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  • Donald Davidson, Pragmatism, and Literary Theory
  • Bryan Vescio

As perhaps the most influential living philosopher of language, Donald Davidson would appear to have much to contribute to the field of literary theory. But Davidson himself has had surprisingly little to say about the implications of his theory of “radical interpretation” for literary interpretation. Lately, literary theorists have begun to pay more attention to his work, as indicated by the appearance of a collection of essays called Literary Theory After Davidson, 1 and perhaps in response to this heightened interest, Davidson has written several essays in recent years that are more explicitly concerned with literary language and with art in general. Although views on how his work applies to literature vary widely, sometimes even within his own writings on the subject, he and most of his expositors tend to agree that his theory of communication places certain constraints on the interpretation of literary texts. In this essay, I will argue that the constraints Davidson proposes—as well as talk of interpretive constraint in general—run counter to the main thrust of his philosophy of language, which I believe moves roughly in the direction of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism.


Although they differ on whether or not to embrace the consequences of Davidson’s philosophy of language, 2 all the contributors to Literary Theory After Davidson agree that theoretical descriptions have [End Page 200] significant consequences for the practice of literary criticism. A recurring theme in the book is the problem of “relativism,” which in literary theory becomes the problem of unlimited interpretation. For several contributors, the possibility of “unconstrained” interpretation is just as dangerous as other kinds of relativism, and just as Davidson’s theory of communication solves the problem of relativism, so it also guarantees that interpretation is constrained. In the book’s first essay, Reed Way Dasenbrock anticipates many of the other contributors when he marshals Davidson’s theory against the “conceptual relativism” of Stanley Fish and others: “By extending this Davidsonian account to the issue of interpreting texts—which is not something Davidson has done—we reveal the incoherence of the notion advanced by Herrnstein Smith and Fish that different readers read different texts” (LT, p. 24). Although the rest of the essays present a variety of attitudes toward both Davidson and the relativity of interpretation, each remains concerned, in one way or another, with the same basic question: how does the extension of Davidson’s account of ordinary communication to literary texts either constrain or fail to constrain interpretive activity?

Davidson addresses this same question in his own writing on literature. In “Locating Literary Language,” his contribution to Literary Theory After Davidson, he inveighs against the same kind of relativism that troubles Dasenbrock. Since communication, on his theory, always involves the correct interpretation of a speaker’s intentions, Davidson suggests that adapting this view to literary theory emphasizes the need to focus on the writer’s intentions in the interpretation of a literary text: “Indeed, it is clear to me now that any gesture in the direction of such adaptation will also reveal the need for a sharper focus on the role of intention in writing, and hence on the relation between writer and reader” (LT, p. 295). It is this focus, Davidson thinks, that will allay fears of the relativity of interpretation. This claim that literary interpretation is always a matter of determining authorial intent is the most consistent note struck in all his writings on literature.

In an essay called “James Joyce and Humpty Dumpty,” Davidson discusses the “tension between the thought that what a speaker intends by what he says determines what he means and the thought that what a speaker means depends on the history of the uses to which the language has been put in the past,” aligning himself squarely with the former view. 3 He goes on to show how an emphasis on the role of intention in communication allows us to understand Joyce’s innovative language. In “The Third Man,” an essay that discusses both the literary [End Page 201] and the visual arts, Davidson again stresses the importance of the writer’s intentions in the production of textual meaning...

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pp. 200-211
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