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 up...by 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 up...by 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?

1 comment:

  1. I don't have a substantive comment, but I have appreciated and benefited from the discussion ya'll are having about Thompson's challenging book.