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Donald Davidson
Davidson pyke.jpg
Portrait by photographer Steve Pyke in 1990.
Born
Donald Herbert Davidson

(1917-03-06)6 March 1917
Died 30 August 2003(2003-08-30) (aged 86)
Education Harvard University
(AB, 1939; PhD, 1949)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic
Neopragmatism
Thesis Plato's 'Philebus' (1949)
Doctoral advisor Raphael Demos
Donald Cary Williams
Other academic advisors Willard Van Orman Quine
Doctoral students Daniel Bennett
Akeel Bilgrami
Michael Bratman
Anthony Dardis
Noa Latham
Ariela Lazar
Kirk Ludwig
Robert Myers
Dugald Owen
Carol Rovane
Claudine Verheggen
Stephen Yablo
Main interests
Philosophy of language, philosophy of action, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ontology
Notable ideas
Radical interpretation, anomalous monism, truth-conditional semantics, principle of charity, slingshot argument, reasons as causes, understanding as translation, swampman, events, Davidson's translation argument against alternative conceptual schemes (the third dogma of empiricism)

Donald Herbert Davidson (March 6, 1917 – August 30, 2003) was an American philosopher. He 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 was 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.

Personal life

Davidson was married three times. His first wife was the artist Virginia Davidson, with whom he had his only child, a daughter, Elizabeth (Davidson) Boyer. Following his divorce from Virginia Davidson, he married for the second time to Nancy Hirschberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later at Chicago Circle. She died in 1979. In 1984, Davidson married for the third and last time, to philosopher Marcia Cavell.

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.

"A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," Truth and Interpretation, 446

Swampman

Swampman is the subject of a philosophical thought experiment introduced by Donald Davidson in his 1987 paper "Knowing One's Own Mind". In the experiment, Davidson is struck by lightning in a swamp and disintegrated; simultaneously, an exact copy of Davidson, the Swampman, is made from a nearby tree and proceeds through life exactly as Davidson would have, indistinguishable from Davidson. The experiment is used by Davidson to claim that thought and meaning cannot exist in a vacuum; they are dependent on their interconnections to the world. Therefore, despite being physically identical to himself, Davidson states that the Swampman does not have thoughts nor meaningful language, as it has no causal history to base them on.

The experiment runs as follows:

Suppose lightning strikes a dead tree in a swamp; I [Davidson] am standing nearby. My body is reduced to its elements, while entirely by coincidence (and out of different molecules) the tree is turned into my physical replica. My replica, The Swampman, moves exactly as I did; according to its nature it departs the swamp, encounters and seems to recognize my friends, and appears to return their greetings in English. It moves into my house and seems to write articles on radical interpretation. No one can tell the difference. But there is a difference. My replica can't recognize my friends; it can't recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place. It can't know my friends' names (though of course it seems to), it can't remember my house. It can't mean what I do by the word 'house', for example, since the sound 'house' it makes was not learned in a context that would give it the right meaning—or any meaning at all. Indeed, I don't see how my replica can be said to mean anything by the sounds it makes, nor to have any thoughts.

—Donald Davidson, Knowing One's Own Mind

Awards

  • Jean Nicod Prize (1995)

Filmography

  • Rudolf Fara (host), In conversation: Donald Davidson (19 videocassettes), Philosophy International, Centre for Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences, London School of Economics, 1997.
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