Saturday, March 26, 2011

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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