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Donald Davidson, 86; Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley

September 08, 2003|From Staff and Wire Reports

Donald Davidson, whose ideas on a range of subjects from semantics theory to epistemology and ethics made him one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, has died. He was 86.

Davidson died Aug. 30 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. He had gone into the hospital on Aug. 27 for knee-replacement surgery but suffered cardiac arrest following the surgery.

An emeritus professor at UC Berkeley, Davidson came to prominence in the early 1960s with the publication of the article "Actions, Reasons and Causes." In that paper, he argued that reasons cannot only explain actions but can also be their cause.

"This article was the beginning of a systematic attempt to distinguish explanations of a person's actions in terms of his or her own psychological makeup, such as desires and beliefs, from causal explanations," said Alan Code, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Berkeley. "This is intimately connected with his pioneering work in the philosophy of mind."

The impact of "Actions, Reasons and Causes" was immediate. "Literally overnight, it changed the way that philosophers thought about the relationship between reason and action," said Ernest Lepore, director of cognitive science at Rutgers University.

Over the next four decades, Davidson published a series of essays that placed him in the top rank of philosophers.

Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, said Davidson's work in the philosophy of language changed the field.

"He thought that the direction of understanding of human knowledge and the relations between language and reality were the opposite of what has been dominant in the history of philosophy since Descartes," Nagel said. "Since Descartes, it was assumed we understood ourselves better than the rest of the world, and we had to construct the objective reality outside of ourselves.

"The path was to get ourselves out of the egocentric predicament. Davidson really tried to reverse that. Understanding ourselves depends on understanding we are part of a real world in communication with others."

Born in Springfield, Mass., Davidson grew up on New York's Staten Island. A gifted student, he earned a scholarship to Harvard where he began studying English, then comparative literature, and settled on classics and philosophy. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Harvard.

In the late 1930s, he spent time in Hollywood writing radio scripts for an Edward G. Robinson private-eye program called "Big Town."

His doctoral studies were interrupted by U.S. Navy service in the Mediterranean, where he trained pilots on methods to identify enemy aircraft. He completed his PhD work at Harvard in 1949 with a dissertation on Plato's "Philebus."

He began his teaching career at Queens College in New York before moving on to Stanford University, where he served as professor and, at various times, department chairman from 1951 to 1967.

He had numerous visiting lectureships, including the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1970 and a Fulbright Lectureship in India. He also served as president of the American Philosophical Society.

His writings include "Decision-Making: An Experimental Approach," written with Patrick Suppes (Stanford University Press), and "Essays on Actions and Events" and "Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation" (both from Oxford University Press).

"He wrote on just about every issue in philosophy," Lepore said. "He was a broad systematic philosopher -- he saw how issues in metaphysics, mind and psychology all fit together. That's something you associate with great figures in the history of philosophy so, in that sense, he is part of a great tradition that is over."

Davidson is survived by his wife, the philosopher Marcia Cavell; daughter, Elizabeth Davidson of Albany, Calif.; a sister, Jean Baldwin, of Guilford, Conn.; and two grandchildren.

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