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Why does semantics matter to the study of religion?

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Beware of meaning! Meaning is not an entity. It does not refer to anything. This essay is an attempt to describe Donald Davidson's theory of semantics. It took Davidson some time to realize that his truth conditional theory of meaning entailed a radical repudiation of traditional correspondence and coherence theories of meaning. We now have a third theoretical alternative in semantics. In this theory "truth" is left undefined. It is essential that you grasp firmly the fact that truth does not refer, or, "connect-up" anything that makes a sentence true. That is the work of epistemology, or perhaps psycho-neurology. The first theoretical task, therefore, is to describe truth, or meaning, as "convention-T". The second principle, the principle of charity, provides an explanation for testing the theory. The third principle, the principle of holism, provides the theoretical framework for truth-conditions and charity. The theory provides new and powerful refutations of relativism and the notion that semantics must be reduced to the function of the brain, sensations, specific stimuli, and the like. It also provides warrants for denying that religion is "symbolic" of experience of the numinous, the sacred, or other "given" foundations of what might be described as "religious experience". Davidson's theory has important, if not radical, consequences for the study of religion. The essay briefly describes a few of these.

Affiliations: 1: Dartmouth College


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