American, b: March 1917, Springfield, Massachusetts. Cat: Philosopher of mind; philosopher of language. Ints: Casuation; meaning. Educ: Harvard University, BA 1939, MA 1941, PhD 1949. Infls: Carl Hempel, Hans Reichenbach, Rudolf Carnap, Willard Van Orman Quine and Alfred Tar ski. Appts: Instructor, Queen’s University (NY) College, 1947–56; Stanford University, California, 1951–67; Professor, Princeton University, 1967–70; Professor, Rockefeller University, 1970–6; Professor, University of Chicago, 1976–81; Professor, University of California, Berkeley, from 1981; John Locke Lecturer, University of Oxford, 1970.
Donald Davidson is one of the major contributors to contemporary analytic philosophy. Over a period of three decades he has outlined and developed two distinctive and intimately related theoretical perspectives in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language. Some of his earliest work was devoted to uncovering the logical form of causal and action statements, already demonstrating the close relation between semantic and other substantive issues. Dissatisfied with standard analyses of such statements, he argued that legitimate inferences, for example from ‘Caesar stabbed Brutus with a knife’ to ‘Caesar stabbed Brutus’ were not recoverable unless such statements were analysed in terms of relations between events, where these latter were taken as belonging to an ontological category distinct from things and their properties. Espousing a materialist position, Davidson had to accommodate prima facie conflicting theses: that as human beings we were part of the natural order, but that our mental life and voluntary action failed to fit the requirements of deterministic law. Davidson disputes that there are strict laws connecting the mental and the physical, or connecting mental events with one another, despite being committed to the view that each mental event is a physical event. This controversial view, which he calls ‘anomalous monism’, itself supplies an interesting twist to the debates between proponents of soft and hard determinism, the point being that it is only under a physical description that mental events instantiate deterministic laws. Yet for Davidson causation is essential to understanding the idea of acting with a reason, and we can make singular causal claims without reference to any laws that they might instantiate. Reasons are not only causes, but also explanatory of what people do. Thus Davidson’s strategy is appropriately described as rationalizing one, in that normative principles embody all that we know about mental life and human action. So while we might defer to experts about the nature of copper or quarks, our everyday or ‘folk-psychology’ requires no such deference.
In his treatment of the mental Davidson concentrates on ‘propositional attitudes’, states with propositional content as expressed in statements like ‘Joan believes that snow is white’. He sees beliefs as explanatory, but also as showing how other beliefs and actions can be reasonable, given those initial beliefs. Being a believer-agent, therefore, amounts to being more or less rational. Not only is this strategy normative, it is holistic in that we cannot ascribe beliefs and other attitudes in isolation, but only as elements in a web of attitudes. This holistic dimension owes much to the influence of Quine, and this influence is visible elsewhere in Davidson’s work.
Undoubtedly Davidson’s most significant and influential work has been in the field of what is known as ‘truth-conditional semantics’, the theoretical position according to which the meaning of a sentence in a language is given by stating the conditions under which it is true. Furthermore, this type of theory purports to show how the truth-conditions of sentences are determined by the semantic properties of the component expressions such as nouns and verbs. Such a theory might be expected to yield for any sentence S, a sentence of the form ‘S means p’, in which the meaning of S is given by whatever sentence replaces p. However, again under Quinean influence, Davidson regards any appeal to ‘meanings’ as opaque and, drawing on the work of Alfred Tarski, substitutes locutions of the form ‘S is true if, and only if, p’, claiming that a theory based on the notion of truth is both more perspicuous and can do all that a theory of meaning is supposed to do. Davidson does, however, depart from Tarski in certain respects: the latter’s work was exclusively with formalized technical languages, and was combined with a scepticism about the applicability of formal techniques to natural languages, everyday languages being too messy, changeable and inconsistent. It is precisely these features which pose the most acute problems for Davidson himself, especially indexicality (involving terms like ‘I’, ‘this’ and ‘now’), attributive adjectives like ‘good’ and ‘large’, and indirect speech contexts as instanced by ‘Galileo said that the earth moves’. Attempts by Davidson and his followers to deal with these problems, while exhibiting considerable ingenuity and innovation, have met with a mixed reception from critics.
The two main strands of Davidson’s work have a wider purport which goes beyond their narrower technical interest. It has to be shown how the theory of meaning can be put to work in interpreting the utterances of speakers of an alien tongue, using the strategy of ‘radical interpretation’. Davidson imposes a constraint on this, called the ‘principle of charity’, by which we seek to maximize agreement between ourselves and the speakers of the other language. We are to assume that most of what those natives say is true by our lights. Davidson sets himself against scepticism and relativism, arguing that there is no sense to be attached to the notion of radically divergent or alternative conceptual schemes. Local untranslatability is unremarkable; wholesale untranslatability between languages is unintelligible. Davidson has influenced many younger philosophers including John McDowell, Colin McGinn and Mark Platts. He has also attracted spirited criticisms from thinkers as diverse as Michael Dummett (on the question of the form a theory of meaning should take) and Jerry Fodor (on the status of the mental within the natural order). More generally, his anomalous monism has been condemned as an unstable compromise, and theorists otherwise sympathetic to his semantical project have none the less suggested that appeal to truth-conditions is at best necessary but not sufficient to account for how and why people behave and speak as they do. Overall his work has had a conspicuous impact on some major philosophical issues such as relativism, objectivity and rationality, and as such has a relevance to debates in discipline areas outside the traditional boundaries of philosophy.
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