In Conversation With

Every Saturday we publish here a mini-interview with a researcher working on actions and related topics.

Interviews will appear in chronological order, with the latest one on top.

Pamela Hieronymi (Professor of Philosophy, UCLA)

For this week Prof Pamela Hieronymi kindly sent us her answers. She is respected for her work on philosophy of action, especially on reasons and free will, ethics and moral responsibility, and philosophy of mind.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


I am working to complete a manuscript, provisionally titled Minds that Matter. Its immodest ambition is to unwind the traditional problem of free will and moral responsibility. I think the problem can be unwound, because – I believe – the problem is created by certain philosophical pictures to which we are naturally (or culturally) prone. One such picture is what I will call the ordinary notion of control, another is what I will call the merited-consequences conception of responsibility. Both are natural, and fine for certain purposes, but together they lead to the traditional problem of free will and moral responsibility. The solution, I believe, is to revisit these models, understand what has gone wrong, and replace them with something better. This is what I will attempt. The result will be an account that, I hope, does justice to both the fact that we are products of our environment and experiences and the fact that we, and our actions and attitudes, nonetheless rightly matter to one another.


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


In ordinary intentional action, we bring things to be as we would have them to be – we impose our will upon the world. Such action is voluntary. Ordinary intentional action is a subset of the larger category of rational activity. Rational activity is the settling of questions. Settling a question is not voluntary; you are constrained by your take on the question. Certain states of mind, such as beliefs, intentions, and certain emotions, such as pride or resentment, are non-voluntary rational activities, while other states of mind, such as imagining a blue square or remembering where you left your keys, are voluntary mental actions.


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


This is a hard question. Taking a long view of “recent” and allowing myself four: (1) Davidson’s insistence that reasons for action must explain the event that is the action, resulting in the ascendance of the “Humean” belief-desire picture; (2) Bratman’s focus on intention as plans and his development of norms for plans (which had a significant impact in computer science); (3) the melding of philosophy of action with discussions of moral responsibility (spurred by the work of Frankfurt, Watson, et al), on the one hand, and discussions of moral motivation (spurred by Williams’ claim about internal reasons and the subsequent whirlwind of response), on the other; and, finally, (4) the more recent return to the pre-Davidsonian picture, with a focus on intention and on Anscombean themes of practical knowledge, answerability, and reasons for action.


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


I would like to see analytic philosophy become more relevant. To this end, I would like to see a shift in our assumptions, not only about the volume of publications we expect from job applicants and in tenure cases, but also about the genre in which we publish. The current norm tends towards long, quasi-technical, research articles which often presume, of the reader, familiarity with some rather detailed literature and developed jargon, as if we were participating in an on-going blog conversation amongst ourselves (with an over worked and overly restrictive set of moderators). In the early and middle 20th century, the genre seemed instead to be the essay: a shorter piece which begins with an intuitive statement of a philosophical problem together with some motivation for it—a statement of a problem that is, in principle, assessable to an intelligent reader. (Even some very technical essays, addressing technical problems, begin this way.) The Journal of the American Philosophical Association, in its editorial statement, seems to be aiming for such a shift.


Many thanks to Prof Hieronymi!


Visit again next Saturday, on the 24th March, to read the answers of Bence Nanay (Antwerpen).

Kieran Setiya (Professor of Philosophy, MIT)

This week we present you with the answers of Prof Kieran Setiya from MIT. Professor Setiya has published significant original work on the philosophy of action - including reasons and reasoning -, virtue ethics, and the epistemology of self-knowledge and moral values. A collection of his essays under the title Practical Knowledge has been published in 2016 and his latest work out there is aimed at both philosophers and the wider public dealing with midlife crises. Enjoy.



1. What are you working on at the moment?


Lately, I have been thinking about the way in which love and moral concern are directed at particular individuals. I think there are deep puzzles about this and that we need to address them in order to come to grips with the nature of beneficence and rights. I explore these puzzles in part through recent work by Caspar Hare on the trolley problem, in part through the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. I have also been thinking about humanism and the distinctive worth of human beings. My broader interests include the ethics of climate change and the theory and practice of public philosophy. My most recent book was a mash-up of philosophy and self-help, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.


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


Before giving a one-sentence answer, here are 14 sentences about the question.


As Jennifer Hornsby has observed, ‘action’ is ambiguous between actions as events and things done. Actions as events are picked out by noun phrases such as ‘Kieran’s walk home on Tuesday’ or ‘the drawing of a distinction in 1997.’ Things done are picked out by verb phrases such as ‘walked home’ or ‘is drawing a distinction.’ Things done are predicated of agents in two ways, which correspond to the linguistic distinction between progressive and perfective aspect: the distinction between ‘Kieran was walking home’ and ‘Kieran walked home.’


As I understand it, action theory is interested primarily in things done, predicated of agents, not in actions as events. But the topic of things done is much broader than that of action theory proper. Things done include the doings of inanimate objects, as when a storm kills the crops. Wittgenstein’s question, ‘What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?’ can be generalized: ‘What is left over if I subtract the fact that the crops die from the fact that the storm kills them?’


Philosophers sometimes try to bring the distinctive topic of action theory into focus by emphasizing the word ‘action’ or by asking what counts as something ‘I do.’ But this is unhelpful. When the doctor taps my knee, I kick my leg. That is an action I perform, and it is something I do. But it is not what action theorists hope to understand. Their questions are not captured by Wittgenstein’s arithmetic, or by emphasizing words, but by asking what it is to act intentionally, or for reasons.


To act intentionally is to manifest one’s capacity for guiding knowledge of what one is doing and why, a manifestation that may be imperfect, so that one is not sure one is acting as one intends.


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


1. Not so recent, but recently revived: the idea of practical knowledge as described in Elizabeth Anscombe’s Intention and Stuart Hampshire’s Thought and Action. However hard it is to formulate or understand, I think there is something right in the idea that acting intentionally, or for reasons, has to do with a distinctive kind of knowledge of what one is doing. The republication of Intention in 2000 was a real step forward for action theory. Someone should republish Thought and Action.


2. The idea that standards of practical reason can be derived from, and are explained by, the nature of intentional action, otherwise known as ‘constitutivism about practical reason.’ I learned about this approach, which I call ‘ethical rationalism,’ from a book that shares my conviction that acting intentionally is a function of knowing what one is doing: David Velleman’s Practical Reflection. I became obsessed with it in reading Christine Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity. And I argued against it in Reasons without Rationalism and some of the essays in Practical Knowledge. Although I am sceptical of rationalism or constitutivism, I think it is immensely important as an approach to the nature of practical reason that promises to be neither mysterious nor subjective or relativistic.


3. The idea that action theory should pay attention to the metaphysics of progressive and perfective aspect, to the nature of event- or process-forms, and to the Aristotelian machinery of capacities and actualizations. There is inspiration to be found in Michael Thompson’s ‘Naïve Action Theory’ (Part Two of Life and Action) and in recent work by Helen Steward.


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


Despite thinking that the revival of Anscombe in action theory has been a good thing, I would like to see less partisan work on the ideas that come out of Intention. There has been a tendency to bifurcation between ‘Anscombeans’ who think she must be right about almost everything and those who think Anscombe is utterly wrong. I would be surprised if either prediction is true. I also think that certain readings of Anscombe have become gospel even though their basis is very unclear. An example is the claim that practical knowledge is the cause of what it understands, taken by many to be a universal truth, but which Anscombe apparently states in a carefully qualified form. I discuss this, along with the allegation that practical knowledge is only of the progressive, in ‘Anscombe on Practical Knowledge.’


I would like to see more work at the intersection of action theory and normative ethics. Anscombe wrote Intention, apparently, to defend the doctrine of double effect. But there is surprisingly little interaction between action theorists and moral philosophers who work on related topics.


Finally, I think action theory should engage more with disciplines outside philosophy. This has happened to some extent with work in psychology, such as Wegner on the illusion of conscious will or Nisbett and Ross on ignorance of why we act as we do. But the morals drawn from the relevant studies strike me as largely unwarranted: the philosophical work here is to explain why the studies are less troubling than they are taken to be. I would be more excited to see philosophers engage with treatments of action in anthropology and sociology. The social character of intentional action has been neglected in the focus on raising one’s arm or pushing a button. I suspect that there is a lot to be learned by building bridges.



Many thanks to Prof Setiya!


Manuel Vargas (Professor of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego)

Prof Manuel Vargas kindly answered our questions for this week. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Vargas is recognised for his insightful contributions to the free will debates, moral psychology, Latin American philosophy and philosophy of law. His website also offers plenty of useful information for students interested in majoring in Philosophy, and he is also active in supporting and promoting the development of Latin American Philosophy. His works include his book Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility and he edited with Gideon Yaffe the volume Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman . Enjoy.



1. What are you working on at the moment?


At the moment, I’m trying to think about the plausibility, power, and problems with theories of moral responsibility that treat individual moral blameworthiness as in some way a partial function of stuff outside an agent’s head. Roughly, that means I’m thinking about the social, structural, and cultural conditions that affect an agent’s blameworthiness.

I’ve also been starting to think a bit about ways in which other kinds of agency are affected by social context, partly in light of reading figures like Uranga, Lugones, Schutte, and others.


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


I suppose my default view of action involves something along Davidsonian-Bratmanian lines, with paradigmatic cases of action involving beliefs, desires, and intentions. In general, my disposition here is one of mostly minimal metaphysics—we start with relatively simple, naturalistically plausible elements that are in any plausible story of our psychology. Then, we build up from there with the thought that further postulates have to earn their keep.


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


In “foundational” philosophy of action, the detailed efforts to explain shared/joint agency seem to me to be particularly important. In those areas less concerned with saying what action, as such, turns out to be, I’d say the development of work in philosophy of law that draws from the philosophy of action is important, and so is the “social turn” in work on responsible agency. But these assessments surely reflect my own biases more than any independent assessment of what is important for the field more generally.


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


I’m inclined to think that at this point the field is not just one field, but really several fields with tenuous links of variable significance. There are folks worried about the nature of action as such, and relatedly, about core cases of ordinary human action. There is a somewhat different group of people who are worried trying to understand whether there is something metaphysically distinct about human action, distinct from other kinds of agency out in the world. Many of those folks approach issues through the lens of reflections about free will. Finally, there are folks who are reflecting on relatively sophisticated forms of agency that are not about free will, but that various “special” cases of agency—autonomy, responsibility, aesthetic agency, and so on. The fields of philosophy of action are not done growing. Philosophical reflections on non-human agency and what’s distinctive about it, for example, strikes me as a promising growth area for philosophers of action. I love this explosion of work and am happy to see the field explore these diverse topics. I will pass over in silence the developments in the field that strike me as ill-conceived.



Many thanks to Prof Vargas!

David-Hillel Ruben (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London and Honorary Research Fellow, Birkbeck, 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.



Many thanks to Prof Ruben for his answers!

Randolph Clarke (Florida State University)

The second set of answers comes from Randolph Clarke who is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of Philosophy of Florida State University. Professor Clarke has been working on free will, agency, intentional action and moral responsibility. His latest book Omissions is an exciting study of responsibility for omissions and the relation of omissions and negligence. Enjoy reading.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


I’m working on a paper distinguishing varieties of agent causation. Proponents of causal theories of action commonly say that they don’t believe in agent causation. But Davidson and Goldman both held that if an agent performs an action and that action causes some event, then the agent causes that event. If we agree, then we accept one variety of agent causation. Of course, generally when people say they reject agent causation, they have in mind something more controversial than this. But there are a variety of things that differ from this modest variety of agent causation to a lesser or greater extent. The aim of the paper is to distinguish several of them and explore reasons why one or another of them might be thought to exist or not to exist, or to be required for agency or free will.


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


I’ve noticed that when I try to tell non-philosophers what action theory is, examples tend to be the best way to identify the subject matter. And working from some paradigm cases to some borderlines might be the best way to proceed. Some general characterizations that are commonly given are either too broad or too narrow. For example, the things we do include things (such as snoring) that aren’t actions. And self-movement seems to leave out mental action.


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


Frankly, it is simply the variety of lines of enquiry that impresses (and pleases) me. I’m glad to see that there’s excellent work on such diverse topics as practical reason, practical knowledge, intention, rational explanation, the metaphysics of action, omissions, free will, and moral responsibility.


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


I’m happy to see it going in many directions.



Many thanks to Prof Clarke for his answers!


Michael Smith (Princeton)

Our first set of answers comes from Michael Smith who is McCosh Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. Professor Smith has been working on actions, reasons and motivation, among other things. His book The Moral Problem is a classic in the field. Enjoy reading.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


In 2017 I gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University, so right at the moment—this is being written at the very beginning of 2018—I am revising those lectures for publication. The basic aim of the lectures was to derive facts about what we ought to do from facts about the kind of thing that we are, facts that we know a priori. More specifically, I argue that substantive conclusions about what we have reasons to do follow from the mere fact that we are essentially 'Cartesian Agents', that is, beings who have the dual capacities to know what the world in which we live is like and realize our desires in that world. These reasons in turn provide us with all we need to understand the moral reasons we have for acting in certain ways; they tell us why we have non-moral reasons for action like those associated with love and friendship, the production of works of art, and engagement with works of art; they enable us to see why such non-moral reasons may conflict with, and even outweigh, moral reasons in certain circumstances; and they can therefore be pressed into service in giving an account what we are morally obliged to do, permitted to do, and forbidden from doing. The provisional title of the book is A Standard of Judgement.


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


In my view, actions are a sub-class of events, namely, those events that are caused in the right way by certain psychological states. Think of all the various things that happen in the world. Some of these are things that we know how to make happen, where our knowledge of how to make them happen isn't explained by our knowledge of how to make other things happen. These are the events that are candidates for being actions. Consider an example like the movement of my finger. This is something that I know how to make happen, and my knowledge of how to make it happen isn't explained by my knowledge of how to make something else happen. In this way, my knowledge of how to make my finger move contrasts with my knowledge of how to, say, flip a switch, or set a roller coaster in motion. It is therefore a candidate for being an action. What makes any particular movement of my finger an action is its causal history. If the finger movement is caused by some desire I have that the world be a certain way, and by my belief that making my finger move would make the world that way, then if that belief is in turn part of my know-how, and if it causes the finger movement in combination with my desire via an exercise of my capacity to be locally instrumentally rational, then the resulting movement of my finger is an action. Note that all actions, so understood, are caused by agents' exercises of their rational capacities. These exercises, though action-like, are clearly not actions in the sense just explained, or a regress would loom. Their nature must therefore be understood differently—see my answer to the next question.


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


The single most important recent development in philosophy of action is the intense focus on the active-passive distinction, and the different things that might be meant when we invoke this distinction. The difference between a needle someone is holding being caused to enter their body as a result of their being pushed by someone else, on the one hand, and their injecting themselves with the needle in the ordinary way, on the other, is a distinction of one kind that we can make between someone's having something happen to them with respect to which they are active (the latter) or passive (the former). But if we focus just on the former, and now imagine two different people who inject themselves, one of whom is addicted to the drug they inject and the other not, then there is plainly another sense in which only one of the agents who injects themselves is active with respect to their injecting themselves (the latter). The other (the former) is passive.


In my view, these different versions of the active-passive distinction can all be explained in terms of which rational capacities are being exercised in the performance of the action. They might be exercises of a capacity to be merely locally instrumentally rational, or they might be exercises of additional capacities to be globally instrumentally rational, or exercises of additional capacities to be more globally coherent in the formation of beliefs and desires, or exercises of additional capacities to respond to the normative reasons that there are for them to act in one way rather than another. Accordingly, there are many different active-passive distinctions, and these can be ordered along a spectrum.


The second important development in philosophy of action is the widespread recognition of the need to admit the existence of rational capacities, and the role that their exercise plays, in an understanding of actions, something that in turn requires us to give accounts of the nature of both.


The third important development in philosophy of action—and it is at this point that philosophy of action bleeds into metaethics—is a robust debate about how these rational capacities are to be understood, and whether an understanding of them requires us to admit the existence of an irreducible reason relation.


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


With academic disciplines becoming more and more specialized, and advances in academic fields leading to ever more rapid technological change, technological change that has a profound affect on the weal and woe of people all over the world, it seems to me more important than ever that we encourage large scale theorizing. I would therefore like to see more integration of cognitive science, philosophy of action, metaethics, social and political philosophy, sociology, and political science. Just as philosophers mustn't poach on empirical preserves, but must leave space in their theories for details to be filled in by empirical scientists, so empirical scientists must begin their investigations with a robust sense of what the most reasonable frameworks are within which such investigations can take place. If I am right that certain normative claims can be defended a priori—see again my answer to the first question—then the most reasonable frameworks will themselves embrace these normative claims. The hope is that this would lead to better policy outcomes when it comes to the regulation of technological change.



Many thanks to Prof Smith for his answers!