Review of Essays on Actions and Events
|Davidson, Donald (2001) Essays on Actions and Events, 2nd ed. Oxford University
Press, xxii+324pp, paperback ISBN 0-19-924627-0, $21.95 (1st ed., 1980)
Sharbani Banerji, Ghaziabad, India.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK
The first edition of the book was published in 1980, and the second in
2001. The first fifteen essays of the first edition are reprinted in the
second edition, to which, two new essays have been added. The first
fifteen essays are divided into three sections. Each section contains five
The three sections are:
I) Intention and Action
II) Event and Cause
III) Philosophy of Psychology
Besides the essays in these three sections, the two new essays which have been
added in the Appendices, are:
A) Adverbs of Action(1985) and
B) Reply to Quine on Events(1985)
All the essays in this book have already been published elsewhere. Over the
decades, these essays have attracted a lot of attention, comments, criticism
etc., and have given rise to new writings. According to Davidson, though there
are many things he would like to change today, what still remains right, is the
emphasis on the logical form of sentences that are used to talk of actions,
events and causality etc.
Each section has a common theme, as suggested by the title of the section, and
the various essays in that section address the finer points of that theme.
Though the central theme of this book is the role of causal concepts in human
action, and which is where the concept of 'intention' and its various shades as
depicted in Section I come in, an extremely important issue has been addressed
in Section II, which is, defining event as an 'object or individual'. Section
III is in many ways related to Section I. In the Appendices, the essay 'Adverbs
of Action' once again proves that 'events' should be treated as 'entities'.
In all these essays, Davidson uses numerous examples, not only to state
the problem, and then to build his thesis, but also to counter the claims
of earlier philosophers, logicians, and in some cases even psychologists.
Starting from the works of Aristotle, Davidson quotes and argues on the
works of Anscombe, Austin, Cargile, Castaï¿½eda, Chisholm, John Donne,
Ducasse, Feinberg, Grice, Hume, Hobbes, Anthony Kenny, Lemmon, Melden,
Mill, Moore, Frank Ramsey, Reichenbach, Strawson, Wittgenstein, von Wright
and Quine, to name only a few.
These counterarguments are presented in the form of 'replies' to earlier works,
and in a few cases, the entire essay is a discussion, or a reply to the work of
another philosopher, viz.,
Essay 14 'Hempel on explaining action'
Essay 15 'Hume's Cognitive Theory of Pride'
Appendix B 'Reply to Quine on Events'
Some of the essays are further followed by replies to the criticism of
Davidson's works by other philosophers. They are indicated at the end of the
Since in a review of this type, it is impossible to present the examples and
arguments of other philosophers that Davidson quotes and then counters, I shall
concentrate mainly on Davidson's solution to the problems taken up in each
SECTION I: INTENTION AND ACTION
ESSAY 1. ACTIONS, REASONS AND CAUSES (1963) 'Actions, Reasons and Causes'
was a reaction against a widely accepted doctrine that the explanation of
an intentional action in terms of its motives or reasons could not relate
reasons and actions as cause and effect. Instead, Davidson defends the
ancient and common sense position that 'rationalization' is a species of
What is the relation between a reason and an action when the reason
explains the action by giving the agent's reason for doing what he did?
We may call such explanations 'rationalizations', and say that the reason
'rationalizes' the action.
Whenever someone does something for a reason, he can be characterized as:
a) having some sort of pro attitude towards actions of a certain kind and
b) believing (or knowing, perceiving, noticing, remembering) that his action is
of that kind.
Giving the reason why an agent did something is often a matter of naming
(a) the pro attitude or (b) the related belief or both;
Davidson calls this pair the 'primary reason', the reason why the agent
performed the action. Now, it is possible both to reformulate the claim that
rationalizations are causal explanations and to give structure to the argument
by stating the following two thesis about primary reasons.
1) In order to understand how a reason of any kind rationalizes an action it is
necessary and sufficient that we see how to construct a primary reason.
2) The primary reason for an action is its cause.
To know a primary reason why someone acted as he did is to know an intention
with which the action was done.
States, dispositions and conditions are frequently named in the causes of
events. That is, there is a mental event, to qualify as causes of action.
ESSAY 2. HOW IS WEAKNESS OF THE WILL POSSIBLE? (1969)
An agent's will is weak if he acts, and acts intentionally, counter to his own
best judgement; in such cases we say he lacks the will power to do what he
knows, or at any rate believes, would be better. Davidson calls such actions
Davidson's conception of incontinence is more general than some others. If
a man holds some course of action as the best one, the thing he ought to
do, and yet does something else, he acts incontinently.
Davidson characterizes an action that reveals weakness of the will or
incontinence, as follows:
In doing x an agent acts incontinently if and only if:
a) the agent does x intentionally;
b) the agent believes that there is an alternative action y open to him;
c) the agent judges that, all things considered, it would be better to do
y than to do x.
Two principles have been proposed:
P1) If an agent wants to do x more than he wants to do y, and he believes
himself free to do either x or y, then he will intentionally do x if he does
either x or y intentionally.
P2) If an agent judges that it would be better to do x than to do y, then he
wants do x more than he wants to do y.
P1 and P2 together obviously entail that if an agent judges that it would be
better for him to do x than to do y, and he believes himself to be free to do
either x or y, then he will intentionally do x if he does either x or y
intentionally. The conclusion would however show that:
It is FALSE that:
P3) There are incontinent actions.
Then, how to explain the problem of incontinence?
A judgement that a is better than b, all things considered, is a
relational or a prima facie (pf) judgement, and so cannot conflict
logically with any unconditional judgement.
'a is better than b, all things(viz., all truths, moral and otherwise)
considered', surely does entail 'a is better than b'. The phrase 'all things
considered' must, of course, refer only to things known, believed, or held by
the agent, the sum of his relevant principles, opinions, attitudes, and
It is possible then to be incontinent even if P1 and P2 are true. The
incontinent man acts and judges irrationally.
What is special in incontinence is that the actor cannot understand himself: he
recognizes, in his own intentional behaviour, something essentially surd.
ESSAY 3. AGENCY (1971)
This essay on 'Agency', asks what the relation is between an agent and an event
that makes the event an action.
Can we say which events involve agency?
Intentional actions do, and so do some other things we do. What is the common
A man is the agent of an act if what he does can be described under an aspect
that makes it intentional.
If we can say, that a person does as an agent, whatever he does intentionally,
under some description, then, although the 'criterion' of agency is in the
semantic sense, intentional, the 'expression' of agency is itself purely
extensional. The relation that holds between a person and an event, when the
event is an action performed by the person, holds regardless of how the terms
are described. Therefore, we can speak of the class of events that are actions,
which we cannot do with intentional actions.
Causality is central to the concept of agency, but it is ordinary causality
between events that is relevant, and it concerns the effects and not causes of
actions (discounting the possibility of analysing intention in terms of
causality). One way to bring this out is by describing what Joel Feinberg calls
the 'accordion effect'. The 'accordion effect' will not reveal in what respect
an act is intentional.
The accordion effect is limited to agents. If Jones intentionally swings a bat
that strikes a ball that hits and breaks a window, then Jones not only struck
the ball but also broke the window, though of course, the movement of the ball
caused the breakage.
The collapse of all actions into the primitive, which is marked in syntax
by the accordion effect, leads to a vast simplification of the problem of
agency, for it shows that there is a relation between a person and an
event when it is his action, that is independent of the how the terms of
the relation are described.
ESSAY 4. FREEDOM TO ACT (1973)
In this essay, Davidson tries to defuse some arguments that have been taken to
show that freedom to act cannot be a causal power. At the same time, although
freedom to act is a causal power, it cannot be analysed or defined, at least
without appeal to the notion of 'intention'.
It is natural to say that a person can do something (or is free to do it)
if all that is required, if he is to do it, is that he WILLS to do it.
But, does 'He would do it if he were to will to do it' express a causal
disposition? If willing is an act distinct from doing, it might be a
cause, but the question would then arise when an agent is free to will. If
willing is not an act distinct from doing, then it cannot be a cause of
According to Davidson, causal power means, a change of certain sort in the
object causes an event of another sort. The concept of causal power is
indifferent to the intuitive distinction between active and passive.
There can be a great difference between
'The heat caused Samantha to return to Patna.' and
'The heat caused Samantha's return to Patna.'
The former implies a limitation on Samantha's freedom of action; the latter
not. Thus, an action may be caused without the agent being caused to
There is thus a two-part theory of what a man can do:
A) One part aims to explain what he can do intentionally
B) The other part extends this to what the intentional would cause.
In order to be eligible as a cause, the event must be separate from the action.
If so, one should be able to ask about 'it', whether the agent is free to
According to Davidson, 'choosing', 'willing', 'trying', 'intending' etc., are
not cause of an action, but are ways of characterizing the action chosen,
willed, tried, intended etc. They are not descriptions of further actions,
events or states.
The only hope for the causal analysis is to find states or events which are
causal conditions for intentional actions. The most eligible such states or
events are the beliefs and desires of an agent that 'rationalize' an action.
Davidson suggests the following formulation of what a man can do:
A can do x intentionally (under the description d) means that if A has desires
and beliefs that rationalize x (under d), then A does x.
The antecedent condition (A has desires and beliefs that rationalize x) is
prior to and separate from the action, and so is suited to be a cause(in
this case, it is state, rather than an event - but this could be changed
along these lines: 'coming to have desires and beliefs that rationalize
If rationalizing attitudes do cause an action of mine, then not only does the
action occur, but, it is under rationalized descriptions intentional. What an
agent does intentionally is what he is free to do and has adequate reasons for
Thus Davidson argues that freedom to act is the causal power of the agent.
Essay 5. INTENDING (1978)
This essay tries to find out the correlation between an 'intended action', and
Someone may intend to build a squirrel house without having decided to do it,
deliberated about it, formed an intention to do it, or reasoned about it. And
despite his intention, he may never build a squirrel house, or do anything
whatever to get a squirrel house built. Pure intending of this sort, intending
that may occur without practical reasoning, action, or consequence, poses a
problem if we want to give an account of the concept of intention.
When action is added to intention, i.e., when someone who acts with a certain
intention, acts for a reason-he wants to accomplish something; e.g., a man who
nails boards together with the intention of building a squirrel house must
believe that by doing so he will advance his project.
Acting with an intention does not require that there be any mysterious act of
the will or special attitude or episode of willing. There need be only desires
or other pro attitudes, beliefs and the actions themselves.
Intending without conscious deliberation or overt consequence leaves no
room for doubt that intending is a state or event separate from the
intended action or the reason that prompted the action. Pure intending
merely shows that there is something there to be abstracted.
I) Is pure intending an action?
'Coming to have an intention' is a change that may take place so slowly or
unnoticed, that an agent cannot say when it happened. Still, it is an
event, and we could call it an action, or at least something the agent
II) Is intending to act a belief that one will?
Davidson gives strong arguments against identifying pure intending with
belief one will do what one intends. That is, reasons for intending to do
something are in general quite different from reasons for believing one
will do it.
III) Is intending to so something the same as wanting to do it?
Davidson argues at length to prove that:
Intending and wanting belong to the same genus of pro attitudes, expressed
by value judgements. Wants, desires, principles prejudices, felt duties,
and obligations provide reasons for actions and intentions, and are
expressed by prima facie judgements; intentions and the judgements that go
with intentional actions are distinguished by their all-out unconditional
form. Pure intending constitute a subclass of the all-out judgements,
those directed to future action of the agent and made in the light of his
SECTION II: EVENT AND CAUSE
ESSAY 6. THE LOGICAL FORM OF ACTION SENTENCES (1967)
This essay is about getting the logical form of simple sentences about action
Consider sentences like:
'Jones did it slowly, deliberately, in the bathroom, with a knife, at
What he did was butter a piece of toast. The 'it' refers to some entity,
presumably an action.
One might suggest the Logical form of the sentence to be:
'There is an action x, such that Jones did x slowly, and Jones did x
deliberately, and Jones did x in the bathroom,...' and so on.
But then, we need an appropriate singular term to substitute for x. If we
replace x by 'Jones buttered a piece of toast', we get a logical form like:
'Jones buttered a piece of toast slowly, Jones buttered a piece of toast
deliberately, and Jones buttered a piece of toast in the bathroom,. . .' and so
on. But the problem here is that this logical form does not indicate that any
'one' action was slow, deliberate, and in the bathroom, etc., though this is
what is meant by the original.
Consider the sentence:
1) Jones buttered the toast slowly, deliberately, in the bathroom, at midnight,
with a knife.
'deliberately' alone imputes 'intention', and cannot be treated on par with
other modifying clauses.
'slowly', unlike other adverbial clauses fails to introduce a new entity,(a
place, an instrument, a time), and also may involve special difficulty.
The question is, what was slow here'?
Ignoring the first two adverbial modifiers in 1) for the present, what will be
the logical form of :
2) Jones buttered the toast in the bathroom, with a knife, at midnight.
Most philosophers would analyse this sentence as containing a five place
predicate with the argument places filled in the obvious ways, with singular
terms or bound variables. Eg.,
if 'Jones buttered the toast' is a two place predicate,
'Jones buttered the toast in the bathroom' as a three place predicate, etc..
But this way, we obliterate the logical relations between these sentences,
namely, that 2) entails the others.
Anthony Kenny rejects the suggestion that 'Jones buttered the toast' be
considered as elliptical for 'Jones buttered the toast somewhere with
something at sometime', which would restore the wanted entailments, on the
grounds that we can never be sure how many standby positions to provide in
each predicate of action. That is, Kenny points out the problem of
'variable polyadicity' of action verbs.
For the sentence:
3) Amundsen flew to the North Pole in May 1926.
Davidson modifies Reichenbach's doctrine, and suggests the following Logical
4) (Ex)(x consists in the fact that Amundsen flew to the North Pole, and x took
place in May 1926).
Formula 4) alone would give the logical form of the sentence 3):
This way, Kenny's problem of variable polyadicity' of action verbs is
solved. There is actually, no variable polyadicity, if events are
introduced as entities about which an indefinite number of things can be
said. According to Reichenbach, ordinary action sentences have an
existential quantifier binding an action variable. If we think that 3)
describes a single event, we are misled. It does not describe any event at
all. But, if 3) is true, then there is an event that makes it true.
Thus, Davidson's analysis of action sentences:
The basic idea is that verbs of action--verbs that say 'what someone did'--
should be construed as containing a place for singular terms or variables, that
do not appear to be there normally. E.g.,
'Shem kicked Shaun'
would in general, be considered to consist in two names and a two place
According to Davidson, however, 'kicked' is a three place predicate, with the
5) (Ex)(kicked(Shem, Shaun, x)).
About prepositions, Davidson has following to say:
In general, we conceal logical structure when we treat prepositions as integral
parts of verbs; prepositions should be contributing structure in the following
A sentence like
'I flew my spaceship to the Evening Star'
should have the following logical form:
6) (Ex)(Flew(I, my spaceship, x)& To(the Evening Star, x)).
>From 6) one can infer 7):
7) (Ex)(Flew(I, my Spaceship, x)).
If we had taken 'flew' as a four-place predicate, this inference would
have been obscured.
Similarly, Logical form the expression that introduces 'intention' would be:
'It was intentional of x that p'.
where x names the agent, and 'p' is a sentence that says the agent did
This essay is followed by:
Reply to Lemmon on Tenses, Reply to Lemmon on Identity Conditions for Events,
Reply to Castaï¿½eda on Agent and patient, Reply to Castaï¿½eda on
Reply to Castaï¿½eda on Intention, Reply to Chisholm on making happen, Reply to
Martin, Reply to Cargile, and Reply to Hedman.
ESSAY 7. CAUSAL RELATIONS (1967)
Essay seven applies the lesson of essay six to causality.
What is the logical form of singular causal statement like 'The flood
caused the famine', 'The stabbing caused Csesar's death', etc.?
Much of what philosophers have said of causes and causal relations is
intelligible only on the assumption that causes are individual events and
causal relations hold between events. So far as logical form of causal
statements is concerned, the relation of causality between events can be
expressed by an ordinary two-place predicate in an ordinary, extensional
first order language. But, this should not be confused with the analysis
of causality, e.g., an analysis of subjunctives, counterfactual
However, a host of statements challenge the account just given. E.g., ''The
failure of the sprinkling system caused the fire'', ''The slowness with which the
controls were applied caused the rapidity with which the inflation developed''.
Though failures can be counted amongst events, others are just rudimentary
causal explanations. According to Davidson, statements typically relate
statements, not events. Such statements according to Davidson, 'causally
explains', but is not the 'caused' of the straightforward singular causal
According to Davidson, 'caused' is sometimes a relation, sometimes a
ESSAY 8. THE INDIVIDUATION OF EVENTS (1969)
When are two events identical? Or, when is one event identical with another?
To prove his thesis, Davidson first shows how events should be taken as
'entities', and next gives the conditions under which they can be identical.
Talking about 'identity of events', there is 'No entity without identity', and
its linguistic counterpart would be:
'No statements of identity without singular terms'.
Of course, there are singular terms that name events. E.g., 'Sally's third
birthday party', 'the first performance of Lulu in Chicago' etc.
Are there good reasons for taking events seriously as entities? There are
1) First, under a satisfactory theory of action, we should be able to talk
literally of the same action under different descriptions.
2) Second, the most perspicuous forms of the identity theory of mind require
that we identify mental events with certain physiological events; if such
theories or their denials are intelligible, events must be individuals.
3) Without events it is not possible to give a natural and acceptable
the logical form of certain sentences of the most common sorts, e.g.,
'Sebastian strolled through the streets of Bologna at 2 a.m.'
'Sebastian strolled through the streets of Bologna'.
That the entailed sentence is contained in the entailing sentence, is NOT
reflected in the usual logical form assigned to each sentence, which is,
the first sentence contains an irreducibly three-place predicate 'x
strolled through y at t', while the second contains an UNRELATED predicate
'x strolled through y'.
Davidson proposes to legitimize our intuition that events are true
particulars by recognizing explicit references to them, or quantification
over them, in much of our ordinary talk. E.g., consider
This may be construed as
'There is an x such that Sebastian strolled x'.
In this way, we provide each verb of action or change with an event-place; we
may say of such verbs that they take an event-object. Then, adverbial clauses
modify not verbs, but events that certain verbs introduce.
'Sebastian strolled through the streets of Bologna at 2 a.m.' then has the
'There is an event x such that Sebastian strolled x, x took place in the
streets of Bologna, and x was going on at 2 a.m.'.
In this way, the entailment relations which were not properly expressed before,
go through directly in this analysis.
On the present analysis, ordinary sentences about events like 'Doris capsized
the canoe yesterday', will be as much true if she capsized it a dozen
it does not make sense to ask 'which time are you referring to'?
It is important to distinguish between:
'Doris capsized the canoe yesterday'
'Doris's capsizing of the canoe occurred yesterday'
While the second sentence indeed contains a singular description (There is an
event identical with the capsizing of the canoe yesterday by Doris', the first
merely asserts the existence of at least one capsizing.
IDENTITY OF EVENTS:
Do place and time together uniquely define an event? That is, is it sufficient
as well as necessary, if events are to be identical, that they occupy exactly
the same time and the same place?
Davidson gives counterexamples, which he retracts in a later essay, ie.,
in the Appendices, viz., 'Reply to Quine on Events'.
Finally, Davidson gives the following definition of identity of events:
According to him, events are identical if and only they have exactly the same
causes and effects. Events have a unique position in the framework of causal
relations between events in somewhat the way objects have a unique position in
the spatial framework of objects.
ESSAY 9. EVENTS as PARTICULARS (1970)
This essay defends and elaborates on the event ontology proposed in essay six.
It was written in response to papers by Roderick Chisholm.
Things change, but are there such things as changes?
A pebble moves, a land slides, a star explodes. Are there in addition to
pebbles and stars, movements, births, landslides, and explosions? Our
language seems to indicate that there are, by supplying not only the
appropriate singular terms, but the full apparatus of definite and
indefinite articles, sortal predicates, counting, quantification, and
identity-statements; all the machinery of reference.
These seem to indicate that events exist as 'concrete individuals'.
Some things recur, or happen more than once; egg., 'last night I dropped a
saucer of mud, and tonight I did it again (exactly the same thing
happened). The 'it' here looks for a reference, a thing that can recur.
One way to say would be that one and the same event 'my dropping a saucer
of mud' was instantiated both last night and tonight. Or, we could say
that one member of the class of my droppings of saucer of mud occurred
last night and another tonight. Chisholm observes that these analyses
require two sorts of events, universals or classes on one hand and
instances or members on the other. Davidson argues in length to show that
Chisholm's theory cannot cope with the problem of adverbial modification.
Davidson concludes that it is unclear whether a viable alternative to the
theory of events as particulars can be worked out along the lines proposed
by Chisholm. Chisholm's approach treats event locutions much like mass
The paper ends without definite conclusions. Davidson however admits that
Chisholm's paper gives us an idea how interesting it might be if such a theory
was successfully elaborated.
Essay 10. ETERNAL vs EPHEMERAL EVENTS (1971)
This essay too, was written in response to papers by Roderick Chisholm. The
matter of this essay is very much related to essay nine. In this essay however,
Davidson arrives at concrete results.
Both Roderick Chisholm and Davidson agree that there are events, but do not
agree about what the events are.
According to Davidson, some sentences certainly commit us to the existence of a
certain object: i.e., an event as an object. E.g.,
1) The explorer was in the cellar
2) The explosion was in the cellar.
The first of these sentences commits us to the existence of an explorer, a
particular one picked out by a singular term 'the explorer'. In a parallel way,
the second sentence seems to commit us to the existence of a particular event.
This is supported by the fact that 1) ,2) respectively entail:
3) There was an explorer in the cellar
4) There was an explosion in the cellar.
1) is true if and only if there was exactly one explorer in the cellar;
while 3) is true if and only if there was at least one.
1) can be rewritten as:
'The x such that x is an explorer was in the cellar',
and 3) as:
'There exists an x such that x is an explorer and x was in the cellar'.
Similarly for 2 & 4. Thus, 'explorer' and 'explosions' alike invite the
definite and indefinite article; they also invite plural forms, universal
quantification, counting and identity statements.
It may be granted that nouns like 'explosion', 'death', 'collapse', 'disasters
in the family', and so on, exhibit the same patterns of inference other common
nouns do, and so we must expect the ontological assumptions that justify
quantificational inference to apply here too.
But how about sentences that contain only the corresponding verbs? In the
5) The boiler exploded in the cellar.
There is no singular term to refer to an event, nor common noun to treat like a
predicate true of events. However, there are good reasons for treating 5) as
involving quantification over events, as having roughly the following logical
6) There exists an x such that x was an explosion, and x was in the cellar, and
x was of the boiler.
In this way, we articulate the relations between the verb and the noun.
That is, by treating 5) along the lines of 6), we explain why it is caught
up in the network of entailments that intuition recognizes.
Events over which the variables of quantification in sentences like 6) must
range, as in 2) & 4) & 5), are particular EPHEMERAL EVENTS. If the boiler
exploded twice, there were at least two distinct explosions, and in symbols:
(Ex)(Ey)(x is an explosion & x is of the boiler & y is an explosion & y is of
the boiler & x=/=y).
If we treat 'x is an explosion' as a predicate true of events, and expressions
like 'the explosion of the boiler' as referring terms, THEN, we have chosen to
include ephemeral events in our ontology.
SECTION III: PHILOSOPHY AND PSYCHOLOGY
ESSAY 11. MENTAL EVENTS (1970)
This essay argues that although psychological and physical phenomena are
causally connected, and this implies that there are strict laws that cover the
instancing events, nevertheless there are no strict laws that cover events or
states described in psychological terms. In the course of explaining how this
can be, a version of the identity theory emerges, which Davidson calls
How can the causal role of mental events like perceivings, rememberings,
decisions, and actions be reconciled with the physical world?
Davidson starts from the assumption that both the causal dependence and the
anomalousness of mental events are undeniable facts.
I) The first principle asserts that at least some mental events interact
causally with physical events. Call this the 'Principle of Causal Interaction'.
Though perception and action provide the most obvious cases where mental and
physical events interact causally, there can be mental events that have no
physical events as causes or effects.
II) The second principle is that, where there is causality, there must be
a law: events related as cause and effect fall under strict deterministic
laws. Davidson calls it 'The Principle of the Nomological Character of
III) The third principle is that there are no strict deterministic laws on the
basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained (The Anomalism of
The rest of the paper falls into three parts. The first part describes a
version of the identity theory of the mental and the physical that show
how the three principles may be reconciled. The second part argues that
there cannot be strict psychophysical laws. This is not quite the
principle of the anomalism of the mental, though it entails it. The last
part tries to derive the truth of the identity theory that identifies at
least some mental events with the physical events.
ESSAY 12. PSYCHOLOGY as PHILOSOPHY(1974)
This essay further develops the arguments against the possibility of strict
psychophysical laws, and stresses the central importance of a normative concept
of rationality, in the attribution of beliefs, intentions, desires and other
A desire and belief of the right sort may explain an action, but not
The essay is followed by Davidson's replies to Peters, Attfield, and to
ESSAY 13. THE MATERIAL MIND (1973)
This essay, raises the question how much we can hope to learn about the
psychology of thought and action from advances in neurophysiology.
Suppose we understand what goes on in the brain perfectly, in the sense that we
can describe each detail in purely physical terms- that even the electrical and
chemical processes, and certainly the neurological ones have been reduced to
physics. That is, let's imagine that ''l'homme machine'' has actually been built.
The question is, what would all this knowledge of physics,(and ï¿½ fortiori of
neurophysiology) tell us about psychology? Davidson argues that it will be much
less than expected.
Davidson treats psychology as a subject that deals with concepts that involve
intention, belief, desire, action, decision, memory, perception, learning,
wanting, attending, noticing etc.
According to Davidson, the detailed knowledge of the physics or physiology of
the brain, or of the whole man would not provide a shortcut to the kind of
interpretation required for the application of sophisticated psychological
concepts. That is, there is no important sense in which psychology can be
reduced to the physical sciences.
ESSAY 14. HEMPEL ON EXPLAINING ACTION (1976)
This essay, like essay eight, was written to celebrate the intellectual and
other virtues of Carl Hempel. The present Essay, 'Hempel on Explaining action',
acknowledges him as an early partisan of the causal view of action, but takes
issue with him on the role of empirical laws in explaining action.
Hempel argued in his paper 'Rational Action' that, explanation of intentional
action by appeal to the agent's reasons does not differ in its general logical
character from explanation generally. Two years later Davidson published
'Actions, Reasons and Causes'. In this paper, Davidson compares the two papers,
and looks for the similarities and differences in their thesis.
Hempel set out to show that reason explanations do not differ in their general
logical character from explanation in Physics and elsewhere. Davidson agrees
with this view.
He however differs on the following point.
The laws that are implicit in reason explanation concern only individuals. They
are generalizations embedded in attributions of attitudes, beliefs and traits.
Essay 15. HUME'S COGNITIVE THEORY OF PRIDE (1976).
This essay outlines a thesis that even a state like 'being proud' can be a
Here, Davidson defends an Humean analysis of certain passions and
emotions, and in particular defends Hume's claim that a belief that one
has a beautiful house(for example) is a causal condition of being proud
that one has a beautiful house. As in essay one and subsequent essays,
Davidson argues that it may be a necessary truth that an event or state,
described in a certain way, has a certain cause. Whether or not this is
consistent with Hume's analysis of causality is an open question. In any
case, if the view of the nature of 'propositional' pride and other such
emotions which Davidson argues for here is right, it shows how pride, like
the actions for which it may provide a reason, enters the causal chains
that help explain and to some extent justify human patterns of feeling,
thought and behaviour.
APPENDIX A: ADVERBS OF ACTION (1985)
'Adverbs of action', rehearses the arguments in favor of an ontology of events,
and tries to answer a number of perplexing issues about the identity of events.
It is thus directly relevant to many of the essays in this book, particularly,
essays three, six and eight. Some proposals of essay eight have been reviewed
Actions are events and most of the linguistic devices we have for talking of
actions are in use for events generally. Adverbial modifications provide a lead
for understanding what actions and events are, and how they are individuated.
Adverbs modify verbs. Modifiers are attendants, not first movers. Sentences can
get along without them.
Adjectives on the other hand, have a standard predicative use ('he was
young and bold') which does not allow deletion. Also, adjectives can be
converted to complete predicates by the addition of 'is' or 'was' etc. The
rule of inference that leads from 'This is a woolen hat' to 'This is a
hat' to 'This is woolen' is just the rule that says that if a conjunction
of predicates applies to an entity, each of the predicate does.
The same line does not apply to adverbs. For, though the predicate 'x flew
swiftly' does imply 'x flew', there is no obvious way to convert 'swiftly'
into a free-standing predicate we can apply to x whenever we can apply 'x
flew swiftly'. This may not seem quite true. For we can infer from 'x flew
swiftly' that there is something x did that was done swiftly. Here,
however, 'swiftly' is not predicated of x, but of something done by x: in
short, an action.
Thus, adverbs prompt us to recognize actions and events as 'entities'.
Sentences like 'He ran to her side' do not 'refer' to events, but they
imply the existence of an event of certain sort: Existential
quantification over events is the underlying logical form of such simple
sentences. In a sentence like 'A game of tennis is a pleasure', Universal
quantification comes naturally.
'For all events e, if e is a game of tennis, then e is a pleasure'.
'Gregory sang a song', or 'Peter ran to Canterbury' seem, always to require an
agent, but NOT an OBJECT. Then, 'singing' is always represented by a predicate
of an agent and an event; the event may then be characterized at will as having
an object or not.
If we think of predicates in the usual way as having a fixed number of places,
there are no simple predicates that are both transitive and intransitive. 'Shem
kicked Shaun' contains an intransitive verb provided it entails 'Shem kicked'
and provided 'Shem kicked' does not entail 'Shem kicked something'.
If adverbial clauses are correctly perceived as predicates of events, it
follows that by adding adverbial clauses to characterize events, we can at
most be reducing the stock of events characterized.
Thus, events once more seem on a par, ontologically, with familiar objects like
men and giraffe.
APPENDIX B: REPLY TO QUINE ON EVENTS (1985)
Appendix B is a reply to Quine's criticism of a condition of identity for
events which Davidson had proposed in Essay eight. Though here he agrees
with Quine that his original proposal was circular, which presupposed an
ontology of events, he resists his view that there is no clear distinction
between objects and events.
So long as we divide Linguistics into compartmentalized subjects,
Philosophy will remain only Philosophy, Syntax only Syntax and so on. This
is especially true for those of us who have never been taught Philosophy
as a Linguistics course. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book,
though, it needs a lot of concentration to follow the intricate arguments
that Davidson uses to build his thesis. What amazed me was the amount of
valuable information it imparted from the point of view of Syntax, which
is my primary interest. Hence, though this book will naturally be a 'must'
for students of philosophy, it must be read by linguists of all
disciplines, in spite of the fact that it is not presented in the form of
a standard text book. A lot of syntax would become clearer if we
'structurally' incorporate the thesis presented in this work.
Austin, J. L. (1961): 'Ifs and Cans', in 'Philosophical Papers'. Clarendon
Press, Oxford, 123-152.
Chisholm, R. (1966): 'Freedom and Action', in 'Freedom and Determinism',
ed., K. Lehrer. Random House, New York, 28-44.
Davidson, D. (1967): 'Truth and Meaning', Synthï¿½se 17,304-23.
Hempel, C. G. (1962): 'Rational Action', in Proceedings and Addresses of
the American Philosophical Association. The Antioch Press, Yellow Springs,
Hume, D. (1970) 'A Dissertation on the Passions', in Four Dissertations.
Garland Publishers, New York, 121-181.
Kenny, A. J. P. (1963): 'Action, Emotion and Will'. Routledge and Kegan Paul,
Melden, A. I.(1961): 'Free Action'. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Quine, W. V. O. (1969): 'Existence and Quantification', in Fact and Existence,
ed. J. Margolis, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1-17.
Wittgenstein, L. W. (1958): 'Blue and Brown Books'. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Sharbani Banerji has done her PhD (2002) in Minimalist Syntax from Centre
for Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies, University of Hyderabad,
INDIA. The title of her thesis was 'Grammar of Case and Adpositions-A
Parametric Study'. Earlier she did her M.Phil Linguistics from Jawahar
Lal Nehru University New Delhi. She also did her Masters in Physics from
Delhi University. Her research interests include Morphology, Minimalist
Syntax, Semantics, and their application in Computational Linguistics. She
is presently trying to perfect as well as further the work related to her
thesis, besides working on some papers.