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Donald Davidson (1917-2003)

by Anna Sherratt

Donald Herbert Davidson ranks as one of the greatest American philosophers. Born in Massachusetts in 1917, he grew up in the Philippines and on Staten Island, New York. In 1935, he won a scholarship to Harvard where he studied English and Comparative Literature. Here Davidson met Willard Van Orman Quine, and formed the interests in philosophy of mind, action and language that would shape the rest of his career. Although Davidson described himself as besotted with philosophy, by no means was it his only interest. He enjoyed surfing, skiing, mountaineering and travel. He also worked for the US Navy, and once spent a summer in Hollywood writing radio scripts. Having taught in New York, Stanford, Princeton and Chicago, Donald Davidson spent the last twenty-two years of his life at the University of Berkeley, California. He died from a heart attack on the 31st of August.

Davidson wrote a book on decision theory and over one hundred and twenty philosophical articles. Some of the best of these are collected in the volume Essays on Actions and Events. Here Davidson addresses a series of related questions. Do my reasons cause my actions? How can someone do something when they know perfectly well that it would be better not to do it? What is the relation between mental events and physical ones? How should we understand causal statements? An important theme throughout these essays is the idea that one event can be described in many different ways. Suppose that I arrive home, and turn on the light. This one event is both an illuminating of the room and a rising of my arm. Unbeknownst to me, it may also be an alerting of the prowler who is riffling through my wardrobe. This point shapes Davidson’s answers to the questions above – he claims, for instance, that if one event causes another then the two events can be described in such a way that they are connected by an appropriate causal law.

This same theme plays a crucial role in the most influential essay of the collection, ‘Mental Events’. Here Davidson introduces three principles. The first tells us that mental events interact causally with physical events – thus, my desire to turn on the light causes the rising of my arm. The second asserts that if one event causes another, there must be a strict, deterministic law connecting the two events. The final principle tells us that mental events do not feature in such laws; as Davidson puts it, the mental is ‘anomalous’. Plausible as these three principles may be, they appear to be in tension. If causation requires laws and there are no laws connecting the mental and the physical, how can there be causal interaction between the two domains? In ‘Mental Events’, Davidson attempts to resolve this paradox. Every mental event, he claims, is identical with some physical event. These physical events are connected by strict laws to other physical events. Two events are causally related if they have descriptions that instantiate a strict law. So, Davidson concludes, the mental causally interacts with the physical. Thus we arrive at the position that Davidson calls Anomalous Monism: mental events are identical with physical events, despite the absence of strict laws that connect them.

Davidson also wrote extensively on topics in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of knowledge. (Much of this work is collected in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation.) Here the project of Radical Interpretation plays a crucial role. Suppose that we are faced with a speaker whose language we do not understand and of whose beliefs we have no prior knowledge. How should we interpret her linguistic behaviour? As part of his answer to this question, Davidson introduces his holism: we can ascribe beliefs to a speaker only on the basis of prior assumptions about meaning, and vice versa. Here, too, we find Davidson’s thesis of the indeterminacy of interpretation: there will be many different assignments of meaning and belief that fit equally well with a given speaker’s behaviour. Davidson’s work on these topics is difficult and controversial. Yet however daunting the subject matter, his prose never loses its distinctive elegance. He is master of the concise summary, the vivid metaphor, and the quirky example (“This is a good memento of the murder but a poor steak knife”). The recent deaths of Quine, Lewis and Davidson have deprived philosophy of three great stylists.

Donald Davidson remained philosophically active until the end of his life. Neither did he lose his enthusiasm for the outdoors – well into his eighties he was seen snorkelling off the coast of Mexico. He is survived by his wife, Marcia Cavell, his daughter, Elizabeth Davidson, and two grandchildren.


Anna Sherratt is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

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