Bence Nanay (Antwerp & Cambridge)

This week we publish Prof Bence Nanay’s answers. He is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp, as well as co-director of the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. Professor Nanay has published extensively on the philosophy of action, philosophy of mind and perception, and is also accomplished in aesthetics. His latest book titled Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception and he is also author of Between Perception and Action.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


My main project at the moment is a book about mental imagery and its importance in our everyday perception and everyday life in general. While there is more philosophy of perception in that book, there is a fair amount about motor imagery and the role it plays in action initiation.


The general claim here is that motor imagery plays an important causal role in bringing about action execution – even though it is not a classic ‘motivating state’. So we should reject the classic philosophy of action assumption that the set of motivating states is the same as the set of mental states causally involved in triggering the action.


I also have a side-project about desires and in what sense we can consider them to be motivating states. My view is that desires do not have desire-like direction of fit.


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


That's a tough one because I don't think we can give a necessary and sufficient condition for what actions are. But here is a general approach (if not definition). Bodily actions are bodily movements that are triggered, guided and often accompanied by certain specific kinds of mental states. Just what these mental states are and how they relate to the bodily movements is the big question.


I argued in Between Perception and Action (Oxford University Press, 2013) that there are two such mental states: one that represents the environment in an action-relevant manner (and maybe also our body and our goals) and another that ‘moves us to act’. The first is a representational state, the second isn’t. If we have both, we have an action. If we have none, we don’t. If we have only one of the two, we get these gray areas of action-attributions, which I call semi-actions.


All this is about bodily actions. I have no idea what mental actions are.


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


By far the most important development is that the field pays more and more attention to empirical findings. Action is something that has been studied very thoroughly by psychologists and neuroscientists and it is intellectually irresponsible to ignore these findings when we philosophize about action. I am very happy to see that less and less philosophers of action are intellectually irresponsible.

The second development, which is very much related, is that philosophy of action is increasingly considered to be part of philosophy of mind and not of ethics.


The third important development is the turn away from the assumption that action needs to be conscious and as a result, introspection could deliver everything we need to know about action. We now know that action (like most of our mental phenomena) can be unconscious and this puts constraints on just how much introspection can help us in philosophy of action (or in philosophy in general).


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


I would like the current trends to continue: I hope philosophy of action is going to be more and more empirically grounded, and that it will rely less and less on introspection. I also hope that there will be more bi-directional interactions between empirical scientists working on action and philosophers of action so philosophy of action could have a helpful influence on the empirical fields.


2018 February 24

Many thanks to Prof Nanay!