Friday, January 25, 2008

Velleman on Action and Knowledge

In The Possibility of Practical Reason (the book, though not the article of that name), David Velleman argues that self-knowledge is a constitutive aim of action. He develops his argument neatly by comparing action, or full-blooded action from such mere activity, or defective action, as that performed in a Freudian slip. He recalls Freud’s example of the President of the Lower House of the Austrian Parliament, who opens the assembly with the declaration that it is closed. A performance of this sort (one that can be explained by the agent’s desires—not fully in this case, since the President knows he cannot close the assembly simply by declaring it closed, but Velleman has another Freudian example he presents to deal with that slight problem; I am dealing with this one for its relative simplicity), an act that occurs as a slip, Velleman takes it, is an example of something that is not fully an action. It is more than simply a piece of behavior, but it is not a full-blooded action, or an autonomous action. And Velleman argues that what makes it defective as an action is that the agent does not know what he is doing before he does it. Or, rather, what he does is not what he knowingly chooses to do. Thus Velleman advances self-knowledge (or, at least, knowledge of what one intends to do) as a constitutive aim of all action: action aims at being known by the agent before it is performed, and so an autonomous action is one that the agent knowingly chose to perform beforehand.

I want to question this account, but at first glance it seems reasonable: it seems like autonomy, or full-blooded agency, requires control. But it is not clear how one could have control over an action that one performs without first knowing what it is one is planning to do. Thus, insofar as full-blooded agency requires control, it might seem reasonable to think that self-knowledge is indeed a constitutive aim of such action (not, in other words, an explicit aim of the action, but an aim that actions must have in order to qualify as actions at all). It seems, however, that one feature of this account is that there is no cap on the knowledge required for autonomous action: the more knowledge (or pre-knowledge, since what is involved is knowledge of the action prior to its occurrence), the better. The President knows approximately what he is going to say, but declares the meeting closed instead of open. It thus might seem like he had some vague idea of what it was he meant to say, but had no rehearsed the actual words in his head. If he had—better yet, if he had also rehearsed the tone with which he was going to utter them—he action would have been more autonomous. What I want to suggest, however, is that this requirement is too strict: we do not normally require that an agent have pre-knowledge of his action in order to hold him morally responsible; nor do we generally need to have pre-knowledge in order to experience an action as in our control.

Why do we care about knowing what we are going to say before we say it? One reason is that we want to be understood by others, to communicate our thoughts—being understood is, almost certainly, a constitutive aim of normal speech. But this does not require that we choose our words before uttering them: we make ourselves understood in dialogue (and this is one way in which professional writing differs from everyday speech) by choosing our words as we say them. We do not normally need a prior process of choosing those words within an internal monologue, which in fact serves to take them out of the dialogical situation. What does one practice before an interview? Reciting a pre-written monologue about one’s research and one’s abilities, or being able to extemporaneously recite such monologues in various forms and in response to external cues? To be sure, there are situations where perfect control of what we say is called for—for example, performatives, like that spoken by Freud’s President, require precision. But these are certainly not normal cases of speech. What is normally required is not that we know exactly what we are going to say—imagine conversations like that!—but that we avoid making grossly inappropriate blunders. And pre-knowledge seems like an overly strict requirement to impose for such a goal.

Imagine the situations where you carefully choose the words you are going to say before saying them (similarly—actions that you thoroughly rehearse in your mind before performing them). What normally happens is that these words, when actually spoken, come out sounding artificial, rehearsed. Of course this isn’t always the case: actors are people who can make prepared speeches sound natural. But acting is obviously an exceptional situation, not the norm. My point is not that we don’t normally think through our words fully before speaking them. Velleman agrees with this, and simply responds that in such situations the constitutive aim (knowing what we are saying) has been “scaled back”; in any case, this would show only that most of our actions are not full-blooded actions, and that wouldn’t mean that the full-blooded actions aren’t the norm-setting ones.

So my point in noting that acting is an exceptional situation is not simply to point out that it is not normal, but rather to point out that it is abnormal. Acting—speaking words that one has already rehearsed—cannot be taken as a paradigm case of action for the simple reason that it is imitated action, or action intended to mimic action. Just as a parody cannot be taken as paradigmatic of the original (“Austin Powers” and “Our Man Flint” are not paradigmatic Secret Agent movies), so acted action is not paradigmatic of action as such. Insofar as rehearsal is involved in the production of an action, that action is excluded from being paradigmatic. And this is not because we do not typically rehearse actions, but because rehearsed action is not the sort of action we want to understand if we are trying to say something about human action as such. And action that is not paradigmatic, it seems to me, cannot reasonably be taken as norm-setting for action as such.

There are, of course, cases of rehearsal that are less theatrical: we have to practice certain movements in order to learn to perform them expertly. A martial-artist must practice a form in order to perform it flawlessly, for example. But a martial-art expert acts without rehearsing the move in his head. The point of the practice, of the rehearsal, is precisely that when he acts, he does not need once again go through his knowledge of the movements. This—as Hubert Dreyfus has argued—is the mark of expertise. And insofar as we are all—to some extent—expert agents, our agency likewise does not require pre-knowledge to its success.


  1. First, thanks for your detailed response to my comment on your last post (my comment was actually quite superficial, but your response helped clarify your post).

    What I am most curious to know is this: if Velleman's account of action is flawed for the reasons you point out here, how would you distinguish ACTIONS from MERE ACTIVITY? Is there such a distinction to be made?

    Let me try to defend Velleman a bit from your criticisms. Let's grant that rehearsed, pre-planned speech is much less frequent than we might think, and occurs only in "abnormal" contexts like play-acting. One response that Velleman can make, then, is that the scope of genuine actions is much narrower than we are inclined to think, and that playacting indeed does set the norm for actions (a "norm" not in the sense of being frequently observed in all spheres of human activity, but in the sense of fulfilling the requirement for full-blooded action).

    You argue that playacting is not paradigmatic action, because it is an imitation of action. But imitation too is an action in its own right, isn't it? (I.e., it's different from unconsciously imitating the gestures of someone I admire.) If your argument here really works, then by the same token we should be able to argue as follows: "A mirror image of the painting is only a faithful reflection of the painting. Hence it is not an image, like the painting is." The conclusion is clearly mistaken. What follows is only that the mirror image itself is not the original painting. In the same way, what follows from your argument is only that playacting is not original action, but actions don't need to be original, and conscious copying can be an action.

    Besides, there seem to be plenty of examples where deliberative planning precedes action. Think of moves that Bobby Fischer makes in chess. Think of a scientist conducting a carefully designed and controlled experiment to test a hypothesis (which Kant compares to the action of "an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer questions which he himself has formulated").

    You are right to observe that the actions of an expert seem to flow naturally, and that the point of rehearsal is to achieve this naturalness. But natural, spontaneous flow of action does not preclude planning. An expert may pause in his activity when he comes across a complex situation, so as to attain lucid perception of details, and respond appropriately from a repertoire of well-prepared moves. Why the pause, the need to gather information about the situation, if the response is not pre-planned?

    There's a beautiful example of spontaneous activity in the Zhuangzi, Ch.3, involving a butcher. Though this is not the best translation, you can see:

  2. Hi Boram,

    Your comments are certainly far from superficial, and I enjoy their challenge (and quotes from Taoist classics are always welcome, though I am not qualified to interpret them). Hopefully I'll have some time to return the favor on your blog sometime in the future, but at the moment my schedule's a bit tight. Sorry about the lateness of my reply--I was unpleasantly waylaid by a fever in the past week.

    I'm planning another post on Velleman, and then some intense study on his work in the next few weeks (and he has changed his mind about some important parts of "Possibility..."), so hopefully I'll have more reasonable things to say. I would prefer to see "action" as some sort of modification of "activity," which is that which we are always involved in (Schatzki nicely makes the distinction this way in his "The Time of Activity," and I'd like to try going in that direction; he is largely attempting a critique of Davidson-inspired phil of action via Heidegger and Bergson, which is a project dear to me, though I don't fully agree with his positions).

    I fully agree that planning can precede action. I am, on the other hand, skeptical of the idea that such planning is needed for the action to full-blooded. One way I want to approach the issue is through responsibility: do we, and should we hold people more responsible for actions that are meticulously pre-planned? An important tenet from Hume, that I am very fond of, is that we hold people responsible for the actions that spring from longstanding features of their character; an action that is planned and yet seems entirely counter to the agent's character would be an anomaly (though of course a possible one, perhaps in time signaling a change of character). But the thought I want to hold on to is that what matters for a full-blooded action is that it display the agent's will (which, roughly, I see as long-standing character traits for which the agent takes responsibility in a roughly Fischer-Ravizza-like manner, if that tells you anything).

    This is really sketchy; I know. I'm working through these thoughts, and this part of my dissertation, at this very moment! But what I want to hold on to is, again, the thought that what makes an action full-blooded is that it exhibit an essential link to an agent's will, rather than to an agent's planning. Like both Hume and Kant, I am rather skeptical of the role of planning in increasing an action's autonomy, though perhaps as important in other respects, like displaying the features of an agent's character and personal identity.

    About your mirror analogy: I don't think your conclusion would follow from my argument. What I would say is not that the mirror image is not an image, but that the mirror image is not a painting. And I hope we can agree on that! Could a painting of a mirror imagine of a painting itself be a paradigmatic painting? Yes, I think, why not? But what would make it a paradigmatic painting, I think, would likely be some properties of it other than the fact that it is a painting of a mirror image of a painting. Is this making sense? Back to action: yes, imitating action is itself action. But what we want to figure out is what "action" is, i.e., what is common to both the "action of imitating an action" and to the action that is imitated, i.e., the original. And it seems like we are best off doing that by looking at the action and not at the imitation of the action (just as studying the shadows in the cave is not the ideal way to figure out what reality is like). If imitation of action can be paradigmatic action, once again, I'd want to suggest that what makes it paradigmatic is not that it is imitation, but something else, something it has in common what other kinds of actions.

    Finally, back to the "planning does sometimes precede action" issue. My feeling is that planning is what we do when something goes wrong, when there is a breakdown in our normal modes of activity. The planning, thinking, or whatever helps us to re-establish the normality. And this is one reason I think understanding action may be best approached through looking at the more common cases, where the breakdown does not occur and where expertise flows smoothly.

    Enough wordsoup for the moment, I think.