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DONALD DAVIDSON AND THE ANALYTIC REVOLUTION IN AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY, 1940–1970*

  • JOEL ISAAC (a1)
Abstract
ABSTRACT

Histories of analytic philosophy in the United States have typically focused on the reception of logical positivism, and especially on responses to the work of the Vienna Circle. Such accounts often call attention to the purportedly positivist-inspired marginalization of normative concerns in American philosophy: according to this story, the overweening positivist concern for logic and physics as paradigms of knowledge displaced questions of value and social relations. This article argues that the reception framework encourages us to mistake the real sources of the analytic revolution in post-war philosophy. These are to be found in debates about intentional action and practical reasoning – debates in which ‘normative’ questions of value and social action were in fact central. Discussion of these topics took place within a transatlantic community of Wittgensteinians, ordinary languages philosophers, logical empiricists, and decision theorists. These different strands of ‘analytical’ thinking were bound together into a new philosophical mainstream not by a positivist alliance with logic and physics, but by the rapid development of the mathematical and behavioural sciences during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. An illustrative application of this new framework for interpreting the analytic revolution is found in the early career and writings of Donald Davidson.

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Christ's College, Cambridge, CB2 3BUjti20@cam.ac.uk
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*

This article is based on my 2011 Balzan-Skinner lecture, delivered at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) in the University of Cambridge. I should like to express my gratitude to Mary Jacobus, the director of CRASSH during my tenure there, for helping me settle into a term of research as the 2011 Balzan-Skinner fellow. My thanks also to CRASSH's administrative staff, which carried out the hard work of organizing and promoting the Balzan-Skinner lecture and colloquium. My fellow participants in the colloquium – Thomas Akehurst, Andrew Jewett, Edmund Neill, and Bjørn Ramberg – gave me valuable feedback on the first draft of this article. Finally, I owe special thanks to Quentin Skinner, both for establishing the fellowship I held at CRASSH, and for his suggestions for improvement to the argument presented in the lecture.

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1 Kuklick Bruce, A history of philosophy in America, 1720–2000 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 232–7, 243–58; Kloppenberg James T., ‘Pragmatism: an old name for some new ways of thinking?’, Journal of American History, 83 (1996), pp. 100–38.

2 Cavell Stanley, Little did I know (Stanford, CA, 2010), pp. 352–3.

3 Friedman Michael, Reconsidering logical positivism (Cambridge, 1999); Richardson Alan and Uebel Thomas, eds., The Cambridge companion to logical empiricism (Cambridge, 2007); Hardcastle Gary L. and Richardson Alan W., eds., Logical empiricism in North America (Minneapolis, MN, 2003).

4 Reisch George R., How the Cold War transformed philosophy of science: to the icy slopes of logic (Cambridge, 2005); Howard Don, ‘Two left turns make a right: on the curious political career of North American philosophy of science at midcentury’, in Hardcastle and Richardson , eds., Logical empiricism in North America, pp. 2593.

5 Galison Peter, ‘The Americanization of unity’, Daedalus, 127 (1998), pp. 4571; Mirowski Philip, ‘Cyborg agonistes: economics meets operations research in mid-century’, Social Studies of Science, 29 (1999), pp. 685718; idem, ‘The scientific dimensions of social knowledge and their distant echoes in 20th-century American philosophy of science’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science: Part A, 35 (2004), pp. 283326.

6 For two contrasting takes on Davidson's philosophy, see, on the one hand, LePore Ernest and Ludwig Kirk, Donald Davidson: meaning, truth, language, and reality (Oxford, 2005), and idem, Donald Davidson's truth-theoretic semantics (Oxford, 2007); and, on the other, Malpas Jeff, ed., Dialogues with Davidson: acting, interpreting, understanding (Cambridge, MA, 2011). An accessible introduction to Davidson is provided in Ramberg Bjørn T., Donald Davidson's philosophy of language: an introduction (Oxford, 1989). The key collections of essays on Davidson are LePore Ernest and McLaughlin Brian P, eds., Actions and events: perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford, 1985); and LePore Ernest, ed., Truth and interpretation: perspectives on the philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford, 1986).

7 Davidson , ‘Introduction’, Essays on actions and events (2nd edn, Oxford, 2001), p. xvi.

8 Ibid.

9 Anscombe Elizabeth, Intention (Oxford, 1957). See also Moran Richard, ‘Anscombe on “practical knowledge”’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 55 (2004), pp. 4368.

10 Davidson cites members of each group at the beginning of his essay. See ‘Actions, reasons, and causes’, Journal of Philosophy, 60 (1963), p. 685 n. 1.

11 Davidson identified as the target of his critique of anticausal theories of action ‘most of the books in the series edited by R. F. Holland, Studies in Philosophical Psychology’ and singled out Kenny Anthony, Action, emotion, and will (London, 1963), Melden A. I., Free action (London, 1961), Winch Peter, The idea of a social science (London, 1958), and Peters R. S., The concept of motivation (London, 1958). He also specifically addressed Anscombe, Intention.

12 In ‘Actions, reasons, and causes’, Davidson drew on Hampshire Stuart, Thought and action (London, 1959), Hart H. L. A. and Honoré A. M., Causation in the law (Oxford, 1959), and Ryle Gilbert, The concept of mind (New York, NY, 1949).

13 Davidson cited Dray William H., Laws and explanation in history (Oxford, 1957).

14 Hume David, Enquiries concerning human understanding and concerning the principles of morals, ed. Nidditch P. H. (1777; Oxford, 1975), pp. 27–8.

15 Hart and Honoré, Causation, pp. 52–3.

16 See Melden, Free action, pp. 20–1; Ryle, Concept of mind, pp. 80–147.

17 Anscombe, Intention, pp. 69–77; Austin J. L., ‘A plea for excuses’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 57 (1956), pp. 130.

18 Donnellan Keith, ‘Knowing what I am doing’, Journal of Philosophy, 60 (1963), pp. 401–9; Hampshire Stuart and Hart H. L. A., ‘Decision, intention and certainty’, Mind, 67 (1958), pp. 112.

19 D'Oro Giuseppina, ‘Davidson and the autonomy of the human sciences’, in Malpas , ed., Dialogues with Davidson, pp. 285–6.

20 Davidson, ‘Actions, reasons, and causes’, p. 692.

21 Ibid., p. 691.

22 Ibid., pp. 685–90.

23 In addition to the works by Anscombe, Melden, Hampshire and others cited above, a sign of the renewed interest in the philosophy of action can be found in the Journal of Philosophy's publication of a special issue on the topic in 1963 (before the appearance of ‘Actions, reasons, and causes’). See essays by G. E. M. Anscombe, Richard Brandt and Jaegwon Kim, Arthur Danto, Keith S. Donnellan, Stuart Hampshire, Brian O'Shaughnessy, and Sidney Morgenbesser in Journal of Philosophy, 60, nos. 14 and 15 (1963). See also Chisholm Roderick M. and Taylor Richard, ‘Making things to have happened’, Analysis, 20 (1960), pp. 73–8; Chisholm Roderick M., ‘The descriptive element in the concept of action’, Journal of Philosophy, 61 (1964), pp. 613–25.

24 Davidson, ‘Actions’, p. 685.

25 Lepore Ernest, ‘An interview with Donald Davidson’, in Davidson , Problems of rationality (Oxford, 2005), pp. 252, 260.

26 Davidson Donald, ‘Intellectual autobiography’, in Hahn Lewis Edwin, ed., The philosophy of Donald Davidson (La Salle, IL, 1999), p. 37.

27 Davidson, ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ (1969), in Essays on action and events, pp. 21–42.

28 The Aristotelian roots of Davidson's theory of action are often neglected in the contemporary commentary on the ‘standard’ Davidsonian account of action. His position is often described as principally Humean in inspiration. See, e.g., Smith Michael, ‘The structure of orthonomy’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 55 (2004), pp. 165–6; idem, ‘The Humean theory of motivation’, Mind, 96 (1987), pp. 36–61; Glüer Kathrin, Donald Davidson: a short introduction (New York, NY, 2011).

29 See Davidson, ‘Aristotle's action’ (2001), in Davidson, Truth, language, and history (Oxford, 2005), pp. 278–80.

30 For Aristotle's account, see Nussbaum Martha, Aristotle's De Motu Animalium, §7 (Princeton, NJ, 1978); Aristotle, De Anima, trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London, 1986), pp. 210–16.

31 Anscombe, Intention, pp. 57–66; idem, ‘Thought and action in Aristotle’, in Bamborough Renford, ed., New essays on Plato and Aristotle (London, 1965), pp. 143–58; Broadie Alexander, ‘The practical syllogism’, Analysis, 29 (1968), pp. 26–8; Kenny A, ‘The practical syllogism and incontinence’, Phronesis, 11 (1966), pp. 163–84; Mothersill Mary, ‘Anscombe's account of the practical syllogism’, Philosophical Review, 71 (1962), pp. 448–61.

32 Davidson, ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ and ‘Intending’ (1978), in Essays on actions and events. See also Davidson, ‘Aristotle's action’.

33 Davidson, ‘Actions’, p. 697.

34 Davidson, ‘The concept of Aretē and the two lives in the Philebus’ (Honors thesis, Harvard, 1939). Copy in carton 12, Donald Davidson papers, BANC MSS 2005/167, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley (DDP).

35 Davidson, ‘Intellectual autobiography’, p. 22.

36 Official register of Harvard University, 36 (22 Sept. 1939), p. 177; Davidson, ‘Intellectual autobiography’, p. 23.

37 Davidson, ‘Intellectual autobiography’, p. 27.

38 Nash Gerald, The American West transformed: the impact of the Second World War (Bloomington, IN, 1985); idem, World War II and the West: reshaping the economy (Lincoln, NE, 1990); Lotchin Roger W., The bad city in the good war: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego (Bloomington, IN, 2003); Starr Kevin, Embattled dreams: California in war and peace, 1940–1950 (New York, NY, 2002).

39 See Lowen Rebecca, Creating the Cold War university: the transformation of Stanford (Berkeley, CA, 1997), pp. 6782, 97–102.

40 Ibid., pp. 99–102.

41 Gilmor C. Stewart, Fred Terman at Stanford: building a discipline, a university, and Silicon Valley (Stanford, CA, 2004), pp. 265–93, 300–47; Lowen, Creating the Cold War university, pp. 103–19.

42 On the ONR and post-war military research agencies, see Shell-Gellasch Amy, ‘Mina Rees and the funding of the mathematical sciences’, American Mathematical Monthly, 109 (2002), pp. 873–89; Schweber S. S., ‘The mutual embrace of science and the military: ONR and the growth of physics in the United States after World War II’, in Mendelsohn Everett, Smith Merritt Roe, and Weingart Peter, eds., Science, technology and the military (Dordrecht, 1988), pp. 345.

43 Gilmor, Fred Terman, pp. 348–419; Lowen, Creating the Cold War university, pp. 147–90.

44 Lécuyer Christophe, Making Silicon Valley: innovation and the growth of high tech, 1930–1970 (Cambridge, MA, 2005).

45 Davidson, ‘Intellectual autobiography’, pp. 30–1; Lepore, ‘An interview’, p. 250. See also the teaching materials contained in carton 8, DDP.

46 Davidson, ‘Intellectual autobiography’, p. 30.

47 Lowen, Creating the Cold War university, p. 152.

48 Ford Foundation Grant File 53–82, Ford Foundation Archives, Ford Foundation.

49 Ibid., 30.

50 Davidson Donald, McKinsey J. C. C. and Suppes Patrick, ‘Outlines of a formal theory of value, I’, Philosophy of Science, 22 (1955), pp. 140–60. A further two parts were slated to appear, but did not appear in the form originally intended, perhaps because of McKinsey's death.

51 Lepore, ‘An interview’, p. 252; Davidson, ‘Intellectual autobiography’, p. 31.

52 Soloman Fefferman and Anita Burdman Fefferman, Alfred Tarski: life and logic (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 160–1, 216.

53 The main concerns of Suppes's work during this period are captured in Patrick Suppes and Muriel Winet, Axiomatization and representation of difference structures, Stanford Value Theory Project, Report No. 2 (Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 29 Mar. 1954); Suppes Patrick, ‘Some remarks on problems and methods in the philosophy of science’, Philosophy of Science, 21 (1954), pp. 242–8; Suppes Patrick and Winet Muriel, ‘An axiomatization of utility based on the notion of utility differences’, Management Science, 1 (1955), pp. 259–70.

54 Transcript of interview with Patrick Suppes, Faculty Staff Oral History Project, Stanford University, box 1, SC0932, Stanford University Archives.

55 Lepore, ‘An interview’, p. 261.

56 ‘Philosophy 1964–1965’ and ‘Logic at Stanford’ (promotional materials), papers of the Department of Philosophy, Stanford University, series 3, 4430, Stanford University Archives.

57 Vickrey William, ‘Measuring marginal utility by reactions to risk’, Econometrica, 13 (1945), pp. 319–33; Friedman Milton and Savage L. J., ‘The utility analysis of choices involving risk’, Journal of Political Economy, 56 (1948), pp. 279304; Marschak Jacob, ‘Rational behavior, uncertain prospects, and measurable utility’, Econometrica, 18 (1950), pp. 111–41; Arrow Kenneth J., ‘Alternative approaches to the theory of choice in risk-taking situations’, Econometrica, 19 (1951), pp. 404–37; Savage L. J., ‘The theory of statistical decision’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 46 (1951), pp. 5567; Mosteller Frederick and Nogee Philip, ‘An experimental measurement of utility’, Journal of Political Economy, 59 (1951), pp. 371404.

58 For one of Davidson's expositions of this problem, see Davidson Donald, ‘Belief and the basis of meaning’, Synthese, 27 (1974), pp. 309–23.

59 Ramsey Frank Plumpton, ‘Truth and probability’ (1926), in Braithwaite R. B., ed., The foundations of mathematics and other logical essays (London, 1931), pp. 156–98.

60 Davidson Donald and Suppes Patrick, ‘A finitistic axiomatization of subjective probability and utility’, Econometrica, 24 (1956), pp. 264–75; Davidson Donald and Marschak Jacob, ‘Experimental tests of the stochastic decision theory’, in Churchman C. West and Ratoosh Philburn, eds., Measurement: definitions and theories (New York, NY, 1959), pp. 233–69. See also Suppes and Winet, Axiomatization and representation; Donald Davidson and Patrick Suppes, Finitistic rational choice structures, Stanford Value Theory Project, Report No. 3 (Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 4 Mar. 1955); Davidson Donald, Siegel Sidney and Patrick Suppes , Some experiments and related theory on the measurement of utility and subjective probability, Stanford Value Theory Project, Report No. 4 (Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 15 Aug. 1955).

61 Davidson Donald and Suppes Patrick, with Sidney Siegel, Decision making: an experimental approach (Stanford, CA, 1957).

62 See, most explicitly, Davidson Donald, ‘A new basis for decision theory’, Theory and Decision, 18 (1985), pp. 8798.

63 International Congress for Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science: Abstracts of Contributed Papers (Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 24 Aug. – 2 Sept. 1960), Folder – box 4440–2: Logic, Papers of the Department of Philosophy, Stanford University, Stanford University Archives.

64 Morgenbesser to Donald Davidson, 15 May 1963, carton 3, DDP.

65 A point urged in Davidson, ‘A unified theory of thought, meaning, and action’, in Problems of rationality, pp. 151–66.

66 Feigl Herbert, ‘The logical character of the principle of induction’, Philosophy of Science, 1 (1934), pp. 20–9; Reichenbach Hans, ‘Induction and probability’, Philosophy of Science, 3 (1936), pp. 124–6; Carnap Rudolf, ‘Testability and meaning’, Philosophy of Science, 3 (1936), pp. 419–71; idem, ‘Testability and meaning – continued’, Philosophy of Science, 4 (1937), pp. 140; Reichenbach Hans, ‘On the justification of induction’, Journal of Philosophy, 37 (1940), pp. 97103.

67 Rau Erik P., ‘The adoption of Operations Research in the United States during World War II’, in Hughes Thomas P. and Hughes Agatha C., eds., Systems, experts, and computers: the systems approach in management and engineering, World War II and after (Cambridge, MA, 2000), pp. 5792; Rau Erik P., ‘Technological systems, expertise, and policy making: the British origins of operational research’, in Allen Michael Thad and Hecht Gabrielle, eds., Technologies of power: essays in honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes (Cambridge, MA, 2001), pp. 215–52; Thomas William, ‘The heuristics of war: scientific method and the founders of operations research’, British Journal for the History of Science, 40 (2007), pp. 251–74.

68 Rees Mina, ‘The mathematical sciences and World War II’, American Mathematical Monthly 87 (1980), p. 611.

69 Ibid.; Shell-Gellasch, ‘Mina Rees’, p. 878; Mirowski, ‘Cyborg agonistes’, pp. 699–703.

70 See, e.g., Friedman and Savage, ‘Utility analysis’; Savage, ‘Theory’; Friedman Milton and Savage L. J., ‘The expected-utility hypothesis and the measurability of utility’, Journal of Political Economy, 60 (1952), pp. 463–74; Savage L. J. et al. , ‘On the foundations of statistical inference: discussion’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 57 (1962), pp. 307–26.

71 Fortun M. and Schweber S. S., ‘Scientists and the legacy of World War II: the case of operations research (OR)’, Social Studies of Science, 23 (1993), pp. 595642; Waring Stephen P., ‘Cold calculus: the Cold War and Operations Research’, Radical History Review, 63 (1995), pp. 2951; Mirowski, ‘Cyborg agonistes’; Rau, ‘Adoption’; Shell-Gellasch, ‘Mina Rees’; Thomas, ‘Heuristics’.

72 Mirowski, ‘Cyborg agonistes’, p. 705; Mirowski, ‘Scientific dimensions’, pp. 309–10; Quine W. V., The time of my life (Cambridge, MA, 1985), p. 217.

73 Churchman C. West and Ackoff Russell L., ‘Varieties of unification’, Philosophy of Science, 13 (1946), pp. 287300; Ackoff Russell L., ‘An educational program for the philosophy of science’, Philosophy of Science, 16 (1949), pp. 154–7; Suppes, ‘Some remarks’.

74 See, e.g., the references in nn. 57 and 70.

75 Perry Ralph Barton, ‘The definition of value’, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 11 (1914), pp. 141–62; idem, ‘Economic value and moral value’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 30 (1916), pp. 443–85; idem, ‘Value as election and satisfaction’, International Journal of Ethics, 41 (1931), pp. 429–42; Dewey John, Theory of valuation (Chicago, IL, 1939); idem, ‘Valuation judgments and immediate quality’, Journal of Philosophy, 40 (1943), pp. 309–17; idem, ‘Some questions about value’, Journal of Philosophy, 41 (1944), pp. 449–55; Lewis Clarence Irving, An analysis of knowledge and valuation (La Salle, IL, 1947); Mosteller and Nogee, ‘Experimental measurement’.

76 See the notes in folder marked ‘2/61: ‘Outlines of a formal theory of value’, carton 2, DDP.

77 See folder marked ‘2/62: ‘Outlines of a formal theory of value (seminar)’, carton 2, DDP.

78 Donald Davidson, fellowship application to the Fund for the Advancement of Education, c. 1952, carton 2, DDP.

79 Davidson, fellowship application to the ACLS, 14 Oct. 1957, carton 2, DDP.

* This article is based on my 2011 Balzan-Skinner lecture, delivered at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) in the University of Cambridge. I should like to express my gratitude to Mary Jacobus, the director of CRASSH during my tenure there, for helping me settle into a term of research as the 2011 Balzan-Skinner fellow. My thanks also to CRASSH's administrative staff, which carried out the hard work of organizing and promoting the Balzan-Skinner lecture and colloquium. My fellow participants in the colloquium – Thomas Akehurst, Andrew Jewett, Edmund Neill, and Bjørn Ramberg – gave me valuable feedback on the first draft of this article. Finally, I owe special thanks to Quentin Skinner, both for establishing the fellowship I held at CRASSH, and for his suggestions for improvement to the argument presented in the lecture.

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