Essays on Actions and Events

by Donald Davidson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266

Among the perennial ontological issues that philosophers have addressed are the relation between the mental and the physical and the fundamental categories of reality. The former issue, the relation of the mental and the physical, is often termed “the mind-body problem” and involves questions concerning the nature of the mind and how, if at all, a nonphysical entity (mind) can influence or be influenced by a physical entity (body). The latter issue, the fundamental categories of reality, can be traced back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, who questioned whether there was some single unifying reality that underlay the multiplicity of entities of everyday experience. In addressing this issue, philosophers have asked questions such as whether the physical world is “really real” and whether the world is made up basically of things, as opposed to, for example, processes. Are properties (such as being tall) real? Are relations (such as being taller than another person) real? Are events, as opposed to things, real? These are the types of issues and questions that Donald Davidson addresses in these essays.

This book consists of fifteen essays, written between 1963 and 1978, grouped into three clusters covering intention and action, event and cause, and philosophy of psychology. In the book’s introduction, Davidson enunciates a common theme to the essays: the role of causal concepts in the description and explanation of human action. He also insists that there is one, ordinary notion of cause employed both in scientific accounts of human action and in commonsense experiential accounts. As Davidson puts it: “The concept of cause is what holds together our picture of the universe.”

Reasons as Causes and Explanations

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The first essay, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” in the collection is probably the best known. Writing during the heyday of behaviorism, Davidson challenged the prevailing sentiment that a person’s intentions, motives, or beliefs could neither cause that person’s actions (because actions are physical and reasons are not) nor serve to explain that person’s actions (because explanations require lawlike regularity in a physical sense). Acting for a reason, Davidson claimed, involves having both an attitude and a belief. Davidson demonstrates how an action is made reasonable (in Davidson’s words, “how a reason of any kind rationalizes an action”) by connecting one event (having an attitude and belief) with another event (the action). Reasons provide an interpretation of action by placing it within a broader context. For example, if one wants to know why a person raised his or her arm, one interprets that action, describing it as a case of, for example, a person signaling someone else, seeing how high he or she could reach, or trying to touch something over his or her head, and so on. These various descriptions of that event of arm raising show the person’s action to be reasonable by placing it within a set of events (such as signaling). These notions of events being variously characterized and of the role of interpretation in explanatory accounts play important roles throughout Davidson’s writings.

Agency, Intention, and Free Will

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Given an attempt to account for human action, a number of basic concepts are necessarily invoked: agency, intention, and free will. In the remaining essays in this section of the book, Davidson spells out how these concepts relate to his understanding of actions, reasons, and causes. According to Davidson, what makes a particular event an action is the component of agency. A rock falling off a cliff is an event but not an action; a rock being thrown off a cliff is an event that is an action. The difference is the involvement of an agent in the latter event. Although this seems plausible, something more is needed because in both cases the event was preceded by another event that was sufficient to cause the event in question. In the case of the rock falling, the preceding event was, perhaps, a strong gust of wind that dislodged the rock and caused it to fall. In the case of the rock being thrown, the preceding event was, perhaps, someone’s desire to see how far he or she could throw the rock. Therefore, agency cannot simply be “having a preceding cause”; otherwise, the wind would have been an agent in the falling of the rock. A strong wind cannot be an agent because it has no intentions, and intention seems to be necessary (if not sufficient). In his essay “Intending,” Davidson reconnects the concept of intention, or intendings, to the having of attitudes and beliefs. Intendings, he says, are judgments that are directed toward an agent’s future actions, in light of that agent’s beliefs.

Having characterized action as involving reasons, which, in turn, are causes, Davidson addresses two challenges, one facing reasons and the other facing causality. The first challenge has to do with giving an account of unreasonable or irrational human action. If human action is accounted for in terms of reasons and reasonable interpretations, then how does this explain unreasonable human action? Although Davidson does not directly answer this question, he does insist that any account of action must make sense of forms of intentional, though perhaps irrational, action, including weakness of will and self-destructive behavior. The second challenge, concerning causality, involves explaining human action as being caused (because even reasons are causes) and yet free. For Davidson, the very freedom to act is itself causally efficacious but incapable of analysis or definition except via intentionality. Action is explained in terms of reasons and causes, which are in turn explained in terms of agency and intentionality, which are then explained in terms of reasons and causes. This produces not a foundationalist analysis, with one or two elemental concepts defining the others, but rather a coherentist one, with various concepts offering an interweaving net of support and explanation.

Event Ontology and Semantics

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The second set of essays in this book focuses on issues related to the ontology of events and the semantics of event statements. Because particular events, such as the raising of one’s arm, can, for Davidson, be described as various sorts of actions (signaling, reaching, and so on), events should be seen as particulars, or ontological individuals, distinct from the various ways in which they are described. In answer to the question as to what individuates events, Davidson states that events are identical, and hence individuated, if and only if they have the same causes and effects. (Davidson later came to abandon this criterion for the individuation of events when philosopher W. V. O. Quine pointed out that Davidson had already defined events in terms of causes and effects, so his criterion was circular.)

Davidson raises two issues regarding the semantics of event statements. The first concerns how formal semantic theory should characterize event statements, and the second, how formal semantic theory should correctly capture the truth values of event statements. About the first issue, Davidson says to treat events as objects that are handled semantically like other objects; in other words, they fall within the scope of formal quantifiers. For example, the statement “The battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon’s reign” should be treated as “There is an x such that x is the battle of Waterloo and there is a y such that y is Napoleon’s reign and x ended y.” An added wrinkle is how to treat adverbial modifiers. For example, does one treat “Jones buttered the toast slowly and deliberately” as one event or two? In terms of formal semantic analysis, does one treat this statement as one sentence or two? Davidson’s answer is to treat adverbs as predicates, so that the statement becomes “There is an x such that x is a buttering and x is slow and x is deliberate.” Although this sounds informally awkward, it coheres well with formal semantic analysis and maintains ontological intuitions (such as only one event, not two, occurred).

A second issue related to the semantics of event statements is the correct capturing of truth values of event statements. As normally analyzed, the truth of a statement depends upon the predicate of that statement being satisfied by the subject of the statement, which in turn requires the existence of the subject. The truth of the sentence “The Queen laughed at the King’s cravat” requires that there be a queen. If an event such as the buttering of the toast by Jones is an ontological individual (or if “the buttering of the toast by Jones” is a singular term), then the truth of that sentence requires the existence of that individual. Davidson’s analysis is, again, to treat this as “There is an x such that x is the buttering of the toast by Jones, etc.” Although such a paraphrase might seem informally awkward, it preserves the formal rigor and coherence of standard formal semantic analysis.

The Philosophy of Psychology

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The third group of essays, on the philosophy of psychology, returns more directly to matters of mind and introduces Davidson’s famous doctrine of “anomalous monism.” Davidson’s concerns with causality, lawlike accounts of action, and ontology naturally led him to investigate more fully what the mind is and how it fits in with the causal understanding of the world. In his essay “Mental Events,” he argues for the ontological identity of mental and physical events while at the same time denying a physical, lawful account of mental events. Davidson claims that events are particulars and, although events are characterizable under various descriptions, they are not identical with those characterizations. The actual cause-effect relations between events, being a matter of ontology, exist regardless of the descriptive characterizations that might be given. A particular mental event, such as one’s remembering a dental appointment, might cause some other event, such as one’s getting in the car, but there is no nomological, or lawful, necessary connection between those two events, because such nomological connections are always given under descriptions. For Davidson, then, there is ontological monism (a single kind of ontological entity) that is nevertheless anomalous (not accountable within strict physical, causal laws).

From his stance of anomalous monism, Davidson questions the fecundity of physiological and neurological findings about the brain and cognitive functions with respect to the understanding of mentality. Understanding of mental events, he says, requires interpreting those events within broader contexts (within descriptions of types of events). Remembering a dental appointment, as an instance of remembering, causally depends upon physiological events and states but, for Davidson, is not reducible in any way that explains what remembering is. Mental events and states might well supervene on physical events and states (they might well ontologically emerge out of physical events and states) so that physical events are necessary conditions for mental events, but physical accounts of mental events can never be explanatorily sufficient because interpretation and descriptive characterizations are not physical.

Controversy and Impact

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Many of the essays contained in Essays on Actions and Events brought renown to Davidson. His insistence on taking cognitive states and functions seriously during the time that behaviorism reigned made his views controversial and guaranteed that they could not be ignored. The growth of action theory as a philosophical concern especially during the 1960’s and 1970’s was in large part a result of Davidson’s writings. His work on the ontology of events and the semantic analysis of event sentences is regarded as groundbreaking and definitive. Davidson’s writings on actions and events, also captured in the 1984 collection Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, shaped many of the latter twentieth century notions of the nature of language and interpretation and how they relate to ontological issues such as the nature of mind.


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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.

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