06 February 2006

Davidson and Aristotle

A passage in a recent review in NDPR of some collected papers of Donald Davidson led to a reflection and a thought about Quine. Here is the passage:

One of the characteristic features of much of Davidson's writing from the 1960s and 1970s was that there were only very sparse references to figures from the history of philosophy -- Kant and Hume were two of the few exceptions. It may have been thought, on that basis, that Davidson was a thoroughly ahistorical thinker, with little regard for or interest in the previous history of philosophical inquiry. Such was not the case, however, as the essays included in this volume under the heading 'Historical Thoughts' make plain. Davidson was a historian of ideas, studying under Whitehead, before being persuaded by Quine that the ideas were more important and interesting than the history, and although Davidson's knowledge of the history of philosophy often remained in the background of his writing, it was nevertheless always present.

Davidson's own PhD dissertation was written on Plato's Philebus, and the essay in which Davidson returns to this topic, in connection with the work of Gadamer (the essay was written for Gadamer's Library of Living Philosophers volume), is included here, as are essays on Plato and Socrates, on Aristotle, and on Spinoza. The essay on Spinoza, 'Spinoza's Causal Theory of the Affects' (1993), focuses on parallels between Spinoza's combination of substance monism with attribute dualism, and Davidson's own monism approach in the philosophy of mind. Alongside two other essays included here, 'Thinking Causes' (1993) and 'Laws and Causes' (1995), it provides important elaboration and clarification of the position that has come to be known as anomalous monism.

The reflection was an encounter I had once with Quine. I was conferring with Quine about the lectures he gave in 1946 on David Hume's philosophy and about a paper I had written on the subject. He asked me whether, then, I was writing my dissertation on Hume. I said no, but that I was writing on ... Aristotle. (I said this almost wincing, thinking that, for Quine, Aristotle would have a status slightly above witchcraft.) Quine paused, looked upward briefly, then turned to me and said--as if at last being able to interpret my remark charitably--"Well, Davidson wrote his dissertation on Plato."

The thought was that Quine had lamented the passing, in the turmoil of the '60s, of the strict standards that Harvard used to have, for general examinations in the history of philosophy. They were abolished, I take it, because success in them seemed to some a matter of rote study. ('Rote study', I wonder, or 'concrete expertise'?) And yet, the method did produce not a few Davidsons.