It reads more like a novelist’s biography than a professional philosopher’s (especially an “analytic” one): Raised in the Philippines and on Staten Island, DONALD DAVIDSON (1917–2003) produced and starred in Aristophenes’ The Birds (in the original Greek) and played four-handed piano with Leonard Bernstein while at Harvard; later, he wrote radio scripts for Edward G. Robinson, trained naval gunners in aircraft identification, and flew two-engine planes for amusement. After settling on an academic career (first at Stanford, later at Princeton and Berkeley) in the early 1950s, he began publishing the articles collected in Essays on Actions and Events (1980) and Essays on Truth and Interpretation (1984), unassumingly titled volumes whose impact on several core areas of philosophy has few recent parallels. Davidson’s key ideas include a restricted conception of “literal meaning” that radically underdetermines our ad hoc practices of communication and interpretation, and a position called anomalous monism, on which “mental events” (including “perceivings, rememberings, decisions, and actions”) are (1) identical with particular physical ones, (2) caused by other physical events, some of which are also “mental” under another description, and (3) not governed by “psychophysical” laws that link the two realms. The first view leads to a pragmatic account of metaphor that has, unlike most American philosophy of language, gained some currency in literary circles; the second, to a view of the mind that is, at least officially, as “materialist” as one might wish, but which leaves little room for neurobabble. Since this is actual philosophy, not disguised poetry or wisdom literature, none of these conclusions is beyond reasoned dispute: one commentary opens, “Davidson’s view of the mind is obscure.” Still, no critic denies his influence, and the views themselves give evidence of a connection to life as it is lived — messily, unsystematically — sometimes absent from his contemporaries’.
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