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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


DAVIDSON

(1917 — 2003)

 

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY

Donald Davidson was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was educated at Harvard University, where he studied literature and classics and then, as a graduate student, philosophy under Quine. He has been Professor of Philosophy at Princeton and latterly at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE AND LOGIC

[1] [See especially 'Truth and Meaning' and 'The Method of Truth in Metaphysics'.] A major concern of Davidson's is to develop an adequate theory of meaning. Such a theory, he says, must show how the meanings of words contribute to the meanings of sentences of a natural language, and must explain how speakers can produce and understand sentences they have never heard before (he calls this 'semantic productivity'). The theory must also be empirically testable. In general the theory must produce all sentences of the form 'S means m', where 'S' is a description of the sentence, and reveals its structure, and 'm' denotes the meaning. What can it tell us to say that S means a meaning? To reformulate this as 'S means that p', where 'p' is the sentence described by 'S' is equally unhelpful. Following Tarski's semantic theory of truth, Davidson therefore proposes a truth theory of meaning, that is, he seeks to show that truth is the central concept in the theory of meaning [a]. He argues that the theory that assigns meaning must be extensional, that is, it must allow for expressions which have the same reference (for example, singular terms which denote the same entity, sentences which have the same truth-value) to be substitutable for each other without changing the truth-value of the totality. These are to be contrasted with intensional expressions, such as 'necessarily' and 'X believes that...'. An intensional theory, he says, would lead to difficulties, as in the case, for example, when an attempt is made to infer from 'X believes that p' to 'X believes that q', given that 'p' and 'q' have the same truth-value. The fact that I believe that Venus is the morning star does not license me to believe that Venus is the evening star (although 'morning star' and 'evening star' do in fact denote one and the same entity). An approach to meaning, which itself involves intensional notions, is thus likely to be more satisfactorily dealt with in terms of an extensional account of 'truth' in terms of reference [b].

So what would such a theory of meaning be like? We need a criterion of success, a 'condition of adequacy' for the theory, which can generate for every sentence of the language a formula of the form 'S is T if and only if p' (where 'S' stands for the sentence, T stands for an arbitrary predicate, and 'p' states what must be the case if S is to be used correctly). Davidson says that any predicate which satisfies this condition must be a materially adequate truth-predicate, and this allows his theory of meaning to provide a definition for such a predicate. The formula can then be reformulated as 'S is true if and only if p' — 'S' being the name of 'p' and 'p' giving the truth conditions of S. The meaning of the sentence is thus in effect given by its truth conditions. All sentences in the language of the form " 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white" can now be generated. However, Davidson makes it clear that his theory provides only a test or criterion of adequacy; he is not attempting to define 'meaning' in terms of 'truth'. The meaning of the sentence is given in terms of what the sentence states [c]. It is discovered by supposing that there is a constancy in the speaker's beliefs (he calls this the 'principle of charity').

Underlying Davidson's general approach is a commitment to 'objective truth'; and he is particularly concerned to reject any kind of conceptual relativism [see 'The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme'] [d]. As he says ['The Method of Truth'], "In sharing a language, in whatever sense this is required for communication, we share a picture of the world that must, in its large features, be true". There can be no 'theory-free' foundation for experience — a position which would allow a variety of permissible theories. Rather belief, he says, is causally connected with experience. And he rejects the 'sceptical' empiricist critique of claims to direct knowledge of the world and the preservation of a gap between our linguistic schemes and 'reality' [e]. He supposes further that it is the language as a whole which is the basic unit of interpretation. This is the doctrine of holism [f]. And to investigate these notions of objectivism and holism and the associated metaphysical issues concerning our linguistic schemes and their relation to the 'real' world he utilizes formal languages (or 'canonical notations'), which he sees as devices for exploring the structure of natural languages (rather than to 'improve' them) ['The Method of Truth in Metaphysics] [g], and which he has employed to construct his truth theory of meaning.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MIND

ANOMALOUS MONISM

[2] [See especially 'Causal Relations', 'Mental Events', and 'Psychology as Philosophy'.] According to Davidson the 'particulars' of causes and effects are events, with a specialized location in space and time. They can be described in a variety of ways in the form of statements of causation. Only some of these statements, however, are causal explanations, that is, generally those which make use of descriptions which show cause and effect to instantiate a strict law [a].

He distinguishes between mental events and physical events. The physical realm is a closed system, but the mental is open. Different kinds of constitutive principles operate in each case. Thus rationality is appropriate to the mental realm. Reasons, intentions, coherence in attitudes and actions, for example, are prerequisites for people to be treated as persons. Physical events, on the other hand, are constrained by quite different constitutive elements, such as strict deterministic laws. Davidson therefore concludes that there cannot be strict psychophysical 'bridging' laws correlating the mental and the physical; and he also rules out reductive analyses of mental terms to physical ones. Nevertheless he wants to maintain that mental events are also causes and effects and therefore are subject to laws. So they must be covered by physical descriptions, because there are no psychophysical laws. When there is a causal connection between the mental and physical realms the mental event must be supposed to be a physical event. This theory is therefore materialist but non-reductive [b]. Purely psychological laws, he thinks, are improbable. Davidson argues further that although a causal analysis of the conditions of intentional actions may not be possible, freedom to act can still be regarded as a causal power of the agent. [See 'Freedom to Act'.] As for weakness of will, he attributes this to irrationality [c]. We perceive a creature as rational, he says, in so far as we are able to view his movements as part of a rational pattern comprising also thoughts, desires, emotions, and volitions. But if we want to account for the fact that an agent does an action a when he believes it would be better to do another thing, we can only say that he has no reason. He has a reason for doing a, but what he lacks is a reason for not letting his better reason for not doing a prevail. [See 'How is Weakness of the Will Possible?'].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Davidson is important largely for his contributions to the theory of meaning and truth and his account of causation, action and mind.

(1) Meaning and truth. He aims to develop a criterion of adequacy for meaning in a natural language, which is based on Tarski's semantic theory of truth. He is not attempting to define either truth or meaning. But even his limited aims have been criticized on the grounds that natural languages are not fully amenable to a comprehensive treatment by the techniques of formal logic. Moreover, it is argued that an extensional treatment of meaning (in terms of observational truth-conditions) is inadequate in so far as it presupposes that the circumstances in which a supposedly truthful speaker of the language assents or dissents from its sentences can be identified by the interpreter. Indeed, his approach to the holistic interpretation or translation of language, while appropriate for 'truth', is mistaken in that it belongs to his theory of meaning rather than being a consequence of it.

(2) Philosophy of mind. For Davidson events are the basic particulars. Explanations of actions in terms of mental events (beliefs, reasons, desires) are not causal; they conform to normative rationality but as such still require to be brought under laws. As there are no psychological laws mental events must admit of physical but non-reductive counterpart descriptions. It is a current concern of many philosophers whether Davidson's 'anomaly' is sustainable and indeed whether it is genuinely 'monistic'.

 

READING

Davidson: Essays on Actions and Events (2nd edn 2001 ) [includes 'Actions, Reasons and Causes (1963), 'Causal Relations' (1967), 'How is Weakness of Will Possible?' (1970), 'Mental Events' (1970), 'Freedom to Act' (1973), and 'Psychology as Philosophy' (1974]); Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (2nd edn 2001) [includes 'Truth and Meaning' (1966), and 'The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme' (1974), 'The Method of Truth in Metaphysics' (1977). reprinted in K. Baynes et al. (eds), After Philosophy: End or Transformation),]; Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (2nd edn 2001) [includes 'A Coherence Theory of Truth' (1983)]; 2004, Problems of Rationality (2004); Truth, Language and History: Philosophical Essays (2005); Truth and Predication (2005).

Studies

B. Ramberg, Donald Davidson's Philosophy of Language: An Introduction.

S. Evnine, Donald Davidson.

M. Joseph, Donald Davidson.

E. LePore & K. Ludwig, Donald Davidson: Meaning, Truth, Language and Reality.

Collections of essays

L. E. Hahn (ed.), The Philosophy of Donald Davidson.

E. LePore (ed.), Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson.

E. LePore and B. McLaughlin (eds), Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Davidson

 

Note: Davidson's semantic theory of truth represents an attempt to apply the theory of Alfred Tarski (1902-83) to natural languages.

 

[1a] Truth central to theory of meaning: semantic theory

   Frege

   Popper

Strawson

Dummett

[2h]

[1b]

[1e]

[1f]

 

[1b] Theory must be extensional (e.g., 'truth' in terms of reference); problems with notion of intensionality

   Frege

   Quine

Dummett

[2e g]

[1a]

[1f]

 

[1c] Meaning of sentences in terms of truth-conditions and of what sentences state

   Frege

   Wittgenstein

   Quine

Dummett

[2h]

[1c]

[1a]

[1f]

 

[1d] 'Transcendental' argument to show incoherence of conceptual relativism; truth objective

   Kant

   Quine

Dummett

[1c]

[2b 3b]

[1b f]

 

[1e] Rejection of empiricist divorce between linguistic schemes and reality

   Carnap

   Quine

Putnam

[3d]

[3a]

[1g]

 

[1f] Holism: language as whole unit of interpretation

   Quine

Dummett

[1f 3a]

[1f]

 

[1g] Formal language to explore and improve natural language; metaphysical implications of language-reality relationship

   Frege

   Quine

Dummett

[2b]

[1i]

[1a]

 

[2a] Causes and effects as events; only causal explanations are nomological; variety of descriptions

   Hempel

Ayer

   Searle

[2a c]

[4a]

[2e h]

 

[2b] Constitutive principles of mental realm — rationality, physical realm — deterministic laws; no psychophyscal 'bridging' laws, or reductive analysis of mental to physical; but reasons/ mental events are causes and require materialist, non-reductive theory

   Husserl

   Wittgenstein

   Hempel

   Quine

Ayer

   Hampshire

Ricoeur

   Putnam

   Searle

Kripke

[6a]

[3c]

[2a c]

[3a]

[3e 4b]

[1c]

[5d 5g 6b]

[2a]

[2e-h]

[2a]

 

[2c] Freedom and causal agency; weakness of will

   Aristotle

   Moore

   Austin

   Hampshire

   Hare

   Searle

[21b]

[1e]

[1b]

[2a]

[1e]

[3a]