Triangulation, interpretation, and first-person authority: An essay on the philosophy of Donald Davidson

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Charles Siewert - Committee Chair


This dissertation provides an interpretation and assessment of Donald Davidson's work on first-person authority. First-person authority is the thesis that subjects have a privileged non-evidence-based form of epistemic warrant for self-ascriptions of psychological concepts that does not attach to third-person evidence-based ascriptions of the same concepts. Davidson thinks the fact that we do have first-person authority over self-ascriptions of psychological concepts gives rise to two connected philosophical problems. The epistemic problem: How can non-evidence based self-ascriptions of psychological concepts be more justified than third-person ascriptions that are evidentially based? The skeptical problem: Why are we warranted in thinking that the psychological concepts we ascribe to ourselves without appeal to evidence are the same as the corresponding psychological concepts others ascribe to us on the basis of evidence? Chapter One identifies certain conditions that self-ascriptions of psychological concepts need to satisfy in order to be authoritative compared to third-person ascriptions of the same concepts. Chapter Two concerns the relationship between the epistemic and the skeptical problem. Chapter Three discusses how it is possible to provide a nonskeptical solution to the epistemic problem. Chapter Four offers an interpretation and defense of Davidson's explanation of first-person authority. Chapter Five defends Davidson's explanation from general criticisms of his strategy that is to be found in the commentary literature. Chapter Six offers a Davidsonian account of the epistemology of first-person authority and discusses how self-ascriptions of psychological concepts can be corrigible by evidence available to the third-person perspective. Chapter Seven discusses whether Davidson's triangular externalism is compatible with first-person authority. Chapter Eight meets the objection that Davidson's commitment to the indeterminacy of interpretation is incompatible with first-person authority and realism about the mental. Chapter Nine concludes the dissertation by discussing the scope of Davidson's explanation. It is argued that Davidson succeeds in explaining our authoritative knowledge of beliefs. However, he neither explains the authority we have over our sensations and experiences nor the authority we have about what attitudes we bear to our thought contents. Davidson's explanation of first-person authority is therefore incomplete.



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