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The Library of Living Philosophers

Donald Davidson

by J. Hopkins

Human beings have a striking capacity to understand themselves. In everyday life we discern motive and meaning in people’s sounds and movements continually and with remarkable precision. Donald Davidson’s philosophical essays report stages in a continuous attempt to cast light on this mode of understanding.

Davidson’s first focus was upon action. He stressed that both linguistic utterances and non-verbal actions were bodily events performed for reasons, physical changes caused by beliefs and desires. These motives can be described by sentences embedded within sentences. Thus the descriptive sentence “she desires that she gets a drink” has embedded within it another sentence, namely “she gets a drink”. This sentence tells us the intentional content of the desire, or in other words the way it is directed on the world. Likewise we speak of the perception, hope, fear, belief or expectation that P, where ‘P’ is a sentence which describes the action or situation on which the mental state or event is directed.

Prior to Davidson’s work, philosophers were notably divided as to the place of such mental states in the causal order. Some philosophers argued that they could not be causes of the actions on which they were directed, while others said that since they were, there must, despite appearances, be empirical ‘laws of action’ which connected the two.

Both sides in this dispute assumed that causes must be connected to their effects by empirical laws, and both expected the laws to be framed in the sentence-embedding vocabulary of desire, belief, and the other motives. Davidson, however, realized that we should expect the laws which govern causal relations to be cast in the vocabulary of the physical sciences, which was framed precisely to specify such general connections. This made it possible to see the links between sentence and situation in our commonsense psychological vocabulary as serving a distinct explanatory function. They enable us to represent the motives upon which persons act as standing in relations. Thought and action is thus considered rational. On this account mental events could be seen as a subset of physical events, which we naturally conceived in this sentential form. Davidson thus replaced the Cartesian dualism of two fundamental realms of events – the mental and the physical – with a dualism in our ways of representing events, marked by the sentence-embedding vocabulary we have been considering.

Davidson’s work on meaning started from Quine’s observation that previous attempts to explain meaning were in effect circular. Quine had attempted to approach meaning empirically, by considering methods and hypotheses which might be used by someone attempting to translate an unknown language into his own. Davidson took this approach, which Quine called radical translation, much further.

People show their grasp of meaning in their ability to use language. So Davidson attempted to cast light on meaning by specifying a theory of meaning, that is, an explicit theory which would enable someone who used it to assign meanings to sentences on the basis of axioms about words and the way they were combined in sentences. Such a theory would set out explicitly the features of words and sentences in virtue of which they were assigned meanings. Insofar as the theory could be framed and used without employing such notions as those of meaning, necessity, or synonymy, it would cast light on them in a non-circular way. So Davidson envisaged the theory being employed by a radical interpreter, who was required to construct the theory for a language he did not understand, on the basis of data which did not include the meanings of utterances, the content of beliefs, or the like.

Davidson argued that an appropriate theory could be framed by modifying the kind of theory of truth which Tarski had devised for formal languages. This suggestion, and the conception of meaning which it embodies, has been significant both for philosophy and linguistics.

In work published since his collections of essays Davidson has tried to use radical interpretation to cast light on meaning and motive together. For this he has described what he calls a unified theory, that is, a theory which assigns motives to actions as well as meanings to sentences. Davidson argues that the possibility of constructing such a theory indicates the fundamental role of the notions of preference, sentence, and cause in our understanding of both motive and meaning.

© Dr J. Hopkins 1999

The Philosophy of Donald Davidson, Library of Living Philosophers Series, No 27 is edited by Lewis E. Hahn and has just been published by Open Court Press 0-8126-9399-X Paperback 34.50. Jim Hopkins is a contributor to the volume, and teaches philosophy at King’s College London.

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