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?

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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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