Donald Davidson on Thought and Its Requirements

In his essay ‘What Thought Requires’, Donald Davidson writes:

Animals show by their behavior that they are making fine distinctions, and many of the things they discriminate we doo too. They recognize individual people and other animals, distinguish among various sorts of animal, find their way back to places they have been before, and can learn all sorts of tricks. So it is important to reflect on why none of this shows they have propositional attitudes: beliefs, desires, doubts, intentions, and the rest. Dumb beasts see and hear and smell all sorts of things, but they do not perceive that anything is the case. Some non-human animals can learn a great deal, but they do not learn that something is true.1

Evidently, for Davidson, it is essential to thought – itself being a concept, by the way – to hinge upon all aspects of propositions, that is to say, propositions as the general content of thoughts, propositional content, and propositional attitudes. Similar lines of thought can be found in his essays ‘Rational Animals’2 and ‘The Emergence of Thought’3.
I disagree. What bothers me the most about his contentions is that he appears to take several aspects for granted premises which are not self-evident at all. First, it is not clear, at least to me, why having an abstract idea, a concept, or thought in general, necessarily require verbal language and even something so specific as propositions, propositional content, and propositional attitudes. I agree with Davidson that discussions about other animals than humans often involve dubious because emotionally motivated ascriptions of thoughts or attitudes to non-human animals they apparently do not have.4 Yet Davidson assumes explicitly without argument that language – by which term he obviously means verbal language – be a necessary condition of thought.5 Furthermore, Davidson does not distinguish different species of animals with different capacities, or of different complexity, from one another. Although certain species may be incapable of having thoughts, this does not necessarily apply to all species other than humans.
As I have argued in former articles concerning this topic, I deem it a naive conception of thought as depending upon verbal language, since this reminds so much of the idea that thinking equals an inner monologue, that is to say, talk to oneself. But clearly, this conception has long become untenable, at the latest in the light of neuroscientific research, but even before by psychological enquiry as, for example, by Sigmund Freud. Freud may have been wrong about many things, and his method of psychoanalysis led to many overinterpretations of possibly suppressed thoughts and feelings as traumatic experiences related to sexuality, especially sexual abuse.6 Nevertheless, it had already become evident that at times, others can have a better access to what one thinks and feels than oneself. If the distinction between conscious and subconscious processes is blurred, however, it does not make sense to insist that thought (what I call thinking) depend upon verbal language.
On the other hand, it often occurs that we ourselves do not know what we think until we put it into words. The famous line ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’ by Edward M. Forster captures this phenomenon excellently. Think of how we usually talk to one another in everyday conversations. Apart from certain exceptions, we usually do not plan in detail what, exactly, we are going to say, we do not proofread the grammatical correctness of the sentences we are about to form. Everyday conversations reveal about natural languages that the forming of sentences is usually characterized by improvisation. We do not give a silent inner monologue to ourselves, and then continue to repeat the same aloud. In whatever manner, what we think is transformed into noises we ourselves and others interpret, under normal circumstances, as language, which in its turn follows certain grammatical rules, albeit loose, not strict, rules, which determine in some or other way the order and the use of words, as well as their possible interpretations. Often enough, there are countless ways of expressing a thought, but, again, there is no necessity to equate thinking with verbal language.
It rather astonishes me that Davidson insists upon the aforementioned concept of thinking, as it reminds me of the human arrogance of deeming ourselves better than other animals in the sense that we can treat them in whatever manner we see fit. For obviously, Davidson does not hold any metaphysical, in particular religious, prejudices. In the paragraph before the one I initially quoted, he acknowledges that humans are, just as other animals, (biological) machines, the only difference being a higher degree of complexity.7 With respect to this, he appears to agree with the evoltuionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne, author of the book Why Evolution Is True8, who remarked that for him, he himself is but a machine of flesh and blood9, albeit perhaps not as drastically. On the other hand, this belief contradicts Davidson’s own contention that some aspects may not be reducible to physics.10
This line of thought is indeed often expressed, but I have never been presented with a conclusive argument in its favour. Rather, everyone who expresses this thought bases it upon an indeterminate feeling, which ultimately takes the form of an argument from ignorance, and is, in consequence but a logical fallacy. Throughout scientific history, many phenomena once deemed inexplicable in natural terms have been demonstrated to involve no metaphysical (supernatural et cetera) elements. In a similar vein, the notion of ‘irreducible complexity’, introduced by Intelligent Design advocates, has been disproved by biologists11. Simply noting that one cannot imagine a phenomenon to happen naturally does not render a natural explanation of the very phenomenon impossible. This is at best wishful thinking and at worst laziness.
We have, on the contrary, reason to believe that at some point in the future, most, if not all, phenomena will be explainable in natural, including physical, terms. Psychological descriptions of so-called ‘mental’ phenomena are simply another way of describing physical phenomena. Our perception is adapted to our everyday lives, and thus are our ways of describing certain phenomena. The hostility towards the term ‘reduce’ is most probably owing to a misconstrual. Nowadays, many, if not most, people use the word in the sense of ‘make smaller or less in amount, degree, or size’, as Oxford Dictionaries defines the word12. Originally, the Latin compositum ‘reducere’, from the prefix ‘re-’, meaning ‘back to’, and the verb ‘ducere’, meaning ‘lead’, simply means ‘lead back to’, ‘bring back to’, ‘return’ in the literal sense. There is no ‘taking away from’ in the original meaning of the word. Many people, including philosophers and some scientists, who ought to know better, falsely assume that reducing certain phenomena to physics means taking away basic characteristics of life and our perception of it, thus diminishing it or robbing it of those qualities which – at least appear to – make it worth while and enjoyable. This fear, though, is as unjustified as would be the fear that knowing that music is actually based upon sound waves and their respective affectings of our ear drums and so forth might take away or destroy our ability of enjoying music.
To return to Davidson, in my view, he is, albeit not completely, to a great extent unjustified as to his position’s premises. It remains to be discussed to what degree we may justifiably ascribe thought to non-human animals. Since, as I pointed out above and in earlier articles, the definition of what thought is is rather blurry unless we force one, we have, especially in the light of empirical research, much reason to suppose that at least some non-human animals indeed have thought, even though they lack a verbal language. I shall concern myself with this further discussion in another article to come. It should have become obvious, at any rate, that the matter cannot be settled purely theoretically.

1. Davidson, Donald: ‘What Thought Requires’; originally published in The Foundations of Cognitive Science; Edited by J. Branquinho; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; pp. 121–132; reprinted in Davidson, Donald:Problems of Rationality; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; pp. 135–149. (Emphases in the original.)
2. Davidson, Donald: ‘Rational Animals’; originally published in Dialectica, 36; 1982; pp. 317–27; reprinted in Davidson, Donald:Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001/2002; pp. 95–105.
3. Davidson, Donald: ‘The Emergence of Thought’; originally, translated into German by T. Marschner, published under the title ‘Die Emergenz des Denkens’ in Die Erfindung des Universums? Neue Überlegungen zur philosophischen Kosmologie; Edited by W. G. Saltzer, P. Eisenhardt, D. Kurth, and R. E. Zimmermann; Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1997; subsequently published in English with its present title in Erkenntnis, 51; 1999; pp. 7–17; reprinted in Davidson, Donald: Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001/2002; pp. 123–134.
4. Confer: Davidson (1982), p. 96.
5. Ibidem.
6. See for instance:,,
7. Confer: Davidson (2001), p. 136.
8. Coyne, Jerry A.:Why Evolution Is True; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
9. Jerry has explicitly stated something along these lines on his weblog. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the exact article or comment where he did so. It must have been somewhere around his April Fool’s Day joke, an article with the title ‘Free will detected in prefrontal cortex’: I should be grateful if someone could help me out with either finding the section I am referring to or some other quotation by him along these lines.
10. Confer, among others: Davidson (2001), p. 149.
11. Confer, for example Eugenie C. Scott’s and Glenn Branch’s article ‘“Intelligent Design” Not Accepted By Most Scientists’:
12. See


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s