Thursday, September 15, 2011

Personal Identity, Duplication, and Divine Justice

One standard criticism of the memory (or virtually any psychological continuity) account of personal identity is that it is vulnerable to duplication. If person A is somehow duplicated, so that the resulting persons are B and C, and both have A’s memories and are otherwise psychologically continuous with A, this shows that psychological continuity cannot be the bearer of personal identity. After all, in this case, B would be identical with A, and C would be identical with A, so by the transitivity of identity, B would be identical with C. But since B and C are, ex hypothesi, two distinct persons, they cannot both be the same person as A. I have never found this argument convincing or relevant—it seems to me to miss what personal identity is about, because “same person” doesn’t mean “same variable” and personal identity involves temporal considerations that the duplication argument simply ignores. If we want to insist on using personal identity for a formal, atemporal, relation, my sense is that Parfit is right—personal identity isn’t a real property to begin with and we should switch to a different word that will be less confusing to metaphysicians. But I was just reading Lynne Rudder Baker’s summary of Gareth Matthews’ religiously motivated attempt to save the memory criterion and it strikes me as completely off track; let’s hope psychological continuity theorists don’t need to appeal to intuitions this vague!

I haven’t read Mathews’ argument, but only Baker’s short summary of it. Presumably he defends some of his premises, though I can’t imagine how. Here I will just quote Baker’s summary in full (from her “Death and the Afterlife” (p. 380); there is no citation for Mathews, so I’m not sure where he discusses this):

The reason it would be metaphysically impossible for B and C to have A’s memories is this: A deserves punishment. God is essentially just and judges everyone. Suppose that B and C both had A’s memories (caused in the right way). Whom does God punish? If God punished B but not C, or C but not B, then God would not be essentially just: B and C are related to A in exactly the same way; it is impossible to be just and to judge B and C differently. On the other hand, if God punished both B and C, then there would be twice the punishment that A deserved, and again God would not be essentially just. Either way, supposing that B and C both had A’s memories (caused in the right way) violates God’s essential justice in judgment. Because God is essentially just, if A deserves punishment, it is metaphysically impossible for God to bring it about that B and C both have A’s memories.

Now there are all sorts of problems—the reliance on theological premises, for example, or on the idea that despite being a “loving” God, He is preoccupied with making sure everyone gets to suffer for their sins (I’ve always wondered how much of the psychological pull towards such views is about love, and how much—pace Nietzsche—is just about sticking it to the people you don’t like). But here it’s the conception of justice I don’t buy. I get that, if God is all about punishing, it would be unjust of him to punish B but not C. Sure, ok, both of them deserve it equally (though—pace Anselm, this time—we could insist that God doesn’t necessarily punish everyone based exclusively on their desert, since God must also be just to Himself, and we don’t have any idea how that works; I’m pretty sure Anselm’s view of divine justice would undermine this prong of the dilemma).

But I’m willing to accept this. It’s the second prong that smells fishy. “If God punishes both B and C, then there would be twice the punishment that A deserved, and again God would not be essentially just.” Wait. Come again? This seems to me obviously, and trivially, wrong at best. First, there seems to be something very weird going on: the argument assumes that there is a fixed ratio between the amount of guilt and the amount of appropriate punishment. So if, say, someone commits crime X, which deserves Y amount of punishment, then it would be unjust to meet out more (or less, I suppose) than Y amount of punishment. But this can’t be the whole story. For surely if A commits crime X, it would be unjust to meet out Y amount of punishment to Z, a completely different person. So it matters not simply how much punishment is meted out, but to whom it is meted out—the right person has to be punished. And that person is A. So on the argument as given, it seems like there are two criteria in play: (1) Punishment must be meted out to the person who deserves it, and (2) the amount of punishment for crime X in the universe must be proportional to the severity of crime X. Now, (2) may be a modification of a reasonable assumption, (3) the amount of punishment must be proportional to the severity of the crime. But (3) is perfectly compatible with duplication—if both B and C are psychologically continuous with A, then both B and C deserve the amount of punishment proportional to A’s crime.

The difference between (2) and (3) should be clear enough. (3) insists that everyone get what they deserve, but no more. But (2) insist that in the universe as a whole, there not be meted out more than the number of people who initially deserved it now deserve. In other words: the assumption of (2) is that, if only one person committed crime X deserving Y punishment, then at any time after X is committed, only Y and no more may be justly doled out in the universe. But I haven’t got a clue why we should believe that. It makes sense, of course, to say—with (3)—that if A committed crime X, which deserves Y punishment, then it would be unjust to punish A with more than Y. But if, as we are assuming, A is split into B and C, where both remember committing the crime, both remember thinking beforehand about the consequences, etc., I can see no reason why Y punishment would not be appropriate to each person who committed the crime. Why should the universe demand—if one person committed a crime, but now two people stand in that one person’s place—that only one of them may be punished? Whatever the idea behind this, it doesn’t seem to me to be related to any conception of justice.

Perhaps the idea is this: since only one person committed the crime, only one person may be punished. This is still dubious, but it’s also irrelevant: if, at the time of crime X, one person committed the crime, but now there are two people responsible, to insist that only one of them deserves punishment would be question begging. The argument must assume, it seems to me, that two people cannot both be the same as one person that used to be. Perhaps that isn’t question-begging: the argument isn’t supposed to show that if A is duplicated into B and C, then B and C are not identical with A. The argument simply assumes this. It is supposed to show only that God could not allow both B and C to be duplicates of A. But that isn’t right—if B and C were both duplicates of A but were not the same person, then there would be no problem here at all, because neither B nor C would deserve punishment. So in that case, God would have no reason to prevent the duplication. He would have reason to prevent the duplication only if B and C in fact were the same person as A. But then it seems perfectly reasonable to think that both B and C deserve the punishment for A’s crime, since it is also B’s crime and C’s crime. So Mathews’ argument is either question-begging, or involves saddling justice with a weird assumption that is foreign to the idea of justice, since it isn’t germane to the issue of what punishment anyone who committed a crime deserves.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Bother Talking to Analytic Philosophers?

Continental philosophers interested in communicating with their analytic analytic counterparts sometimes express frustration: why should they have to do all the work? It sometimes seems as if, in such situations, continental philosophers have to completely translate someone like Heidegger into analytic-speak and then relate the translation to clear, current problems in the analytic literature. That’s a lot of work! And for what? To get people who refuse to read Heidegger—obstinately, it seems—to accept that yes, maybe Heidegger had one good idea somewhere? At least, that’s what it can look like, and in light of this it isn’t surprising that so many continental philosophers want to retreat into an echo chamber of textual exegesis. Why bother to explain something, one might ask, to people who seem to have no interest in what you’re explaining, and who certainly won’t meet you halfway, but expect you to come to them? This isn’t helped by the fact that some analytic philosophers—though I think significantly fewer than one might expect—are actively hostile to continental thought. Consider, for example, this missive on Heidegger by Simon Blackburn, who seems to have skimmed Heidegger for the explicit purpose of criticizing him (to balance things, it may be worth noting that Blackburn did something similar with regard to Donald Davidson, though I’m not sure how comparable that hatchet job is). Or, perhaps even worse, Paul Edwards’s seemingly intentional misreading of Heidegger (there are few authors one can’t perversely misread if one sets one’s mind to it and if one’s colleagues will praise—rather than condemn—one for doing so). Ugliest of all, perhaps, a blurb from J.J.C. Smart on the back of the Edwards book claims that Edwards “explains clearly why those of us who are repelled by Heidegger’s style of philosophizing are right not to read him.” With garbage like this in the air, a Heidegger scholar might be excused for thinking that these here analytic fellows just aren’t worth talking to.

Thankfully, much of that is old news, and my sense—though I could be wrong—is that the sort of hostility evidenced by Blackburn, Edwards, and Smart, is significantly less common. Far more commonly, I’ve run into indifference, incomprehension, and even interest coupled with uncertainty about just how—even if this stuff is interesting—one could say something philosophical about it. These attitudes are far more reasonable. But so what? Why, continental philosophers might ask, is it worth doing all the work for these people? Well, it is pretty common for continental philosophers to complain about being marginalized, and consequently many will insist that the analytic/continental divide—a condition if not the only source of the marginalization—needs to be done away with. (Of course there is also another tendency: a tendency to complain that analytics aren’t doing real, deep, profound philosophy; that sort of garbage exists on both sides of the divide, and is usually backed up by a complete ignorance of what the other side has been doing for the past 10-100 years.) The divide, clearly, will not go away unless continental philosophers take analytic work seriously and vice versa. Now, those on the continental side clearly have it in their power to start reading analytic work, but just how would they get those on the analytic side to start reading continental work? What, short of complaining about how analytics are all closed-minded throwbacks, are they to do? Or, to put it another way: if you are a continental philosopher, and you think analytic philosophers ought to be reading work from the continent, just how do you imagine this might happen?

Well, it won’t happen magically, and it won’t happen through attempts to “shame” analytic philosophers into wanting to learn more continental philosophy, and the reason is simple: the incentives to do so are very small. Given the way academic philosophy is structured, and given that continental writing has a tendency to be impermeable without the proper background, analytic philosophers—even those who are not hostile to continental thought—just have no real incentive to delve into it. (This isn’t helped by the fact that, if you are used to reading 20 page papers that make very clear points, reading 400 page tomes that make rather nebulous points, which are hard to pick out or explain in concrete terms, is likely to be a hard sell. Several exceptionally good philosophers have told me, with no condescension or hostility, that they just can’t make sense of Heidegger.) If that situation is to change at all, how? That is, how can the incentive structure be changed? I doubt it can be changed first at the institutional level—i.e., by restructuring departments to train students more broadly—because that would require first changing the incentives of the people responsible for structuring departments. So, how to do that?

Well, one incentive to read work is that reading it and writing about it gets one published; but that's not an incentive continental philosophers have much control over, and it would take a sea-change for this to become a relevant incentive—writing on continental philosophy is among the surest ways, at the moment, to exclude oneself from publishing in most highly ranked journals. Another incentive is to convince people that they need to understand something because it can contribute to their work. Many philosophers are, I think (or like to think), intellectually curious and intellectually honest (at least to an extent), and if they are convinced that reading something will help them think through a problem they are working on, this will give them an incentive to read it. Think, for example, about what Rawls and his students did for Kant: virtually nobody was reading Kant, at least in anything but an absurdly superficial way, until Rawls and his students showed that everyone, even committed Humeans, simply has to read Kant in order to make any sense of normativity and the special status of morality (if there is such) among other normative claims. Similarly, telling people, "Hey, you should really read Heidegger because he's soooooo deep" isn't going to get them to read him (it is more common for people to believe that this might work than you’d expect; especially, I think, among grad students, and especially among grad students who are very into Heidegger—and this isn’t meant as a condescending jab at all; I certainly used to think like this). Even if they believe you, they have a lot of other crap to read, arranged in not so neat piles all over their desks, floors, and perhaps beds. But if you show them how Heidegger can speak to their own interests, in their own words (or at least words they can understand), you have a shot at getting them to read him.

This is all pretty obvious, I think. So what’s the point of bringing it up? Well, the main point is simply this: complaints that analytic philosophers need to just stop being mean to continental philosophy and start reading it are off the mark. Given existing incentive structures, analytic philosophers are, for the most part, perfectly rational in not reading continental philosophy. (There are cautionary tales about going back and forth: I jumped from largely continental to largely analytic reading at the dissertation stage… and that’s how I spent nine years in grad school, boys and girls.) So railing at analytic philosophers and calling them names because they aren’t running out to get a copy of Being and Time, Difference and Repetition, or Oneself as Another isn’t just unproductive—it’s completely mistaken. It assumes that, if people aren’t reading something you find important, those people must be intentionally obstinate jerks, determined to remain in the dark ages and perversely persecuting you and your favorite philosophers for being so enlightened. But that’s not it at all. Nobody can read every book out there, and most people are going to read what they need to in order to make sense of the projects they are working on. So why not try to explain to them why they should be working the projects you are interested in? And if they don’t understand a word coming out of your mouth, instead of taking this as further proof of their inferior philosophical acumen, why not take it as a sign that maybe you’re not being quite as clear as an expert like yourself ought to be, and that maybe that’s something to work on?

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why is so much Continental Philosophy so Bad?

Given the recent discussions over at the New Apps blog, I want to briefly comment on a question in some ways at the heart of things: why is so much continental philosophy so bad?

I think there are at least two reasons. The first is sociological. Given the professional rift between analytic and continental philosophers, and given that the dominant side of that rift has little interest in talking to the other, often enough bashing it openly, there is little incentive for continental philosophers to talk across the divide or to try to engage with the “other side.” This is a shame. It rests on the idea that philosophy consists of “figures,” owned by “sides,” so that the “figures” studied by the “other side” don’t need to be read (this is particularly ironic, given the continental trope of emphasizing the significance of the Other!). The refusal to speak across traditions undermines the idea of philosophy as universal, instead seeing it as consisting of parochial local traditions. I am still old-school enough to think that, although obviously much of what philosophers do addresses local, parochial concerns, good philosophy must aim to speak with a universal import. When philosophers cannot make themselves understandable by other philosophers, there is a breakdown. When philosophers do not care about making themselves understandable by other philosophers, they are no longer doing philosophy. The sociological effect of the analytic/continental divide is thus two-fold. On the one hand, it leads analytic philosophers to ignore, and feel fully content and justified in ignoring, much of the philosophy produced on the continent over the last century or more. On the other hand, it lowers the quality of much work on that philosophy by eliminating the need to approach it clearly, rigorously, and critically. The last part is especially important. Being critical means not simply finding the limits of someone’s thought (oh, look, there’s an aporia! How profound!), but also clearing away the chaff covering over the kernel of truth, and bringing that kernel to fruition: criticism involves a certain amount of disrespect, a willingness to challenge some of a thinker’s ideas as obvious bullshit in order to salvage what has genuine value. I believe Nietzsche once ridiculed philosophers for thinking that their systems would survive the test of time, when in fact only the building bricks of those systems had any chance of making it. It is crucial for thinkers immersed in, say, Derrida to be able to find the core worth preserving and to be willing to ruthlessly excise the rest.

This leads to the second reason. The 20th Century saw a deep skepticism about the system-building of the (early) 19th Century. But a key component of that system-building remained in place to some extent, and came back with a vengeance in Heidegger and, more importantly, in the French philosophy of the ‘60s. Take Kant: it is now widely alleged that he invented the empiricist/rationalist distinction, cleaving philosophers with similar concerns and orientations into two distinct camps. As a result of this reading of the history of philosophy, Kant could reconcile the two sides. (I am not, of course, implying that Kant only solved—or attempted to solve—a problem of his own making. But the reading of history was instrumental to framing the problem in the particular way that Kant did.) Thus, idiosyncratically interpreting the history of philosophy became a centerpiece of system-building, with pernicious effects. Giving one’s own interpretation of a history allows one to set one’s own rules for doing philosophy: to set up certain problems as central, to invent a specialized terminology for addressing them, to provide a foundation for further investigation. Kant clearly succeeded: his vision of history, and consequently his view of the central problems and his terminology (if not his actual system) pervaded Western philosophy and became inextricable from it. Heidegger attempted something similar—a reinterpretation of history that highlighted the question of being—with somewhat more mixed results: his terminology was adopted on much of the European continent, but rejected by Anglophone philosophers as excessive and nonsensical. But the adoption in Europe had serious effects: in the ‘60s and after, it began to seem as if every French philosopher was compelled to invent his or her own reading of history, view of central problems, and specialized vocabulary. Take a look, for just one admirably clear example, at Latour’s 1991 We Have Never Been Modern, where he bolsters his network theory by—you guessed it—giving a selective reading of the history of Western philosophy!

What is the result? Keep in mind that the entire point of giving one’s own version of the history of philosophy is to foreground particular problems and to (attempt to) standardize a particular terminology. Two people from different traditions are unlikely to share a vocabulary or common views of key problems. But the result of the French appropriation of (especially later) Heidegger was just to create a distinct tradition as a bubble around every philosopher. In a 2005 interview, Baudrillard said that, “There are no more French intellectuals. What you call French intellectuals have been destroyed by the media. They talk on television, they talk to the press and they are no longer talking among themselves.” His view is no doubt clearer than mine, but it is an interesting development. To my mind, we cannot overlook the importance of the following fact: the vast majority of French intellectuals, philosophers in particular, attended a single institution of higher learning: the École normale supérieure. Imagine if the only people for whom you wrote, to whom you hoped to make your thinking clear, had virtually the same education as you, the same teachers, the same readings of history of philosophy. The result would be that you would belong to a group that had its own tradition, separated by terminological (and other) gulfs from other traditions that, nevertheless, shared the same “history,” in the sense of the same objective set of historical references. But then imagine if part of this tradition was that each member of it were to go their own way by reinterpreting the history in their own, idiosyncratic way, against an already idiosyncratic background! Each would construct, in effect, their own tradition. It is not only the media, in other words, that is responsible for French intellectuals not talking to each other, as Baudrillard suggested. It is the fact that, in a real sense, when a group of individuals each have their own sense of tradition, their own terminology, and their own “central” concerns, there is a sense in which they cannot talk to each other (though of course their readings of history, their “traditions,” are likely to have enough of a family resemblance to allow for a fair bit of communication at times)—and talking to anyone outside the group becomes virtually impossible!

A result of this was that philosophers who wanted to study the French philosophy of the ‘60s had no choice but to immerse themselves in a new terminology, a new reading of history, a new understanding of central problems. To understand someone like Derrida, there is a sense that one must immerse themselves in his “world” or “tradition” to such an extent that one’s new understanding has little in common with anything outside that tradition. Bridge-building becomes exceptionally difficult, and can be overtaken in the first place only by someone who sees the value of interacting with other traditions, thus, someone who respects and recognizes the value of those other traditions themselves. (You will have no incentive to make yourself understood to analytic philosophers if you haven’t bothered to understand any of the analytic core issues or why they are interesting—and in fact we do find, in continental circles, some typical primitive misunderstandings of analytic philosophy as retrograde, simplistic, and “subjectivist”, without a clear understanding of what one is so opposed to and why, aside from the fact that some of the assumptions of this tradition still make sense, and thus seem to be conservative, not up to date with the great shifts of the ‘60s; the irony, of course, is that so much “continental” philosophy these days is immensely retrograde, focusing entirely on interpretation of texts that are 40 years old, with little by way of progress! This in addition to the aforementioned irony that people so frequently interested in the Other should be so unwilling to actually encounter and address the Other.) Continental philosophy, under current sociological divides, and given the interest in making sense of the primary sources in such a way that almost precludes making sense of them to others outside the tradition, is thus almost fated to be, for the most part, quite bad. Even when it strives for clarity—and I want to commend here Gary Gutting’s spectacular history of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century—massive problems remain in terms of making sense of how these thinkers or anything they say could be made relevant to analytic philosophy today. This is the problem. People like Gutting, Lee Braver, Linda Alcoff, and many others have tried seriously to undertake such tasks. This is the kind of “continental” philosophy worth supporting, with the hope that it will transcend the parochial divides and challenge the self-enclosed continental establishment in order to make it better, to force it to do philosophy rather than focusing too exclusively on how others have done philosophy, and to bring it to the fold of the universal.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

X-Phi, True Selves, and what Philosophy is Actually About: Knobe Again

Unlike certain elements in the philosophy blogosphere, I've been pretty happy with New York Times' The Stone. True, a few of the articles have been pretty bad, some haven't been all that enlightening, and I've made my views of the Stone's editor, Simon Critchley's, contributions to the column known (as well as the view that Critchley can be great in other contexts). But overall, I think it's had great stuff—I was happy to see Strawson featured, interested to read Priest, and—frankly—I liked that Bernstein piece about the tea party (I still don't know why Leiter hated it); with Burge, Pippin, Clark, Nussbaum, Railton, Bauer (writing about Beauvoir and Gaga—I threw that one right at my students) and that neat Gutting piece on religion, you have to be a bit near-sighted to condemn the whole enterprise because of a few pieces that fail. But what I really don't get is why Knobe just got his second piece (this time about the "true self") in the Stone. And I'm going to complain about it, because that's what blogs are for. And then, at the end, I'm going to say something about what I'd really like to see in a piece on the "true self" written by a philosopher for a popular audience, something that would give an indication of what philosophy is actually about.

I'm often puzzled by experimental philosophy—given some solid philosophical theories, each with its own problems and benefits, just what does the "experimental" part add? Imagine the following: you are teaching an ethics class, and your students keep throwing out relativist intuitions, despite the fact that you just had them read three texts excoriating relativism. Now, I think most philosophy professors (though of course I can't be sure without taking a survey) would, in this situation, attempt to point out to the students that they need to come up with responses to the points raised against relativism in the readings. Relativism, which today has come to seem like common-sense, turns out to have pretty serious philosophical shortcomings, and part of the job of an ethics class, I should think, is to point out those problems. If your students stay relativists—well, fine, whatever; some quite good philosophers are in that camp, after all. But what you should hope for, as someone trying to teach them ethics, is that at the very least they come to see the problems with relativism as serious problems worth taking up, so at the very least they can have some idea of why it might have been wrong to burn witches in Salem.

That's one idea of what to do in a philosophy class. Here's another one: you could have your students take a survey that would show that hey, maybe the way that "people actually use these concepts"—say, morality, right, wrong, objective, relative, etc.—actually show that morality just is a relative concept. Those weird guys with beards and wigs—you know, the philosophers—have just been using their terms in ways that are foreign to the way the terms are commonly used; John Austin was right all along—you can't trust philosophers to use everyday language correctly, and everyday language gets the final say! So now you've done some surveys, and it turns out that all that stuff you've had your students read about relativism is wrong-headed: the arguments against relativism must rest on strange, non-standard uses of the terms involved, or on bizarre and uncommon intuitions (say, the bizarre and uncommon intuition that feeding people to lions was somehow wrong in a society that thought it was great entertainment).

Granted, I'm being unfair to experimental philosophy. But it's worth pointing out that virtually every single explanation or defense of X-Phi out there starts with something like this:

  • Philosophers tend to rely on their intuitions. But many people might not share those intuitions.

Or, in more concrete cases, like this:

  • Philosophers tend to hold view A about topic T. But many people don't hold view A at all!

So if the standard response to X-Phi is a cheap shot, it's because the most ardent proponents of X-Phi tend to motivate the project with a pretty ridiculous claim. It's that claim, grown ever so stale in the history of philosophy, that one is doing something oh-so-new, something that flies in the face of tradition, something that changes how philosophy is done! (Of course the next step is often just the opposite: in response to charges that X-Phi is not philosophy, we are often told that no, really X-Phi is fully continuous with the history of philosophy. So that cake's been regurgitated a few times, which is what happens when you try to have your cake and…)

The problem, of course, is that challenging the intuitions of "the philosophers" by contrasting them with the intuitions of "the public" (i.e., whoever your survey takers happen to be—usually students, and I've been trying to point out what's just a bit weird about that), is precisely not the strong point of X-Phi. One clear reason for this is that the experiments are set up by people trying to test a theory; the experiments are often set up to support a particular view (even if the view is just that, hey, some people disagree with intuition A about topic T). Another reason is that the enterprise as a whole is pretty odd: common-sense concepts are confused. Arguably, that's why we have philosophy in the first place—to note the confusions and try to straighten them out. If the point of X-Phi just is to figure out what the common-sense intuitions are, so we can then go on to clarify, critique, and refine them, great! But since the experimental set-up already lays out the possible intuitions, it's not very clear just what it adds to the project to then see what percentage of your respondents holds each of the options. Why not, instead, just see what other commitments the options are consistent with?

So let's turn to the Knobe post. Since, as I've suggested, the motivation for many X-Phi projects seems to be a sort of "hey, let's challenge the tradition" project, one often finds the attempt to present a weak, often false, view of what something called "the philosophical tradition" believes, and then an attempt to see whether this is what the population at large (that is, college students) believes. Yes, I realize that this is a New York Times piece, directed at a general audience; but I've seen this move before, in less popular expositions, and in any case: there is a sense in which higher standards of accuracy seem important precisely when engaged in popular expositions.

So Knobe tells us, here, that something called "the philosophical tradition" gives us an answer to the problem of what "the true self" is: it's reason! So when you're faced with desires of all sorts, you reflect on them, endorse them (though Knobe doesn't use this terminology here, it is pretty prevalent in the literature at this point), and those constitute your true self. This is option one. Option Two, Knobe tells us, is the option that non-philosophers tend to give him: a person's true self is expressed in those moments of drunkenness or passion when our rational self-censoring mechanism is peeled away, and our "deeper" desires flow to the surface.

Now something strange happens. It's strange because Knobe seems to be suggesting that he is proposing a new idea, which is distinct from that one, monolithic thing that the entire philosophical tradition has been telling us. And here is that new idea: "People's ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living." Call this Option Three. Knobe tests Option Three by asking people to self-identify as liberal or conservative, and then giving them vignettes with questions like this:

Jim used to be homosexual. However, now Jim is married to a woman and no longer has sex with men.

How much do you agree with the following statement?

At his very essence, there was always something deep within Jim, calling him to stop having sex with men, and then this true self emerged.

And this:

Ralph used to make a lot of money and prioritized his financial success above all else. However, now Ralph works in a job where he does not make a lot of money and benefits others.

How much do you agree with the following statement? At his very essence, there was always something deep within Ralph, calling him to stop prioritizing his financial success above all else, and then this true self emerged.

Knobe found something surprising. Conservatives tended to think that Jim's true self emerges in the first vignette. Liberals tended to think that Ralph's true self emerges in the second. This might be because conservatives value resisting homosexual urges, whereas liberals value benefitting others over financial success. Oh, wait, that wasn't surprising. That was actually the whole point of the survey set-up. But there is funding for this, so it's obviously worth doing!

Now, aside from being snarky, I should note that I'm thoroughly puzzled (yet again) by what is supposed to be going on here. I have no intuition about either vignette, for the simple reason that I don't know jack about Jim or Ralph. If somebody tells me that I have to agree or disagree, I guess I could try; if I'm given a scale of agreement, I could randomly pick a number, but I don't have a clue. This isn't to say that I don't have intuitions about "true selves" (though I also think it's damn good to be skeptical about those intuitions); only that to form a judgment about either Jim or Ralph, I might need to read a pretty long novel about each of them—preferably one that chronicles their entire life, and not just from their own perspective or the perspective of their present self. And even that might not help. After all, I've read Hamlet, and if you ask me whether his "true self" is thirsting to avenge his father, or to sit back and think about it until the problem somehow resolves itself, I'll have to take a pass. Of course many people have immediate intuitions about "true self" cases that they can reach without knowing a great deal about the people involved, and without thinking too much about counter-examples. Obviously the judgments of those people are the best suited to "give us a better sense of how people actually use these concepts."

Now, part of my point has been that it's not really clear why this needed to be an actual study—the researchers had a pretty good, solid thought about how people might make judgments about "true selves," and the study confirmed something that was likely to be pretty obvious anyway. The further issue, though, is that if you want to defend Option Three as a theory of what "the true self" is, you're going to have to actually provide arguments for it, address problems for it, etc; the experimental results are going to be pretty pointless. Unless, of course, all you are trying to show is that people's intuitions tend to track Option Three. In which case you've got a study that tells you nothing about "the true self" or what that is, but tells you—for some as yet unrevealed purpose—how a lot of people tend to use the term in a particular experimental set-up. (Of course there are ways to make it more interesting. For example, in expounding Option One Knobe used the trope of the unwilling addict; insofar as she doesn't want to be swayed by her addiction, it seems like in acting on her desires she is actually betraying her true self. Anyone who thinks that the true self lies in a person's desires is going to have to be able to deal with such cases. But, again, I'm not clear on what relevance surveys on this would have to philosophical debates on the issue.)

But now, let's ask: how is Option Three different from Option One? In one sense, it really isn't. On one reading, Option Three just is Option One. Notice that Knobe lays out the distinction thus: on Option One, a person's true self is identified with her reflective judgment. As Knobe puts it in pointing out the problems with Options One and Two, "The trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person's psychology." This is confusing, because I don't see a good way of making Option One identify the true self with "one particular part of a person's psychology." The "capacity for rational reflection" isn't straightforwardly such a part; and, in any case, what Knobe's explanation seems to suggest—in line with the endorsement account—is that the person's "true self" isn't the capacity as such, but rather the piece of the person's psychology that that capacity picks out. So on Option One, a person's true self isn't just some piece of psychology—rather, it's the piece of psychology that is supported by reflection, i.e., by endorsement or valuation. And on Option Three, judgments about a person's true self constitute a judgment not about which aspect of a person's psychology serves that role, but rather about which part of the person's psychology has greater value. So Option One looks a heck of a lot like Option Three.

Of course this is only on one reading of Option One. Here is another, and seems to get closer to what Knobe is driving at. Option One makes judgments about what the person's true self is depend on that person's psychology. Option Three, on the other hand, makes those judgments relative to the values not of the person in question, but of the person doing the judging. So I don't see at all how this survey—as Knobe describes it—shows us anything opposed to either Option One or Option Two. Instead, it changes the topic: it shows that our judgments track a different option. It shows that, when we have to make snap-decisions about someone's "true self" on the basis of scant information—something we do in real life—we are tempted to make those decisions on the basis of our values. This might say something interesting about our moral psychology, no doubt, but it says very little about the concept of the true self. So Knobe seems to set up the motivation for the survey by talking about one thing, and then carrying out the survey on a different topic. That doesn't seem enlightening.

Here's what would be enlightening, and what would be worth seeing in a philosophical discussion of "the true self" written for a popular audience: an actual examination of the confused common-sense view of the concept. First, we might note that Option Two is obviously not absent from the tradition, although few philosophers have held it as is, and for a good reason: if you're going to give all our desires equal weight, it's not going to make a hell of a lot of sense for you to talk about a "true self" in the first place; you'd have to see the self as a multiplicity of varied, disconnected, often conflicting and incoherent desires. But if you do give desires a central place in constituting the self, you're likely going to establish some sort of hierarchy, so that some desires—say, volitional necessities—have a special place, and other desires, ones that conflict with the volitional necessities, are going to be in some sense alienated or external desires.

There is a second point worth making about Option Two, one that comes up nicely in existentialist take-downs of the idea that being authentic or true to yourself just involves acting on your desires, or even finding your deep desires and acting on those. Namely, that your desires are no more "you" than whatever social norms you absorb. This is, in part, because many of our desires—on some views, all of them—just are socially constructed or shaped. Maybe you really want to get married, and have a nice picket fence and a three car garage and a bunch of toddlers running around. But you have to be crazy to think that this desire is any more "authentic" or any more "yours" than, say, an ad-induced craving for Sprite. And, in part, there's the Kantian point: that while you might think that your desires show the "true" you, it's hard to see why this "you" is something you should be particularly attached to; if your desires aren't things that constitute you because you value them, or because you chose them, or because you created them in some way, then why should you give them any privileged place? How are they any more you, or any more valuable to you, than any other natural feature about you, like that ingrown toenail?

But now—and this is one of the important things to note—Knobe points out, without examining, that this idea of a true or authentic self "is, perhaps, one of the distinctive ideals of modern life." Well, yeah. It really is. It's one of those things the post-Kantian revolt against reason managed to bring out, and merge nicely with the obsessive modern Western trend toward individualism, bolstered by our now common belief that we are all so very special and so gosh darn unique. And sure, if you think you're a special, unique individual, and that this really matters, then it's going to suddenly be very important to figure out just what your unique individuality consists of. But this desire to be unique and special may well exercise a distorting influence on our judgments about what our "true self" is. And critique of this is, in fact, pretty common to the tradition.

Let's revisit Option One, on which the true self is identified with "the capacity for rational reflection." What does that really mean? Well, on one popular historical view, the capacity is universal, in that it is a capacity shared by all rational beings. It is a capacity for rational reflection, and reason is universal. In fact, all that stuff about individuality is, on this view, problematic: we deviate from the universal just to the extent that we deviate from reason. And we do so insofar as we are misled by our desires and our sense-perceptions. And why would anybody value that? In one sense, it is a tautology to say that valuing deviation from reason is an error: it's just saying that it is irrational to value deviating from reason. So on this view—and we find various approaches to it in Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Kant—your "true self" is exactly the same as everybody else's "true self": it's the self that is aligned with Reason or Truth. From this vantage point, the different views about the "true self" that Knobe is discussing are all completely off the mark; it's also no wonder that people who are raised to think of themselves as unique individuals are likely to be systematically off the mark in this way. In a sense, whatever the survey respondents might say may be just as indicative of a widespread pathology as any insight into our concepts. And diagnosing such pathologies is—isn't it?—one of the key functions of philosophy. What does X-Phi contribute?

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Friday, April 22, 2011

CFP: Time and Agency


George Washington University

November, 18-19 2011

Invited Speakers:

J. David Velleman, New York University

Lynne Rudder Baker, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida

John J. Drummond, Fordham University

Actions have a duration, they sometimes follow on intentions directed toward the future and are themselves sometimes directed toward bringing about future events. They may also be caused by past events, or be brought on by motives or reasons. Actions are also individuated from within a temporally extended continuous stream of activity. They are performed by agents, whose selves or practical identities may or may not be unified through psychological continuity, through their standing plans for the future, or through narratives. Agents inhabit a world that is temporally ordered, and that ordering is reflected in action. In seeing themselves as standing under an obligation, agents recognize reasons for future actions, and in judging them responsible for those actions we in turn trace their agency to past decisions on their part.

Whatever perspective one takes on the above issues, it is clear that action and agency cannot be understood apart from time. We are soliciting strong papers in both the analytic and continental traditions. Papers will ideally be written in a manner that will be clear and accessible to scholars from different backgrounds working on the philosophy of action.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

Causal and teleological theories of action.

Action individuation within a stream of activity.

Future-directed intention, intention in action, and the temporality of directions of fit.

Plans, personal policies, and other diachronic volitional states.

Diachronic personal identity, practical identity, continuity, and narrative.

Historical and time-slice views of moral responsibility.

Temporality, movement and the life world.

Temporal aspects of free will, determinism, and fatalism.

Narrative time and the explanation of action.

Retention and protention in agency.

Heidegger on conscience, being-toward-death, or the relation between mood and action.

Ricoeur on birth, life, character, habit, and consent to the involuntary.

Psychoanalysis on deferred action.

Please send papers or abstracts for a talk of approximately 40 minutes. Ideally, submissions should not be under review for publication. Abstracts should be around 1,500 words, although complete papers (with a brief abstract) will receive priority in consideration. Please include a short CV or author bio (these will be used to interest possible publishers and will not be involved in selection of papers for the conference). Abstracts, papers, bios, and correspondence should be sent to the conference organizers, Michael Sigrist, and Roman Altshuler, Please indicate with your submission whether you would be willing to serve as a commentator.

Deadline for submissions: July 1

Decisions will be sent out by: August 31

Sponsored by The George Washington University Department of Philosophy

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Naive Action Theory: First Replies

Roman has some of the same questions I have. I’ll leave (1) until Chapter 8, ‘Action and Time.’ I think I know the answer to (2), but then again Thompson’s larger points get lost on me if I’m not paying sustained concentration, which is often enough that, well, Thompson’s larger points get lost on me at times.

Roman’s question, as I understand it, is as follows, but broken up: a) sometimes we rationalize (explain) an action by reference to another action. ‘Why are you going to Chicago?’ Answer: ‘Because I’m traveling to Evanston.’ But other times we don’t. ‘Why are you eating that?’ Answer: ‘Because I’m hungry.’ Being hungry isn’t an action. Nor is it a wanting/desiring, but it is more easily explicable in those terms, eg., I want to sate my hunger and believe that eating this will so sate, and so I sate myself. b) What is the relation between the trip to Evanston and the trip to Chicago. Going to Chicago appears at the same time to be both dependent and independent on the trip to Evanston. On a trip to Evanston, it would make sense to tell a friend, I went to Chicago.

As for (a), I still have to wait and see. Thompson has yet to deliver, from what I’ve read, on the claim that “a sophisticated position [SAT] cannot be defended...and that the role played by wanting...really is taken what we might call the progress of the deed itself” (90). I am intrigued by his suggestion, on page 92, that we might build up from NAT to an SAT much like Sellars’ Jones graduates from the Rylean world to mind-reading. This seems promising, and I’m looking forward to seeing if Thompson can deliver. That said, with respect to the Sellarsian parallel, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the difference between explanatory and conceptual priority as they figure in Sellars’ argumentative strategy: overt behaviors (among the Ryleans) have conceptual priority to nonexpressed, nonovert mental states in the sense that a) they can be described independently of mental talk, and b) they provide the model for mental states as theoretical posits. However, once the theory is online, as it were, mental episodes have an explanatory priority for behavior: behavior is explained as resulting from inner mental states. Maybe more to the point, Sellars believed that there really are mental states, but Thompson seems to be telling us that wantings/intendings are “really taken what we might call the progress of the deed itself.” (I can't yet make sense of that.) So the analogy potentially breaks down here: for Sellars, thinkings are modelled on speech-acts, but inner states motivating actions can't be modeled on the actions themselves, and so I don't see how naive actions can play the explanatory role that overt speech acts play for Sellars. Also, Thompson claims, again much like the Ryleans, that we can conceive of a form of life that explains itself solely in a naive fashion. Like Roman, I’m a little skeptical of this, but withholding judgment. I think we have to withhold judgment because if Thompson fails to deliver on this claim, then really his whole project fails (it would turn out that he is just analyzing a peculiar sub-species of action rationalization rather than action itself).

Which leads to (b). Naive rationalization explains smaller phases of an action by placing them in mereological fashion in a larger whole action. If I’m reading him right, maybe we can say the following: going to Chicago is an intentional action but is not an independent act? I’m not sure. This at first confused me: suppose I am moving a stone from point A to point E (in order maybe to open the door to Ganon’s lair). This is an intentional action (I intend to open the door so that I can kill Ganon and save the princess). Thompson wants to say that moving the stone from A to C is alsointentional. That doesn’t comport with my folk understanding of ‘intend.’ Of course I have to go through point C to get the stone to point E, and of course, since I mean to move the stone to point E, in some sense I do mean to move it over point C, but I wouldn’t describe that action as ‘intentional’ because that description (“I should move the block to point C”) never passed through my mind. Ah ha! I am being too sophisticated, Thompson tells me. That was my problem. The notion that, for an action to count as intentional, the concept expressed by its intentional description must have passed through the mind of the agent is, he says, “a prejudice” (108). So, an action is intentional just in case it is explicable as being part of a larger action. I am lifting the fork. Why? Because I am eating. I intend to sate my hunger, but as Thompson is using the term, in so doing, I intend to lift my fork even though no such thought ‘lift the fork’ passes through my mind and the fork may not even ever serve as an object of attentional awareness. All the same, I do seem to remember him writing that each of the ‘organs’ of a whole action are independent--I”ll have to go back and check. If not, then I think this review is fair, and maybe even right.

But this then leads to (3) in Rom’s list. What is it that explains a single whole action? So far Thompson has said that explicability is accomplished by explaining sub-actions as being parts of larger actions, but he hasn’t really said what a whole action itself is. And my folk intuitions tell me that he’s helpfully explained how I can be said to have intentionally lifted the fork in feeding myself, but he hasn’t explained what it means to eat dinner as such. Wouldn’t NAT require explicating that action in terms of another--but which one? Why am I eating dinner? Just because! Or, because I’m hungry, where hungry isn’t something else that I’m doing. Remember: Thompson is claiming that NAT is independent, and I think he also means adequate, in the sense that I should be able, with NAT, to describe something like just eating dinner--but how, if eating dinner is not itself a part of some larger doing?

I imagine these are obvious questions, and that Thompson has answers to them, so I’ll be on the look out. Let me quickly just mention three ideas I like: 1) there is a hint that Thompson is saying that actions are meaningful insofar as they are part of and presuppose something like a life-world or ‘form of life’ (his phrase; i don’t know if he means it in a technical sense). Obviously my interest in phenomenology explains why it’s interesting to perhaps find Thompson striking upon an idea already quite developed by that school. 2) not unrelated to (1), I’m interested in his claim that actions are essentially temporally stretched. As I said in my past post, this I think is something that the historian implicitly assumes, but is not something I find central to the action theory I have read (maybe it’s more common than I’ve seen; i haven’t read gobs.). 3) Actions are causes of themselves. This is the closest Thompson gets in what I’ve read so far addressing Roman’s (3) above. He says, eg., that building a house is intentional just in case it is a cause of its own parts (temporal phases or organs), eg., laying pipe becomes intentional because it is explicable as part of the act of building a house. But then--in what he acknowledges is cavalier--since everything, including an action, just constituted by its parts, that actions are therefore causes of themselves. This is clever, but I’m waiting to see it filled in.

Question: Think you can explain what exactly is at stake in the 'minimum movible,' 'minimum sensible' and 'maximum insensible' discussion? Why can't it be the case that actions bottom out into non-action-parts? Was that even the point?

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Brief Interjection on History and Sin

A brief worry here: Michael will have to be disappointed. Thompson's naïve action theory may seem to go a step in the direction of providing historical explanation, but ultimately it cannot do that. It remains to be seen whether this step is, in fact, a step, and moreover what the step would have to imply; i.e., whether we should take it. Michael is interested in an action theory that can explain historical actions: Caesar ended the Republic. He did so by crossing the Rubicon. Now, the question is whether Caesar's ending of the Republic was an action of Caesars's. One way to approach this is through standard issues in action individuation, playing around with the accordion effect, and so on: are the consequences of our actions parts of the action? (Or—on Goldman's view—is the bringing about of consequences itself a different action from the means, i.e., is crossing the Rubicon a different action from ending the Republic, even if it should turn out that Caesar did both by performing the same basic action?) Naïve action theory might help us make sense of what Caesar did in crossing the Rubicon by seeing that crossing as part of a larger action: ending the Republic. But does it help?

Here is a worry: Consider non-Augustinian accounts of sin. Aristotle had already noted that we are blameworthy only for actions of which we are the principle, and in such a way that we do not perform them through ignorance. In Augustine, there is an even further internalization: the will is a power to desire ends, and we sin insofar as the ends we desire are wrong in a specific sense. This internalization is continued and radicalized in Anselm and Abelard. It is a distinctive feature of this view that sin—that for which we are blameworthy, in fact simply that which counts as evildoing (since acting without inordinate desire—libido—simply doesn't count as evildoing; libido just is the mark of evildoing)—depends on the internal state of the agent who does it. Now consider a non-Augustinian view, such as that developed in the Jewish tradition by Bahya or Maimonides. On this view, good and evil are fixed not by our mental dispositions, but instead by the 513 commandments handed down by Moses. The Jewish view here is fully externalist: an action counts as sin if it violates a commandment, so that the agent's internal disposition is irrelevant. If you sin by accident, you must still (in the days of the Temple) make sacrifice, or (post-Temple) perform the other rules of repentance. Bahya, in fact, notes that it is extremely likely that all are sinners, because we begin to use our bodies long before we begin to use our reason, and it is highly likely that our bodies will sin before we have a chance to exercise rational control over our limbs. That is: whether or not one sins depends entirely on external features. In fact, one can continue to sin against one's will: if I spread false rumors about my neighbor, then I continue to sin as long as others continue to spread the rumor, even if I have long stopped and seen the error of my ways.

The non-Augustinian view of sin seems to have one thing common with historical explanation: actions are explained (and/or evaluated) by reference to criteria outside the agent. Caesar's motives are irrelevant to understanding what he did in crossing the Rubicon, just as the sinner's internal state is irrelevant to determining whether or not she has sinned. An action is not the exclusive property of the agent; instead, the action is explicable in terms that do not depend on any specifically agential powers or states, and the agent is then merely the one through whom this action was performed, or a particular on whom the action depends, though not a particular that plays a role in explaining the action (so redness might be attributed to a ball, but we can explain the redness without reference to the ball, although of course every occurrence of red will depend on a ball or, at least, some item that bears the color). For a theory of action to do what Michael wants it to do, it would need to have this form.

Thompson's theory does not have this form. As he stresses on p. 86n.3, and especially p. 93, the real reason for an action is a thought, or consideration on the part of the agent: the belief component of the belief-desire complex found in Davidson. Thompson stresses that his aim is not to abandon this complex, but only to replace the desire component with an action component. And, again, the considerations or beliefs are "reasons in the strict sense" (p. 96n. 14). Thompson's specific aim is to explain the dependence of action on thought, and specifically what sort of consideration makes the thought of the "right kind" (p. 94) to serve as a reason for action. If action A is to be explained by action B through its dependence on the agent's thought, or if action A is to be explained through the agent's possession of a virtue, then the dependence of the action on thought is crucial.

We may wonder whether we might not be better off dropping this requirement. Perhaps we can best explain historical actions by reference to wider actions that the agent clearly did not consider, just as we may make more sense of sin—perhaps as violation of taboo rather than as evildoing—if we think of it merely as the lack of conformity of an action with a norm that has no essential relation to an agent. But this takes us very far out of the domain of making sense of reasons for action, whether instrumental or moral ones. Historical explanation may require an action theory that has nothing to do with explaining actions by rationalizing them. But if so, then naïve action theory will not ground historical explanation. At best, it will provide one side of a platform on which two very different kinds of action explanation (internal and external) can enter into a relation with each other. But then we may wonder whether plenty of other, non-naïve, action theories may not do this just as well.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Naive Action Theory

The following few posts will show a naive action theorist trying to make sense of naive action theory. Naive action theory is a concept developed and defended by Michael Thompson, for example, in his book Life and Action. Naive action theory (NAT) takes off from the following observation: as often as not, folk reasons for actions are just other actions. "Why are you riding your bicycle?" Reason: "I'm going to the store." 'Going to the store' is itself another action. NAT is contrasted with Sophisticated Action Theory (SAT)."Why are you riding your bike?" Reason: "I want/intend to go to the store." 'wanting to go the store' is a mental attitude or state. The sophisticated answer is the sort that the philosopher will usually give. There's more to say about both, obviously, but that's the gist.

The contention behind NAT is that an action can rationalize another action as well as any reason or intention.* I'm not sure that Thompson's right that the folk usually do rationalize action in this way, but since I count myself, when it comes to action theory (I have never written on it nor studied up much on it), among the naive folk, and his examples sound pretty normal to me, I'm willing to grant Thompson's claim. Besides, whether or not the folk do commonly rationalize behavior in this way, Thompson's more interesting contention is that SAT is somehow derivative of and explainable in terms of NAT, while the reverse is not the case; SAT somehow presupposes NAT. For some preliminary reasons I'm going to discuss in just a second, I find this account of action intriguing, and the point of this diablog betweem Roman and I (and anyone else who wants to join!) is to understand it better.

*NB: My wife is making cookies right now. I just asked her to explain why. Her answer: "to take them to Taneka's [a friend]." Score, Thompson!

Why am I interested in Thomopson's work?

I'm interested in Thompson's work for reasons that originally emerge in the philosophy of history. Historians are in the business of providing explanations of past events. But these events are usually actions, collective or individual. Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Why did the Roman Republic develop into an Empire? What were the effects of Caesar's assassination? Why did Brutus eventually ally with the optimates?

Two things: first, actions as explained by historians are often characterized in ways that do not fit easily into SAT, but do, I think, mesh well with NAT. Most strikingly, intentions or wantings are usually dispensable in the explanation of historical action. 'Caesar's crossing the Rubicon marked the end of the Roman Republic,' or 'By assassinating the Archduke, Gavrilo Princip started the First World War,' or 'By luring the French into war, Bismark caused the destruction of the Second French Empire,' or again 'By attacking the Soviet Union, Hitler ended any chance at Nazi victory.' Each of these cases describes an action--ending the Roman Republic, starting the First World War, destroying Napoleon III's imperial ambitions, ending any chance at a Nazi victory--for which intention is besides the point. Caesar ended the republic, Princip caused the first world war, Bismark caused the destruction of the Second Empire, and Hitler sealed his fate regardless of whether any of these agents intended to do these things or not (in fact, almost certainly none of these agents intended to do any of these things!).

Second: a continuing debate in the philosophy of historiography (the business of writing history) is over the explanatory power of narrative sentences. A narrative sentence tells a story. History--especially fun history, the sort of history the non-historian really likes reading--often comes in the form of narratives. But do stories really explain actions? Is narrative history explanatory history? If an explanation is supposed to lay out the causes of an event, or subsume an event under some general law, then stories aren't explanatory. For instance, telling the story of Caesar's return from Gaul and forcing a renewal of his consulship might tell the story of Caesar's crossing the Rubicon, but it doesn't explain the fall of the republic. To explain that, we might appeal instead to the unsustainable pressures nearly a century of expansion into the East Mediterranean, Spain and Gaul put on the informal institutional infrastructure of the roman constitution. That's not a story, but it explains the fall of republic in terms of causes subsumable perhaps under more general laws. However that may be, one reason narrative history might be actual history is if actions are themselves narratively or historically structured--if so, then historical qua narrative explanation is real explanation because real actions really are structured in just that way.

My hope in reading Thompson is to make some headway in clarifying both of these ideas in the philosophy of history, and hopefully, reflecting some light back the other way as well. That is to say, I want to better understand: 1) what individuates actions? If historical explanation reveals something about actions in general, then intentions may play less of a role in individuating actions than is often supposed; 2) all the same, intentions fit in somewhere into the picture, but where?; 3) historical explanations have to take time into account; past actions as examined by the historian are not just embedded in a temporal context, they have, to introduce a term, temporal distension. 'Caesar ended the Republic,' 'Napoleon civilized the German states,' 'Bismark defeated Austria': it seems right to me to say that these were single actions, involving lots of dependent sub-actions as dependent parts or phases stretched out and unified over time. It takes time to make sense of the logical structure of sentences describing these actions ( a point I might elaborate on later if relevant). These larger actions I also want to say are typical of actions as such. 'Graduating college,' 'throwing a dinner party,' 'riding a bicycle', are shorter and more mundane examples of actions that all the same exhibit temporal distension. It's my suspicion that all actions must have this essential feature, and I'm hoping that Thompson will allow me to say something more about this.

Ok, now, onto Roman's questions.......

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Thompson’s “Naïve Action Theory”: Some Questions

Michael Thompson's "Naïve Action Theory", an article reprinted as Part II of his Life and Action, hasn't gotten a lot of attention. This is unfortunate, because he bills his account as an alternative to standard accounts of action theory, and those who have paid attention to this work do tend to insist that it is novel. (With the exception of Elijah Millgram, who focuses less on what Thompson takes to be his break with accepted action theory and views it instead as continuous with Humean causal theories—in fact, Millgram tends to treat Thompson's account as a paradigm of what action theory today comes to.) But what I have not seen is an account of just what Thompson's theory entails and—more importantly—how it can function as an alternative to the sort of action theory descended from Davidson.

Thompson contrasts his account with what he calls the "sophisticated" view, namely the view that actions are primarily explicable in terms of their ends or the agent's desires or pro-attitudes in favor of those aims. Instead, Thompson argues that there is—for lack of a better word—a more primordial sort of action explanation, which he calls "naïve" action explanation. On the naïve view, an action is explained by reference to an action of which it is a part. To take Thompson's most intuitive example: "Why are you breaking that egg?" "Because I am making an omelet." Here a wider action—making an omelet—explains the narrower action of breaking the egg. (I will use the terms "wider" and "narrower" for convenience; a "narrower" action on this usage will always be a "smaller" action which is a part, or constituent, of the "wider" action.) Thus, we seem to have a radically new account of action: we explain actions not by reference to something outside agency, but by reference to other actions.

Thompson's motto , so to speak, is given by what I take to be his definition of intentional action: "X's doing A is an intentional action (proper) under that description just in case the agent can be said, truly, to have done something else because he or she was doing A." (112)

Now, here are my major questions. Some of them are answered by Thompson, though in ways that, frankly, don't make much sense to me. Some he seems to avoid addressing. But I take these to require clear answers if Thompson's alternative to action theory is to work as an alternative at all.

(1) Thompson argues that, on his view, not only can we dispense with reference to "wantings" in providing action explanations (90), but we should also alter our account of what wanting are: he urges "a complete break with the apparently uncontroversial idea that they are properly called states." (92) I am all for this; I doubt that there are such things as "mental states." But I am unclear on what Thompson's alternative is. And I take it as a basic point that his alternative—as well as his entire account overall—will, in order to be a workable theory, have to be separated from his attempt to derive the account from a grammatical examination of aspect, or "that the linguistic appearances ought to be saved." (90) One can derive whatever theory one wants from an examination of grammar; but for that theory to be interesting—at least to me—it needs to have something going for it other than that it explains or fits our ordinary grammatical usage. (At least until I see a convincing argument for the view that metaphysics corresponds perfectly to the way we speak about it.)

(2) It is true that we often rationalize actions by saying what action they are a part of. But we also rationalize actions by giving their goal. So I might say "I am going to Chicago because I am going to Evanston," or I might say "I'm going to Chicago to visit my friend." The first, I think, is fully plausible by Thompson's lights, especially given that I have to take a flight to Chicago as part of my overall trip to Evanston; thus, the overall trip from NY to Evanston, say, would include a trip from NY to Chicago as a part of the action. But the second case seems different. It doesn't appeal to wanting—at least not explicitly—but it also doesn't appeal to a wider action. My friend is in Chicago, presumably; and my trip to Chicago is not, I think, most naturally taken as part of the action of visiting my friend. Rather, visiting my friend is what I will do after I complete the action of going to Chicago; it is a separate action that occurs after the first one. Here is another one: "I am going to the hospital because my throat hurts." "My throat hurts" isn't an action at all, and so doesn't rationalize any narrower action. Both the Chicago and the Hospital examples are, I think, quite naturally explained by a Davidsonian account or, say, a Korsgaardian one. Davidson: I want to see my friend and I believe that going to Chicago is a way of doing so. I want my throat to stop hurting, and I believe going to the hospital is a way of preventing that. Korsgaard: I am going to Chicago for the sake of seeing my friend; I am going to the hospital for the sake of making my throat stop hurting (where a reason is a description of the action, e.g., "doing act A for the sake of goal G" such that giving the reason shows why the action as a whole appears to the agent to be a good thing to do). These explanations seem to me more natural, more naïve, than Thompson's would be in such cases. How is his account supposed to explain this? (This is important, since if Thompson is explicitly offering an alternative to the standard views, his alternative needs to give a compelling reason to buy rationalization by actions over rationalization by ends or wanting.)

(3) I am puzzled by the claim that an action just is something that rationalizes sub-actions or narrower actions. I can't wrap my mind around how that is an action theory at all, and this is my central concern. Thompson sets up his account as if he is giving an alternative to the current theories. But to be an alternative, it has to either explain all the same things that the standard theories explain, or it has to explain why those things are not in need of explanation. But there seem to be two things missing when we look at either the narrowest or the widest actions.

(A) What does happen at the narrowest level? I suppose eventually the actions get so small that nobody would bother asking for an explanation of them; this would suggest that there is no ontology of actions: actions are just whatever we need our theory to pick out, and we don't need our theory to pick out the tiniest units. So Thompson's claim that we can explain what happens at the lowest end of the spectrum through some theory of vagueness seems to be missing the mark altogether: he seems to think that he is giving an ontology of action; but his theory doesn't fit an ontology at all. (A related point is raised by Millram in his Hard Truths, where he argues that Thompson's account—like all action theory—is ultimately a pragmatic one; it explains actions by explaining what we normally need our language to explain, but it leaves out "atomic actions"—such as blinking, or reading a stop sign in one glance—which don't seem to have component parts at all, because these are not actions we normally need to explain. Though I suspect Thompson can reply to this criticism by asking whether blinking and reading at a glance really are intentional actions; if they are, there is more to them than just the "atomic" component.)

(B) What happens at the wider end of the spectrum? I am breaking eggs to make an omelet. But what if someone asks me why I am making an omelet? I can't explain that by reference to a wider action, and Thompson doesn't claim that we do—his claim isn't, after all, that all actions can be explained by wider actions; only that all actions can explain narrower actions. (One suggestion here might be that wider actions are ultimately explained by reference to an agent's life; I like this suggestion and think it is probably right, but I'd like to see Thompson work it out, if this is what he has in mind.) But this means that every action is either explained by reference to a wider action, or it is explained by reference to something else—something that isn't an action. And the something else once again seems to call for a more traditional kind of action explanation, whether Humean or Kantian. I am not making an omelet, after all, because I am engaged in an action of feeding myself (in delicious ways). Here the contest seems to be between a Davidsonian pro-attitude in favor of ending my tinges of hunger, or even a McDowellian "conception of how to live" ("Virtue and Reason" (68-69) in Mind, Value, & Reality). Again, perhaps Thompson is rejecting the Davidsonian in favor of the McDowellian view; but then this needs to be clearly stated, and the McDowellian position—which is hardly clear or naïve—is going to require a lot more clarification before it starts to make sense. This may be what Thompson is doing in Part 3; the question is why this is still a naïve action theory if, ultimately, action is not explained by action but by something further and more primitive.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Meaninglessness of Life: Camus vs. Nagel

In "The Absurd," Nagel argues that the sense of the absurd arises from two warring tendencies in us: on one hand, we take our lives, or at least the projects we undertake in our lives, seriously, and we cannot avoid doing so. On the other hand, we are also capable, upon reflecting, of undermining the reasons for any of our projects. Nothing we do can be justified from a point of view radically outside human interests; and yet we are capable of taking up such a perspective in reflection. Thus, absurdity is a condition we are condemned to by virtue of our reflective, yet engaged, nature. Nothing could make our lives less absurd. I want to consider whether Nagel's account here really is—as he says—superior to Camus's in diagnosing absurdity.

Here is Nagel's take on Camus:

Camus maintains in The Myth of Sisyphus that the absurd arises because the world fails to meet our demands for meaning. This suggests that the world might satisfy those demands if it were different. But now we can see that this is not the case. There does not appear to be any conceivable world (containing us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise. Consequently, the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.

Here, in turn, is what I take to be the most revealing bit from Camus on the topic:

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.

Nagel's argument seems to be that Camus is wrong to think that meaning in life is possible: Camus seems to suggest that life is absurd only because the world is itself not reasonable (or, better put, arational). I think Camus lends himself to such criticism. He does seem to suggest that the reason life is absurd is that we attempt to give meaning to a world that lacks it. So, for example, there is a difference between finding meaning in Hamlet and finding meaning in a random set of occurrences. The latter is what a paranoiac does. The former, on the other hand, involves—or can involve—finding something that is in fact there. There is meaning in Hamlet, and it is there because it was put there by somebody, perhaps Shakespeare. The paranoiac, on the other hand, is not actually finding meaning; he is, rather, projecting it. The random occurrences do not have meaning in themselves: they only seem to have meaning to the paranoiac because of the meaning with which he invests them. For Camus, our absurdity consists of this, that like the paranoiac we project meaning onto the world, always facing the threat that the world is in itself meaningless.

We can now see why Nagel's criticism of Camus appears to be justified: if God existed and created the world and, further, if God imbued the world with meaning, then our attempts to find meaning would not necessarily be futile. They would not necessarily be mere projections, since they could be acts of actually finding the meaning that God put there. This is the point Nagel criticizes when he notes that, for God to give meaning to our lives, God's purposes would themselves have to be understandable and meaningful to us. That is: we could find (rather than project) meaning in a God-created world only insofar as God's purposes could mean something to us. Thus the arguments we find in countless religious authors—like Anselm or Descartes—to the effect that God's purposes are not our purposes and we cannot expect to fully grasp them undermine the possibility of finding meaning. They merely assure us that there is meaning because God has put it there, but they leave us unable—at least in part—to grasp that meaning. But the assurance, without intellectual dishonesty, should not have the intended effect. For simply telling me that my life has meaning without telling me what that meaning is should not make it meaningful.

Nagel's point is two-fold. First, if there is a God, that fact could only give meaning to my life if I could understand what the meaning is. Second, even if I could understand it, I would need to furthermore see that it is meaningful. And if it is, then it must have some meaning-conferring features. And if we know what these features are, then we should be able to find meaning without God. This could be clearer—the basic idea, I take it, is that if God's existence is to justify my own, or to make it meaningful, then God's existence must be self-justifying and meaningful in itself, and it should be so in such a way that I would be unable to doubts its justification. But nothing can be self-justifying in this way, since we are capable of questioning every justification.

Now we can work out the criticism of Camus: Camus seems to suggest that life is absurd because there is no meaning in the world, and yet we inevitably attempt to find it. Since the meaning isn't there, we cannot find it; thus, all our efforts are mere projections. So if there were a God, and thus there were meaning in the world, then the attempt to find it would not be meaningless. Our lives would not be absurd, because the project of life—to find meaning in the world—would be no more absurd than the project of finding meaning in Hamlet. (It's interesting to note, in this connection, that deconstruction seems to involve making textual interpretation absurd: by rejecting the claim that the text has meaning to be found, and thus separate from whatever meaning the reader imbues it with, deconstruction makes all projects of interpretation absurd.) But Nagel rejects this possibility: if we can't find meaning in our lives, and we can't find it because there is nothing that could make them meaningful without itself requiring an external source of meaning, then God would make them no more meaningful than they are. Camus's account of the absurd, then, seems to fail: it assumes that finding meaning is possible after all.

But is this right? Camus is certainly not careful in his phrasing, I suppose mostly because he is not raising an abstract question about the possibility of meaning, but rather describing our situation as we find it, something perhaps lacking in Nagel. But there are two important bits of Camus's account I want to point to. First, in characterizing the absurd through his literary style, Camus spends a great deal of time on examples of something we thought to be meaningful turning out to be meaningless. Of course this is just his point: all projects that seem to be meaning-finding can be unmasked as meaning-projecting. But his examples are interesting: you may think you know a person, understand what they are about. And yet, one day, you realize that you didn't know them at all. You realize even that you didn't know yourself at all. Humans are rational, at least in some sense. So it should be possible to understand them, the way we can understand Hamlet. But Camus suggests that this is too hasty: we can understand something about people, some of their behavior, but always imperfectly, because at bottom nobody is fully rational, no behavior—and certainly no life filled with sequences of behavior—is fully meaningful. Perhaps the deconstructionist is right in part: Hamlet has some surface meaning, but something in the text underlies this meaning, and if we dig deep enough we will find something that resists interpretation along traditional lines. Thus we must project further meanings to make up the deficit. If nothing turns out to be fully meaningful, then it's unlikely that God could: God would perhaps ensure that the world has some meaning, but ultimately—like Anselm and Descartes—we would have to admit that a grasp of the meaning eventually evades us. We are stuck with faith, and faith is "philosophical suicide": it involves giving up on the project of finding meaning, cutting short the philosophical investigation, and thus abdicating the further imperatives of thought.

Second, we must keep in mind Camus's rejection of hope. On the one hand, he speaks of hope in everyday contexts: in thinking that my life will get better and will thus becoming meaningful, I am making a mistake. If my life isn't meaningful now, nothing else will make it so. Hope is similarly problematic in the wider context: hope for another world, for a God that gives us meaning, isn't going to help. If our lives don't already have meaning, nothing further will give it to them. And if they already have meaning, then hope is superfluous.

These two points bring Camus closer to Nagel. But I want to suggest that Camus's argument does Nagel one better. Nagel, after all, argues that meaninglessness depends on our being able to take an objective, external standpoint—not, perhaps, a fully objective standpoint, but at least one far enough removed from our interests that we can see that those interests are not themselves justified. And he defends his claim that we can take such a standpoint. This, I think, few have denied. The standard objection to Nagel is that he thinks this fact is significant. That is: I can take a standpoint radically removed from not only my interests but any interests I can imagine. And from there it will indeed seem not only that my interests are silly, but that there are no non-silly interests—there are, in other words, no interests I could potentially have that would make my life more meaningful. But what exactly is the legitimacy of this standpoint? Why, taking such a non-human standpoint, should we think that what it discloses tells us something about meaning in a human life? If there is objective value for humans, then pursuing that value seems to be meaningful for humans. That is, it isn't just that it seems to humans that pursuing it is meaningful, but that it should—to anyone who can make sense of what humans are and what is objectively valuable to them—seem meaningful. The standpoint Nagel alludes to doesn't show that there cannot be meaning in human life; it only shows that, whatever meaning there may be, we can always call it into question by taking a standpoint wildly inappropriate to the field of inquiry. Or, to rephrase: the question shouldn't be about whether human lives can be meaningful from any possible perspective; the question should be whether human lives can be meaningful such that even a perspective that does not take what matters to us as mattering should still recognize that it matters to us, and thus makes our lives meaningful.

In other words, we can always view our lives sub specie aeternitatis as Nagel points out, but it is an error to conclude from that perspective that meaning is impossible. Camus's account, however, does not require our taking a super-human perspective as our authority. It is from the human perspective that the absurd arises. It arises when, in our everyday lives, we recognize our meaning-finding as mere meaning-projecting, so that even when we examine our genuine meaning-finding, we discover that it rests—at bottom—on projection. This is why Camus does not spend his time, like Nagel, constructing an argument against finding meaning. He demonstrates, instead, the way meaning-finding projects fail in everyday life, undermining our sense of belonging to the world. So there is a trade-off. Nagel may be right that Camus has not constructed a clear argument showing that the absurd is inevitable. But Camus has described, without recourse to a super-human standpoint, the way our very attempts to seek meaning undermine themselves, so that any attempt at grasping meaning through hope will appear only as a way of eluding the absurd.

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