In concert with a significant number of other philosophers, Donald Davidson (1982, p. 290) has told us that "Psychoanalytic Theory as developed by Freud claims to provide a conceptual framework within which to describe and understand irrationality." And he explains that "the sort of irrationality that makes conceptual trouble is . . . the failure, within a single person, of coherence or consistency in the pattern of beliefs, attitudes, emotions, intentions, and actions. Examples are wishful thinking, acting contrary to one's own best judgment [Aristotle's "akrasia"], self-deception, believing something that one holds to be discredited by the weight of the evidence." Wishful thinking, in turn, Davidson characterizes as "a model for the simplest kind of irrationality" (1982, p. 298). Thus, if the entire explanation of a person's belief is that it is wish-fulfilling to him/her, "then his holding the belief is irrational" (ibid.). More generally, Davidson writes:
In the cases of irrationality we have been discussing, there is a mental cause that is not a reason [in the sense of cogent evidence] for what it causes. So in wishful thinking, a desire causes a belief. But the judgment that a state of affairs is, or would be desirable is not a reason to believe that it exists (ibid.).
As for self-deception, Sebastian Gardner (1993, p. 6) elaborates on Davidson, saying: ".... in self-deception one subsystem contains the buried belief, another the promoted belief; the line between them reflects the impossibility of both beliefs being true." Incidentally, last year, Alfred Mele (1997, p. 91) challenged this depiction of self-deception as characteristically involving a contradiction: "The assumption that.... the self-deceiver believes that some proposition is true while also believing that it is false ..... produces a fundamentally mistaken view of the dynamics of self-deception. Self-deception is explicable without the assistance of mental exotica." And Erwin (1997a, p. 56) has rightly pointed out that, for any conceptual analysis of the notion of self-deception that requires the existence of a specified structure of the mind (e.g., a split self), empirical evidence is required to validate the entailed existential claim.
Proceeding from the mere description of important kinds of irrationality to their potential explanation, Davidson (1982, pp. 291-292) writes:
In attempting to explain such phenomena (along with much more, of course) Freudians have made the following claims:
First, the mind contains a number of semi-independent structures, these structures being characterized by mental attributes like thoughts, desires, and memories.
Second, parts of the mind are in important respects like people, not only in having (or consisting of) beliefs, wants and other psychological traits, but in that these factors can combine, as in intentional action, to cause further events in the mind or outside it,
Third, some of the dispositions, attitudes, and events that characterize the various substructures in the mind must be viewed on the model of physical dispositions and forces when they affect, or are affected by other substructures in the mind [e.g., Freud described the ego as exerting "a censoring force" during repression].
I shall refer to these three contentions as "Davidson's Triplet." As he tells us (1982, p. 300, n. 6), its salient feature is "the idea of mental compartmentalization." Davidson (1982, p. 303) offers his rationale for claiming that each of these three "very general" features of psychoanalytic theory is required by any theory aiming to explain irrationality.
As to the first, which compartmentalizes the mind into two or more semi-autonomous structures, we learn that this division is "necessary to account for mental causes that are not [also] reasons for the mental states they cause" (1982, p. 303).
The second feature assigns to one or more subdivisions of the mind a structure similar to the one featured by Aristotle's practical syllogism, which is the pattern of explaining ordinary actions as rational: An action A is held to be carried out because the agent aims to achieve a goal G and believes that A will issue in the realization of G. Davidson calls this pattern "the principle of intentional action." And the essential point is that the ideas and affects of a person are presumed to interact so as to produce consequences in accord with the principle of intentional actions.
Yet these consequences, in turn, then serve as causes, but not reasons, for further mental events, such that "The breakdown of reason-relations defines the boundary of a subdivision..... The parts are defined in terms of function; ultimately, in terms of the concepts of reason and cause. The idea of a quasi-autonomous division is not one that demands a little agent in the division; again, the operative concepts are those of cause and reason" (1982, p. 304).
But, if so, why did Davidson (1982, p. 290) initially formulate his second feature by declaring that "parts of the mind are in important respects like people," a formulation that smacks of Freud's unfortunate homuncular reifications in his structural theory of the id, ego, and superego?
The third feature was prompted by Davidson's view (1982, p. 304) that "certain mental events take on the character of mere causes [i.e., causes that are not also reasons] relative to some other events in the same mind. This feature also we found to be required by any account of irrationality . . . in order to accommodate it we must allow a degree of autonomy to parts of the mind." He speaks of such mere causation by mental events as "blind" (1982, pp. 292, 299), since it operates "on the model of physical dispositions and forces" (1982, pp. 290-291).
Very remarkably, on the one hand, Davidson keeps insisting on the "centrality" of his triplet to Freud's edifice, but on the other hand, he writes: "my highly abstract account of the partitioning of the mind [in the triplet] deviates from Freud's. In particular, I have nothing to say about the number or nature of divisions of the mind, their permanence or aetiology. I am solely concerned to defend the idea of mental compartmentalization, and to argue that it is necessary if we are to explain a common form of irrationality" (1982, p. 300, n. 6, my italics). But this disclaimer alone already shows that Davidson's case for construing his triplet as being "central" to, or emblematic of, Freud's mental partitions dangles precariously. It will turn out that Davidson construes the centrality of a set S of hypotheses to a theory T to the effect that S is a distinctive feature of T.