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Review of  Dialogues with Davidson

Reviewer: Pierre-Yves Modicom
Book Title: Dialogues with Davidson
Book Author: Jeff Malpas
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 22.4043

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EDITOR: Malpas, Jeff
TITLE: Dialogues with Davidson
SUBTITLE: Acting, Interpreting, Understanding
YEAR: 2011

Pierre-Yves Modicom, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne / Ecole Normale Supérieure.


The volume is a collection of 20 essays grouped in three parts. Most of them are
devoted to the comparison of Donald Davidson's philosophy with other tendencies
of contemporary thought, especially other analytical philosophers and
phenomenologists. The core Davidsonian topics of the volume are the rejection of
the scheme-content distinction, Radical Interpretation, and anomalous monism.
Some other papers present a direct discussion or critique of some aspects of
Davidson's work.

The first part, ''On language, mind and world'', is divided into eight chapters.
The first one, by the late Richard Rorty, opposes Davidson's philosophy to the
Cartesian tradition of representationalism. The primacy of enacted language over
conceptual schemes is presented as the refutation of the dualistic ''theater''.
The second paper, by David Hoy and Christoph Durt, introduces the line of
authors with which Davidson's works are most often brought into comparison in
this volume: Edmund Husserl and phenomenological hermeneutics. The authors
defend a hermeneutic, anti-foundationalist reading of Husserl's late philosophy.
They insist on the social nature of thought as a postulate common to both
Davidson and phenomenological theories of interpretation. The other chapters are
no longer devoted to great historical traditions, but to comparisons with
specific authors or with contemporary thinkers.

Samuel Wheeler chooses to focus on the critique of correspondence theories of
truth. For him, this critique is shared by Davidson and Derrida, with some
important differences; whereas Davidson holds truth to be a primary concept,
Derrida is much more critical of the concept of truth per se. Both authors are
then compared for their theories on metaphors. Wheeler shows how Derrida's
concept of ''differance'' implies a preconceived hierarchy of entity types, which
is excluded by Davidson's theory of radical interpretation.

Next, Gordon Brittan concentrates on the problem of double-aspect ontology, a
concept under which Davidson's theory of anomalous monism can be subsumed, as
well as Kant's distinction of the noumenal and the phenomenal. The critical
problem at stake here is the interpretation of causality in events, especially
when they are related to deliberate actions. The comparison with Kant is also at
the core of the following chapter, where Richard Manning discusses Davidson's
place within the analytic philosophy of his time, among other critics of
Cartesianism and Neo-Kantianism. Commenting on the Davidsonian use of
Tarski-semantics, Manning's claim is that Davidson's anti-Kantianism might have
been exaggerated by the commentators. Unlike anti-theoricists of that time
promoting what Manning calls a ''domesticating vision'' based on ''flat ontology'',
Davidson leaves room open for the inference of extra entities for the sake of
providing philosophy with ''substantive truths'' about the world in constructing
the Tarski-theories necessary for radical interpretation. Davidson's ambition
and the method he followed made him much more similar to Kant than what is often

In Chapter Six, Mark Okrent concerns himself with the respective role of sapient
beings in Donald Davidson's and Martin Heidegger's theories of truth. He
compares Davidson's rejection of correspondence theories and compositionality
with Heidegger's thesis on the primacy of assertion, and more precisely, on the
role of copula. Yet, Heidegger is presented as more radical than Davidson; he
states that assertions need not be uttered and that they are primarily the
manifestation of the ''Dasein'''s intentionality, which leads him to ontological
claims beyond the concept of truths, which Davidson, as a Quinean, basically
refuses to do.

Giancarlo Marchetti's and Bjoern Ramberg's essays are more focused on Davidson's
place within analytical philosophy. In his contribution, Marchetti comments upon
Davidson's critique of conceptual schemes; Davidson's reflection is shown to be
embedded in the then-prevailing controversies on representationalism. The ''myth
of the given'', as well as correspondence theories, are criticized along lines
partly determined by the Fregean ''slingshot argument''. Finally, Marchetti
explains how Davidson's theses have been radicalized by Rorty. Finally, Bjoern
Ramberg, in the last chapter of this part, examines the dialectics of
pragmaticism and metaphysics in Davidson's philosophy. The question of the link
between linguistic behavior and objective knowledge, the refusal of conceptual
schemes, and the proximity to Rorty seem to suggest that Davidson, in spite of
what he seemed to think himself, was not primarily a metaphysician.

The second part, ''Interpretation and understanding'', consists of six essays,
four of which are directly devoted to the comparison with Hans-Georg Gadamer's
hermeneutics. Lee Braver first discusses the misunderstanding between both
authors and relates it to a difference between their (basically similar)
concepts of triangulation and ''Gespräch'' (“dialogue”). Whereas Gadamer's concept
is open to dialogue between cultures as a whole, Davidson's theory is more
concerned with individuals. Above all, Davidson's ''principle of charity'' would
be rejected by strict Gadamerian thinkers because it apparently tends to the
appropriation of the partner's otherness by the speaker, which Gadamer dismisses
as a great danger for interpretation. Robert Dostal insists on what he considers
the similarities between Gadamer and Davidson: first, their mutual rejection of
conceptual schemes and world views, which prevents relativism; and second, the
status of the object referred to as ''no thing'' for Davidson, and a ''Sache''
(roughly ''matter in question'') rather than a Ding (''thing'') for Gadamer. The
main differences are Davidson's insistence on semantics rather than ontology,
Gadamer's care of ''a common language'', and the fact that he focuses on the
''We''-kind of interpretative relation rather than on the ''I-Thou''-kind privileged
by Davidson's concept of triangulation.

This concept is at the heart of Jonathan Ellis's paper, which is more a direct
discussion of Davidson rather than a comparison. Ellis shows that there is a
circularity in Davidson's positions; the postulate that there needs to be a
possible interpreter for any assertion made is both the necessary premise for
the relevance of radical interpretation in knowledge philosophy and a
consequence of that relevance.

Next, Barbara Fultner comes back to the question of relativism and
incommensurability in the works of Gadamer and Davidson. She compares the
principle of charity to the notion of ''fusion of horizons'' in conversation,
which is supposed to give birth to a ''shared world''. She focuses on the way both
authors deal with literary texts to discuss rests of relativism in Gadamer's
account of the individualization process within every linguistic utterance
(culminating in untranslatability), whereas Davidson sees the confrontation with
the text as a solitary struggle. David Vessey also deals with Gadamer and
presents some key concepts of his philosophy (''world'', ''horizon'') in order to
connect them with Davidson's rejection of the ''Third Dogma of Empiricism''. The
main difference between both authors is the fact that for Gadamer, the relation
between thought and the world is purely linguistic, whereas for Davidson, such a
relation is causal, based on his framework of externalist ontology. Finally,
Jeff Malpas discusses the role of agreement in Davidson's philosophy. The social
nature of thought is highlighted and compared to Gadamer's conceptions, but
here, once again, Gadamer emphasizes topics such as the role of tradition and
common language much more than Davidson. Davidson's theory can be summarized as
an exposition of the interconnection of speakers jointly engaged within one and
the same world.

The six papers of the third and last part, ''On action, reason, and knowledge'',
concentrate less on issues related to language philosophy. Both Giuseppina d'Oro
and Frederick Stoutland discuss the relationship between reasons and cause and
embed Davidson's account in the debates of the analytic philosophy of that time.
Whereas D'Oro addresses the question of the autonomy of human sciences in this
framework, Stoutland is more concerned with the ontological status of causality.
Gerhard Preyer deals with evaluative attitudes and the way Davidson tends to
treat them as epistemic attitudes. He criticizes some problems of that treatment
but praises Davidson for showing how evaluative attitudes are compatible with
objective truth, an issue relevant for the problem of the value-ladenness of
social sciences.

Stephen Turner is concerned with the normative status of rationality made
necessary by the concept of triangulation. He addresses different concepts of
normativity defended by sociologists in order to show how normative rationality,
in Davidson's work, is a social simulation without any fixed a priori pattern.
Louise Röska-Hary, in her paper ''Davidson and the Source of Self-Knowledge'',
comes back to a much more linguistic theme, namely, the interaction between
self-knowledge and linguistic self-ascription of thoughts. She shows how the
structure of predicates such as ''I presently believe that p'' makes triangulation
impossible and yields first-person authority on the basis of Tarskian semantics.
She draws a parallel with language acquisition in order to show the social
dimension of this assumption of correctness for self-ascriptions, which is only
true for present propositional attitudes.

Finally, Sharyn Clough discusses how Davidson's rejection of conceptual schemes
can provide feminist science studies with interesting concepts protecting them
from the risk of relativism. His account for value-ladenness can also explain
the objective relevance of feminist studies, as well as provide a useful
reference for genealogical critiques of evaluative predicates in a social context.


In his introduction to the volume (''Davidson and contemporary philosophy''), Jeff
Malpas justifies the focus given to other (so-called) analytical philosophers
and to phenomenology in the collected comparative studies. This cannot be made
clear enough; in spite of what is announced on the cover, this volume is
relevant mainly for those who are concerned with the dialogue of the two main
traditions of contemporary philosophy. For instance, the papers dealing with
(Neo-)Kantism hardly quote Kant themselves. Moreover, no passage from Descartes'
first-hand texts is to be found in the book, even though “Cartesianism” is often
mentioned as the main tradition that Davidson opposes. What is at stake is the
reception of classical philosophy of knowledge within contemporary rational
thought. For this reason, it is not surprising to see that the few allusions to
Hegel are never as developed as they could have been.

Once the reader has accepted this editorial choice, it is possible for him/her
to appreciate the great overall quality of the papers collected in this volume.
The attempt to bring traditions that have often ignored each other deserves
praise in and of itself. What is even more valuable is the accessibility of this
volume to non-specialists; anyone with minimal memories of Davidson's best-known
theses (e.g. the triangulation of knowledge, Radical Interpretation, or the
rejection of the scheme-content distinction) will be able to take advantage of
this collection to refresh their knowledge. The reader does not need to be
acquainted with Tarski's semantics or even with Quine in order to understand the
discussion, which, however, is by no means vulgarization. Such a balance between
deep analysis and accessibility is rarely obtained, and it is one of the great
merits of this volume. The papers concerned with phenomenology and hermeneutics
are also very clear and do not presuppose the reading of quoted works, such as
Gadamer's ''Truth and Method'' (1960).

A first regret concerning the pedagogical qualities of this volume has to do
with the order of the papers. For instance, it might have been possible to group
all papers on hermeneutics together, and to first present the article by David
Vessey, which includes a synthetic presentation of Gadamer's thought, so that
even readers who may not have background knowledge of hermeneutics could better
appreciate the very fine-grained analysis by Braver and Dostal with less effort.
Moreover, the text by Vessey, because it appears after those two, seems to
repeat facts already presupposed by what has just been read. In the very
Gadamerian second part, the paper by Jonathan Ellis also looks isolated. Unlike
most of the other articles (with the exception of some in part 3), it is much
more a dialogue between the author and Davidson than the presentation of a
(possible) dialogue or confrontation between Davidson and a third party. If the
editor refused to organize his collection alongside too narrow thematic or
historical lines (which can very well be understood), then it would have been
better to be more radical and to prevent impressions of failed thematic
coherence such as the almost-completely Gadamerian tropism of the second part.

People interested in the philosophy of language will be very interested in this
book, which exhaustively presents the highly stimulating thoughts of a crucial
author and addresses the parallels and differences between his philosophy and
other considerable thinkers. The communication gap between philosophical schools
is all too often a problem, and any effort to bridge it can only be approved.
Beyond the articles dealing with interpretation theory and hermeneutics, the
most interesting essays on philosophy of language are those written by Mark
Okrent and Louise Röska-Hardy. Both are concerned with issues directly related
to pregnant questions of contemporary semantics and pragmatics. The essay by
Mark Okrent, especially, provides the reader with a very useful introduction to
anti-correspondentist semantics (i.e. ''slingshot argument'', of which there is
also a good description by Giancarlo Marchetti in the following paper) and
theories rejecting semantic compositionality (i.e. ''the problem of
predication''). Linguists interested in such questions will be highly stimulated
by the very fine-grained and historically rich discussion of this topic.

It is all the more regrettable that the phrase ''compositionality of meaning'' is
not even mentioned, even though this concept is at the heart of what is being
contested in the so-called problem of predication (pp. 99-100). This case is
typical of the general usefulness linguists will find in this book; it is highly
interesting but requires extra effort to draw parallels and see connections with
linguistic topics. Those connections and echoes are real, but they are not
directly dealt with, mainly because the volume is directed toward philosophers.
Yet, such an effort on the reader's side proves highly rewarding.

Of course, a third important school of thought could have received more
attention (or simply some attention) in the comparison with Davidson's
consistent, well-structured linguistic externalism: pragmatics. Cases in point
are that Austin is named only once, in the middle of an enumeration of
philosophers (p. 61), and Grice (p. 383) is only mentioned in one sentence. None
of these short allusions is listed in the index, unlike the two short passages
where the name of Searle is dropped. This might seem very short and one would
expect more fruitful works comparing Davidson's thoughts to those of Searle, or
the principle of charity to Grice's conversational rules (Grice 1975); the
considerable differences between their premises and intentions should not
prevent one from examining some surprising convergences – on the contrary. In
other words, people interested in language, when reading this excellent
collection of papers, will not lack ideas for further works and further
parallels, nor for conceptual questioning. The idea that Davidson does not
really belong to the classical philosophical curriculum of linguists has to
change, and this book provides a good occasion to stimulate intellectual
transfers from that perspective within philosophy.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1960: Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen.

Grice, Henry Paul. 1975: Logic and Conversation, in P. Cole and J. L. Morgan
(Eds) Syntax and semantics: Speech acts. Vol. 3. New York: Academic. 41-58.

Pierre-Yves Modicom is a graduate student in Paris. He holds a B.A. in Germanic studies and an M.A. in Linguistics from U. Paris-Sorbonne. He currently studies German Literature and Philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and Linguistics at U. Paris-Sorbonne.

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