Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson

Excerpt

Donald Davidson has been one of the most influential philosophers working in the analytic tradition in the last half of the twentieth century. He has made seminal contributions to a wide range of subjects: the philosophy of language and the theory of meaning, the philosophy of action, the philosophy of mind, epistemology, metaphysics, and the theory of rationality. His principal work, spread out in a series of articles stretching over nearly forty years, exhibits a unity rare among philosophers contributing to so many different topics. His essays are elegant, but they are also noted for their compact, sometimes cryptic style, and for their difficulty. Themes and arguments in different essays overlap, and later papers often presuppose familiarity with earlier work. Together, they form a mosaic that presents a systematic account of the nature of human thought, action, and speech, and their relation to the natural world, that is one of the most subtle and impressive systems to emerge in analytic philosophy in the last fifty years.

The unity of Davidson’s work lies in the central role that reflection on how we are able to interpret the speech of another plays in understanding the nature of meaning, the propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, intentions, and so on), and our epistemic position with respect to our own minds, the minds of others, and the world around us. Davidson adopts as methodologically basic the standpoint of the interpreter of the speech of another whose evidence does not, at the outset, presuppose anything about what the speaker’s words mean or any detailed knowledge of his propositional attitudes. This is the position of the radical interpreter. The adoption of this position as methodologically basic rests on the following principle:

The semantic features of language are public features. What no one can, in
the nature of the case, figure out from the totality of the relevant evidence
cannot be part of meaning. (Davidson 1984a [1979], p. 235)

The point carries over to the propositional attitudes, whose attributions to speakers are inseparable from the project of interpreting their words.

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