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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Emergence, Meaning and Rationality


Using Nagel’s characterisation of the distinction between reduction and emergence, I argue that Davidson’s account of meaning and mental content based on the thought experiment of radical interpretation is doubly emergent. Uncontentiously, Davidson presents a picture of meaning which emerges from, rather than reduces to, physical properties. But his own presentation of radical interpretation suggests a reductive view which relates meaning to a prior grasp of rationality. I outline an alternative ‘no priority’ view in which meaning introduces new specifically semantic ‘oughts’ whose grasp may require a non-universal special design of mind. This suggests that meaning and intentionality emerge, also, from the rational realm.

Insights Paper