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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