Improvisation, Ontology, and Davidson: Exploring the Improvisational Character of Language and Jazz

Sam McAuliffe 

Monash University

Context 48 (2022): 21–33.

Published online: 31 Jan. 2023


At least since the 1990s, the relationship between linguistic communication and jazz improvisation has been a topic of interest to both philosophers of language and theorists of jazz improvisation. Rarely, however, are the shared elements of language and jazz explored directly. This article interrogates these elements, with a particular focus on improvisation by drawing upon the work of Donald Davidson. While Davidson himself does not readily employ the term ‘improvisation’, I argue that key ideas from Davidson’s work—the principle of charity, triangulation, and his argument that there is no such thing as a language—align with the concept of improvisation. In this article I offer a reading of Davidson’s work—a reading that highlights an improvisational character of his philosophy typically not made explicit—and, on the basis of the ontology of improvisation that emerges from Davidson’s philosophy, I explore the implications of that understanding of language for the way in which we understand jazz.

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