Cooling it

Colin McGinn

  • Donald Davidson by Simon Evnine
    Polity, 198 pp, £9.95, January 1992, ISBN 0 7456 0612 1
  • Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language: An Introduction by Bjorn Ramberg
    Blackwell, 153 pp, £12.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 631 16458 8

Donald Davidson is perhaps the most distinguished philosopher in history never to have written a book. Indeed, he did not get round to writing articles until he was into his forties (he is now 76). Yet those articles – short, intense, allusive, hard – have changed the shape of contemporary analytical philosophy. They were in mid spate when I was a graduate student at Oxford in the early Seventies, and they acted as a kind of philosophical IQ test for the young philosophers of my generation. I well remember poring with tormented excitement over ‘Truth and Meaning’ and ‘Mental Events’, two of the most influential (and contested) articles of recent times. These cryptic texts gave the impression of well-honed conjuring tricks, in which the deepest of problems were given tantalisingly rigorous and ingenious solutions. In those days you were either a ‘Davidsonian’ or you weren’t; you certainly had to find out where you stood. But it wasn’t easy, because each Davidson article presupposed the others, and they assumed you were good at logic. It became clear that Davidson had a system, but it needed to be pieced together by the reader, as best he or she could. Puzzlement about a particular Davidson piece would be met with a knowing look from the initiated and the query ‘But have you read “In Defence of Convention T”?’ The very plainness of his name (often transmuted to David Donaldson) lent an aura of mystique to the plosive economy of the Davidson corpus. And the man himself, with his startling blue eyes and precisely articulated mode of speech, his unhurried confidence, his immersion in his own vision, his neatness, certainly encouraged the feeling that he had it all figured out, and all you had to do was figure him out. It did no harm, too, to discover that Davidson had been an enemy aircraft spotter in the US Navy in the Second World War, that he was a trained pilot, that he went gliding for a hobby, that he has climbed mountains, that there are very few places in the world he hasn’t visited. Davidson wasn’t just profound: he was cool (and there aren’t many philosophers you can say that about). Davidson had nerve.

The principal appeal of the Davidsonian system lies in its attempt to combine two conceptions of human beings that have traditionally been taken to be rivals. One conception, advocated by the positivists, though not unique to them, draws inspiration from the physical sciences and formal logic: it seeks to reduce mental discourse to physical discourse, and it offers to replace ordinary language with the kind of formalised language devised by Frege and his successors. Ultimately, there is nothing more to us than an arrangement of physical facts expressed in the notation of the predicate calculus. This conception effectively displaces our common-sense picture of mind and language in favour of a kind of pared-down physical naturalism in which we are represented as continuous with the rest of nature. The other conception, associated with the later Wittgenstein, but by no means unique to him, insists on the autonomy and legitimacy of our ordinary ways of thinking about human psychology and human language: these are not to be replaced by some austere physical theory or gleaming logical apparatus – for they are perfectly in order as they stand. We are, in fact, what we commonsensically take ourselves to be: rational agents with free choice. Man is not just an irregular clump of vibrating particles, nor need he be coached in the language of the logician: he has beliefs and desires and intentions, and his natural mode of expression is not to be improved on. He eludes physical science, at least in his mental and linguistic part: he is separate from the rest of nature and needs to be studied by methods peculiar to himself.

These two conceptions seem to represent radically incompatible ways of thinking of ourselves, and no middle ground appears to be available. But it is not as if either conception can be comfortably adopted to the exclusion of the other. The first view suffers from the problem that no such reduction or translation has ever been carried out, so that limiting ourselves to physical description will inevitably involve abandoning the idea that we have minds at all. Also, there seems to be a lot about natural language that cannot be reconstructed in terms of the usual logical systems, so that we would not be able to say as much if we spoke only Formalese. The price of seeing ourselves in these restricted ways is that what we see is no longer ourselves, but only some desiccated residue. On the other hand, if we remove the mind from the scientific domain completely, as the second view suggests, regarding ourselves as beyond the reach of causation, law and material composition, we run into equally severe problems. Do we not have brains that subserve our minds? Is not our behaviour somehow governed by natural law? Are we not in some clear sense ultimately made of matter? And is not formal logic an object of great beauty and power, giving undeniable insight into the structure of thought, whose services we should solicit and exploit? Hence the classic dilemma: how can we both be and not be an object of natural science?

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