David-Hillel Ruben (Emeritus, University of London and Honorary Research Fellow, Birkbeck College, London)

Our latest answers come from David-Hillel Ruben who is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of London and Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, London. Professor Ruben is widely acclaimed for his work on Marxism, philosophy of action, metaphysics, social philosophy and explanation. Enjoy.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


My book, The Metaphysics of Action: Trying, Doing, Causing, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. There is a significant role for analytic metaphysics to play in its application to the theory of action (and to the philosophy of social science too). I have long held this belief about analytic metaphysics and its applications to other areas of philosophy, a belief evidenced by my first book, Marxism and Materialism (1977, 1979), by The Metaphysics of the Social World (1985) and finally by an earlier book in action theory, Action and Its Explanation (2003).


I’m hardly alone in the belief that analytic metaphysics can be applied in action theory. There are many examples of other philosophers who have worked similarly in the philosophy of action. Much of Donald Davidson’s work, and the comment on it, are in this tradition. John Bishop’s Natural Agency (1989), Helen Steward’s first book, The Ontology of Mind (1997), Anton Ford’s splendid ‘Action and Generality’ (2011) and ‘Action and Passion’ (2014), and E.J. Lowe’s Personal Agency: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action (2010), are five further excellent examples that spring to mind. Although the distinction is to some extent artificial and very porous, I would contrast this metaphysical approach in the philosophy of action with one more rooted in philosophical psychology.


It is part of the tradition in which I work to approach metaphysical and ontological questions often by looking at language, and I do a great deal of that sort of work in the book, but the goal is not the analysis of the assertions or sentences or concepts, but an understanding of the metaphysics and ontology of the human world to which such discourse commits us. Gettier wasn’t interested in knowledge-talk or even the concept of knowledge; at bottom, he wanted to know what makes it true that a person knows something. The objective of the analyses in the book are not sentences or statements or discourse or concepts, but what these things are about or true of, even though such discovery typically comes through a careful consideration of the ontic commitments embedded in the sentence.


2. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?


I believe that an action is a basic or fundamental particular, and so that no resolution of it into simpler components could be successful. ‘Expressions which are in no way composite signify….action and affection….’to lance’, ‘to cauterize’, action; ‘to be lanced’, ‘to be cauterized’, [are terms indicating] affection’ (Aristotle De Categoriae, 4). I wish I could prove this, even to my own satisfaction, but I can’t. After all, successive failures don’t show that the next attempt won’t be successful.

However, I have become interested in Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge-First Programme, and the way in which some action theorists have appropriated it, in order to try to show the alleged fundamentality of action. I don’t give Williamson’s specific programme much hope, but I think it provides a good way in which to get started thinking about the issues of the simplicity or the complexity of both concepts and of the particulars to which the concepts apply.


3. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


I want to give a rather double-edged answer to this question. On one hand, philosophy does not need and does not flourish with orthodoxies, and it is always good when they are challenged, even if the challenges themselves are flawed. So I whole-heartedly approve of the way in which those writing in the neo-Anscombian and neo-Aristotelian traditions have challenged the Davidsonian research programme in the philosophy of action, and I have profited by that work. Long may it continue.


But I confess to finding some of it more obscure than I would like. And I remain uncomfortable with some of the concepts they employ. I still find the idea of agent causation ultimately un-illuminating, and talk of powers somewhat suspect. I respect that many philosophers are reaching out for a viable alternative to the Humeian ontology embedded, however distantly, in (for example) Davidsonian theory of action, and the reaching out is to be applauded, because that is how progress in philosophy is made. But alas, I was philosophically trained in the 1960’s, and by my lights the new material, with only a few exceptions, misses the clarity, precision, and rigour of what it is trying to replace. Perhaps that is inevitable at the beginning of a philosophical paradigm shift. It’s only an autobiographical remark, but I am simply baffled by some of it.


4. What direction would you like to see the field go in?


I think philosophy today in general is in amazingly good health. The level of discourse in analytic metaphysics, for example, is superb, through the efforts of philosophers like David Lewis, Kit Fine, and so many others. As is obvious from my comments above, I think that, with whatever faults I may detect in them, the attempts to forge new ways of thinking in action theory have been serious and suggestive, and I would wish them to continue.


But - and I apologise for the arrogance in this remark made about so many philosophers who are so much cleverer than I - I would wish for this literature to aim for greater clarity. It now seems to me that we have the beginnings of several different philosophical discourses about action in Anglo-American philosophy, and that we have some difficulty in translation between them. Well, maybe such discourses cannot be translated into one another - that is what makes them a ‘different’ discourse. Maybe there is just a Kuhnian ‘leap’ required here. But anything that can be done to make that leap as narrow as possible, and to make for mutual intelligibility between the discourses about action, would be very much to be welcomed. I do not mean to imply that some very important work in this vein has not already been done; it has. I would just like to see more of it.


2018 January 27

Many thanks to Prof Ruben for his answers!