Philosophy Donald Davidson
Kirk Ludwig
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0027


Donald Herbert Davidson (b. 1917–d. 2003) was one of the most influential analytic philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. His work spanned almost the entire range of philosophy, but his most important contributions lie in the theory of meaning, action theory, ontology, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology. In the theory of meaning, he is best known for his suggestion that a compositional-meaning theory for a language can exploit a Tarski-style axiomatic truth theory and that this can be integrated into a more general study of meaning by considering how such a theory could be confirmed by a radical interpreter—an interpreter who has available only behavioral evidence and no prior knowledge of what the speaker’s words mean or any detailed knowledge of his or her propositional attitudes. In addition, Davidson championed an influential conception of logical form and made contributions to the study of the logical form of action sentences, sentences of indirect discourse, sentential mood, and quotation. In action theory, he is known best for his defense of the view that reasons (beliefs and desires we cite to explain actions) are causes of actions and that ordinary action explanation is a species of causal explanation. He has also contributed to the theory of intention, practical deliberation, and irrationality, especially in the case of weakness of the will. In ontology he is best known for his defense of an ontology of events as datable particulars, his rejection of the utility of meanings construed as entities in the theory of meaning, his rejection of the ontology of facts and the correspondence theory of truth, and his thesis of the indeterminacy of meaning and the inscrutability of reference. In the philosophy of mind, he is best known for his defense of anomalous monism (which holds that there are no strict psychophysical laws, although every token mental event is identical with some token physical event), his rejection of the possibility of radically different conceptual schemes, and his defense of the view that thought contents are relationally individuated on the basis of the requirement of “charity” in interpretation (the need to find a speaker largely right about his or her environment and general beliefs). In epistemology, he is best known for his closely related transcendental argument for knowledge of the external world, the minds of others, and our own minds being simultaneously a condition on the possibility of thought.

General Overviews

There are several useful introductions to and overviews of Davidson’s philosophy, and the reader coming to Davidson’s work for the first time would benefit from reading one or another of them in conjunction with Davidson’s essays, which can be forbidding on first encounter. Ludwig 2003 contains chapters that review and critically evaluate the main themes of Davidson’s philosophy of language, action, and epistemology, and an introduction that surveys his contributions to philosophy. Lepore and Ludwig 2009 reviews the influences on and development of Davidson’s philosophy. Evnine 1991 and Glüer 2011 provide general introductions to Davidson’s philosophy: the first covers his work until 1990, and the second includes coverage of post-1990 work. Davidson 1999 is an intellectual autobiography that provides insight into influences on Davidson’s mature philosophy. Ludwig 2006 provides an overview of the main themes of Davidson 2001a (cited under Davidson’s Works). Ludwig 2007 details how the last three volumes of Davidson’s papers extend and refine his earlier work. Lepore and Ludwig 2013 provides a comprehensive critical survey of Davidson’s work in thirty-four chapters, and will be useful to those looking for a critical introduction to particular aspects of Davidson work.

  • Davidson, Donald. “Intellectual Autobiography.” In The Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn, 3–70. Chicago: Open Court, 1999.

    Davidson’s intellectual biography, which, while not a systematic exposition of his work, provides the historical context of the development of many of his ideas and identifies various lines of influence on him.

  • Evnine, Simon. Donald Davidson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.

    Covers Davidson’s work both in philosophy of action and in philosophy of language. Although it does not discuss Davidson’s work from the 1990s and later, it remains a useful introduction to Davidson’s central projects.

  • Glüer, Kathrin. Donald Davidson: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A short introduction to Davidson’s philosophy covering his work in the philosophy of language, theory of action, the language, mind world nexus, and the relation of the mental to the physical.

  • Lepore, Ernest, and Kirk Ludwig, eds. A Companion to Donald Davidson. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

    A comprehensive critical survey of Davidson’s work by leading philosophers who provide a critical introduction to the entire range of his work, from action theory, to metaphysics, the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and Davidson’s influences and influences on Davidson.

  • Lepore, Ernest, and Kirk Ludwig. “Donald Davidson.” In 12 Modern Philosophers. Edited by Christopher Belshaw and Gary Kemp, 54–75. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444305685

    Provides a historically oriented introduction to Davidson’s philosophy by tracing out its development and the influences on it.

  • Ludwig, Kirk. “Donald Davidson: Essays on Actions and Events.” In Central Works of Philosophy. Vol. 5, The Twentieth Century: Quine and After. Edited by John Shand, 146–165. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

    A compact overview of the central themes of Davidson 2001a (cited under Davidson’s Works): the causal theory of action, practical deliberation, weakness of will, action individuation, events, and anomalous monism.

  • Ludwig, Kirk. “Critical Notice: Donald Davidson, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective; Problems of Rationality; Truth, Language, and History.” Mind 116 (2007): 405–416.

    DOI: 10.1093/mind/fzm405

    This review of the last three volumes of Davidson’s collected papers explains how these essays extend, supplement, apply, and refine his earlier work. It provides a useful orientation for someone familiar with the work in the first two volumes and interested in subsequent developments.

  • Ludwig, Kirk, ed. Donald Davidson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511610189

    A good basic overview of the central themes in Davidson’s work: “Truth and Meaning” (Ernest Lepore and Kirk Ludwig); “Philosophy of Action” (Alfred R. Mele); “Radical Interpretation” (Piers Rawling); “Philosophy of Mind and Psychology” (Jaegwon Kim); “Semantics and Metaphysics of Events” (Paul Pietroski); “Knowledge of Self, Others, and World” (Ernest Sosa); “Language and Literature” (Samuel C. Wheeler III). Contains a useful thirty-three-page introduction to Davidson’s work by the editor.

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