Donald Davidson


[Here’s an unpublished dictionary entry on Donald Davidson (from 2004). A modified version is to be found in the 2005 Edinburgh Dictionary of Continental Philosophy (John Protevi ed.)]

Donald Davidson (b. 1917, d. 2003), American philosopher whose essays on language, mind and knowledge extend Quine’s attack on the reification of meaning and epistemological foundationalism. In ‘Mental Events’ (1970) he also propounded an influential form of non-reductive materialism. Drawing, here, on his theory of linguistic interpretation, he argues that beliefs, desires and actions are only ascribable on the assumption that they are interrelated in a largely reasonable and consistent manner. Since psychology, unlike physics, is governed by norms of rationality, strict psychophysical laws relating physical states and contentful mental states are impossible. This is compatible with each mental state being a ‘token’ of a physical type: hence Davidson’s characterisation of his position as ‘anomalous monism’. ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’ (1963) argues on similar grounds that while rendering action intelligible from an agent’s point of view, explanatory reasons must also be causally responsible for behaviour.

Davidson’s philosophy of language addresses philosophical constraints on theories of linguistic understanding. ‘Truth and Meaning’ (1967) argues that knowledge of the truth conditions of assertions suffices for understanding them and that Tarski’s account of truth in formalised languages shows how a semantic theory could eschew generalised conceptions of meaning or linguistic representation. Subsequent essays develop a metatheory of radical interpretation, specifying how interpreters could test whether a truth theory is interpretative for an uninterpreted language. The criterion of empirical success here is that a theory correctly predicts circumstances of utterance for arbitrary sentences of a language. This implies semantic holism: that the meaning of a term reflects its place in the totality of linguistic behaviour. Such behaviour counts as evidence only if, applying the ‘principle of charity’, speakers are assumed to have largely true beliefs. ‘The Structure and Content of Truth’ (1990) argues that interpretation presupposes a grasp of truth irreducible to theoretical notions like correspondence or coherence. ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’ (1986) employs literary cases of unconventional speech such as Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop to argue that the notion of a common language has little explanatory role in semantics – a line of reasoning comparable to Derrida’s use of the notion of iterability to deconstruct philosophical appeals to convention or shared practice.

Like Quine, Davidson holds that interpretations are underdetermined by considerations of charity. There are, in consequence, no ‘deeper’ facts that could allow an interpreter to decide between competing interpretative theories explaining the same speech behaviour. Charity and the resultant ‘semantic indeterminacy’ have broader epistemological import. ‘In ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ (1974) they are deployed against empiricist and transcendentalist pictures of mind ‘forming’ the world from unconceptualised ‘content’ which he takes to underlie relativism and strong incommensurability claims. Strong Kantian parallels can be found, however, in ‘Thought and Talk’ (1975) and ‘Rational Animals’ (1982) where it is argued that only creatures possessing a concept of belief can have beliefs and that an understanding of objectivity emerges in the intersubjective context of linguistic interpretation. ‘The Myth of the Subjective’ (1987) argues that the mental content is only fixed under charitable interpretations of an agent’s activity within a common world, thereby undermining Cartesian-style appeals to intrinsically contentful ‘Ideas’ as a basis for philosophical reflection.

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