Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson

Marc Joseph
Series: Philosophy Now
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Donald Davidson
    Book Description:

    Donald Davidson's work is of seminal importance in the development of the analytic tradition following Quine. His views on the nature of language, mind, and action occupy a prominent position in the philosophical literature and are a starting point for much of contemporary analytic philosophy. Davidson's article "Truth and Meaning" helped shape the debate over the proper approach to the semantics of natural language, just as "Actions, Reasons, and Causes" redirected discussions in action theory. His essay "Mental Events" partially defines contemporary discussion in its field, presenting one of the live options in the philosophy of psychology. His views are, however, extremely complex, interconnecting with one another in a myriad of ways and reinforcing one another in a way that makes it very difficult for students to understand his thinking by reading one or two of his articles. In this introduction to Davidson's philosophy Marc Joseph pulls together and examines Davidson's writings, illuminating the challenge of his critique and showing how it departs from the analytic tradition in novel and exciting ways.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8273-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction: Davidson’s philosophical project
    (pp. 1-11)

    Donald Davidson ranks as one of the most influential philosophers of the second half of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. Davidson was trained in the analytic tradition in philosophy, which traces its origins back to Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell and continues through the logical empiricists and W. V. Quine, who was Davidson’s teacher when he was a graduate student. A central focus of this tradition is the nature of language, and some of Davidson’s most significant and widely cited work is his contribution to methodological and substantive debates about fundamental matters in the philosophy of language....

  5. Chapter 2 Meaning and truth I
    (pp. 12-25)

    In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein compares a natural language, for example, English or German, to an ancient city. Our everyday speech, he says, is like the ancient town centre with its “maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods”, while more recently added idioms (e.g. a specialized scientific vocabulary), like newly constructed suburbs, are regular and predictable in their structure (Wittgenstein 1958: §18). Part of Wittgenstein’s point is to stress the complex interrelatedness of different parts of a language, but the image also appeals to him for its implication...

  6. Chapter 3 Meaning and truth II
    (pp. 26-47)

    In Chapter 2 we saw that, under pressure from several constraints, a compositional theory of truth emerges as the leading candidate for supplying the outline for a theory of meaning. We continue our discussion of truth and meaning in this chapter, focusing on Alfred Tarski’s groundbreaking work on semantics as the model for compositional truth theories¹ and on Davidson’s discussion of the applicability of Tarski’s work to natural languages.

    As a mathematician and logician, Tarski’s focus is somewhat specialized, at least considered from our current vantage point in the philosophy of language. He is especially interested in the semantic paradoxes...

  7. Chapter 4 Radical interpretation
    (pp. 48-76)

    In Chapter 3 we saw that a Tarski-style theory of truth for a language diagrams the semantic structure of the language. As with any mathematical theory, however, that structure can be fitted on to any system of objects that satisfies the conditions expressed by its axioms. Consider, for example, a simple theory K that one might set up to describe the pattern of relations among the lengths of assorted objects. K would contain an axiom of the form,

    (1) If Rxy, then not Ryx,

    which, when we assign the interpretation "is longer than" to "R", says that if some object...

  8. Chapter 5 Interpretation and meaning
    (pp. 77-101)

    We are now in a position – or almost in a position – to ask a key question about Davidson’s philosophy of language; namely, how can we know whether a theory of meaning that meets the desiderata of Chapter 2, and is constructed along the lines set out in Chapters 3 and 4, can play the role Davidson identifies for it as part of a unified theory of interpretation? I turn to this question in §5.4. First, I need to say more about the way Davidson reconceives the concept of meaning in light of his account of interpretation; and we...

  9. Chapter 6 Events and causes
    (pp. 102-116)

    In Chapters 1–5 we examined the theory of radical interpretation, which Davidson presents as a rational reconstruction of the exchange between speakers and their auditors. His purpose, we have seen, is to answer the Socratic-style question “What is meaning?” by setting it aside and answering the different, but related, query “What knowledge would suffice for an interpreter’s understanding a speaker’s words?” Davidson’s idealized sketch of an interpreter’s enterprise offers no insight into cognitive or social psychology, but it does lay bare the connections between the concept of linguistic meaning and a network of closely related notions, especially the concepts...

  10. Chapter 7 Action theory and explanation in the social sciences
    (pp. 117-143)

    All sorts of events occur – bridges collapse, planets appear in the evening sky, people give speeches – and some of these events are special in being actions persons perform. Classical Chinese marks the distinction between actions and other events graphically, by adding to the term “wei”, meaning “to do”, the radical for “human being”, thus yielding a character that literally means “a person’s doing”.¹ Not everything a person does can be counted among his actions, however; witness Jack’s falling down the hill, about which we say that it happens to him, rather than that he performs it. Or, to...

  11. Chapter 8 The matter of mind
    (pp. 144-174)

    In this chapter we turn from reason explanation to the nature of human actors themselves. This move takes us, one might say, from the logic of the social sciences to their ontology, except that Davidson’s premier achievement in the philosophy of mind has been to reconceptualize and thereby recast the traditional problems. Fodor writes that when he “was a boy in graduate school, the philosophy of mind had two main division: the mind/body problem and the problem of other minds” (1995: 292). Davidson rewrites the mind–body problem by arguing that “there are no such things as minds, but people...

  12. Chapter 9 Conclusion: scepticism and subjectivity
    (pp. 175-196)

    In his presidential address to the American Philosophical Association in 1973 and in subsequent writings,¹ Davidson turns his attention to the “philosophical fallout from the approach to truth and interpretation” that he recommends and which we have been surveying over the course of the preceding chapters (Davidson 1984a: xviii). This fallout casts doubt on central threads of the weave that defines European philosophy since the seventeenth century.

    The early modern philosophers are linked to one another and to their twentieth-century heirs by their efforts to answer the sceptic’s challenge to validate the objectivity of human knowledge. Russell, for example, writes...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 197-226)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-238)
  15. Index
    (pp. 239-245)