Donald Davidson (philosopher)

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Donald Herbert Davidson (March 6, 1917 – August 30, 2003) was an American philosopher, whose work exerted considerable influence in many areas of philosophy from the 1960s onward, particularly in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and action theory.


  • The methodological advice to interpret in a way that optimizes agreement should not be conceived as resting on a charitable assumption about human intelligence that might turn out to be false. If we cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behaviour of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our standards, we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything
    • Donald Davidson. "Radical interpretation." Dialectica 27.3‐4 (1973): p. 324; as cited in; Herman Parret, ‎Jacques Bouveresse (1981) Meaning and Understanding, p. 186
  • In quotation not only does language turn on itself, but it does so word by word and expression by expression, and this reflexive twist is inseparable from the convenience and universal applicability of the device. Here we already have enough to draw the interest of the philosopher of language.
    • Donald Davidson. "Quotation" in: Theory and Decision, March 1979, Vol. 11, Iss. 1, pp 27-40; Cited by Willis Goth Regier, Quotology, (2010), p. 4
  • The dominant metaphor of conceptual relativism, that of differing points of view, seems to betray an underlying paradox. Different points of view make sense, but only if there is a common co-ordinate system on which to plot them; yet the existence of a common system belies the claim of dramatic incomparability.
    • Donald Davidson. "On the Very Idea," p. 184; as cited in: Johannes Brandl, Wolfgang Leopold Gombocz. The Mind of Donald Davidson. Rodopi, 1989, p. 152
  • I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. And we should try again to say how convention in any important sense is involved in language; or, as I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions.
  • I thought... that the fact that in characterizing truth for a language it is necessary to put words into relations with objects was enough to give some grip for the idea of correspondence; but this now seems to me a mistake. The mistake is in a way only a misnomer, but terminological infelicities have a way of breeding conceptual confusion, and so it is here. Correspondence theories have always been conceived as providing an explanation or analysis of truth, and this, a Tarski-style theory of truth, certainly does not do.
    • Donald Davidson (1990, p. 135), as cited in: Simon Evnine (1991) Donald Davidson. p. 137
  • There are three basic problems: how a mind can know the world of nature, how it is possible for one mind to know another, and how it is possible to know the contents of our own minds without resort to observation or evidence. It is a mistake, I shall urge, to suppose that these questions can be collapsed into two, or taken into isolation.
    • Davidson. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, (2001) p. 208, as cited in: Dermot Moran (ed). The Routledge Companion to Twentieth Century Philosophy, (2008), p. 681

Quotes about Davidson[edit]

  • Within contemporary philosophy, Spinoza’s position is very similar to Donald Davidson’s. Davidson also rejects at least certain kinds of explanatory connections between the mental and the physical and, like Spinoza, employs the lack of these connections as part of the basis for the identity between mental things and physical things. Nonetheless, there are significant differences between Spinoza and Davidson: Davidson rejects any strict science of the psychological. For Davidson, there are strict laws governing the physical, but no strict laws governing the psychological. Thus for Davidson, the psychological is special, not governed by the same kinds of principles at work throughout nature. This would be a violation of naturalism, according to Spinoza, and thus Spinoza would insist, contra Davidson, on a science of the mental that is every bit as strict and fundamental as the science of the physical, even though there are no explanatory connections between the mental and the physical.
  • I cannot see that this view of radical interpretation possesses the relevance for historians that some of Davidson’s more enthusiastic followers, such as Macdonald and Pettit, have supposed. Davidson is merely proposing a general strategy for using assertions to get at underlying beliefs, the strategy of beginning by assuming general agreement. It may well be that we need to start with some such assumption if we are to find another culture intelligible. If I am to identify the nature of Bodin’s beliefs about witches, or even to establish that they are beliefs about that particular subject-matter, it certainly seems plausible to assume that Bodin and I must share a considerable number of ancillary beliefs. It is arguable, however, that Davidson has overemphasised the significance of this consideration and too comfortably ridiculed the notion of radically different conceptual schemes.
    • Quentin Skinner, "Interpretation, rationality and truth", Visions of Politics (2002)
  • Donald Davidson has notoriously retorted that the resources of existing natural languages seem perfectly adequate for dealing with even the most dramatic cases of purported incommensurability reported by writers like Benjamin Whorf and Thomas Kuhn. But Davidson’s argument seems questionable in itself, relying as it does on such a strict application of the verification principle in order to rule out the idea of alternative conceptual schemes. Furthermore, Davidson’s scepticism is insufficient to undermine the sense in which I am defending anything resembling a thesis of incommensurability. I am merely contending that it will always be a mistake for an historian to assume that the task of explicating an alien concept can be reduced to that of finding a counterpart in his or her own language for the term that expresses it.
    • Quentin Skinner, "Interpretation, rationality and truth", Visions of Politics (2002)

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