Donald Davidson is perhaps the most distinguished philosopher in history never to have written a book. Indeed, he did not get round to writing articles until he was into his forties (he is now 76). Yet those articles - short, intense, allusive, hard - have changed the shape of contemporary analytical philosophy. They were in mid spate when I was a graduate student at Oxford in the early Seventies, and they acted as a kind of philosophical IQ test for the young philosophers of my generation. I well remember poring with tormented excitement over 'Truth and Meaning' and 'Mental Events', two of the most influential (and contested) articles of recent times. These cryptic texts gave the impression of well-honed conjuring tricks, in which the deepest of problems were given tantalisingly rigorous and ingenious solutions. In those days you were either a 'Davidsonian' or you weren't; you certainly had to find out where you stood. But it wasn't easy, because each Davidson article presupposed the others, and they assumed you were good at logic. It became clear that Davidson had a system, but it needed to be pieced together by the reader, as best he or she could. Puzzlement about a particular Davidson piece would be met with a knowing look from the initiated and the query 'But have you read "In Defence of Convention T"?' The very plainness of his name (often transmuted to David Donaldson) lent an aura of mystique to the plosive economy of the Davidson corpus. And the man himself, with his startling blue eyes and precisely articulated mode of speech, his unhurried confidence, his immersion in his own vision, his neatness, certainly encouraged the feeling that he had it all figured out, and all you had to do was figure him out. It did no harm, too, to discover that Davidson had been an enemy aircraft spotter in the US Navy in the Second World War, that he was a trained pilot, that he went gliding for a hobby, that he has climbed mountains, that there are very few places in the world he hasn't visited. Davidson wasn't just profound: he was cool (and there aren't many philosophers you can say that about). Davidson had nerve.
LRB 19 August 1993 | PDF Download