Donald Davidson’s “Epistemology Externalized” and Heidegger’s άληθεια


Donald Davidson suggests that knowledge—as in epistemology—is grounded on “the external.” That is to say, when we say we know an object of understanding, we are really referring to that object’s externalism, rather than our own subjectivity of it. For Davidson, subjectivity is a myth, since, “if we think we have a thought or sensation, there is a strong presumption that we are right.”[1] Davidson believes that this “presumption” leads us to believing that “what we know” begins in our subjectivity—perhaps as Immanuel Kant proposes in his Three Critiques of reason.[2] Not only does Davidson disagree with this “presumption” about knowledge, but his notion that epistemology is “externalized” employs a Heideggerian-like task of deconstructing the way we think about the meaning of knowledge.[3]

Of course, I am not implying that Davidson is a Heideggerian. To be sure, any such suggestion would prove problematic, even if I am only situating Davidson’s concept of “external knowledge” within the realm of later Heidegger. However, Davidson is undoubtedly—though it is probably difficult to pin down Davidson’s intentions—utilizing a Heideggerian method to approach “what knowledge is.” What Davidson is chiefly concerned with is “what knowledge is” in a foundational sense, or in terms of the “unconcealment” of knowledge. When I say “unconcealment,” I am referring to Heidegger’s άληθεια, or the extent to which something can be-in-the-sense-of-the-true,[4] unhidden, and unmasked as it already is. In other words, Davidson’s understanding of “what knowledge is” is an understanding that is predicated on “unconcealing” precisely “what knowledge is.” Through a Heideggerian lens this means: disclosing the being of knowledge, as what it really is. This becomes especially important if considering Davidson’s Heideggerian-like “task” as:

…supplying a foundation for the rest of knowledge, particularly, of course, for our knowledge of the ‘external world’ and of the minds of others. Such knowledge stands in need of a foundation, it is thought, precisely because there is no presumption that our beliefs about the world or the minds of others are true.[5]

For Davidson, our beliefs “about the world or the minds of others” are unreliable and our presumptions only further conceal, hid, or mask our experience of objects of understanding. This is because subjectivity mythologizes “what knowledge is”—the myth of the subjective leads the epistemological situation away from “what knowledge is,” and not towards άληθεια.

[1] Donald Davidson, “Epistemology Externalized,” in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 193.

[2] Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and the Critique of Judgment.

[3] I believe there is an analogous strain here, particularly if it is possible to suggest that Quine’s way of thinking about the meaning of knowledge echoes Heidegger’s approach in the First Introduction to thinking about the meaning of Being. Being and Time, Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962), 1.

[4] I have adapted this term from Franz Brentano’s “being in the sense of the true,” which directly influences Heidegger’s άληθεια. See Franz Brentano, The Theory of Categories, Translated by Roderick M. Chisholm and Norbert Guterman (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981), 18; 21.

[5] Donald Davidson, “Epistemology Externalized,” in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 193.

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