Donald Davidson

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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...

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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 of cross-communication or understanding). A popular view, both inside and outside academia, is that languages, or conceptual schemes, determine how speakers comprehend the world and that different conceptual schemes divide up the world in such different ways that speakers cannot really comprehend each other and, indeed, in a sense, live in different worlds so that there is an ontological relativity (to use Quine’s famous term). Davidson argued that this view is mistaken. Unless there is some point of contact and agreement, people could not know where they disagreed. Although particular terms might not be amenable to easy translation, the claim of complete intranslatability (incommensurable conceptual schemes) is incoherent. A theme that emerges from these essays and is carried out throughout his later writings is a rejection of wholesale relativism and subjectivism. People all bump into the world and they tend to understand one another, and people tend to get things right when they engage with the world.

As noted above, an overarching concern for Davidson was to provide a semantics for natural language. From his earliest writings on, he recognized that natural languages involve much more than declarative statements, that is, those that have truth values. For example, there are questions and commands, neither of which can be said to be true or false. In addition, there are aspects of natural languages that are not literal, such as similes and metaphors. In the context of a growing body of literature on nonliterality, Davidson created a stir with his essay, “What Metaphors Mean.” Unlike most of his contemporaries, Davidson denied that there is any special metaphorical meaning separate from literal meaning. What words mean and what they do (or what people do with them) are related but distinct matters. Words function metaphorically, he claimed, only because they rely on their literal meaning. For example, the meaning of the word “man” does not change from its use in “Man is a mammal” and “Man is a wolf.” The latter sentence is metaphorical only because people understand that the words “man” and “wolf” have their literal meanings and are being used in a nonliteral way. This is not to deny that metaphors expand the literal meaning of words or get people to see things in new and different ways. It is simply to say that people’s ability to account for metaphors and their workings is not dependent upon special metaphorical meaning.

A basic commitment of Davidson’s views, that people need to understand how they engage in the world, reveals a coherence and consistency across his work in action theory and in semantics. People are agents, with beliefs and intentions about the world and about themselves; people are also speakers who engage in a social linguistic world. Although some of his writings focused on agency and others on language use, all were aiming at developing theories to account for people’s engagement in the world.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, this concern took a more explicitly epistemological turn, with Davidson writing on what it is for people to know the world and know language and know others. In his essay “Rational Animals,” he employed the metaphor of triangulation, a method of locating an object by determining its placement relative to two other known objects. This notion of elucidating concepts such as belief, meaning, or truth by locating them relative to other concepts rather than by definitional reduction applied to his work in action theory, to his concerns about Quine’s theory of meaning and interpretation, and to truth in his later essays, including “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge” and “The Folly of Trying to Define Truth.”

For Davidson, much as the possibility of disagreement depends on the preponderance of agreement, people’s subjective knowledge (knowledge of one’s own thoughts and sensations) depends on knowledge of an external, objective world. Indeed, all propositional knowledge, he claimed, whether of oneself or the world, requires possession of the concept of objective truth, which in turn requires communication and knowledge of other minds. The latter, though conceptually basic, is possible only within a shared, objective world. The acquisition of knowledge, then, does not progress from the subjective to the objective but emerges holistically and intersubjectively. In “The Second Person,” he reiterated this point by arguing that to even have thoughts requires a second person capable of understanding them, with that understanding itself dependent upon “the mutual and simultaneous responses of two or more creatures to common distal stimuli and to one another’s responses.” In his writings in the 1990’s, Davidson carried out this intersubjective, holistic theme in the context of returning to his classical, Platonic academic roots. In his essay, “Dialectic and Dialogue,” he suggested that most of the concepts with which philosophers wrestle in fact cannot be defined by reducing them to simpler concepts, and, therefore, it was no wonder that Plato’s Socratic dialogues seemed never to succeed in producing satisfactory definitions of piety, justice, and so on. Rather, Davidson claimed, his dialectic could be construed as a method for deciding how important concepts should be used by triangulating them and seeing how they both clarify and are clarified by neighboring concepts.


Davidson’s work in action theory, ontology, and semantics was profound throughout the last third of the twentieth century. In action theory and philosophy of mind, his insistence on reasons as causes weaned many philosophers away from behaviorism while at the same time avoided any commitment to a dualism of mind and body. He helped make respectable a cognitive approach to investigating the nature of mind and mentality. His work on the ontology of events and the logic of action statements was truly seminal and definitive. His writings in the semantics of natural language, though, will no doubt be his lasting legacy. Davidson’s truth-conditional analysis of meaning remains paramount for many philosophers of language, as do his views on interpretation and the shared commonality of knowledge and truth. At a time when many proclaimed the fragmentation and even the end of philosophy, Davidson offered a rigorous, systematic attempt to understand people as speakers and agents, as persons.

Additional Reading

Audi, Robert. Action, Intention, and Reason. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. This thorough treatment of contemporary issues and views in action theory includes coverage of Donald Davidson.

Evnine, Simon. Donald Davidson. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. This very clear survey of Davidson’s thought focuses equally on issues in action theory and philosophy of mind and issues in meaning and interpretation.

LePore, Ernest, ed. Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. This anthology of papers from a conference on Davidson held at Rutgers University in 1984 includes several important papers by Davidson. The papers deal with issues relating to Davidson’s work in semantics (language, truth, and meaning). Papers from the same conference relating to Davidson’s work in action theory and ontology were published in a separate volume.

LePore, Ernest, and Brian P. McLaughlin, eds. Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985. This companion volume to Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson contains papers, including three by Davidson, presented at a 1984 conference held at Rutgers University. This volume focuses on issues of action theory (intention and action) and ontology (events and causes).

Malpas, J. E. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. This sophisticated treatment of Davidson focuses on issues of holism, truth, and interpretation. Malpas relates the work and concerns of Davidson to contemporary continental thinkers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Martin Heidegger.

Passmore, John. Recent Philosophers. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985. This clear, thematic introduction to contemporary concerns about logic, language, and ontology includes a chapter on Davidson and Michael Dummett.

Preyer, Gerhard, Frank Siebelt, and Alexander Ulfig, eds. Language, Mind, and Epistemology: On Donald Davidson’s Philosophy. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1994. Collection of essays focusing on three major topics in Davidson’s work: philosophy of language, epistemology, and action theory. Several papers are in German.

Ramberg, Bjorn T. Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. In this short, clear introduction to Davidson’s work in philosophy of language, Ramberg focuses on issues of truth, interpretation, and the development of Davidson’s views on the nature of language.

Stoecker, Ralf, ed. Reflecting Davidson: Donald Davidson Responding to a Forum of International Philosophers. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1993. This anthology is made up of papers presented at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Bielefeld, Germany, in 1991. The papers cover the gamut of Davidson’s thought, including truth, interpretation, mental concepts, action theory, and metaphor. Each paper includes a reply by Davidson.

Vermazen, Bruce, and Merrill Hintikka, eds. Essays on Davidson: Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. This anthology brings together papers analyzing and critiquing various aspects of Davidson’s work. Replies by Davidson are included.


Critical Essays