Donald Herbert Davidson

Downloaded from the Internet, 19-9-2003.
Donald Davidson
died August 2003
former Slusser Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley
circa 1991 photo
Photo by Kelly Wise

Davidson studied at Harvard, under Alfred North Whitehead, among others, and wrote a dissertation on Plato’s Philebus. His interests at this time were mainly in the “history of ideas,” broadly construed, but under the influence of W. V. Quine, whom he often credits as his mentor, he began to gradually turn toward the more rigorous methods and precise problems characteristic of analytic philosophy.

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 travelled, and had a great range of interests he pursued with nearly boundless energy. He had a pilots license, played the piano, built radios, and was fond of mountain climbing and surfing. He was married three times (the last was to the philosopher Marcia Cavell). He served terms as president of both the Eastern and Western Divisions of the American Philosophical Association, and held positions at Stanford, Princeton, Rockefeller University, Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. From 1981 until his death he was at the University of California, Berkeley.

Major Works of Donald Davidson

– Essays on Actions and Events, 1980 (contains all of Davidson’s essays on action and events mentioned in ‘Actions, Reasons, and Causes’, ‘Causal Relations’ and ‘The Individuation of Events’.)
– Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 1984 (includes essays on the philosophy of language and ‘True to the Facts’, Others mentioned in the article are listed under separate titles.)
– Rational Animals, 1985 (argues against the idea of nonlinguistic thinkers.)
– A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge, 1986 (elaborates a theory of the nature and content of beliefs.)
– The Myth of the Subjective, 1989 (one strand of Davidson’s argument that there are no representations of reality.)
– The Structure and Content of Truth, 1990 (argues that there is nothing in reality for sentences to represent.)
– Epistemology Externalized, 1991 (includes discussion of’triangulalion’, contributing to Davidson’s argument against the coherence of non-intertranslatable languages.)
– Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, 2001


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