Donald Davidson 1917
From the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Donald Davidson is one of the most important philosophers of the
latter half of the twentieth century. His ideas, presented in a series
of essays from the 1960's onwards, have been influential across a range
of areas from semantic theory through to epistemology and ethics.
Davidson's work exhibits a breadth of approach, as well as a unitary and
systematic character, which is unusual within twentieth century analytic
philosophy. Thus, although he acknowledges an important debt to W. V. O.
Quine, Davidson's thought amalgamates influences (though these are not
always explicit) from a variety of sources, including Quine, C. I.
Lewis, Frank Ramsey, Immanuel Kant and the later Wittgenstein....
Article by Vladimir Kalugin from the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
LIFE AND INFLUENCES. Donald Davidson, one of the most significant
philosophers of the XX century, was born 6 March, 1917 in
Springfield, Massachusetts. He studied English, Comparative
Literature and Classics in his undergraduate years at Harvard. In
his sophomore year at Harvard, Davidson attended two classes that made a
lasting impression on him. These two classes on philosophy were
taught by Alfred North Whitehead in the last year of his career.
Davidson was then accepted to graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard,
where his teacher was Willard Van Orman Quine. Quine set Davidson
on a course in philosophy quite different from that of Whitehead.
Subsequently, Davidson did his dissertation on Plato's Philebus
According to Davidson, "The central thesis that emerged was that
when Plato had reworked the theory of ideas as a consequence of the
explorations and criticisms of the Parmenides, Sophist, Theaetetus,
and Politicus, he realized that the theory could no longer be
deployed as a main support of an ethical position, as it had been
developed in the Republic and elsewhere."
Davidson's dissertation topic is mentioned only in passim in most
encyclopedia entries. This is unfortunate, for one can see the
development of Davidson's philosophical method in his dissertation.
More important, one can trace Davidson's epistemological position back
Davidson's most profound influences on contemporary philosophy stem
from his philosophy of mind and action....
Article by John Perry.
Words stand for things of various kinds and for various kinds of
things. Because words do this, the sentences made up of words mean what
they do, and are capable of expressing our thoughts, our beliefs and
conjectures, desires and wishes. This simple idea seems right to me, but
it flies in the face of formidable authority. In a famous passage in
``Reality without Reference,'' Donald Davidson criticizes what he calls
the ``building-block theory:''
[T]he essential question is whether [reference] is the, or at least
one, place where there is direct contact between linguistic theory and
events, actions, or objects described in nonlinguistic terms. If we
could give the desired analysis or reduction of the concept of
reference then all would, I suppose, be clear sailing. Having
explained directly the semantic features of proper names and simple
predicates, we could go on to explain the reference of complex
singular terms and complex predicates, we could characterize
satisfaction (as a derivative concept), and finally truth. This
picture of how to do semantics is (aside from the details) and old and
natural one. It is often called the building-block theory. It has
often been tried. And it is hopeless...