On the Frontier

Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation

by Donald Davidson
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 292 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Donald Davidson
Donald Davidson; drawing by David Levine

There is no more creative or systematic philosopher at work in America today than Donald Davidson, but most people would find his essays formidable. This is not because they are long, convoluted, or technical, or because they are obscure or self-indulgent. On the contrary, it is because the prose is so plain, sparse, pruned, a prose long in preparation and short in delivery.

These eighteen pieces, averaging fifteen pages each, represent twenty years of thinking about how people communicate. They are matched by fifteen more in a companion volume called Essays on Actions and Events.1 Davidson proceeds by composing small talks that he delivers over and over again in lectures and seminars. Their first publication may be nearly anywhere. I have on my desk one talk recently published in Lawrence, as the Lindley Lecture at the University of Kansas, and another offprinted from a journal published in Graz, on the border between Austria and Yugoslavia. I doubt whether a dozen public libraries have both of these.

After Davidson’s work has had its long and careful larval life, it passes into a dormant chrysalis stage of obscure publication. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation is the occasion for the final metamorphosis into a readily available sequence of sustained arguments. Davidson’s two volumes range over many topics other than language: causation, weakness of the will, belief, human action, mind and body, events, ontology (what kinds of things there are in the world). Language, however, dominates the present collection.

Davidson’s title is exactly right, for truth and interpretation are his fixed points of departure. Yet those very words could mislead many a follower of humanistic studies. “Interpretation” has become a vogue word that rightly goes along with talk of texts and hermeneutics. Those who write about interpretation usually have a thoroughly pluralistic vision, whether they are literary critics, anthropologists, historians, or semioticians. This is because they take it for granted that other people think with concepts that have no place in our own lives. Interpretation becomes the art of moving from one vision of the world to another. Truth becomes relative to a scheme of thought.

Davidson, in contrast, thinks that we need an objective and non-pluralistic theory of truth to understand how any understanding is possible. He denies that it makes sense even to imagine alternative realities, each with its own truths, that cannot be translated into another way of thinking. Thus Davidson differs fundamentally from many of the streams of thought current throughout the humanities today. This is partly because he comes from the heartland of analytic philosophy, which traditionally has been doubtful about non-Western rationality. His book is dedicated to the distinguished analytic philosopher W.V. Quine, “without whom not.”

Davidson is almost a cult figure for many young philosophers, and not only in the United States. His impact on Oxford has been called “the Davidsonic boom.” Last April a four-day…

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