Weak Wills

Colin McGinn

Donald Davidson has this year been George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford: only the second philosopher to hold the august position (the first being W.V. Quine, a teacher of Davidson’s at Harvard and his greatest philosophical influence). This honour reflects his present stature in the academic world. Last year he was the subject of a massive conference held in New Jersey, organised by the indefatigable Ernie Lepore. It was probably the largest philosophical conference ever held, and it attracted nearly all of the world’s leading philosophers. Most of the papers delivered were addressed (often critically) to some aspect of Davidson’s work. For a philosophical event, it was undoubtedly a great occasion, if a somewhat overwhelming one (especially for Davidson, who attended as many of the papers as was humanly possible). Probably no other philosopher now working has been discussed as much during the last decade.

It was not always so. Davidson was something of a late-developer, or at least a late publisher. His publishing career did not seriously get off the ground until the early Sixties, when he was into his forties. It was in the Seventies that his writings really took hold, passing from cult status into virtual orthodoxy (in certain circles). There has yet to be a significant reaction. He has still not published a single book setting forth his ideas systematically, preferring to publish short pithy articles, intricately interrelated, which have eventually been bound together into collections. Davidson is not an easy writer. He makes free use of technical ideas and results, which he assumes the reader to have mastered, and his predilection for economical and aphoristic formulations sometimes shades into elusiveness. But there is a firm respect for our ordinary thinking, and his feet never lose contact with the ground. Hard persistent thinking is always much in evidence – Davidson always pushes the subject just that little bit further (the bit that makes all the difference). A Davidson paper invariably gets somewhere.

Davidson has worked principally in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, occasionally spilling over into metaphysics and (latterly) epistemology. Essays on Davidson, a collection of papers by ‘students, colleagues, collaborators and adversaries’ of Davidson’s, deals mainly with the work relating to philosophy of mind, though there are three essays (by Chisholm, Strawson and Thalberg) addressed to the metaphysics of events and causation. Davidson’s treatment of intention is discussed in five papers (by Bratman, Grice and Baker, Peacocke, Pears and Vermazen), three of which also discuss the allied topic of weakness of the will. The third main section of the book is about Davidson’s views in the philosophy of psychology, in particular his theory of the mind-body relation (here the discussants are Lewis, Smart and Suppes). There is one rather strange three-page piece by Dan Bennett on pride. Davidson gets to reply to each paper at the end of the volume, and a new paper by him called ‘Adverbs of Action’ has been included. Before commenting on these various contributions it is as well to remind oneself of Davidson’s principal doctrines.

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