Davidson, Donald (1917–2003)

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Donald Davidson was born in 1917 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard in 1939. After serving in the United States Navy, Davidson returned to Harvard, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Plato's Philebus (1990a). After he received his PhD in 1949, Davidson went on to do extensive work in decision theory, in collaboration with Patrick Suppes and others. After many years at Stanford, and somewhat shorter stays at Princeton, Rockefeller, and Chicago, Davidson in 1981moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he was appointed Willis and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy. Davidson lived in Berkeley for the rest of his life, continuing to produce important work until his death in 2003.

The early confrontation with the methodological challenges of giving empirical application to rational-choice theory had a lasting influence on Davidson. It is apparent in his later formulation of philosophical questions regarding action, the mental and linguistic meaning. Davidson's views on these matters have gradually come to articulation through a series of papers presenting detailed arguments pertaining to specific problems. In each of three areas of philosophy, Davidson elaborated a set of closely interconnected and highly influential doctrines. This entry looks briefly at each area in turn, emphasizing certain general features characteristic of Davidson's philosophical approach. The entry concludes with a glance at key themes of Davidson's later work, in which he elaborates an anti-representationalist conception of mind and of philosophy.

The Causal Theory of Action

Davidson's view, first set out in print in Actions, Reasons, and Causes (1963), is that individuals must consider the reasons for their actionscombinations of propositional attitudes, paradigmatically belief-desire pairsto be also their causes. In this and related papers Davidson granted a main premise of the anti-causalist view prevailing at the time, that the teleological form of action-explanation makes such explanation irreducibly different from the nomological form characteristic of explanation in the natural sciences. What is distinctive about action-explanation is that it identifies the events involved (the action and its explanatory antecedent) in terms that reveal them to be part of a rational pattern. Davidson proceeded to challenge anti-causal orthodoxy, however, by arguing that it does not follow from this irreducible difference that action explanation is not a species of causal explanation.

A striking aspect of Davidson's view is the claim that the appeal to reason on which action explanations turn will be genuinely explanatory only insofar as the particular events thus rationally related are also related as cause and effect, and hence, for Davidson, may also be characterized by nomologically related descriptions. But Davidson insisted that the explanatory efficacy of a reason-explanation in no way depends on one possessing the law-evincing descriptions of the particular events in question. Indeed, in the typical case one enjoys the full benefits of effective action explanation without the slightest idea of what those descriptions might be. Davidson's work thus reconciles the following three fundamental claims.

First, when an event is cited in successful explanation of another event, the former is a cause of the latter. Second, causal relations between events entail nomological relations between them. Third, explanans and explanandum in action explanations are captured in terms that cannot be subsumed under strict law. This reconciliation trades on a particular conception of the relation between cause and law. If two events are causally related, they are so related no matter how described. The nomological relation, however, obtains between kinds of events; laws, as Davidson said, are linguistic, and so while causal relations are extensional, and causally related events necessarily fall under what he terms strict laws (that is, laws that are "free from caveats and ceteris paribus clauses treating the universe as a closed system" (1993 [2005a], p. 191), they instantiate such law only under some appropriate description. Hence, the descriptions under which two causally related events appear in successful action explanation may be such that no amount of knowledge of strict causal law would allow one to infer the action from knowledge of the conditions cited in the explanation of it (1963a; 1993; 1995).

Anomalous Monism

A crucial element in Davidson's account of action is the distinction between a particular event and the descriptions that sort particular events under kinds. This same distinction is central also to his claims about the nature of the mental and its relation to the physical. In "Mental Events" (1970) and subsequent papers (1991b, 1993), Davidson argued that what it is to be a mental event is to be an event that falls under a mental predicate; that is to say, for Davidson, an event is mental just in case it falls under a description that ineliminably involves an intentional term. Correspondingly, what it is to be a physical event is to fall under a physical predicate. Physical predicates are of diverse kinds; a subset of physical terms are the predicates of developed physics. They form an ideal vocabulary the constitutive purpose of which is to track the causal structure of the world by displaying all events as they fall under maximally strict laws.

Since Davidson conceived of events as extensionally identified spatio-temporal particulars constituting nodes in the causal network, W. v. O. Quine's basic ontological dictum expresses also for Davidson an important truth; it is the unique business of physics to aim for full coverage. What this means for Davidson is that all events, qua nodes in the causal network, must be describable in the terms of physics. Yet some events are also mental, and Davidson argued that his physicalism supports no reductivist or eliminativist conclusions. For while all particular mental events are also particular physical events, no particular kind of mental event is a particular kind of physical event. The reason for this is that intentionality, which for Davidson is the mark of the mental, is constituted, in his view, by one's efforts to characterize fellow creatures as rational according to an inter-subjective standard. One is able to view fellow language-users thus because an individual has at his or her disposal two kinds of conceptual resources. One keeps track of other people by keeping tabs on objective environmental relations in which human beings are all embroiled in various and changing ways. At the same time, one is able to deploy a set of conceptsof belief, desire, and so onwhich allows one to construct accounts not just of objective environmental relations, but also of how these relations appear to someone to be.

This system of double bookkeeping allows an individual to absorb a great deal of variation and irregularity in human behavior by accounting for objective anomalies in terms of subjective variables. But this strategy remains informative and useful only insofar as the essential discrepancies between subjective perspective and objective reality that interpretation exploits are prevented from becoming arbitrary or chaoticwere that to happen, the subjective would lose its explanatory purpose, it would simply mark the place where explanation ends.

This is why the interpretive construction of the subjective perspective must be tightly constrained; as Davidson stated, making sense of others "we will try for a theory that finds [them] consistent, believer[s] of truths, and lover[s] of the good (all by our own lights, it goes without saying)" (1970 [1980a], p. 222). This constraint on the application of intentional terms is often referred to as the "principle of charity." It reflects the fact that only the attitudes (though not only the rational attitudes) of a recognizably rational subject may be invoked in a genuinely explanatory way to account for the subject's behavior. Moreover, as Davidson later emphasized, because rationality considerations govern an individual's application of propositional-attitude concepts, these concepts are irreducibly causal, "identified in part by the sorts of action they are prone to cause, given the right conditions" (1991b [2001], p. 216).

As he further pointed out, "the right conditions" are themselves not independently characterizable. The phrase, marking the interdependence of the application conditions of mental predicates, remains an ineliminable qualification of the sort of platitudinous generalizations that express the content of our psychological terms. By contrast, Davidson argued, the application of the predicates of physicsaimed at the formulation of strict lawcannot itself depend on causal concepts (1991b). The application conditions of terms related by strict empirical law must be independently specifiable. The real difference, then, between the mental and the physical, and the reason for the irreducibility of one to the other, stems from the fact that the vocabulary of physics and the vocabulary of psychology have evolved under the pressure of distinctively different interests. What one wants from the former are modes of description that allow people to interact with each other as persons. What one wants from the latter are laws "as complete and precise as we can make them; a different aim" (1991b [2001], p. 217).

Truth and Meaning

In the philosophy of language, Davidson is associated with the view that an individual may account for linguistic competence by appropriately characterizing the evidence available to and resources required by an idealized interpreter (1973). There are two fundamental aspects to this position. What, Davidson asked, might one know such that by knowing it one would be able to say what a speaker of a given language meant by some arbitrary utterance? His answer is a theory of truth for that language, an account of the logical structure of a language of the sort that Alfred Tarski demonstrated how to construct (1967a; 1990b; 2005b). The condition of adequacy for such a theory is an adaptation of what Tarski called "convention T." One has, Davidson proposed, a theory of meaning for a given language L provided one has a theory that entails for each sentence of L an instance of the schema, "s is true in L if and only if p." In this schema, s would be replaced by an expression that mentions a sentence of L (for example by means of quotation marks), and p replaced with any sentence of the language in which the theory is stated that is true if and only if the sentences mentioned by s is true. Such a theory provides, based on finite resources, a recursive characterization of the truth conditions for any sentence of L. While all that is demanded by convention T is that the theorems of the theoryknown as T-sentencescapture co-extension of truth-values, "the hope," as Davidson said, "is that by putting appropriate formal and empirical restrictions on the theory as a whole, individual T-sentences will in fact serve to yield interpretations." (1973, [1984], p 124).

This proposal has spawned a great deal of work in formal semantics, guided by the aim of accounting for natural-language idioms in terms of their deep struc-ture, or logical form, which makes explicit their truth-theoretical composition. For Davidson, the notion of logical form is extremely powerful; constrained on the one hand by one's intuitions concerning entailment relations, and on the other by the logical resources of Tarskian truth-theory construction, the uncovering of logical form functions as a crucible within which crystallize the ontological categories human language commits a person to. So for example, support for an ontology of events takes the form of an argument that one cannot account for the entailment relations intuitively characteristic of action sentences within the logical confines of a Tarskian theory of truth for a language unless one is willing to see such sentences as quantifying over events (1967b).

If a theory of truth is to serve as a theory of meaning for a language, tone needs to know how an interpreter may arrive at such a theory for a language she does not know. What is required for a recursive truth-theory to have empirical application? This question points to the other main aspect of Davidson's conception of linguistic understanding, an aspect where Quine's influence is most apparent. Observing the utterances of a speaker but knowing neither what the speaker means nor what the speaker believes, the interpreter will face endless alternative explanations of any observed piece of behavior. However, she can narrow the range of possibilities dramatically, by assuming that the speaker's behavior, including the speaker's linguistic behavior, embodies a rational response to salient features of her environment. This assumption of rationality is defeasible with respect to any particular attribution within the context of the construction of a theory of the meanings of someone's words and the contents of the person's thoughts. Davidson's point is emphatically not that one is never irrational, or that the irrational cannot be interpreted. Rather, the lesson is that irrationality is conceptually parasitic, diagnosable only against a background of reason (1982b; 1985). Thus, in what Davidson called radical interpretation, the interpreter may inductively construct a theory of truth for the speaker based on observations of behavior only by assuming that the speaker's mental lifeher thoughts, actions and utterancesconstitutes a largely rational whole (1973; 1980b). This assumption, compulsory for the radical interpreter, is often referred to as the principle of charity.

Even while minimizing the irrationality of her subject in accordance with charity, the radical interpreter will be able to produce for a speaker alternative theories of belief and meaning, theories that comport equally well with the empirical evidence (i.e., with the speaker's utterances and their contexts). This indeterminacy Davidson regards as innocuous; the salient facts about meaning and mind are what such differing theories have in common. If alternative theories are empirically equivalent, this means that there is more than one way of stating the facts that interpretive theories are designed to capture. This is no threat to the viability of interpretation (1974a; 1979; 1990b; 1991b).


With respect to Davidson's view of action, the most serious objection holds that Davidson's theories cannot indicate how action explanation actually can be explanatory at all. The point of the objection is that one cannot reconcile the three fundamental claims regarding explanation, cause, and law to which Davidson's work is committed (see aforementioned text). One claimadvanced, for example, by Jerry Fodoris that informative action explanation must somehow draw on the explanatory power of nomic relations, in which case Davidson's irreducibility-claim would be threatened. An alternative viewdefended by anti-causalists like George Wilsonis that the explanatory force of reason-explanation is sui generis, and does not depend on reasons being causes. This would jeopardize Davidson's conception of event monism.

With regard specifically to anomalous monism, Jaegwon Kim and others have argued that Davidson's view renders the mental causally inert. So reason explanations cannot really be explanations at all, since Davidson believed that any genuine explanation of an event, including an action, must pick out actual causal relations. Partly because of their different views on the individuation of events, this conflict is difficult to assess. However, if one grants Davidson his fundamental claimsthat is, that the difference between the mental and the physical is a matter of vocabulary of description, and that events should be extensionally conceivedthen his concept of supervenience ensures that a change in the truth value of the relevant kind of mental predicate ascription will entail some difference or other in causal relations. Naturally, alternatives to Davidson's Humean conception of causality and of the relations between causality and law are frequently at play in criticisms of Davidson's account. Davidson relied on this conception both in arguing for anomalous monism and in reconciling the irreducibility of action-explanation with a causal view of action.

As for Davidson's philosophy of language, there have been objections at various levels to the idea that a theory of meaning for a language must take the form of a Tarskian truth-theory. Even while accepting the proposal that a theory of meaning should take the form of a theory of truth, one may ask, for example, why theorists should restrict themselves, in producing a formal semantics for a language, to the resources of first-order predicate calculus. A great majority of scholars now doubt the prospects of an account of natural language semantics couched in purely extensional terms.


Davidson's contention that theories of truth as Tarski defined them give the structure of theories of meaning is best viewed as a pragmatic methodological commitment. What supports Davidson's most innovative philosophical conclusions is the more general point that one must understand meaning in terms of truth, in conjunction with his insistencefollowing Quineon a third-person perspective to meaning and mind. This view makes the conditions of interpretation constitutive of content. Together, these commitments yield an account of the concept of truth constrained by the methodological requirements of interpretation. This account contrasts both with traditional correspondence theories and with epistemic accounts of the sort advanced, for example, by Hilary Putnam. It is also distinct from disquotationalist or deflationist theories such as that of Paul Horwich (1990b; 2005b).

The significance of these core commitments is readily apparent in Davidson's argument aimed to discredit the duality of representational scheme and empirical content on the grounds that it presupposes the notion of an untranslatable language (1974b). If truth and meaning are interlocking concepts whose features are illuminated by an account of the methodology of an ideal interpreter, the idea of alternative representations of reality that are mutually semantically impenetrable is not coherent. This argument also marks a dividing line between Davidson and Quine. For the metaphysical opposition between what is given to the mind on the one hand, and the processes brought to bear on that given, on the other hand, is the very duality in terms of which empiricism faces its defining challenge, namely to articulate a coherent notion of sensory evidence (1982a). On this fundamental score, Quine has remained within the bounds of empiricism (1990c). Davidson, on the other hand, has gone on explicitly to reject the basic metaphor of mind as inner space on which empiricism rests. For Davidson the hold of this metaphor reveals itself in the persistence of the interdependent notions of mental states as representational and of truth as correspondence, which, in turn, inextricably entangle philosophy in the problems of relativism and skepticism (1986a; 1987; 1988; 1990b; 2005b).

Davidson's alternative to the representational view of mind is most succinctly expressed in the thesis that there is thought only when there is actual communication (1989a; 1989b; 1991a; 1991b; 1992). On this controversial view, knowledge of one's own mental state, knowledge of the so-called external world, and knowledge of the mental states of others appear mutually interdependent (1991b). This blocks the very possibility of a skeptical or relativist challenge from arising, insofar as these are typically constructed around arguments that purport to show the impossibility of deriving any one of the three kinds of knowledge from either or both of the other two. This impossibility is something Davidson's work acceptsindeed insists on. Against the skeptic or relativist his claim is simply that the three forms of knowledge stand or fall together; denying one is to deny all, and to deny all is just to deprive our intentional concepts of any application.

This position rests on two key claims. One is that shared linguistic understanding is a prerequisite for any standard of objectivity (1991b). Such a standard gives content to the very distinction exploited by the propositional-attitude verbs between what is and what seems from some perspective to be, and hence, on Davidson's conception, is a prerequisite of thought. The other is the claim that the idea of shared linguistic understanding presupposes actual communication (1986b). The mental is thus what one reveals when one subjects a certain vaguely delimited range of causal relations to a particular kind of description, the terms of which presuppose the mutual recognition of subjects interacting in a shared world.

This view carries with it the commitments to event monism, to the constitutive role of rationality for content, and to a view of human agents as an integral part of the natural world, that have always been evident in Davidson's work. The distinction between extensionally conceived particulars and their descriptions remains pivotal. But the upshot is fundamentally at odds with the governing metaphors of modern epistemology-centered philosophy: "A community of minds," Davidson concluded, "is the basis of all knowledge; it provides the measure of all things." And he added: "It makes no sense to question the adequacy of this measure, or to seek a more ultimate standard" (1991b [2001], p. 218). However one assesses the plausibility of the considerations Davidson offers in support of this position, cognizance of the thorough-going externalism on which it is based should lead one to see it not as a species of antirealism or idealism, but as a profound rejection of foundationalist aspirations. Systematically linking the content of one's concepts to one's communicative practices as agents in the world, Davidson's work articulates a recognizably pragmatist view of mind, nature, and philosophy.

See also Action; Anomalous Monism; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Mind; Semantics; Supervenience.


works by davidson


The following essays have been reprinted in the works following this list, as indicated by year of publication:

"Actions, Reasons and Causes" (1963). Reprinted in 1980a.

"Truth and Meaning" (1967a). Reprinted in 1984.

"The Logical Form of Action Sentences" (1967b). Reprinted in 1980a.

"Mental Events" (1971). Reprinted in 1980a.

"Radical Interpretation" (1973). Reprinted in 1984.

"Belief and the Basis of Meaning" (1974a). Reprinted in 1984.

"On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" (1974b). Reprinted in 1984.

"The Inscrutability of Reference" (1979). Reprinted in 1984.

"A Unified Theory of Thought, Meaning and Action" (1980b). Reprinted in 2004.

"Empirical Content" (1982a). Reprinted in 2001.

"Paradoxes of Irrationality" (1982b). Reprinted in 2004.

"Incoherence and Irrationality" (1985). Reprinted in 2004.

"A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge" (1986a). Reprinted with "Afterthoughts, 1987" in 2001.

"A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs" (1986b). Reprinted in 2005a.

"Knowing One's Own Mind" (1987). Reprinted in 2001.

"The Myth of the Subjective" (1988). Reprinted in 2001.

"What is Present to the Mind?" (1989a). Reprinted in 2001.

"The Conditions of Thought" (1989b). Reprinted in 2001.

"The Structure and Content of Truth" (Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 97. 1990b.

"Meaning, Truth and Evidence" (1990c). Reprinted in 2005a.

"Epistemology Externalized" (1991a). Reprinted in 2001.

"Three Varieties of Knowledge" (1991b). Reprinted in 2001.

"The Second Person" (1992). Reprinted in 2001.

"Thinking Causes" (1993). Reprinted in 2005a.

"Laws and Cause" (1995). Reprinted in 2005a.


Essays on Action and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980a.

Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Plato's Philebus. New York: Garland, 1990a.

Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Problems of Rationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Truth, Language, and History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005a.

Truth and Predication. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005b.

works about davidson

Brandl, J., and W. Gombocz, eds. The Mind of Donald Davidson. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989.

Dazenbrock, W. R., ed. Literary Theory after Davidson. University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1989.

Evnine, Simon. Donald Davidson. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press: 1991.

Hahn, L. ed. The Library of Living Philosophers. Vol. 27: The Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Lasalle, IL: Open Court, 1999.

Joseph, M. Donald Davidson. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004.

Kotatko, P., P. Pagin, and G. Segal, eds. Interpreting Davidson. Palo Alto, CA: CSLI Publications, 2001.

LePore, E., ed. Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

LePore, E., and K. Ludwig. Donald Davidson: Meaning, Truth, Language, and Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

LePore, E., and B. McLaughlin, eds. Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

Ludwig, K., ed. Donald Davidson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Malpas, J. E. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Preyer, G., F. Siebelt, and A. Ulfig, eds. Language, Mind and Epistemology: On Donald Davidson's Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

Ramberg, B. Donald Davidson's Philosophy of Language: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Stoecker, R., ed. Reflecting Davidson. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1993.

Vermazen, B., and M. Hintikka, eds. Essays on Davidson: Actions and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Bjørn T. Ramberg (1996, 2005)

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Davidson, Donald (1917–2003)

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