Donald Davidson (philosopher)

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

(1917-03-06)6 March 1917
Died30 August 2003(2003-08-30) (aged 86)
Alma mater Harvard University
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic
Neopragmatism [1]
Doctoral advisor Raphael Demos
Other academic advisors Willard 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]

University of California, Berkeley Public university in California, USA

The University of California, Berkeley is a public research university in Berkeley, California. It was founded in 1868 and serves as the flagship institution of the ten research universities affiliated with the University of California system. Berkeley has since grown to instruct over 40,000 students in approximately 350 undergraduate and graduate degree programs covering numerous disciplines.

Stanford University private research university located in Stanford, California, United States

Leland Stanford Junior University is a private research university in Stanford, California. Stanford is known for its academic strength, wealth, proximity to Silicon Valley, and ranking as one of the world's top universities.

Rockefeller University Research institute in New York City

The Rockefeller University is a private graduate university in New York City. It focuses primarily on the biological and medical sciences and provides doctoral and postdoctoral education. Rockefeller is the oldest biomedical research institute in the United States. The 82-person faculty has 37 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, seven Lasker Award recipients, and five Nobel laureates. As of 2017, a total of 36 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with Rockefeller University.

Contents

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.

Truth-conditional semantics is an approach to semantics of natural language that sees meaning as being the same as, or reducible to, their truth conditions. This approach to semantics is principally associated with Donald Davidson, and attempts to carry out for the semantics of natural language what Tarski's semantic theory of truth achieves for the semantics of logic.

Life and career

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.

Springfield, Massachusetts City in Massachusetts

Springfield is a city in the state of Massachusetts, United States, and the seat of Hampden County. Springfield sits on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River near its confluence with three rivers: the western Westfield River, the eastern Chicopee River, and the eastern Mill River. As of the 2010 Census, the city's population was 153,060. As of 2018, the estimated population was 155,032, making it the third-largest city in Massachusetts, the fourth-most populous city in New England after Boston, Worcester, and Providence, and the 12th-most populous in the Northeastern United States. Metropolitan Springfield, as one of two metropolitan areas in Massachusetts, had a population of 692,942 as of 2010.

Philippines Republic in Southeast Asia

The Philippines, officially the Republic of the Philippines, is an archipelagic country in Southeast Asia. Situated in the western Pacific Ocean, it consists of about 7,641 islands that are categorized broadly under three main geographical divisions from north to south: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The capital city of the Philippines is Manila and the most populous city is Quezon City, both part of Metro Manila. Bounded by the South China Sea on the west, the Philippine Sea on the east and the Celebes Sea on the southwest, the Philippines shares maritime borders with Taiwan to the north, Vietnam to the west, Palau to the east, and Malaysia and Indonesia to the south.

Amherst, Massachusetts Town in Massachusetts, United States

Amherst is a town in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, United States, in the Connecticut River valley. As of the 2010 census, the population was 37,819, making it the highest populated municipality in Hampshire County. The town is home to Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, three of the Five Colleges. The name of the town is pronounced without the h ("AM-erst"), giving rise to the local saying, "only the 'h' is silent", in reference both to the pronunciation and to the town's politically active populace.

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 .

Harvard University private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning. Its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities. The university is often cited as the world's top tertiary institution by most publishers.

Theodore Spencer (1902–1949) was an American poet and academic.

William Shakespeare 16th and 17th-century English playwright and poet

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon". His extant works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

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.

Leonard Bernstein American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist

Leonard Bernstein was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the US to receive worldwide acclaim. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history."

Piano four hands type of piano duet involving two players playing the same piano simultaneously

Piano four hands is a type of piano duet involving two players playing the same piano simultaneously. A duet with the players playing separate instruments is generally referred to as a piano duo.

Aristophanes ancient Athenian comic playwright

Aristophanes, son of Philippus, of the deme Kydathenaion, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete. These provide the most valuable examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy and are used to define it, along with fragments from dozens of lost plays by Aristophanes and his contemporaries.

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.

California State of the United States of America

California is a state in the Pacific Region of the United States. With 39.6 million residents, California is the most populous U.S. state and the third-largest by area. The state capital is Sacramento. The Greater Los Angeles Area and the San Francisco Bay Area are the nation's second- and fifth-most populous urban regions, with 18.7 million and 9.7 million residents respectively. Los Angeles is California's most populous city, and the country's second-most populous, after New York City. California also has the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles County, and its largest county by area, San Bernardino County. The City and County of San Francisco is both the country's second-most densely populated major city after New York City and the fifth-most densely populated county, behind only four of the five New York City boroughs.

<i>Big Town</i> television series

Big Town is a popular long-running radio drama series which was later adapted to both film and television and a comic book published by DC Comics.

Edward G. Robinson Romanian American actor

Edward G. Robinson was an American actor of stage and screen during Hollywood's Golden Age. He appeared in 40 Broadway plays and more than 100 films during a 50-year career and is best remembered for his tough-guy roles as gangsters in such films as Little Caesar and Key Largo.

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

Actions, reasons, and causes

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

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 homalos, "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

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

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

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

Awards

Works

See also

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References

  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