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Donald Davidson: A Short Introduction by Kathrin Glüer

David Fraser is introduced to Donald Davidson’s thinking by Kathrin Glüer.

Imagine for a moment that you are a linguist sent out into the furthest reaches of a remote jungle. Here you discover an unknown tribe that speaks a unique and uncatalogued language that you name ‘Jungle’. Jungle is so radically different from other languages that the only way you can make sense of it is by studying the physical and verbal behavior of the tribe members and observing the circumstances in which they speak. The goal you set for yourself is to produce a theory of interpretation based only on the observable data you gather, which will allow you to understand any utterance a tribe member makes.

Kathrin Glüer, a professor of theoretical philosophy at Stockholm University, uses this imagined scenario to illustrate facets of Donald Davidson’s thought in Donald Davidson: A Short Introduction. The late Donald Davidson was a Professor at Berkeley, and renowned worldwide among philosophers for his theories about language. According to Glüer, Davidson’s project is to answer the following question: What is it for words to mean what they do? Yet Davidson does not answer this question directly. Instead, he proceeds by asking and answering two further questions: first, What would enable us to interpret someone’s words and their meanings?; second, How can we come to know a theory by which we could interpret in this way? Glüer elaborates Davidson’s answer to both of these questions in her account of five elements of his thought: radical interpretation; the principle of charity; his theory of action; the relationships between language and the world; and his account of the relationship between the mental and the physical.

To understand the problems that a linguist, or in Davidson’s language a ‘radical interpreter’, faces in the scenario above, consider that the interpreter needs a success criterion by which they can establish, or measure their own competence in using Jungle; and, that he or she is forced to simultaneously determine the belief(s) of the speaker, and the meaning of the speaker’s utterance.

According to Glüer, Davidson’s success criterion is that a competent speaker must recognise the conditions under which a given utterance is true. The radical interpreter does not need to know how to verify its truth: they only need to know when the utterance is true. This solution implies that the radical interpreter can recognize when a tribe member holds an utterance to be true even if their observable behavior does not tell the interpreter what the utterance means. However, given this ability, it’s possible to create hypotheses about, and to search for, the theory of interpretation that will be the best overall fit to the perceivable data.

The possibility of searching for a best fit to the observable data is dependent upon what Davidson calls his ‘Principle of Charity’. Under this principle, ‘charity’ requires that the radical interpreter must believe a native speaker to be right, or hold beliefs that are true, whenever it’s plausible to think that. In a more formalized analysis, the Principle of Charity relies on two further principles: the Principle of Coherence, and the Principle of Correspondence. ‘Coherence’ requires that speakers are to be interpreted as internally coherent and rational, ie, that their beliefs don’t contradict each other. ‘Correspondence’ requires that the radical interpreter takes the speaker to be responding to the same features of the world that the interpreter would respond to under similar circumstances. The Principles of Coherence and Correspondence together provide a framework in which the interpreter can begin to develop a theory explaining a subject’s words and meanings.

Davidson’s concern with simultaneously establishing a speaker’s beliefs and the meaning of their utterances arises from his wider desire to provide a theory unifying meaning and action. Davidson, writes Glüer, endorses a belief-desire model of action – that is, the explanation (meaning) of an action lies in the beliefs and desires of the actor. There is thus an interdependence between meaning, belief, and desire. Interpreters can explain an agent’s action by citing the reasons that the agent herself gives for doing what she did. For Davidson, creatures with minds are essentially rational animals, and in turn, rational animals are interpretable animals. Consequently, a language speaker’s mind, and the meaning of their language, are in principle accessible to the radical interpreter through their actions.

When Davidson asks how we could devise a theory that would allow us to interpret, he is venturing into the empirical side of the theory of knowledge. But he does not simply wish to describe how we are able to know, he also wishes to reject skeptical arguments. One skeptical question here is whether two different conceptual schemes – two different ways of organizing the data of sense experience – would necessarily be incommensurable (that is, incomparable) with each other. Answering ‘no’, Davidson performs a sort of reductio ad absurdum argument. First, he points out that if two individuals’ conceptual schemes differ, then so must the languages in which the schemes are expressed. But if the two conceptual schemes are incommensurable, this would mean that their languages would be mutually untranslatable. But if that’s correct, then we couldn’t know if we ever got a translation wrong. But we can know that. So different conceptual schemes are commensurable.

For Davidson the relation between the mental and the physical is described by ‘anomalous monism’. On Glüer’s reading, Davidson believes both that mental events are identical with physical events, and that the mental cannot be reduced to the physical. Davidson believes the mental cannot be reduced to the physical because he does not believe that strict psycho-physical laws exist. However, he believes that mental events are physical events because there is only one basic kind of events, underlying both the mental and the physical descriptions. As Glüer explains this, “For Davidson the characteristics of the mental and the physical thus first and foremost concern two vocabularies for events, two ways of describing and explaining [the same] events.” (p.250) [See last issue for more on Davidson’s anomalous monism – Ed.]

I believe that Donald Davidson: A Short Introduction is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of Davidson’s thought. The genius of Glüer’s work lies in her creation of a coherent and compelling synthesis out of Davidson’s journal articles. Her book is well written, well structured, and well served by her examples, and she succeeds in making the thoughts of a difficult thinker understandable and intuitive. She also manages to balance her synthesis with exposure of the tensions in some of his claims, providing helpful critiques of them. For readers who already have a basic familiarity with the contours of the philosophy of language, this book will provide an excellent introduction to Donald Davidson’s philosophy.

© David R.T. Fraser 2013

David R.T. Fraser is a graduate student studying the epistemology of testimony at Regent College, in Vancouver Canada.

Donald Davidson: A Short Introduction by Kathrin Glüer, OUP USA, 2011, 328pp, £15.99, ISBN: 978-0195382969

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