of meaning