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Renowned UC Berkeley professor and philosopher Donald Davidson dies at 86

– Renowned philosopher Donald Herbert Davidson, the Willis S. and Marion Slusser Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, died on August 30. He suffered cardiac arrest on Aug. 27, hours after knee surgery replacement at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. He was 86 years old.

Davidson was recognized as one of the most influential philosophers of his generation.

 Donald Davidson
Donald Davidson (Kelly Wise photo)

"He wrote on just about every issue in philosophy. 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," said Ernest Lepore, director of cognitive science at Rutgers University.

"Donald was like a father figure to me," he added. "He was a great friend, and a great inspiration."

Davidson came to UC Berkeley in 1981, after holding positions at Queen's College in New York, Princeton University, Rockefeller University, the University of Chicago and Stanford University.

Born in Springfield, Mass., Davidson received his undergraduate and master's degrees and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. His early interest was literature, and his graduate work was in classical philosophy. His studies were interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy, from 1942-1945. He received his Ph.D. in 1949.

His dissertation was on Plato's "Philebus," which reflected his interest in classical philosophy. However, by that time he had already become interested in a more analytical approach.

By the 1960s, his writing focused on a range of areas from semantic theory to epistemology and ethics. W.V.O. Quine, whom Davidson worked with at Harvard, has been cited as an important influence in his later work. During the past few years, he had taught graduate seminars on Quine's epistemology, theories of predication and truth and truth-conditional semantics.

Davidson's first major philosophical publication was "Actions, Reasons and Causes," published in 1963. 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, chair of the Philosophy Department at UC Berkeley. "This is intimately connected with his pioneering work in the philosophy of mind."

"Literally, overnight it changed the way that philosophers thought about the relationship between reason and action, " said Lepore. "The reasons for your actions were also their causes. He brought the causes and reasons back together."

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

"It isn't easy to describe his philosophical contributions because it was sophisticated work, but it is intensely important to the field," he said.

"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 continued. "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."

Nagel described Davidson as having a "huge appetite for life." He and his wife traveled extensively with Davidson and his wife, Marcia Cavell, who is also a philosopher and occasionally teaches philosophy courses at UC Berkeley. The couples' most recent trip was in June - a return visit to Tanzania.

"He took enormous pleasure in the natural world," Nagel said. "He knew a great deal about geography and nature. I am much indebted to him for having introduced me to the possibility to going to the remote corners of the earth He also had a lot of deep knowledge of music and literature, as well as being athletic."

"I met him in the '60s, after his surfing days," said former student and UC Berkeley colleague Bruce Vermazen, professor emeritus of philosophy at UC Berkeley. "He's definitely the smartest person I ever knew well; maybe the smartest person I've ever met. I always found him to be tough-minded, but very kind, very protective of my interests and quite a good colleague."

Vermazen has attended several of the many conferences devoted to Davidson's work. "His work is difficult to read," Vermazen said. "He writes very well, but his work is so complex. People could spend a lifetime studying his ideas."

Davidson almost did not spend his career as a philosopher. In 1939, he spent some time in Hollywood writing radio scripts for "Big Town," a once-a-week private eye program starring Edward G. Robinson.

"His life is one to be celebrated," Lepore said. "If you are going to be envious of a life, his is one to be envious of." Davidson was known to his colleagues and students as someone full of vitality, with more energy than people far younger. In addition to all of his travels, he was a skier and had a pilot's license.

His wife, Cavell, said he was "a big supporter of his students. I was so impressed at how supportive of his female students he was. He was always a feminist."

The couple married in 1984, but had met years earlier at Stanford University.

"I learned a lot of what I know about philosophy after I married him," she continued. "His depth of knowledge and understanding was unsurpassed, and I'll always be grateful for his warm support of my work."

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth Davidson, of Albany, Calif.; two grandchildren; and a sister, Jean Baldwin, who lives in Guilford, Conn.