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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Name: Donald Herbert Davidson
Birth: March 6, 1917 (Springfield, Massachusetts, USA)
Death: August 30, 2003 (Berkeley, California, USA)
School/tradition: Analytic
Main interests
Language, Action, Mind, Epistemology, Events
Notable ideas
Radical interpretation, Anomalous Monism, triangulation, Truth-conditional semantics, Reasons as causes, Understanding as translation
Influences Influenced
Quine, Tarski, Ramsey, Wittgenstein, Dummett, Kant, Spinoza |
Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom, John McDowell, Gareth Evans, Ernest Lepore, Kirk Ludwig

Donald Herbert Davidson (March 6, 1917 – August 30, 2003) was an American philosopher, who served as Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1981 to 2003, after having also held substantive teaching appointments at Stanford University, Rockefeller University, Princeton University and The University of Chicago. His work has exerted considerable influence in nearly all areas of philosophy from the 1960s onward, but particularly in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. Although published mostly in the form of short essays which do not explicitly rely on any overriding theory, his work is nonetheless noted for a strongly unified character—the same methods and ideas are brought to bear on a host of apparently unrelated problems—and for synthesizing the work of a great number of other philosophers, including Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein, Frank P. Ramsey, W.V. Quine, and G. E. M. Anscombe.


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 four. Then, having lived in Amherst, Massachusetts and Philadelphia, the family finally settled on Staten Island when Davidson was nine or ten. From this time he began to attend public school, having to begin in first grade with much younger children. He then attended the Staten Island Academy, starting in fourth grade. In high school, he tried to read Plato's Parmenides, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Nietzsche.

At Harvard University he switched his major from English and comparative literature (Theodore Spencer on Shakespeare and the Bible, Harry Levin on Joyce) to classics and philosophy.

Davidson was a fine pianist and always had a deep 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 four-hand piano. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production which Davidson mounted of Aristophanes' play The Birds in the original Greek. Some of this 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 having the opportunity to graduate from Harvard Business School, Davidson was called up by the U.S. Navy, for which he had volunteered. He trained pilots to recognize enemy planes and participated in the invasions of Sicily, Salerno, and Enzio. 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. Davidson wrote his dissertation, which he considered dull, on Plato's Philebus.

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

During 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, meaning 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. This result is comparable to Quine's thesis on the indeterminacy of translation, and figures 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 was fond of mountain climbing and surfing. He was married three times (the last time to the philosopher Marcia Cavell).

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, Princeton, Rockefeller University, Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. From 1981 until 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.


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 Wittgenstein, that an agent's reasons for acting cannot be the causes of his action. This view was held on the ground that causal laws must be precise and mechanistic, whereas explanation in terms of reasons is 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.

In Mental Events Davidson advanced a form of the "identity thesis" in the philosophy of mind: that mental events are just brain events, and that mental states are brain states. The previous difficulty with this view was that it did not seem feasible to give laws relating mental states—for example, "believing that the sky is blue," or "wanting a hamburger"—to patterns of neural firing in the brain. Davidson argued that such a reduction would not be necessary to an identity thesis: it is possible that each individual mental state or event just is the corresponding brain state or event, without there being laws relating types of mental states to types of brain states—such as those in the above example. It might be nice if we had such a theory, but the fact that we don't have one—even the fact that we could not possibly have such a reduction, if such is the case—does not entail that the mind is anything more than the brain. Hence Davidson called his position anomalous monism: monism, because it claimed that only one substance was at issue in questions of mind and brain; anomalous (from a-, not, and nomos, law) because brain states and mental states could not be connected by laws.

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 we may assume that natural human languages are, at least in principle. If it could not be stated in a finite way then 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 which could give the meanings of an infinite number of sentences on the basis of a finite system of axioms. "Giving the meaning of a sentence", he further argued, was equivalent to stating its truth conditions, so originating the modern work on truth-conditional semantics. In sum, 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. That is, we can give a finite theory of meaning 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). (These 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.

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 counter-examples to what can be generally described as "descriptivist" theories of content. These views, which roughly originate in Bertrand Russell's Theory of Descriptions (and perhaps in the younger Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) held that the referent of a name—which object or person that name refers to—is determined by the beliefs a person holds about that object. Suppose I believe "Aristotle founded the Lyceum" and "Aristotle taught Alexander the Great." Whom are my beliefs about? Aristotle, obviously. But why? Russell would say that my beliefs are about whatever object makes the greatest number of them true. If two people taught Alexander, but only one founded the Lyceum, then my beliefs are about the one who did both. 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 this 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: Descartes and Hume thought that the only knowledge we start with is self-knowledge. Some of the logical positivists, (and some would say Wittgenstein, or Wilfrid Sellars), held that we start with beliefs only about the external world. (And arguably Friedrich Schelling and Emmanuel Levinas held that we start with beliefs only about other people). It is not possible, on Davidson's view, for a person to have only one of these three kinds of mental content; anyone who has beliefs of one of the kinds must have beliefs of the other two kinds.

Radical interpretation

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 this 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 that is only sensitive 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. This is the obvious choice because we are aiming at equivalence of meaning between s and p. But now we have a problem: 's if and only if p' is an ungrammatical sentence because the connective must link two propositions, but s is the name of a proposition, and not a proposition itself. In order to render s a proposition we need to supply it with a predicate. Which predicate is satisfied by s if and only if the sentence named by s, or a translation of it, is the case? In other words, which predicate is satisfied "bananas are yellow" if and only if bananas are yellow? The answer is the predicate truth. Thus, Davidson is led to the conclusion 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.

What evidence is plausibly available to the radical interpreter? 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. This will then allow the interpreter to construct hypotheses relating a speaker and an utterance to a particular state of affairs at a particular time. The example Davidson gives is of a German speaker who utters “Es regnet” when it is raining.

Davidson claims that even though in isolated cases a speaker might be mistaken about the state of objective reality (for example, the German speaker might utter “Es regnet” even though it is not raining), this doesn’t undermine the entire project. This is because a speaker’s beliefs must be mostly correct and coherent. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t even identify the speaker as a speaker. This is Davidson’s famous principle of charity and it is what enables an interpreter to be confident that the evidence he gathers will allow him to verify a theory of truth for the language.

On first glance, it might seem that a theory of truth is not enough to interpret a language. After all, if truth-conditions are all that matters, then how can anomalous sentences such as ‘“Schnee ist weiss” is true if and only if snow is white and grass is green’ be verified as false? 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. This 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, then, what radical interpretation highlights is what is necessary and sufficient for communication to occur. These conditions are: that in order to recognize a speaker as a speaker, their beliefs must be mostly coherent and correct; indeterminacy of meaning doesn’t 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

Academic Genealogy
Notable teachers Notable students
Alfred North Whitehead
W. V. O. Quine
Akeel Bilgrami
Bruce Vermazen


Work by Donald Davidson

  • Davidson, Donald and Harman, Gilbert (ed.). Semantics of Natural Languages, 2nd ed. Springer. 1973.
  • Decision-Making: An Experimental Approach, co-authored with Suppes, Patrick. Chicago. 1977.
  • Plato's ‘Philebus’. New York. 1990.
  • Essays on Actions and Events, 2nd ed. Oxford. 2001.
  • Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd ed. Oxford. 2001.
  • Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford. 2001.
  • Problems of Rationality. Oxford. 2004.
  • Truth, Language, and History: Philosophical Essays. Oxford. 2005.
  • Truth and Predication. Harvard. 2005.

Secondary literature

  • LePore, Ernest (ed.). Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford. 1986.
  • LePore, Ernest and Kirk Ludwig. Donald Davidson: Meaning, Truth, Language and Reality. Oxford. 2005.
  • Ludwig, Kirk (ed.). Donald Davidson. Cambridge. 2003.
  • Malpas, Jeff E. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning - Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge. 1992.
  • Preyer, Gerhard/Siebelt, Frank/Ulfig, Alexander (ed.). Language, Mind and Epistemology. On Donald Davidson´s philosophy. Dordrecht. 1994.
  • Ramberg, Bjorn. Donald Davidson's Philosophy of Language: An Introduction. Oxford. 1989.

See also

External links

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