Davidson, Reasons, and Causes: A Plea for a Little Bit More Empathy


  • Karsten R. Stueber College of the Holy Cross




In this essay, I will suggest ways of improving on Davidson’s conception of the explanatory autonomy of folk psychological explanations. For that purpose, I will appeal to insights from the recent theory of mind debate emphasizing the centrality of various forms of empathy for our understanding of another person’s mindedness. While I will argue that we need to abandon Davidson’s position of anomalous monism, I will also show that my account is fully compatible with Davidson’s non-reductive and interpretationist account of meaning and mental content. Indeed, my account does more justice to the empathic capacities underlying our interpretive capacities, which Davidson himself has to acknowledge in thinking about the constitutive features of thought and meaning. More specifically, I will propose a new way of philosophically safeguarding the causal-explanatory autonomy of our ordinary action explanations by showing how our empathic capacities are involved in epistemically delineating the domain of rational agency.


Anscombe, G. E. M., 1957/2000. Intention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bishop, John, 1989. Natural Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baghramian, Maria, 2016. “Quine, Naturalized Meaning and Empathy.” Argumenta 2: 25–41.

Baker, Lynne R., 1999. “What is the Thing Called ‘Common Sense Psychology’ ?” Philosophical Explorations 1: 3–19.

Baumgartner, Michael, 2018. “The Inherent Empirical Underdetermination of Mental Causation.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 98: 335–50.

Child, William, 1994. Causality, Interpretation and the Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Davidson, Donald, 1963. “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980a), pp. 3–20.

———, 1970. “Mental Events.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980a), pp. 207–24.

———, 1973a. “Freedom to Act.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980a), pp. 63–82.

———, 1973b. “Radical Interpretation.” Reprinted in Davidson (1984), pp. 125–40.

———, 1976. “Hempel on Explaining Action.” Reprinted in Davidson (1980a), pp. 261–76.

———, 1977. “Reality without Reference.” Reprinted in Davidson (1984), pp. 215–26.

———, 1980a. Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———, 1980b. “A Unified Theory of Thought, Meaning, and Action.” Reprinted in Davidson (2004), pp. 151–66.

———, 1982. “Rational Animals.” Reprinted in Davidson (2001), pp. 95–107.

———, 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———, 1985. “Incoherence and Irrationality.” Reprinted in Davidson (2004), pp. 189–98.

———, 1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” Reprinted in Davidson (2005), pp. 89–108.

———, 1990a. “Epistemology Externalized.” Reprinted in Davidson (2001), pp. 193–204.

———, 1990b. “The Structure and Content of Truth.” The Journal of Philosophy 87: 279–328.

———, 1991. “Three Varieties of Knowledge.” Reprinted in Davidson (2001), pp. 205–20.

———, 1992. “The Second Person.” Reprinted in Davidson (2001), pp. 107–22.

———, 1995. “Could There be a Science of Rationality?” Reprinted in Davidson (2004), pp. 117–34.

———, 1997. “The Emergence of Thought.” Reprinted in Davidson (2001), pp. 123–34.

———, 2001. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———, 2004. Problems of Rationality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———, 2005. Truth, Language and History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

D’Oro, Giuseppina and Constantine Sandis, eds., 2013. Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Anti-Causalism in the Philosophy of Action. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Enç, Berent, 2004. How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gallagher, Shaun and Daniel Hutto, 2008. “Understanding Others Through Primary Interaction and Narrative Practice.” In The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity, edited by J. Zlatev, T. Racine, C. Sinha and E. Itkonen, pp. 17–38. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Goldman, Alvin, 1995. “Interpretation Psychologized.” In Folk Psychology, edited by M. Davies and T. Stone, pp. 185–208. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2006. Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2011. “Two Routes to Empathy.” In Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by A. Coplan and P. Goldie, pp. 31–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heal, Jane, 2003. Mind, Reason and Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heil, John and Alfred Mele, eds., 1993. Mental Causation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hempel, Carl, 1965. Aspects of Scientific Explanation. New York: The Free Press.

Henderson, David, 1993. Interpretation and Explanation in the Human Sciences. Albany: SUNY Press.

Hobson, Peter, 2004. The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Husserl, Edmund, 1973. Cartesian Meditations. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Hutto, Daniel D., 1999. “A Cause for Concern: Reason, Causes, and Explanation.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59: 381–401.

Hutto, Daniel D. and Erik Myin, 2017. Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hutto, Daniel D. and Glenda L. Satne, 2015. “The Natural Origin of Content.” Philosophia 43: 521–36.

Kim, Jaegwon, 2005. Physicalism or Something Near Enough. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

List, Christian and Peter Menzies, 2009. “Non-reductive Physicalism and the Limits of the Exclusion Principle.” The Journal of Philosophy 106: 475–502.

Mele, Alfred, 2000. “Goal-Directed Action: Teleological Explanations, Causal Theories, and Deviance.” Philosophical Perspectives 14: 279–300.

Myers, Robert and Claudine Verheggen, 2016. Donald Davidson’s Triangulation Argument. New York: Routledge.

Nichols, Shaun and Stephen Stich, 2003. Mindreading. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

O’Madagain, Cathal, 2015. “Davidson and Husserl on the Social Origin of our Concept of Objectivity.” In The Phenomenology of Sociality: Discovering the ‘We’, edited by D. Moran and T. Szanto, pp. 127–42. New York: Routledge.

Quine, W. V., 1990. Pursuit of Truth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———, 1995. From Stimulus to Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rosenberg, Alex, 1985. “Davidson’s Unintended Attack on Psychology.” In Actions and Events, edited by E. Lepore and B. McLaughlin, pp. 399–407. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Sinclair, Robert, 2002. “What is Radical Interpretation? Davidson, Fodor and the Naturalization of Philosophy.” Inquiry 45: 161–85.

Stueber, Karsten, 1993. Donald Davidsons Theorie sprachlichen Verstehens. Frankfurt: Anton Hain.

———, 2000. “Understanding Other Minds and the Problem of Rationality.” In Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Social Sciences, edited by H. Kögler and K. Stueber, pp. 144–62. Boulder: Westview Press.

———, 2003. “Intentional Explanation, Psychological Laws, and the Irreducibility of the First Person Perspective.” In Monism, edited by A. Bächli and K. Petrus, pp. 255–79. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.

———, 2005. “Mental Causation and the Paradoxes of Explanation.” Philosophical Studies 122: 243–77.

———, 2006. Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology, and the Human Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———, 2008. “Reasons, Generalizations, Empathy, and Narratives: The Epistemic Structure of Action Explanation.” History and Theory 47: 31–43.

———, 2012. “Varieties of Empathy, Neuroscience and the Narrativist Challenge to the Contemporary Theory of Mind Debate.” Emotion Review 4: 55–63.

———, 2013. “The Causal Autonomy of Reason Explanations and How not to Worry about Causal Deviance.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 43: 24–45.

Thagard, Paul, 1999. How Scientists Explain Disease. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tomasello, Michael, 2014. A Natural History of Human Thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Verheggen, Claudine, 2017. “Davidson’s Semantic Externalism: From Radical Interpretation to Triangulation.” Argumenta 3: 145–61.

Woodward, James, 2003. Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2015. “Interventionism and Causal Exclusion.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 91: 303–47.

Woodward, James and Christopher Hitchcock, 2003. “Explanatory Generalizations, Part I: A Counterfactual Account.” Noûs 37: 1–24.