Donald Davidson Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Davidson’s work in action theory, the ontology of events, and especially the semantics of natural language was groundbreaking throughout the latter third of the twentieth century.

Early Life

Donald Herbert Davidson, son of Clarence and Grace Davidson, graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in 1939. Awarded a Teschemacher fellowship in classics and philosophy, he received an M.A. in 1941. After serving in the military during World War II, he returned to Harvard and completed a dissertation on Plato’s Philēbos (c. 360-347 b.c.e.; Philebus, 1804), receiving his Ph.D. in 1949. While finishing his graduate work, Davidson taught at Queen’s College, leaving for a position at Stanford University, where he stayed from 1951 to 1967. He subsequently accepted positions at Princeton University, Rockefeller University, and the University of Chicago. In 1981, he returned to California to teach at the University of California, Berkeley.

Life’s Work

Although Davidson was trained in the classics, his earliest writings during the 1950’s were in value theory and decision making. These culminated with the publication of his first book, Decision Making: An Experimental Approach, which he coauthored with Patrick Suppes. However, the work that first brought Davidson to the attention of most philosophers was his 1963 essay, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.” Contrary to the prevailing behaviorist views, Davidson argued that human action needed to be understood in terms of reasons, including attitudes, beliefs, and intentions. This flew in the face of the predominant sentiment that human action, or behavior, is to be understood in terms of stimulus-response and operant conditioning. In addition, Davidson claimed that reasons function as causes of human action, not merely as one mode of explanation of human action.

Besides his important writings in action theory and philosophy of mind, Davidson produced seminal work in the philosophy of language. His first essay in this area was “Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages,” in which Davidson argued that any theory of meaning must reconcile people’s finite abilities as users of the language with the infinite number of meaningful sentences of which the language is capable. His efforts resulted in a systematic program of significant and influential essays, including “Truth and Meaning.” In this work, he argued for a truth-conditional analysis of meaning. That is, he argued that the meaning of a sentence could be understood by understanding the conditions under which the sentence was true (or false). Just as his writings on action theory had run counter to the prevailing behaviorist views, his truth-conditional analysis of meaning also ran counter to the predominant view of meaning as use proposed by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. P. F. Strawson responded to Davidson’s essay with his own, “Meaning and Truth” (1969), in which he claimed that Davidson’s formal semantic analysis failed to appreciate the communicative-intentional basis of meaning (and language in general). Davidson’s immediate response was that a theory of meaning is a semantic theory that should give an account of how people can understand and interpret language; a speaker’s communicative and intentional concerns are important pragmatic elements of language use but not features of a semantic theory.

Over his career, Davidson returned to the concerns about communication and the pragmatics of language, though he did not abandon his truth-conditional approach. In two essays written in the 1980’s, “Communication and Convention” and “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs,” he argued that people’s communicative intentions and linguistic conventions, though important features of language and ones that ultimately need to be covered in theories of language, cannot serve as the basis for language or for people’s understanding of language because rule-based conventions are often broken without loss of meaning or understanding.

Throughout the 1970’s, Davidson produced numerous important essays in action theory and philosophy of mind, but especially in the philosophy of language. Two in particular were landmarks: “Radical Interpretation”and “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Both were motivated by and in response to the work of W. V. O. Quine. In various writings, Quine had argued that the basis of meaning is perceptual stimulation coupled with the association of that stimulation with language. For example, people learn the meaning of the word “red” by being presented with red objects and hearing the word “red” in association with those presentations. People learn the meaning of sentences by noting the assent and dissent of speakers when they are presented with stimuli. Therefore, having acquired the meaning of “red,” upon a later presentation of a colored object, one might ask if that, too, is red; the subsequent assent or dissent helps secure the meaning of “red.” Davidson balked at the underlying behaviorism of this view and insisted that interpretation is a matter of both learning and relying on others’ beliefs as well as the meaning of words and sentences. That is, the assent or dissent given by the other person does not necessarily distinguish that person’s beliefs about red from the meaning of “red.” As Davidson said, “Only by studying the pattern of assents to sentences can we decide what is meant and what believed.”

In the second essay, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” Davidson questions the claim that there are incommensurable conceptual schemes or languages (that is, that there are conceptual schemes or languages such that there is no possibility...

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