Donald Davidson: Malapropisms

The language is a complex and changing system which makes the process of communication possible. At the same time, the diversity of the language and language elements makes the communication particularly interesting and beautiful. On the other hand, the diversity of language and numerous stylistic devices that can be used in the language raise debates among specialists. For instance, Donald Davidson stands on the ground there is no such thing as a language that we master as a condition of communication, but also he argues that metaphors have no meaning independently of the literal meaning of the expressions that comprise them. In such a way, he combines the literal and metaphorical meaning, which are closely intertwined and metaphorical meaning turns out to be irrelevant independently of the literal meaning. However, at this point, it is possible to argue that Davidson’s argument against the metaphorical meaning implies the existence of a fixed, shared literal meaning, which he actually rejects. In this regard, such a position of Davidson and his view on metaphorical meaning makes the transition from living to dead metaphors quite problematic, if possible at all, and, what is more, it is possible to challenge his argument in favor of the close interdependence between literal and metaphorical meaning and his view on the metaphorical meaning at large.

First of all, Donald Davidson lays emphasis on the fact that there is no such thing as the language that people master as a condition of communication. As the matter of fact, this idea is quite arguable because, in such a way, Davidson puts under a question the very essence of the language as the means of communication. At this point, it is possible to refer to non-verbal communication as a potential alternative to the verbal language, but it is obvious that the verbal language is superior to non-verbal communication. In other words, the language play the primary role in the communication of people and the arguments of Donald Davidson concerning the language is not the condition of communication is inconsistent.

The language is essential for communication and people do need to master language to communicate effectively. The ability of an individual to master the language defines his or her communication skills and abilities that make the fundamental idea of Donaldson, according to which there is no such thing as a language that we master as a condition of communication, irrelevant.

At the same time, Donald Davidson argues that stylistic devices, such as metaphors cannot be used in the language without taking into consideration the literal meaning. He stands on the ground that metaphors are closely intertwined with the literal meaning and context in which they are used. However, this view of Davidson can be challenged because such interpretation and understanding of metaphorical meaning implies the existing of a fixed, shared literal meaning, which, by the way, Donald Davidson denies in his “A Nice derangement of Epitaphs” (1989).  In such a way, his argument concerning metaphorical meaning is not absolutely correct.

Donald Davidson believes that people can understand the metaphorical meaning only in the context of the literal meaning of the expression or phrase. In fact, Davidson’s view is grounded on the idea that literalness and metaphorical effects belong to two different, independent spheres of communication: the sphere of linguistic meaning, or semantics, and the sphere of linguistic use, or pragmatics. The dependence of metaphorical meaning on the literal meaning occurs in the result of the interaction between the two aforementioned spheres, and this is exactly where the major controversy in the position of Donald Davidson arises. To put it more precisely, it is possible to argue that the conception of the metaphor implies that the metaphor is neither the case of literalness nor the mere effect of the use of the language. Thus, in response to Davidson’s view on metaphors and metaphorical meaning, it is possible to understand metaphor as both meaning and use. In such a context, the metaphor can be understood as something different from literal meaning, but, at the same time, as something intrinsic to the language (Strawson,  1999) that makes the argument of Donald Davidson inconsistent or, at least, uncertain.

In this respect, the criticism of Donald Davidson’s views can be grounded on two assumptions. Firstly, it is possible to argue that the literal meaning of words that form a part of the metaphor has to be visible in order for the metaphor to exist as such. Secondly, literal meaning and metaphorical use are strictly separated. In such a context, the view of Donaldson on the metaphor as a mere producer of effects is inconsistent because, if the metaphor was the mere producer of effects it could not convey the full implicit meaning which is traditionally attributed to as the metaphorical meaning. In addition, such a view of Donaldson makes the translation from living to dead metaphors quite problematic. Donaldson is simply inclined to view metaphors as what is normally defined as dead metaphors. The concept of a dead metaphor implies a metaphor in which a previously metaphorical expression has come to be accepted as literal, for instance the expression the “mouth of a river”, in which the original literal meaning of the word “mouth” (the opening of the digestive tube) goes unnoticed, and is instead understood as a literal designation for the point at which a river meets the sea (Strawson, 1999). In this regard, the position of Davidson is inconsistent because, according to Donald Davidson, the meaning should be solely located in the literalness of words, i.e. in a determinate cognitive content. However, this content is subject to learning processes. Therefore, words univocally refer to meanings and the relations between them are ruled by conventions. This means that Donaldson develops the idea which implies the existence of fixed, shared literal meaning, which he denies in his “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (1989) that reveals the controversy in views on Donaldson on metaphorical meaning and the language at large.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Donald Davidson develops quite controversial ideas concerning the metaphorical meaning and the language. In fact, his ideas challenge the concept of the language as the primary condition of communication between people. At the same time, his view on the metaphorical meaning as being dependent on the literal meaning turns out to be inconsistent because, as it has been already discussed above, such a view on the metaphorical meaning leads to the existence of the notion of fixed, shared literal meaning, which Donaldson, himself, rejects.

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