LINGUIST List 13.2836

Mon Nov 4 2002

Review: Philosophy of Lang: Davidson (2001)

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  1. Anne Reboul, Davidson (2001) Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective

Message 1: Davidson (2001) Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective

Date: Mon, 23 Sep 2002 16:26:35 +0200
From: Anne Reboul <>
Subject: Davidson (2001) Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective

Davidson, Donald (2001) Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford
University Press, xviii+237pp, paperback ISBN 0-19-823753-7, $19.95.

Anne Reboul, Institute for Cognitive Science, National Center for
Scientific Research (CNRS), France

[See issue 13.2835 for explanation of the delay in posting this review.
- Eds.]

This book is the third collection of philosophical essays by D. Davidson,
following "Essays on Actions and Events" and "Inquiries into Truth and
Interpretation" and preceding "Problems of Rationality" and "Truth,
Language and History". Hence it is the central volume, though it is still
impossible to say, given that next two volumes have not yet been
published, whether or not it fulfills this role. The book aims at
describing three kinds of knowledge (subjective, intersubjective and
objective) as well as the relations between them. The main theses of the
book are that first person authority can be reconciled with externalism,
which means that we can be externalists without denying what seems
intuitively obvious, i.e. that we know the contents of our own minds.
Externalism derives from intersubjective knowledge, which is based, just
as objective knowledge is, on triangulation, i.e. communication between
two individuals relative to a shared world. This central concept allows
Davidson to defend the possibility of objective knowledge against
skepticism while avoiding the pitfalls of both correspondence theories
and coherence theories of truth, relying on the strong relations between
belief, truth and language.

This is an important book inasmuch as it gathers essays by Davidson
in a well-organized manner (each one leads rather naturally to the
next) and allows one to form a complete view of Davidson's philosophy of
knowledge, language and truth. Though some repetition is unavoidable, the
essays are crystal-clear, beautifully written and well-worth the reading.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Davidson, one can be sure that, in
the first case, he has said what one thinks rather better than one would
have done, or, in the second case, that disagreeing with him will be a
rich intellectual experience. Anyone interested in language should read
this book by one of today leading philosophers.

The book consists of three parts of unequal length, the first one being
devoted to the "Subjective", the second to the "Intersubjective" and the
third to the "Objective", preceded by a synthetic introduction.

In the "Introduction", Davidson notes that the whole book deals with
three kinds of propositional knowledge, knowledge of our own mind (the
subjective), knowledge of other minds (the intersubjective) and knowledge
of the rest of the world (the objective) and with the relations between
three types of propositional knowledge. In spite of this rather simple
division between the subjective, intersubjective and objective, Davidson
notes that all three types of knowledge can be said to be objective in
two senses: their truth is independent of belief in their truth; their
content could be expressed by publicly shared concepts. He then shortly
outlines the content of each chapter as well as the relations between

The first part, "Subjective", opens with a chapter devoted to "First
Person Authority". Davidson begins by noting that first person present
attribution of mental states (i.e. attribution of mental states to
oneself) is accompanied by a presumption of its own correctness. The
question of what accounts for first person authority has two sides, a
linguistic side and an epistemological one, though, according to the
author, explaining first person authority in speech is tantamount to or
at least will be a step in explaining first person epistemological
authority. What is characteristic of first person authority is the fact
that attribution of mental states to oneself does not usually rely on
evidence or observation and has no criteria for justification. This
however does not explain authority in as much as not being based on
evidence is generally not considered as tantamount to being

This leads Davidson to distinguish not one but two asymmetries:
on the one hand "between self- and other-attributions of the same
attitude to the same person" (11) and, on the other hand, between
the reason I have to think that my linguistic attribution of an attitude
to myself is true and your reason to believe that this attribution is
true. Davidson proposes to concentrate on the second ambiguity. Suppose
that the utterance is "Wagner died happy". Davidson proposes the
following analysis: "you and I both know that I held the sentence 'Wagner
died happy' to be a true sentence when I uttered it; and that I knew what
that sentence meant on the occasion of its utterance. And now there is
this difference between us, which is what was to be explained: on these
assumptions, I know what I believe, while you may not" (12). In other
words, the interpretation process of an utterance "cannot be the same for
the utterer and for his hearers" (12). In brief, "there is a
presumption-an unavoidable presumption built into the nature of
interpretation-that the speaker usually knows what he means. So there is
a presumption that if he knows that he holds a sentence true, he knows
what he believes" (14).

The second chapter bears on the question of "Knowing One's Own Mind".
Davidson's goal here is to defend the account presented in the first
chapter (asymmetry of interpretation) against attacks which were mounted
against it. The question is whether we can entertain beliefs which we are
not aware that we have or on which we are systematically mistaken. The
first threat to first person authority along these lines comes from
considerations of de re attitudes and notably from Putnam's Twin Earth
argument. This well-known thought experiment has been used to show "that
aspects of the natural history of how someone learned the use of a word
necessarily makes a difference to what the word means" (18) even if the
users of the word are not aware of these aspects of natural history. This
means that "meanings ain't in the head" (18) and if this is right then it
seems that neither are mental states, including beliefs and desires. This
led Putnam to the notion that philosophers have thought that beliefs are
(1) 'inner' in the sense that they could be solipsistic and (2) are "the
very states which we normally identify and individuate as we do beliefs
and the other propositional attitudes" (19), i.e. through their relations
to outside objects and events. According to Putnam, "no states can
satisfy both conditions" (20). Here Davidson begs to differ and the
thesis of his paper "is that there is no reason to suppose that ordinary
mental states do not satisfy both conditions" (20).

Davidson's strategy consists in trying to show that the conclusion that
our thoughts may not be knowable to us does not necessarily follow from
the claim that the identification of mental states depends on external
factors. The fact that a present state of an object (my skin being
sunburned for instance) has been caused by something outside the object
(the sun) does not mean that it is not a state of the object. However,
the fact that the state of an object (my skin being sunburned) is
indistinguishable from the state of another object (your skin being
burned by boiling water for instance) does not mean that both states have
the same causal origin (respectively the sun and boiling water). "We are
therefore free to hold that people can be in all relevant respects
identical [indistinguishable] while differing psychologically" (33) as
Davidson's theory of anomalous monism predicts. Thus beliefs can satisfy
both of Putnam's conditions above and the fact that external factors can
enter their identification is not threat to first person authority,
though the ignorance of these external factors could still be a problem.
This, according to Davidson, stems from a misguided view of the mind,
according to which there are objects in or before the mind. This leads to
a dead end because if the object is connected to the outside world, it
cannot be entirely in the mind while if it is not connected to the
outside world, it cannot play any role in our knowledge of the world.

However, though people have mental states, these mental states are not
"entities in or before the mind [neither does] being in such states
require ... there to be corresponding mental objects" (36). Freeing
oneself from the assumption of objects in or before the mind opens the
road to a solution to first person authority: the meaning of words
depends on the causal history behind the learning of these words, a
history which can only be imperfectly known to a third person interpreter
while the utterer does not question the appropriate nature of her use of
the words, given that "whatever she regularly does apply them to gives
her words the meaning they have and her thoughts the contents they have"
(37). Thus, and this is Davidson's conclusion, "first person authority,
the social character of language and the external determinants of thought
and meaning go naturally together, once we give up the myth of the
subjective, the idea that thoughts require mental objects" (38).

The next chapter, rather naturally, turns to "The Myth of the
Subjective". Davidson proposes as a starting point what it is we known
when we know the meaning of a word. The current story of how we learn the
meaning of word is through a conditioning process linking words to
objects in the world. This story, however simplified it may be, cannot
simply be a story of the learning of word meaning: "it must also be an
essential part of an adequate account of what words refer to, and what
they mean" (44). If the meanings of sentences and propositions depend on
the meaning of the words which enter them, then the meanings of sentences
and propositions cannot be subjective in as much as the meanings of the
words are not subjective either. What this means is that skepticism about
the outside world is nonsensical just as skepticism about the truth of
any of our beliefs is out. Indeed, "beliefs caused by sensory experience
are often veridical, and therefore often provide good reasons for further
beliefs" (45) and content and scheme go together.

This leads Davidson to a plea against the third dogma of empiricism,
according to which "the subjective ('experience') is the foundation of
objective empirical knowledge" (46). Davidson's counter-claim is that
"empirical knowledge has no epistemological foundation, and needs none"
(46). The externalist account of meaning given above also means that a
further skepticism, about the accessibility of other minds, is also ruled
out. There are some misunderstandings about the extent of the revolution
brought about by this rejection of subjectivism. The first one concerns
the extent of the dependence of word meaning over external reality: it is
not limited to natural kind terms or indexicals as is often supposed, but
ubiquitous inasmuch as it is linked to the social character of language.
The second one concerns the supposed difficulty for identity between mental
and physical states (see discussion of chapter 2 above). The third one
concerns the supposed threat for first person authority (see discussion
of the two previous chapters above). Thus only two features of the
classical account of subjectivity remain: the privacy of thought and the
asymmetry of first person vs. third person attributions of mental states.

The fourth chapter is devoted to "What is Present to the Mind?". Davidson
concentrates on propositions, i.e. the objects of propositional or
thoughts expressed by our sentences, as well as the constituents of
propositions (properties and relations). These are abstract objects,
inaccessible to the senses and deprived of causal powers. They are
supposed to identify thoughts through their contents and to "constitute
an essential aspect of the psychology of thought by being grasped or
otherwise known by the person with the thought" (54). It is Davidson's
claim that these two properties cannot be reconciled. To show that this
is the case, he turns to the problem raised by externalism (see above).

The problem is that, when a thought is about an object, the
identification of the thought depends on the identification of the
object, an identification which, it is thought, should be immune from
failure, a requirement which seems impossible to satisfy. Though the
problem has often been discussed in relation to proper names, it is in no
way specific to proper names: "it is a perfectly general problem about
the objects of the mind" (56). What is more, even if one got rid of
propositions, the same problem would arise in relation to sentences. The
solution Davidson proposes makes away with one of the premises giving
rise to the difficulty: though the subjective state of the thinker is
specified by relating him/her to an object, this does not mean that that
object is "'known' to the thinker or is 'before the mind' of the thinker"
(58). Thus, "there is no reason to conclude, from the thinker's lack of
knowledge of the entities we use to track his thoughts, that he may not
know what he thinks" (60). This leads Davidson to a surprising
conclusion: "subjective states are not supervenient on the state of the
brain or nervous system: two people may be in similar physical states and
yet be in dissimilar psychological states" (61-62). He then turns to two
related questions: the nature of the objects of belief and the reason for
first person authority. The answer to the first question is utterances,
the answer to the second is that given in the previous chapters.

The fifth chapter, "Indeterminism and Antirealism", deals with
antirealism relative to the reality of mental states given the
indeterminacy of translation. Though Davidson accepts indeterminacy of
translation, he does not think that it entails antirealism relative to
mental states. A first argument against realism relative to mental states
is that propositional attitudes have no place in a scientific account of
the mind. Though Davidson accepts that this is probably true, he does not
think that this justifies the antirealist position. The irreducibility of
propositional attitudes is not a good argument, given anomalous monism,
Davidson's contribution to philosophy of mind, according to which though
there is no type-type identity between mental states and the physical
there is token-token identity. The second argument is the problem of
indeterminacy of translation which is thought to "undermine the reality
of mental states" (73). This is answered as in the previous chapters.

The next and sixth chapter bears on the problem of "The Irreducibility of
the Concept of the Self". Davidson begins with general considerations
about indexicals, noting that "the basic triangle of two people and a
common world is one of which we must be aware if we have any thoughts at
all" (86). He then reintroduces the distinction between subjective,
intersubjective and objective knowledge, noting that they are
interdependent though not reducible to one another and that none can be
said to be a primitive for the other(s).

The second part of the book, dealing with the "Intersubjective", opens
with a chapter on "Rational Animals". Rationality depends on having
propositional attitudes and the question of whether a given animal is
rational cannot be answered without a solution to the problem of how to
determine whether an animal has propositional attitudes. Propositional
attitudes are intrinsically holistic in character and they induce
semantic opacity in their content. The problem with animals without
language is that it is hard to see how both of these features are to be
preserved in attribution of propositional attitudes to these animals.
Another property of propositional attitudes is their observability, i.e.
the fact that the existence of a given propositional attitude can be
deduced from the behavior of the individual whom the attitude is
attributed to. However, the holistic character of propositional attitudes
means that "a very complex pattern of behavior must be observed to
justify the attribution of a single thought" (100), and such complex
patterns can only be observed in creatures with language.

In other words, "a creature cannot have a thought unless it has language"
(100). Davidson then turns to a possible objection based on the rather
successful application of the intentional stance (see Dennett 1987) to
animals. He grants that the intentional stance is successful for animals
though denies that this entails the existence of propositional attitudes in
dumb animals. He then proposes an explanation of the role of language in
thought. The demonstration relies on three points: propositional
attitudes require a background of beliefs; having a belief is only
possible if one has the concept of belief; to have such a concept,
language is needed. This is because the concept of belief as something
which can be true or false depends on the notion of intersubjective truth
which itself "depends on communication in the full linguistic sense"
(105). "The conclusion of these considerations is that rationality is a
social trait. Only communicators have it" (105).

The eight chapter bears on the question of "The Second Person". The
concept of a language and the concepts associated with it (e.g. words,
sentences, etc.) are of interest to the goal of understanding other
people's utterances and of getting one's utterances understood by other
people. Davidson then goes on to "emphasize, following Grice, the central
importance of intention in communication" (112). This is what makes error
in communication a significant notion. Davidson then outlines his
skeptical position on the issue of convention and rule-following in the
use of language. Thus, speaking a language "merely requires that each
speaker intentionally make himself interpretable to the other" (115). The
intention provides the very norm that the speaker must satisfy in
linguistic communication and "a condition for being a speaker is that
there must be others enough like oneself" (120). This leads Davidson back
to the thesis that triangulation (two communicators and a common world)
is the basis of language with one major consequence: "one's first
language cannot be a private language, that is, a language understood by
only one creature" (121).

The next chapter, "The Emergence of Thought", begins with the holism of
the mental. Davidson returns to the relation between thought and language
noting that, for instance, the ability of a mouse to discriminate cats is
not equivalent to the mouse having the concept of a cat. Concepts depend
on beliefs which themselves involve other concepts and, thus, "one must
have a quite fully developed set of basic concepts in order to have any
concepts at all" (125). Beliefs are also related to desires which
themselves cause intentional behavior. "Conceptually, actions themselves
belong to the realm of the mental, for a piece of behavior counts as an
action only if there is some description under which it is intentional,
and so can be explained as done for a reason" (126). The interdependence
of these various aspects of the mental is what makes it difficult to
describe the emergence of mental phenomena. Though we have words for
mindless natural phenomena and words for thought and intentional actions,
we lack a vocabulary for what is in between. However, Davidson insists
that there is a precognitive situation necessary for thought and language
and that is triangulation, interaction between two agents and the world.
The other necessity for thought is language itself, which is a necessary
condition for the concept of objective truth.

The third part of the book, "Objective", begins with a chapter on "A
Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge". Rather than trying to compete
with a correspondence theory, the coherence theory proposed by Davidson
"depends for its defense on an argument that purports to show that
coherence yields correspondence" (137). Davidson begins by noting that
"what brings truth and knowledge together is meaning" (137). He is mainly
interested in beliefs and though he accepts that some beliefs are false,
the view he intends to defend is that "most of the beliefs in a coherent
total set of beliefs are true" (138). Davidson then returns to truth and
notes that, given that "truth is correspondence with the way things are"
(139), any coherence theory of truth must be consistent with a
correspondence theory, and it must also be consistent with a form of
realism ensuring that we can know what is true. This seems to rise the
question of the basis of belief, which Davidson answers by postulating a
causal link between sensations and beliefs, though, as he points out,
this link is not enough to show that the belief is justified. In other
words, though there can be causal intermediaries between our beliefs and
the world, there cannot be epistemic intermediaries.

Thus, the distinction between observation sentences and the rest must
be abandoned, just as the distinction between the analytic and the
synthetic has been. The way out of these questions and the dilemma
(between a false answer to skepticism and no answer) they cause is
through an examination of beliefs and other mental attitudes as well as
speech. Such an examination shows belief to be by nature veridical.
Belief is linked to meaning and Davidson intends to follow a suggestion
of Quine and to take "prompted assent" as the basic "causal relation
between assenting to a sentence and the cause of such assent" (147).
"What a fully informed interpreter could learn about what a speaker means
is all there is to learn; the same goes for what the speaker believes"
(148). To do this, the interpreter must rely on a principle of charity,
leading him "to read [his] own logic into the thoughts of the speaker"
(149), i.e. "to favor interpretations that as far as possible preserve
truth" (149). What this means is that erroneous belief cannot be the
rule, because no interpreter could make sense of it: "your utterance
means what mine does or belief in its truth is systematically caused by
the same events and objects" (151). The coherence enters with the
holistic character of belief: a belief will cohere with the other beliefs
to which it is connected. Hence, "all beliefs are justified in this
sense: they are supported by numerous other beliefs (otherwise they
wouldn't be the beliefs they are), and have a presumption in favor of
their truth" (153). This will however not be enough to specify the
conditions of knowledge. In "Afterthoughts", Davidson agrees that his
theory of beliefs is in fact neither quite a correspondence nor quite a
coherence theory.

The next chapter deals with "Empirical Content". Davidson intends to
discuss "how protocol sentences should be formulated, and what their
relation to experience and observation is" (159), a question on which
Schlick, Neurath and Carnap disagreed. Schlick defended a foundationalist
epistemology, while Neurath endorsed a coherence theory; Hempel proposed
to reconcile the two views by distinguishing between absolute and
relative confirmations, the second one inviting a coherence theory, while
the first seems to need some notion of evidence. This raises the
difficult question of what evidence is. Though Schlick tried to answer
it, his efforts were not successful and, in the end, it can be said that
both he and Carnap adopt a "restrained theory of coherence", accepting
that everything in science is only tentatively established and could be
revised as a matter of decision. Their main difference was over what
relation such sentences bear to experience, observation and the world,
though neither has a satisfying answer. Davidson, however, notes that the
members of the Vienna Circle and their associates did point out a
remaining main problem in philosophy, i.e. the problem of the
justification of belief. Davidson adopts the approach of the problem of
knowledge in terms of sentences rather than beliefs, restraining himself
to sentences held true and meaningful. He then reiterates the solution
proposed in the previous chapter, concluding "the foundations of
interpretation are not the foundations of knowledge, though an
appreciation of the nature of interpretation can lead to an appreciation
of the essentially veridical nature of belief" (175).

The twelfth chapter bears on "Epistemology and Truth". There are basically
two views of truth: a "subjective" one (where truth depends on our
beliefs) and an "objective" one (where truth is independent of beliefs).
Davidson's goal is to "undermine ... the dispute between the two views of
truth" (178). Davidson begins by considering whether Tarski's truth
definitions resort to objective or subjective theories of truth. Tarski
did not so much define truth as define truth for a particular language,
relying on our prior understanding of truth. "The perspective on language
and truth that we have gained is this: what is most open to observation
is sentences and their uses, and truth is the semantic concept we
understand best" (181). This leads Davidson to the conclusion that what
is lacking in a Tarski-style theory of truth is the use speakers make of
language and that this is indeed the criterion for the correctness of any
theory of truth. Davidson notes that Tarski-style theories of truth are
not correspondence theories, though he rejects extreme subjective
theories such as Dummett's and Putnam's. He bases himself on the strong
ties between belief, meaning and truth. Davidson's originality is his
insistence of the intersubjective character of language and on the
triangulation described above.

The thirteenth chapter, "Epistemology externalized", begins with a return
to first person authority. Though the contents of first person authority
can be taken to be knowledge, they are not of such a nature to "supply a
foundation for science and commonsense beliefs" (194). However, given the
holistic character of empirical belief, "it is impossible that all our
beliefs about the world are false" (195), because "the application
determines the content of the concept" (196). Though this view is a form
of externalism, it should be distinguished from two other forms of
externalism, Putnam's and Burge's. The main difference lies in first
person authority, which Putnam thinks jeopardized by externalism, while
Davidson thinks that externalism is compatible with first person
authority and that it is quite widespread and not limited to natural
kinds words. Burge has defended two types of externalism, one social and
the other perceptual. Davidson rejects social externalism, though he
accepts perceptual externalism. He differs from Burge in that he thinks
that perceptual externalism is or can be the basis of a refutation of
global skepticism. Social considerations comes into play via
triangulation (see above) and are not as such externalist.

The last essay, "Three Varieties of Knowledge", attempts to link together
the three varieties of knowledge discussed in the previous chapters, i.e.
subjective, intersubjective and objective knowledge. Davidson notes that
"all three varieties of knowledge are concerned with aspects of the same
reality; where they differ is in the mode of access to reality" (205).
None of them is reducible to any of others, or even to both of the
others. The central notions are belief, truth and the link between them.
Both thought and the concept of truth depend on interpersonal
communication. This depends on interpretation which, in its turn, rests
on the assignation to the speaker of basic rationality, i.e. consistency
and correspondence to facts. All of this is built from triangulation, the
relation of two communicating individuals to a common world. This in its
turn guarantees the truth of most of our beliefs. "There are, then, no
'barriers', logical or epistemic, between the three varieties of
knowledge. On the other hand, the very way in which each depends on the
others show why none can be eliminated or reduced to the others" (214).
Mental concepts cannot be reduced to physical concepts, because strict
laws do not employ causal concepts and mental concepts are irreducibly
causal. "The three sorts of knowledge form a tripod: if any leg were
lost, no part would stand" (220).

In a recent critical evaluation of this volume, Fodor (2002) has lamented
the fact that Davidson does not write a book, rather than collections of
papers. Though one could indeed wish that Davidson would present his
readers with a complete and self-contained presentation of his views, the
present collection of essays is nonetheless quite precious in as much as
it gathers papers from the eighties to the present time. One may agree or
not with Davidson, but I think that quite a few of his views offer a new
perspective on old philosophical questions or give a new foundation to
old philosophical claims, for instance the thesis that there is no
thought without (a public) language. This is particularly interesting in
as much as some books more or less recently published do seem to give
support for that view. I'm thinking here of Povinelli's excellent "Folk
physics for apes", as well as of Gopnik and Meltzoff's "Words, thoughts
and theories" or Perner's "The representational mind". All of these
books, though none denies that nativism may play a role in such
apparently universal abilities as theory of mind or folk physics, insists
on the fact that possession of certain concepts is necessary for these
abilities to get completed and Povinelli hints that a crucial factor
might be language. He shows experimentally that apes, despite their rich
social life and well-documented tool-use do not seem to have any
supporting knowledge of abstract factors mental states or physical
notions such as force. Indeed, apes seem unable to go beyond what is
seen, while this is a central factor in the speaking child's or the
adult's theory of mind and folk physics. Thus language does seem to make
a big difference to thought and Davidson seems to be right about this.
Whether he is right in thinking that language is and should be
interpretable and that language interpretability is the answer to global
skepticism is presumably debatable, but I think that Davidson points out
two things relative to global skepticism with which most people would
agree: global skepticism is not a position which many non-philosophers
would take seriously; and, while this does not mean that common sense is
right in rejecting global skepticism, the tendency to reject it may stem
from the fact that there is no intelligible way of formulating global
skepticism; and Davidson does offer an explanation for that last factor.

D. Dennett, "The intentional stance". Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987.

J. Fodor, "Mouse Thoughts". London Review of Books 24/5, 7 march 2002,

A. Gopnik & A. N. Meltzoff, "Words, thoughts and theories". Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press, 1997.

J. Perner, "The Representational Mind". Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,

D. J. Povinelli, "Folk physics for apes: The Chimpanzee's Theory of how
the world works", Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Anne Reboul is a First Class Research Fellow at the French Center for
Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics
(EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Geneva,
Switzerland). She has written some books, among which an Encyclopaedic
Dictionary of Pragmatics and quite a few papers in French and English, on
pragmatics and/or philosophic subjects.
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