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Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson’s theories about mind and language have been incredibly influential in shaping modern analytic philosophy. Giancarlo Marchetti recently asked him about his life and his ideas.

I’d like to begin with a question about your intellectual background. What originally led you to study philosophy?

It’s hard to tell. I’ve always seemed to like argument and debate, but I think it was my interest in literature that led me to read philosophy for the first time when I was about fourteen years old. I read a lot of Nietzsche, of course, and a little Plato, whatever I just happened to find. As soon as I went to college, I started taking philosophy courses, though that was not my area of concentration, which was literature. English first, which gradually became comparative literature and the history of ideas. I also was studying Greek from the beginning in college. I can’t really say that there was any one thing that made the difference. I just became more and more interested in philosophy. I didn’t decide to be a philosopher until after I graduated from college. I had no plans. More or less by chance I was invited to return to Harvard to do graduate work in philosophy and classics.

How was the philosophical atmosphere at Harvard during your formative years?

Well, there were a number of people at Harvard in the philosophy department who were well-known not only as philosophers but also as public figures of some sort: Ralph Perry in ethics, C.I. Lewis and William Ernest Hocking, to name three. When I started at Harvard, Whitehead was still teaching. In fact the last year in which he taught was 1936-37, which was my sophomore year. I took both of the courses that he offered. I remained friends with him for a number of years after he retired. He had a deep influence on me. So that was sort of the background. By the time I was a senior, and certainly when I was a graduate student, Logical Positivism began to be appreciated in the United States largely because so many people fleeing the Nazis came to this country. Quine played a part in inviting many of these people to come and lecture; I remember Tarski and Carnap in particular. That changed the atmosphere a good deal. In fact I would say very much, so far as I was concerned, because I became more and more interested in analytic philosophy.

For some people writing is the fear of the blank page, it is the agony of the word that you can’t find, of the paragraph that you must revise and remake. Could you describe your writing process? Do you find it hard to start writing or do you start writing only when you have first elaborated the paper inside your head? Do you revise frequently?

Well, I don’t think I have any fixed habits. I usually find it very hard to start. Even when I have a good idea of what I’m going to say, there is always a problem of presentation – how exactly to start – and that often does hold me up a great deal. On the other hand, there are times when everything comes easily. I usually have a pretty good idea of how the argument is going to develop and what topics will be treated before I begin. I remember that when I first started writing philosophy I usually threw away the first page or two because it was general introductory material. I realized it was better to just start right in. I don’t normally revise a great deal. The first two or three sentences, the first paragraph, I may revise quite a lot until I’m satisfied that I’m beginning on the right foot, but once I get beyond that point things are easier, and I find I don’t need to change very much.

Who were the inspiring figures, apart from Quine, of course, that have most influenced your work?

During my graduate career, and for a number of years after that, I didn’t think of myself as having an exclusive interest in any special part of philosophy. I found it all fascinating. I had to teach almost everything: ethics, epistemology, ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, Plato, Hume, aesthetics, philosophy of language. So I don’t know that any one or even a few people made the most difference to me. When I finally came to read Quine, of course, like many others at that period, I was swept off my feet. I was also influenced by Carnap, Goodman, Russell and Frege. Later I came across Tarski’s work on truth, and since then I have considered that he had the only really clear approach to semantics. Like everybody else, I was certainly influenced by Wittgenstein, though it’s not easy to say where that influence shows. If I were to make this list longer, it would be very much longer, so I’ll leave it there.

In which way does your holism differ from that of Quine?

I’m not sure if it differs all that much. The main point of holism seems to me so simple that it has always been a mystery to me why anybody questioned it. Attitudes like desires, hopes, wishes, beliefs, or intentions are identified in part by their relations to other attitudes. These interdependencies result in holism. Many criticisms of holism seem to me simply mistaken. For example, it is thought that if holism is true, then a single change, one new belief, and everything else must change. This simply doesn’t follow. Typically if one thing changes, all you have to change is one other thing. Of course, all of the logical consequences of those particular prepositions are going to change, but besides that, the whole basic structure can remain exactly the same. In fact, that is the point of Quine’s remark, that if you have to revise your contextual system, if you have to do it all the time, there are many different ways in which the change can be accommodated. Generally, of course, we leave as much of our structure of beliefs unaltered as we can. We don’t give up a whole theory just because of one apparent exception. We try to explain the exception by making some less dramatic revision. Quine has said all this, and I think he is absolutely right. Our view of the details is always changing, but the big picture remains pretty much the same.

It seems to me that many critics have misunderstood your related concepts of radical interpretation and the principle of charity. What do you mean by these ideas? I am asking you to say the last word on these concepts.

Radical interpretation is interesting because it throws light on the question of how we are able to come to understand other people. In doing this, it gives us some understanding of what it’s like to master a language. Radical interpretation also represents a way of doing epistemology, for the radical interpreter observes the correlation between the things the person is prepared to say and changes in the environment the interpreter thinks the subject is reacting to. This is epistemology in the third person: the interpreter is noticing how other people have come to think the things they do on the basis of the evidence they have. This is not the only way to approach philosophy of mind or philosophy of language or epistemology. It’s one way. It’s a good way in the sense that it frees one from a lot of traditional concerns because it doesn’t try to construct a picture of the world from a first-person point of view. Radical interpretation doesn’t assume that thought develops independently of language, and therefore independently of other people. It assumes from the start that thought, like language, is social, and that it depends on the interactions of people who share a common environment.

The principle of charity simply expresses the idea that the existence of rational thought in one person rests on that person’s ability to understand other people as being reasonably rational.

What are the advantages of radical interpretation and in what way does your “radical interpretation” differ from Quine’s “radical translation”?

The most obvious difference is that a radical translator relates someone else’s language to his own language, while the radical interpreter relates someone else’s language (and thought) to the world. Translation is a syntactical relation, interpretation a semantic relation. This is clear from the fact that you can produce a translation manual from one language into another without understanding how the semantics work. I don’t say you can do it without doing any semantics at all. One of the things you have to do to get started is to connect certain sentences with events and aspects of the world. You have to do this whether you are doing radical interpreting or radical translation. But radical interpretation is a matter of trying to construct, as well as you can, an account of the truth conditions of the utterances of the speaker. And the only way that that can be done is by having some way of understanding the structure of sentences as composed of a finite number of parts, that is, a basic vocabulary, and a finite number of ways of putting the parts together. Natural languages have a potentially unlimited number of sentences; one aim of radical interpretation is to be clear about the role of the parts of sentences in determining the truth conditions of all those sentences. Radical translation doesn’t require this. I don’t say this as a criticism of radical translation. It’s just a difference. Quine was interested in demonstrating that there is no way of drawing the line between analytic propositions and synthetic propositions, and that therefore the idea of fixed meanings has no explanatory function in the study of natural languages. Quine showed how to do philosophy of language without appeal to meanings as entities, and radical translation implemented both the negative and the positive theses. It is a somewhat different ambition to want to have a semantics for natural languages, which is one aim of radical interpretation.

How could the principle of charity be developed further?

Well, ‘Principle of Charity’ is a crude slogan: the idea is that when we are speaking to someone, we interpret what they are saying in such a way as to make them as intelligible as possible. That doesn’t say what makes one interpretation more intelligible than another. So any development is, of course, a matter of trying to become more precise, more detailed about what the various aspects of intelligibility are. There are many such aspects: the question is how you balance them against each other. For example, it’s hard to understand how some people – it’s hard to understand how anybody – can believe certain things, because they seem obviously foolish to most of us. This constrains an interpreter to try to understand apparently weird beliefs either by showing that they aren’t as weird as they sound, or by explaining them in terms of the person’s history, experience and so on. There are obviously various ways such anomalies can be, or should be, resolved. Something I came fully to appreciate over time was the importance of including in radical interpretation a person’s evaluative attitudes: desires, motives, felt obligations, intentions, and the like. This introduced another element into the picture. So far I have said nothing about emotions, yet they clearly are part of what you need to find out about if you want to understand people and why they do the things they do and why they say the things they say. These are directions in which radical interpretation should move.

Why do you think the concept of the truth should be rehabilitated?

Because it’s under attack by people, all sorts of people. Brandom would be a good example. He’s one of the people who think the notion of truth is really of very little importance. In this respect, he is what’s called a deflationist. Deflationism of one sort or another is not only popular among philosophers today, but also among literary theorists and critics, sociologists, historians, and many others. They argue that there is no such thing as objective truth: what we call truth is just a social construct. Richard Rorty has played a role, I am afraid, in encouraging many people in the social sciences and literary criticism to think that the notion of objective truth is a myth. He has said that truth is just what the majority of people at a given time accept; he has approvingly quoted William James in saying that the true is that which it is good to believe. These are views against which we should argue. In my opinion, the notion of truth is an essential concept for understanding people; you can’t even have a belief if you don’t have the concept of truth. That’s why I think truth should be rehabilitated.

What do you think about contemporary readings of Wittgenstein?

I don’t understand why people seem so keen to explain Wittgenstein to each other. It seems to me philosophers that are dead, that we can’t argue with, can inspire us and provide exciting insights. But knowing exactly what they meant by what they said is not one of my major interests.

What is the future of analytic philosophy?

It depends on what you mean by analytic philosophy. Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, took analytic philosophy to mean primarily something like the epistemology of the Logical Positivists. That line in theory of knowledge is dead, and many of the other views of the Positivists no longer attract most of us. But if by analytic philosophy you just mean a devotion to clarity and argument, then it seems to me that we can only hope it goes on forever. I think Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hume, G.E. Moore, Carnap, indeed, the majority of philosophers before the 19th century and since, were analytic philosophers.

Why Socrates?

He just wanted to get things straight. He wouldn’t stop with interesting opinions. He wanted to see how they were put together with the other opinions that people had. He followed up the consequences of believing this or believing that. That is analytic philosophy.

Which area of culture may profit from the contribution of analytic philosophy?

In the broad way in which I understand analytic philosophy, there is no branch of culture that can’t profit from its open-minded, questioning, attitude. If I were to say what areas on the fringes of philosophy right now seem especially ripe for philosophical endeavor, I would say psychology is one. It’s not really any one subject; it’s a lot of different things that people do. A good many of the things that psychologists work on are so close to being of direct philosophical concern that they’re very good areas for interaction if not collaboration. The social sciences and linguistics are other areas where there has been quite a lot of interaction, and there could be more. So is literary theory.

For Socrates philosophizing is life; for Nietzsche it is a monk-like discipline. What is philosophizing for you personally?

For me philosophizing is trying to keep an open mind.

Which aspect of psychoanalytical research can be vitally connected with which philosophical issues?

Psychoanalytic theory is, among other things, a theory of how the mind works. As such, it doesn’t need to be connected with philosophy: it is philosophy, philosophy of mind. One particularly interesting area concerns the nature of various forms of irrationality, which has interested philosophers since at least Plato’s day.

What do you think about Rorty’s reading of your work?

Rorty was one of the first philosophers to understand and appreciate some of the main things I was working on, particularly my attack on conceptual schemes. The scheme-content dichotomy was also an attack on the idea of mental representation, which was what he was attacking in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. So it seems to me that I owe him a great debt because at the time I felt as if I were talking in a vacuum and that nobody was catching on to what I was trying to do. He did, and that was a great encouragement to me.

I’m not sure if it’s so much a matter of interpretation as a matter of the direction in which he would like to push me, but there are three main things, which are connected, that he disapproves of in my work. One is my concern with the formal semantics of natural languages. He says he sees both a Wittgensteinian element and a Tarskian element in my work. Rorty thinks there is some conflict between these elements, and that I should give up the second. I don’t think there is a conflict. One can be interested in the flexibility of natural language and the things about it that make it resist formalization and at the same time think there is a point in trying to formalize its basic structures. These are both legitimate aspects of the study of language and I happen to be interested in both of them. This source of disagreement is connected with another: the attitude we should take towards the concept of truth. Rorty is worried that I may encourage the idea that truth is a goal towards which philosophy should strive, and also that taking truth seriously as a concept may prop up correspondence theories and the idea that language and the mind should mirror reality. I think he knows I don’t believe any of these things; my view is that the concept of truth is essential to describing thoughts and language. I don’t think it makes any particular sense to say we aim for the truth. I don’t think truth is some metaphysical heaven or something wonderful that we should always be striving for. There I agree with him. Rorty remarks that in my view truth is no more important than the notion of belief or the notion of action. Again I agree. These concepts go together; you can’t understand one of them without understanding the others. So I don’t know how much difference there is; not as much as one might think. The third point of contention concerns my thesis that you can’t reduce mental concepts to physical concepts. I think the reason he’s suspicious of this thesis is that he is afraid that it suggests some kind of dualism. It does: I am an ontological monist, but a conceptual dualist. Definitional and neurological reduction fail. But Rorty is not convinced by my arguments for there being an irreducible difference.

Rorty has identified you as one of the key figures of the New Pragmatism. What is your view on this?

I think the right thing to say is I don’t have a view. I certainly reject the pragmatist conception of truth. As for the rest, I have some idea what Rorty has in mind, and it sounds all right. He likes Dewey, for example, because Dewey didn’t think that philosophers are privy to a kind of truth which is basic to all the rest of knowledge. I certainly agree with that. And it’s true that I reject a lot of the standard philosophical problems as being bogus. So maybe in the sense in which he believes in pragmatism, so do I. I’ll tell you, I’m not a great one for classifying philosophies. I leave that to others.

Do you consider yourself a philosopher who works beyond the distinction of realism/anti-realism?

There isn’t one clear distinction. If by realism you mean the idea that entities, perhaps facts or states of affairs, make our sentences true, then I think nobody has ever succeeded in giving a clear account of how that should work. If that is realism, I’m not a realist. But what’s an anti-realist? One form of anti-realism is Dummett’s. For Dummett, one is an anti-realist in some area if one thinks some sentences in that area are neither true nor false. This may be right. It may well be that the most appropriate semantics will declare, say, that some sentences with non-referring names are neither true nor false. I don’t think of this as a deep metaphysical issue, but as a matter for semantic engineering. On the other hand if anti-realism means that a sentence, the truth value of which we have no way to determine, lacks a truth value, then I think anti-realism is false. There are lots of sentences we know for certain we’ll never know to be true or false, those about the distant past for example. There’s no way we can check up on these things. So I’m not an anti-realist but neither am I a realist in the only clear senses I understand.

What makes a good philosopher? Who, among philosophers past or present, do you admire most?

Fortunately, there is no answer to the first question. I think there are endless ways of doing good philosophy and I am all in favor of all of them. Let them all flourish. I wouldn’t try to choose. The two philosophers I admire most are Aristotle and Kant, because they gave us so much work to do.

In your estimation what are the basic philosophical books of the 20th Century?

I think the two basic books of the century are Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

If you had to draw a genealogy of contemporary American philosophy where would you place yourself?

Here’s one suggestion. Start with neo-Kantians, which is where Dewey got started. Dewey influenced C.I. Lewis who gave Kantian epistemology a pragmatist turn. Quine’s epistemology is very similar to Lewis’s. You have to subtract sense data, but Quine had a substitute for sense data, namely a stimulus meaning. You also must subtract the analytic-synthetic distinction. With those changes, Lewis’s epistemology and Quine’s are very similar. Now that is more or less the tree on which I’m some twig. My epistemology differs from Quine’s in that I have no substitute for sense data, and so, unlike Quine, I am not an empiricist. Quine ultimately gave up the idea of stimulus meaning in the philosophy of language, but he remained an empiricist in epistemology. There’s another element in my view which stresses the social aspect of meaning and thought. This is an idea that runs through the pragmatists, and it is strong in Mead and in Wittgenstein. Fit that into the tree if you can.

Which philosophical values and ideas would you like to see come to the fore in the 21st Century?

I think we’ll see more and more philosophers who have a thorough training in some other discipline. Any number of disciplines: psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, physics, genetics, linguistics. We don’t have anywhere near enough philosophers of physics who really know physics. That’s certainly becoming an absolutely fascinating subject. If we go into aesthetics, we need a very thorough training in one field or another: painting, music, the film, the theater, dance. Another topic that I think will become more and more defined is the nature of pre-propositional thought or non-propositional thought, animal thought. Such thought isn’t propositional, but it can be complicated and sophisticated. It’s not untouched by philosophy, but it seems to me the touching so far hasn’t gotten very far and I think it will. It’s a big subject and along with that, I suppose, the philosophical problems that arise in connection with developmental studies. But these are just one person’s musings.

Which issues do you think are definitely obsolete and should not be bothered with in the next century?

One issue I think ought to be dead is old-fashioned skepticism about what our senses tell us about the world. If that is a non-issue, we can rule out much of the epistemology that was done during the past few centuries, since so much of it was designed to answer that kind of skepticism. This remark reflects a prejudice of mine. But I’m glad neither I nor anyone else is in a position to legislate how philosophy is to develop in the future.

What is your relation with religion? Which religion do you think is true?

None. I am an atheist, and always have been. Many of the claims of religion are good candidates for propositions that lack a truth value.

Giancarlo Marchetti is a researcher in philosophy at the Department of Philosophical Sciences of the University of Perugia, in Italy.

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