Donald Herbert Davidson (March 6, 1917 – August 30, 2003) was an American philosopher who served as Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley from 1981 to 2003 after having also held teaching appointments at Stanford University, Rockefeller University, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. Davidson was known for his charismatic personality and the depth and difficulty of his thought. His work exerted considerable influence in many areas of philosophy from the 1960s onward, particularly in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and action theory. While Davidson is clearly an analytic philosopher, and most of his influence lies in that tradition, his work has attracted attention in continental philosophy as well, particularly in literary theory and related areas.
Although published mostly in the form of short, terse essays which do not explicitly rely on any overriding theory, his work is nonetheless noted for a strongly unified character—the same methods and ideas are brought to bear on a host of apparently unrelated problems—and for synthesizing the work of a great number of other philosophers. He developed an influential truth-conditional semantics, attacked the idea of mental events as governed by strict psychological laws, and rejected the conception of linguistic understanding as having to do with conventions or rules, concluding famously 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." His philosophical work as a whole is said to be concerned with the way human beings communicate and interact with and understand each other.
Davidson was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 6, 1917 to Clarence ("Davie") Herbert Davidson and Grace Cordelia Anthony. The family lived in the Philippines from shortly after Davidson's birth until he was about four. Then, having lived in Amherst and Philadelphia, the family finally settled on Staten Island when Davidson was nine or ten. From this time he began to attend public school, having to begin in first grade with much younger children. He then attended the Staten Island Academy, starting in fourth grade.
Davidson was a fine pianist and always had a deep interest in music, later teaching philosophy of music at Stanford. At Harvard, he was in the same class as the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, with whom Davidson played piano four hands. Bernstein wrote and conducted the musical score for the production which Davidson mounted of Aristophanes' play The Birds in the original Greek. Some of this music was later to be reused in Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free.
After graduation he went to California, where he wrote radio scripts for the private-eye drama, "Big Town," starring Edward G. Robinson. He returned to Harvard on a scholarship in classical philosophy, teaching philosophy and concurrently undergoing the intensive training of Harvard Business School. Before having the opportunity to graduate from Harvard Business School, Davidson was called up by the Navy, for which he had volunteered. He trained pilots to recognize enemy planes and participated in the invasions of Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. After three and a half years in the Navy, he tried unsuccessfully to write a novel before returning to his philosophy studies and earning his doctorate in philosophy in 1949. Davidson wrote his dissertation, which he later called curious, on Plato's Philebus.
During the 1950s Davidson worked with Patrick Suppes on developing an experimental approach to Decision Theory. They concluded that it was not possible to isolate a subject's beliefs and preferences independently of one another, meaning there would always be multiple ways to analyze a person's actions in terms of what they wanted, or were trying to do, or valued. This result is comparable to Quine's thesis on the indeterminacy of translation, and figures significantly in much of Davidson's later work on philosophy of mind.
His most noted work (see below) was published in a series of essays from the 1960s onward, moving successively through philosophy of action into philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, and dabbling occasionally in aesthetics, philosophical psychology, and the history of philosophy.
Davidson was widely traveled, and had a great range of interests he pursued with enormous energy. Apart from playing the piano, he had a pilot's license, built radios, and was fond of mountain climbing and surfing. He was married three times (the last time to the philosopher Marcia Cavell). Thomas Nagel elliptically eulogized him as "deeply erotic".
He served terms as president of both the Eastern and Western Divisions of the American Philosophical Association, and held various professional positions at Queens College (now part of CUNY), Stanford, Princeton, Rockefeller University, Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. From 1981 until his death he was at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor of Philosophy. In 1995 he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize.
Davidson's most noted work began in 1963 with an essay, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes," which attempted to refute the prevailing orthodox view, widely attributed to Wittgenstein but already present in Tolstoy's "War and Peace", that an agent's reasons for acting cannot be the causes of his action (Malpas, 2005, §2). Instead, Davidson argued that "rationalization (the providing of reasons to explain an agent's actions) is a species of ordinary causal explanation" (1963, p. 685). In particular, an action A is explained by what Davidson called a primary reason, which involves a pro-attitude (roughly, a desire) toward some goal G and an instrumental belief that performing action A is a means to attaining G. For example, someone's primary reason for taking an umbrella with her outside on a rainy day might be that she wants to stay dry and believes that taking an umbrella is a means to stay dry today.
This view, which largely conforms to common-sense folk psychology, was held in part on the ground that while causal laws must be strict and deterministic, explanation in terms of reasons need not. Davidson argued that the fact that the expression of a reason was not so precise, did not mean that the having of a reason could not itself be a state capable of causally influencing behavior. Several other essays pursue consequences of this view, and elaborate Davidson's theory of actions.
In "Mental Events" (1970) Davidson advanced a form of token identity theory about the mind: token mental events are identical to token physical events. One previous difficulty with such a view was that it did not seem feasible to provide laws relating mental states—for example, believing that the sky is blue, or wanting a hamburger—to physical states, such as patterns of neural activity in the brain. Davidson argued that such a reduction would not be necessary to a token identity thesis: it is possible that each individual mental event just is the corresponding physical event, without there being laws relating types (as opposed to tokens) of mental events to types of physical events. But, Davidson argued, the fact that we could not have such a reduction does not entail that the mind is anything more than the brain. Hence, Davidson called his position anomalous monism: monism, because it claims that only one thing is at issue in questions of mental and physical events; anomalous (from a-, "not," and omalos, "regular") because mental and physical event types could not be connected by strict laws (laws without exceptions).
Davidson argued that anomalous monism follows from three plausible theses. First, he assumes the denial of epiphenomenalism--that is, the denial of the view that mental events do not cause physical events. Second, he assumes a nomological view of causation, according to which one event causes another if (and only if) there is a strict, exceptionless law governing the relation between the events. Third, he assumes the principle of the anomalism of the mental, according to which there are no strict laws that govern the relationship between mental event types and physical event types. By these three theses, Davidson argued, it follows that the causal relations between the mental and the physical hold only between mental event tokens, but that mental events as types are anomalous. This ultimately secures token physicalism and a supervenience relation between the mental and the physical, while respecting the autonomy of the mental (Malpas, 2005, §2).