Donald Davidson

The more I work on this story, the more I end up reading Ben Houston’s scholarship and feeling like, damn, maybe he needs to write this, not me. And then I think, too late!

Anyway, I read a piece he did on Donald Davidson and it was just so brilliant I’m still thinking about it. His basic argument is simple–that Davidson’s racism was central to his writing and that scholars who try to treat it like a side matter are missing a lot of what’s going on in his work.

But what’s been sticking with me is the way Houston walks through Davidson’s beliefs about race and regionalism. Basically, Davidson was concerned with a specific, meaningful mythology of the white Southerner as an agrarian deeply connected to the land and traditions borne out of that relationship.

And Houston also shows how Davidson believed that black Southerners–and black Americans in general–did not have a kind of racial mythology because they’d been taken from Africa and stripped of their land, language, customs, religions, and kinship ties. And without this racial mythology to draw from, American blacks were always going to be less accomplished than white Americans who had this kind of racial (and regional) mythology.

So imagine the threat that accomplished black people posed for Davidson philosophically. It didn’t just offend him as a man racist against black people. It threatened his whole belief in what made white people great. After all, if you could be great without the components of this racial/regional mythology, then maybe the racial/regional mythology theory was wrong.

Or worse, what if it’s not wrong? What if there was a southern agrarian mythology that came from a person’s relationship to the land and the traditions borne out of that relationship, but it also worked for Southern blacks? In other words, this is not “my land,” it’s “our land.” Which is practically communism!!!!!!

So, the two components of his life fit together hand in hand. His artistic output is about codifying and strengthening this white Southern agrarian mythology. His racist endeavors were specifically about thwarting black Southern efforts to develop and have recognized as worthwhile their own Southern culture that Southern whites would then also find value in.

In other words, I think, at some level Davidson knew his mythology was false and could be remade and the existential threat posed by black civil rights was that his mythology would be remade. The past could be reexamined to mean something other than what he wanted it to mean.

Anyway, I don’t know how much of this stuff will make it into the final project, but I think it’s very worthwhile to know.

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One thought on “Donald Davidson

  1. This is fascinating. I’m reading the latest by Charles W. Mills wherein he makes a similar (and convincing) argument about one of the founders of Western liberal philosophy, Immanuel Kant. It’s a rather cowardly dodge, I’d say, to try separating (or segregating, if you prefer) Kant’s virulent white supremacy from the rest of his body of work. I think other scholars do this with luminaries like Kant (and I guess Davidson) because they want to pretend that the white supremacy of their leading lights was as much an aberration with those individuals as it is in Western society in general.

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