Donald Davidson (philosopher)

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Donald Davidson
Davidson pyke.jpg
Portrait by photographer Steve Pyke in 1990.
Donald Herbert Davidson

(1917-03-06)6 March 1917
Died30 August 2003(2003-08-30) (aged 86)
Alma materHarvard University
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Doctoral advisorRaphael Demos
Other academic advisorsWillard Van Orman Quine
Main interests
Philosophy of language, philosophy of action, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ontology
Notable ideas
Radical interpretation, anomalous monism, truth-conditional semantics, principle of charity, slingshot argument, reasons as causes, understanding as translation, swampman, events, Davidson's argument against alternative conceptual schemes[2] (the third dogma of empiricism)[3]

Donald Herbert Davidson (March 6, 1917 – August 30, 2003) was an American philosopher. He served as Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley from 1981 to 2003 after having also held teaching appointments at Stanford University, Rockefeller University, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. Davidson was known for his charismatic personality and the depth and difficulty of his thought.[5] His work exerted considerable influence in many areas of philosophy from the 1960s onward, particularly in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and action theory. While Davidson was an analytic philosopher, and most of his influence lies in that tradition, his work has attracted attention in continental philosophy as well, particularly in literary theory and related areas.[6]

Although published mostly in the form of short, terse essays that do not explicitly rely on any overriding theory, his work is nonetheless noted for a highly unified character, the same methods and ideas brought to bear on a host of apparently unrelated problems, and for synthesizing the work of a great number of other philosophers. He developed an influential truth-conditional semantics, attacked the idea of mental events as governed by strict psychological laws, and rejected the conception of linguistic understanding as having to do with conventions or rules, concluding famously that "there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with." His philosophical work, as a whole, is said to be concerned with how human beings communicate and interact with one another.

Life and career[edit]

Davidson was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 6, 1917, to Clarence ("Davie") Herbert Davidson and Grace Cordelia Anthony. The family lived in the Philippines from shortly after Davidson's birth until he was about 4. Then, having lived in Amherst and Philadelphia, the family finally settled on Staten Island when Davidson was 9 or 10. He then began to attend public school and had to begin in first grade with much younger children. He then attended the Staten Island Academy, starting in fourth grade.

At Harvard University, he switched his major from English and comparative literature (Theodore Spencer on William Shakespeare and the Bible, Harry Levin on James Joyce) to classics and philosophy. Among his influences was Alfred North Whitehead; Davidson said that "Whitehead took me under his wing; he would invite me to his apartment for afternoon tea all the time."[7] He graduated in 1939, with a B.A. magna cum laude.

Davidson was a pianist and always had an interest in music, later teaching philosophy of music at Stanford. At Harvard, he was in the same class as the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, with whom Davidson played piano four hands. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production which Davidson mounted of Aristophanes' play The Birds in the original Greek. Some of the music was later to be reused in Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free.

After graduation, he went to California, where he wrote radio scripts for the private-eye drama Big Town, starring Edward G. Robinson. He returned to Harvard on a scholarship in classical philosophy, teaching philosophy and concurrently undergoing the intensive training of Harvard Business School. Before he had the opportunity to graduate from Harvard Business School, Davidson was called up by the US Navy, for which he had volunteered. He trained pilots to recognize enemy planes and participated in the invasions of Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. After three and a half years in the Navy, he tried unsuccessfully to write a novel before returning to his philosophy studies and earning his doctorate in philosophy in 1949 under Raphael Demos and Donald Williams. Plato's Philebus was the topic of his dissertation.

Under the influence of W. V. O. Quine, whom he often credited as his mentor, he began to gradually turn toward the more formal methods and precise problems characteristic of analytic philosophy.

In the 1950s, Davidson worked with Patrick Suppes on developing an experimental approach to Decision Theory. They concluded that it was not possible to isolate a subject's beliefs and preferences independently of one another so there would always be multiple ways to analyze a person's actions in terms of what they wanted or were trying to do or valued. That result was comparable to Quine's thesis on the indeterminacy of translation and figured significantly in much of Davidson's later work on philosophy of mind.

His most noted work (see below) was published in a series of essays from the 1960s onward, moving successively through philosophy of action into philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, and dabbling occasionally in aesthetics, philosophical psychology, and the history of philosophy.

Davidson was widely traveled and had a great range of interests he pursued with enormous energy. Apart from playing the piano, he had a pilot's license, built radios, and he was fond of mountain climbing and surfing.

He was married three times. His first wife was the artist Virginia Davidson, with whom he had his only child, a daughter, Elizabeth (Davidson) Boyer.[8] Following his divorce from Virginia Davidson, he married for the second time to Nancy Hirschberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later at Chicago Circle. She died in 1979.[9] In 1984, Davidson married for the third and last time, to philosopher Marcia Cavell.[10]

He served terms as president of both the Eastern and Western Divisions of the American Philosophical Association, and held various professional positions at Queens College (now part of CUNY), Stanford (1961-1967), Princeton (1967-1970), Rockefeller University (1970-1976), and the University of Chicago (1976-1981). From 1981 to his death he was at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy. In 1995, he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize.

Philosophical work[edit]

Actions, reasons, and causes[edit]

Davidson's most noted work began in 1963 with an essay, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes," which attempted to refute the prevailing orthodox view, widely attributed to Ludwig Wittgenstein[according to whom?] but already present in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, that an agent's reasons for acting cannot be the causes of his action (Malpas, 2005, §2). Instead, Davidson argued that, "rationalization (the providing of reasons to explain an agent's actions) is a species of ordinary causal explanation" (1963, p. 685). In particular, action A is explained by what Davidson called a primary reason, which involves a pro-attitude (roughly, a desire) toward some goal G and an instrumental belief that performing action A is a means to attaining G. For example, someone's primary reason for taking an umbrella outside on a rainy day might be that wanting to stay dry and believing that taking an umbrella is a means to stay dry today.

This view, which largely conforms to common-sense folk psychology, was held in part on the ground that while causal laws must be strict and deterministic, explanation in terms of reasons need not. Davidson argued that the fact that the expression of a reason was not so precise did not mean that the having of a reason could not itself be a state capable of causally influencing behavior. Several other essays pursue consequences of this view and elaborate Davidson's theory of actions.

Mental events[edit]

In "Mental Events" (1970) Davidson advanced a form of token identity theory about the mind: token mental events are identical to token physical events. One previous difficulty with such a view was that it did not seem feasible to provide laws relating mental states, like believing that the sky is blue or wanting a hamburger, to physical states, such as patterns of neural activity in the brain. Davidson argued that such a reduction would not be necessary to a token identity thesis: it is possible that each individual mental event just is the corresponding physical event, without there being laws relating types (as opposed to tokens) of mental events to types of physical events. Davidson argued that the fact that no such a reduction could be had does not entail that the mind is anything more than the brain. Hence, Davidson called his position anomalous monism: monism, because it claims that only one thing is at issue in questions of mental and physical events; anomalous (from a-, "not," and omalos, "regular") because mental and physical event types could not be connected by strict laws (laws without exceptions).

Davidson argued that anomalous monism follows from three plausible theses. Firstly, he assumes the denial of epiphenomenalism, the denial of the view that mental events do not cause physical events. Secondly, he assumes a nomological view of causation, according to which one event causes another if (and only if) there is a strict, exceptionless law governing the relation between the events. Thirdly, he assumes the principle of the anomalism of the mental, according to which there are no strict laws that govern the relationship between mental event types and physical event types. By these three theses, Davidson argued, it follows that the causal relations between the mental and the physical hold only between mental event tokens, but mental events as types are anomalous. That ultimately secures token physicalism and a supervenience relation between the mental and the physical, while respecting the autonomy of the mental (Malpas, 2005, §2).

Truth and meaning[edit]

In 1967 Davidson published "Truth and Meaning," in which he argued that any learnable language must be statable in a finite form even if it is capable of a theoretically infinite number of expressions, as may be assumed that natural human languages are, at least in principle. If it could not be stated in a finite way, it could not be learned through a finite, empirical method such as the way humans learn their languages. It follows that it must be possible to give a theoretical semantics for any natural language that could give the meanings of an infinite number of sentences on the basis of a finite system of axioms. Following, among others, Rudolf Carnap (Introduction to Semantics, Harvard 1942, 22) Davidson also argued that "giving the meaning of a sentence" was equivalent to stating its truth conditions, so stimulating the modern work on truth-conditional semantics. To sum up, he proposed that it must be possible to distinguish a finite number of distinct grammatical features of a language, and for each of them explain its workings in such a way as to generate trivial (obviously correct) statements of the truth conditions of all the (infinitely many) sentences making use of that feature. Thus, a finite theory of meaning can be given for a natural language; the test of its correctness is that it would generate (if applied to the language in which it was formulated) all the sentences of the form "'p' is true if and only if p" ("'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white"). (They are called T-sentences: Davidson derives the idea from Alfred Tarski.)

This work was originally delivered in his John Locke Lectures at Oxford and launched a large endeavor by many philosophers to develop Davidsonian semantical theories for natural language. Davidson himself contributed many details to such a theory, in essays on quotation, indirect discourse, and descriptions of action.

Knowledge and belief[edit]

After the 1970s Davidson's philosophy of mind picked up influences from the work of Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam, and Keith Donnellan, all of whom had proposed a number of troubling counterexamples to what can be generally described as "descriptivist" theories of content. The views, which roughly originate in Bertrand Russell's Theory of Descriptions, held that the referent of a name, which object or person the name refers to, is determined by the beliefs a person holds about that object. Kripke et al. argued that this was not a tenable theory, and that in fact whom or what a person's beliefs were about was in large part (or entirely) a matter of how they had acquired those beliefs, and those names, and how if at all the use of those names could be traced "causally" from their original referents to the current speaker.

Davidson picked up this theory, and his work in the 1980s dealt with the problems in relating first-person beliefs to second- and third-person beliefs. It seems that first person beliefs ("I am hungry") are acquired in very different ways from third person beliefs (someone else's belief, of me, that "He is hungry"). How can it be that they have the same content?

Davidson approached the question by connecting it with another one: how can two people have beliefs about the same external object? He offers, in answer, a picture of triangulation: beliefs about oneself, beliefs about other people, and beliefs about the world come into existence jointly.

Many philosophers throughout history had, arguably, been tempted to reduce two of these kinds of belief and knowledge to the other one: René Descartes and David Hume thought that the only knowledge that people start with is self-knowledge. Some logical positivists (and some would say Wittgenstein, or Wilfrid Sellars) held that people start with beliefs only about the external world. (Arguably, Friedrich Schelling and Emmanuel Levinas held that people start with beliefs only about other people.) It is not possible, on Davidson's view, for a person to have only one of the three kinds of mental content; anyone who has beliefs of one of the kinds must have beliefs of the other two kinds.

Radical interpretation[edit]

Davidson's work is well noted for its unity, as he has brought a similar approach to a wide variety of philosophical problems. Radical interpretation is a hypothetical standpoint which Davidson regards as basic to the investigation of language, mind, action, and knowledge. Radical interpretation involves imagining that you are placed into a community which speaks a language you do not understand at all. How could you come to understand the language? One suggestion is that you know a theory that generates a theorem of the form 's means that p' for every sentence of the object language (i.e. the language of the community), where s is the name of a sentence in the object language, and p is that sentence, or a translation of it, in the metalanguage in which the theory is expressed. However, Davidson rejects that suggestion on the grounds that the sentential operator 'means that' is sensitive not only to the extensions of the terms that follow it, but also to their intensions. Hence, Davidson replaces 'means that' with a connective sensitive only to the extensions of sentences; since the extension of a sentence is its truth value, this is a truth functional connective. Davidson elects the biconditional (if and only if) as the connective needed in a theory of meaning. He concludes that a theory of meaning must be such that for each sentence of the object language it generates a theorem of the form 's is true if and only if p'. A theory of truth for a language can serve as a theory of meaning.

The significance of this conclusion is that it allows Davidson to draw on the work of Alfred Tarski in giving the nature of a theory of meaning. Tarski showed how we can give a compositional theory of truth for artificial languages. Thus, Davidson takes three questions to be central to radical interpretation. Firstly, can a theory of truth be given for a natural language? Secondly, given the evidence plausibly available for the radical interpreter, can they construct and verify a theory of truth for the language they wish to interpret? Thirdly, will having a theory of truth suffice for allowing the radical interpreter to understand the language? Davidson has shown, using the work of Tarski, that the first question can be answered affirmatively.

Davidson points out that beliefs and meanings are inseparable. A person holds a sentence true based on what he believes and what he takes the sentence to mean. If the interpreter knew what a person believed when that person held a sentence to be true, the meaning of the sentence could then be inferred. Vice versa, if the interpreter knew what a person took a sentence to mean when that person held it to be true, the belief of the speaker could be inferred. So Davidson doesn't allow the interpreter to have access to beliefs as evidence, since the interpreter would then be begging the question. Instead, Davidson allows that the interpreter can reasonably ascertain when a speaker holds a sentence true, without knowing anything about a particular belief or meaning. That will then allow the interpreter to construct hypotheses relating a speaker and an utterance to a particular state of affairs at a particular time.

Davidson argues that because the language is compositional, it is also holistic: sentences are based on the meanings of words, but the meaning of a word depends on the totality of sentences in which it appears. That holistic constraint, along with the requirement that the theory of truth is law-like, suffices to minimize indeterminacy just enough for successful communication to occur.

In summary, what radical interpretation highlights is what is necessary and sufficient for communication to occur. The conditions are to recognize speakers as speakers, their beliefs must be mostly coherent and correct; indeterminacy of meaning does not undermine communication, but it must be constrained just enough.

I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. And we should try again to say how convention in any important sense is involved in language; or, as I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions.

— "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," Truth and Interpretation, 446



  • Decision-Making: An Experimental Approach, co-authored with Patrick Suppes and Sidney Siegel. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1957.
  • "Actions, Reasons, and Causes," Journal of Philosophy, 60, 1963. (Reprinted in Davidson, 2001a.)
  • "Truth and Meaning," Synthese, 17, 1967. (Reprinted in Davidson, 2001b.)
  • "Mental Events," in Experience and Theory, Foster and Swanson (eds.). London: Duckworth. 1970. (Reprinted in Davidson, 2001a).
  • "Agency," in Agent, Action, and Reason, Binkley, Bronaugh, and Marras (eds.), Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1971. (Reprinted in Davidson, 2001a.)
  • "Radical Interpretation," Dialectica, 27, 1973, 313–328. (Reprinted in Davidson, 2001b.)
  • Semantics of Natural Languages, Davidson, Donald and Gilbert Harman (eds.), 2nd ed. New York: Springer. 1973.
  • Plato's ‘Philebus’, New York: Garland Publishing. 1990.
  • Essays on Actions and Events, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001a.
  • Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001b.
  • Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001c.
  • Problems of Rationality, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.
  • Truth, Language, and History: Philosophical Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.
  • Truth and Predication. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2005. ISBN 978-0-674-01525-8
  • The Essential Davidson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pragmatism – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. ^ Summary of Donald Davidson's argument against alternative conceptual schemes
  3. ^ W. V. O. Quine elaborated the first two dogmas in his paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism."
  4. ^ Michael Dummett, The Interpretation of Frege's Philosophy, Duckworth, 1981, p. xv.
  5. ^ McGinn, Colin. "Cooling it". London Review of Books. 19 August 1993. Accessed 28 October 2010.
  6. ^ Dasenbrock, Reed Way, ed. Literary Theory After Davidson. Penn State Press, 1989.
  7. ^ An Interview with Donald Davidson.
  8. ^ Baghramian, Maria, ed. Donald Davidson: Life and Words. Routledge, 2013.
  9. ^ "Nancy Ann Hirschberg, In Memoriam, 1937 - 1979"
  10. ^ "In Memoriam: Donald Davidson Archived 2015-02-26 at the Wayback Machine"

Further reading[edit]

  • Dasenbrock, Reed Way (ed.). Literary Theory After Davidson. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press. 1993.
  • Hahn, Lewis Edwin (ed.). The Philosophy of Donald Davidson, Library of Living Philosophers XXVII. Chicago: Open Court. 1999.
  • Kotatko, Petr, Peter Pagin and Gabriel Segal (eds.). Interpreting Davidson. Stanford: CSLI Publications. 2001.
  • Evnine, Simon. Donald Davidson. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1991.
  • Kalugin, Vladimir. "Donald Davidson (1917–2003)," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006. (link)
  • Lepore, Ernest and Brian McLaughlin (eds.). Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1985.
  • Lepore, Ernest (ed.). Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1986.
  • Lepore, Ernest and Kirk Ludwig. "Donald Davidson," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, September 2004, vol. 28, pp. 309–333.
  • Lepore, Ernest and Kirk Ludwig. Donald Davidson: Meaning, Truth, Language and Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.
  • Lepore, Ernest and Kirk Ludwig. Donald Davidson's Truth-Theoretic Semantics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.
  • Ludwig, Kirk (ed.). Donald Davidson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2003.
  • Ludwig, Kirk. "Donald Davidson: Essays on Actions and Events." In Classics of Western Philosophy: The Twentieth Century: Quine and After, vol. 5., John Shand (ed.), Acumen Press, 2006, pp. 146–165.
  • Malpas, Jeffrey. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992.
  • Malpas, Jeffrey. "Donald Davidson," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005.
  • Mou, Bo (ed.). Davidson's Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy: Constructive Engagement. Leiden & Boston: Brill. 2006.
  • Preyer, Gerhard, Frank Siebelt, and Alexander Ulfig (eds.). Language, Mind and Epistemology: On Donald Davidson's Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 1994.
  • Ramberg, Bjorn. Donald Davidson's Philosophy of Language: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1989.
  • Romaneczko, Marta E. The Role of Metalanguage in Radical Interpretation. Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2007.
  • Stoecker, Ralf (ed.). Reflecting Davidson. Berlin: W. de Gruyter. 1993.
  • Uzunova, Boryana. The ‘World’ of Donald Davidson: Some Remarks on the Concept. in: Philosophia: E-Journal of Philosophy and Culture – 1/2012.
  • Vermazen, B., and Hintikka, M. Essays on Davidson: Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1985.
  • Zeglen, Ursula M. (ed.). Donald Davidson: Truth, Meaning and Knowledge. London: Routledge. 1991.

External links[edit]