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.