Roger Scruton

The truth about meaning

Roger Scruton on the importance of Donald Davidson, the analytical philosopher who died on 30 August

There is a certain tradition in American philosophy that combines logical rigour and systematic thinking in a style so concise and self-contained as to offer little or no purchase to the critic. The tradition began with C.S. Peirce, found triumphant expression in Quine and Goodman, and lived again – just at the moment when everybody was beginning to think that it belonged to a vanished phase of American culture, alongside William Carlos Williams and Aaron Copland – in the philosophy of Quine’s most brilliant student, Donald Davidson.

When I began research in Cambridge in 1967, Davidson’s name was never mentioned in the philosophy department. But within a year or so graduate students in Oxford were hard at work on his seminal paper ‘Truth and Meaning’, applying its programmatic theory to all the old philosophical problems, with a view to recycling them as new. Daniel Dennett’s facetious Philosophical Lexicon defines ‘Davidsonic boom’ as ‘the sound made by a research programme when it hits Oxford’. The programme hit Cambridge a year or two later, with a sound more like a groan than a boom, as Oxford once again showed itself to be well ahead of us. In no time it had become obligatory to discuss Davidson’s approach to meaning, truth, actions, events and quotation before embarking on any other topic whatsoever – be it modal logic, moral virtue, the nature of consciousness or the existence of God.

Davidson never published a book. His contributions to philosophy are contained in a spate of short articles, all published during the Sixties and early Seventies, and subsequently collected as Truth and Interpretation and Actions and Events. These articles offer arguments that are often only hints, along with perceptions that cut to the quick of the subject.

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