Our mini-interviews so far

10 Helen Steward (Leeds)

11 Markus Schlosser (University College Dublin)

12 Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco (Surrey)

13 Joshua Shepherd (Carleton)

14 John Schwenkler (Florida State University)

15 Sabine Döring (Tübingen)

16 Ezio Di Nucci (Coppenhagen)

17 Joëlle Proust (Institut Jean-Nicod, Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris)

18 Christine Korsgaard (Harvard)

Christine M. Korsgaard (Harvard)

We are publishing this week with great pleasure Prof Christine M. Korsgaard’s answers to our mini-interview questions. She is presently the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor at Harvard University. Prof Korsgaard is well known for her work on Kant, agency and action, normativity, animal ethics and other issues in meta-ethics and ethics. Her last published book is Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, and her new work Fellow creatures: Our obligations to the other animals is coming out this summer. Enjoy!

1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?

I became interested in the philosophy of action when I was working on the question of what makes the instrumental principle or hypothetical imperative normative. Why is it a requirement of reason that we should take the means to our ends? Of course, I also wondered whether whatever story we tell about that could be extended to the moral principle or categorical imperative. I found myself claiming that the instrumental principle is a constitutive standard of action, a standard based on the very nature of action (or agency). Then I realized that if I were going to make claims like that, I had better know what action or agency is.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I am working on the good, specifically on the question why there is such a thing as the good, and whether we can give an explanation of that which is naturalistic. I distinguish between what I call the “functional” sense of good and the “final” sense of good. In the functional sense, something is good when it has the properties that enable it to perform its function, and to perform its function well. In the final sense, something is good when it is suitable as an end of action or is the condition that results from the successful pursuit of such ends. My question is about the final sense of good. I believe that there is such a thing as final good because there are creatures in the world for whom things can be good or bad—namely, sentient animals. In other words, the final good derives from the good-for relation. Part of the reason animals have a good in the final sense is that they are agents, who pursue the things that are functionally good for them as the ends of action. So, in that sense I think the evolution of conscious agency helps to explains why there is such a thing as final good.

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

Kant defines action as the capacity to be by means of one’s representations the cause of the object of those representations. (That’s in The Metaphysics of Morals, at 6:211. He says he’s defining “the faculty of desire” but he means the capacity to act.) Fans of the belief/desire model will think of “representation” as being something like belief, and will then worry that the “desire” part has been left out. I’m taking it that whether you find something desirable or aversive is part of the way you “represent” it. That way the definition covers both the actions of human beings, who are conscious of our practical attitudes and their influence on our choices, and the actions of the other animals, who may not be.

But I think there are actually two conceptions of action, a more naturalistic one and a normative one. In the naturalistic sense, an action is an intentional and purposive, or goal-directed, movement guided by the agent’s representations. I intend that as a capacious description, one that covers even the instinctive actions of simple animals. In the case of human beings (with the “higher” animals things get tricky here), we also work with a normative conception of action, according to which an action is an intentional and goal-directed movement that issues from, and is expressive of, the self. We are working with the normative conception when we hold people responsible for their actions, and more broadly when we take the things people do as appropriate grounds for attitudes such as liking and disliking, love and hate, approval and disapproval, and in general for evaluative attitudes whose objects are the agents themselves—that is, whose objects are the agents’ selves. I take one of the central questions of the philosophy of action to be how these two conceptions are linked. Many philosophers assume that the link is that, in the case of actions that make these evaluative attitudes appropriate, the representation that guides the action is expressive of the agent’s self or character. I think that instead it is because of the way in which it is through action that, as I argue in Self-Constitution, we constitute the self.

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

I think of philosophy of action as having emerged as a field with the work of Davidson and Anscombe. In the tradition, many of the questions we would now identify as questions in the philosophy of action were dealt with under the heading of questions about free will. This very shift is itself helpful, because it is easy for people to be skeptical about free will, or at least to think that they are, but it’s much harder for people to be skeptical about whether people (and the other animals) actually do things, and whether doing and undergoing are really different things.

However, for a long time after the work of Anscombe and Davidson, moral philosophy and the philosophy of action remained separate. I believe that this was partly because everyone assumed that moral standards are what I call external standards, imposed on action from outside, rather than constitutive standards that arise from the nature of action. I think moral philosophers are paying much more attention to questions about the nature of action now, and that’s to the good. Moral philosophy is full of moments of unclarity or confusion that result from a failure to pin down the assumptions about action that are at work in it. Just to take an easy example, many moral philosophers think you can do “the right thing for the wrong reason” without asking themselves whether your reason for acting is part of the “right thing” itself, or something that stands outside of it.

Finally, I think it is important to understanding human action to ask how it is both different from and continuous with the actions (or the activities, or the voluntary movements—there is some controversy about what exactly to say here) of the other animals. I think more people who try to think about action are doing that now.

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

People who come to questions about action from the philosophy of mind tend to contrast action with perception. It’s as if the contrast were: perception is the way the world comes into the mind, and action is the way the mind goes out into the world. People who come to the philosophy of action from ethics, on the other hand, tend to contrast action or volition with belief. There are two kinds of reasons, theoretical reasons for belief and practical reasons for action: how are they similar and how are they different? These contrasts are similar but they are certainly not the same, nor of course, is there any reason for thinking one of them is “the right contrast.” But someone needs to think about how these still somewhat divided discussions fit together.

More generally, I think it is a problem with philosophy at present that people think of themselves as working in fields, and often limit their reading to what counts as being “in their field.” It’s understandable, of course, with the overwhelming volume of journal literature that is being produced. One has to limit one’s reading somehow, and the peer review process, unfortunately, tends to guard the established boundaries between fields. These developments tend to prevent people from developing or even working towards big philosophical systems, like those of Plato or Aristotle or Kant or Hegel, in which the connections between various parts of philosophy get explicitly explored and worked out. Because philosophy of action is so obviously connected to metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and ethics, philosophers of action are in an excellent position to make war on this sort of philosophical parochialism. I hope they will.

2018 May 12

Many thanks to Prof Korsgaard for her answers!

Next week I’ll be away at the annual conference of the Philosophical Association of Japan in Kobe, so the next set of answers will appear in two weeks, on the 26th May.

Joëlle Proust (Institut Jean-Nicod, Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris)

We are publishing this week Prof Joëlle Proust’s answers to our questions. Prof Proust is co-founder of SOPHA (the Society for Analytic Philosophy in the French language), HOPOS (The International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science), ESAP (the European Society for Analytic Philosophy), and ESPP (the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology).

She is currently working at Institut Jean-Nicod, Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. She has written extensively about action, agency, mental action, consciousness, metacognition, and intentions. Her last book is The Philosophy of Metacognition. Enjoy!

1. How did you become interested in Philosophy of Action?

I came to the philosophy of action through cognitive psychopathology. In the early nineties, I had engaged in a collaborative research with a specialist of the early episodes of psychosis, the French psychiatrist Henri Grivois. Grivois’ rich clinical descriptions were fascinating as evidence of the role of non-linguistic forms of cognition in humans (a subject that, until then, I had only explored on the basis of animal evidence). His patients often reported having the vivid impression that others watched them and often imitated them. He was in a position, however, to observe their own impulsive tendency to imitate others' gestures (echopraxia), words (echolalia) or to take up others' goals. Grivois speculated that these dispositions were functionally related. We developed together a theory of schizophrenic delusions in which a perturbed representation of action determined both an impairment in the selection and control of actions, and a perturbed self-awareness. This hypothesis was further elaborated and successfully tested in collaboration with neuroscientist of action Marc Jeannerod. Since then, my interest in the representation of action led me to explore in much more detail and compare the mental actions in human children, adults and non-humans, a philosophical issue that psychologists study under the label of "metacognition" (i.e. the control and monitoring of one's own cognitive abilities).

2. What are you working on at the moment?

My present research is about cognitive phenomenology. My proposal is that the experience of thought has to be analysed in analogy with the experience of bodily action. In the latter case, non-conscious forward models allow the acting system to predict the specific types of feedback it should get on its way to a goal. In this process, expected and observed values are sub-personally compared, which elicits conscious feelings of ability, effort and self-efficacy; predicting discrepancies also allows the agents to efficiently (if non-consciously) correct their trajectory to their goal. A similar analysis can be proposed for mental actions, except that expected feedback is in this case much more difficult to identify by theorists (although more and more is known about the relevant non-conscious heuristics that underlie these predictions), and that discrepancies between expected and observed feedback elicit specialized "noetic" feelings, which differ from the feelings of ability that are elicited in bodily actions.

In a nutshell, my present work explores two proposals: 1) there are only two kinds of cognitive phenomenology: one kind, exemplified by internal speech and other forms of sensory imagery, has the function of indexing the currently active epistemic goal; the other kind consists in noetic feelings, such as the feeling of understanding, of knowing, of being right or wrong. Their function is to anticipate and monitor progress to the goal. 2) My second proposal is that the specific awareness of noetic feelings as of our past or future cognitive outcomes can be explained by a semantic relation between indexing and noetic feelings that I call "functional projection".

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

My definition of action is articulated as a causal relation between a motivating goal representation G and the attempt to bring it about by executing H. Acting to obtain goal G, then, means

Df: Being motivated to have goal G realised → (causes) trying to bring about H in order to see G realised, where H refers to the set of bodily and cognitive dispositions that have been selected as instrumental for the realisation of G.

This definition needs to be fleshed out by specifying, in each case, the selection mechanism for a specific forward model (i.e. an instrumentally reliable dynamic representation mediating a given goal and its external target).

Mental actions have a similar structure.

Df: Being motivated to have mental goal G realised → (=causes) trying to bring about H in order to see G realised, where H refers to the set of cognitive dispositions and normative comparators that have been selected as constitutive constraints for H reliably producing G.

This characterization stresses the functional association of epistemic normativity and receptivity. Given the importance of normative requirements in mental actions, there has to exist a capacity for observing, or for intuitively grasping, where norms lie in a given case. Constitutive norm sensitivity is a receptive capacity without which no mental action could be performed. No such normativity is present in bodily action.

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

Helen Steward's proposal of an ontology of action as process-based rather that event-based is an important clarification for articulating the causal structure of action.

Work on joint action helps me realize that an individualistic concept of action – whether bodily or mental – cannot be adequate for an account of its cooperative nature and for its role in communication. I share with Steve Butterfill the conviction that we need an account of joint action that is compatible with the premise that joint action plays a role in explaining how humans develop abilities to think about minds and actions of others. Steve Butterfill's own work offers promising routes of investigation. The recent book I co-edited on Metacognitive Diversity with Martin Fortier is an attempt to overcome my own past individualistic stance on mental action.

A theory of group agency, as proposed by List and Pettit, is an important source of inspiration for philosophers who want to explore collective epistemic actions as non-aggregative, non-reducible forms of actions, and the nature of the underlying group attitudes. I found this book a source of inspiration for proposing a conceptual analysis of consensual acceptance as a group attitude.

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

On a naturalist approach to action, a teleological explanation should be offered for the switch from ‘motivational’ states to ‘executive states’. The puzzle that a teleological explanation solves is that agents do not need to "voluntarily" switch into the active condition for genuinely acting, because efficient willing, somewhat paradoxically, is something that happens to them. There is much more to be said about this puzzle.

Teleological explanations have a recurrent form that needs to be explored more closely in connection with issues such as freedom and responsibility. How responsible for their actions are agents who behave just as their peers do in a given culture, in the absence of alternative models (for example, by treating brutally animals, subordinates, and members of an outgroup)? Similarly, granting that teleological explanations apply to so-called arational thoughts, it would be interesting to distinguish the forms of trade-offs, temporal constraints and associated evolutionary pressures that explain the persistence of impulsive actions. Most of our mental actions are impulsive. Still, given time limitations, they are quite rational. Individualistic and collective conceptions of action might in combination shed light on this issue.

2018 May 05

Many thanks to Prof Proust for her answers!

Ezio Di Nucci (University of Copenhagen)

We publish this week Dr Ezio Di Nucci’s mini-interview answers. Dr Di Nucci works at the moment as Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen. He has published extensively on actions, double effect, and several topics in ethics and bioethics, including drones, questions connected to robots and AI, and the ethics of killing. He recently co-edited with Filippo Santoni Drones and Responsibility and published his monograph Ethics without Intention. Enjoy!

1. How did you become interested in Philosophy of Action?

I am not really sure, but I do remember that sometime during my undergrad in Rome I discovered Anscombe´s Intention – probably through Wittgenstein´s philosophy of psychology remarks in the second part of the Investigations. Anscombe got me interested in the concept of intentional action; and then when I got to Edinburgh for graduate school there were plenty of people working in or around the philosophy of action, starting from Rae Langton and Richard Holton, with whom I did my Masters Dissertation on questions of responsibility; and then Matt Nudds and Bill Pollard (who supervised my PhD), Andy Clark, Mike Ridge, Till Vierkant, etc. And also graduate students like Conor McHugh and Dave Ward - and Markus Schlosser at St. Andrews. Working in such a tiny field like action theory you are very often kind of on your own locally, but in Edinburgh in the ´00 there was more than enough support and feedback.

I ended up writing my PhD on whether so-called automatic actions qualify as intentional actions – arguing that they did. At the time philosophers mostly thought that was a non-problem – following Davidson – but I have the impression that now people are (finally?) starting to be increasingly interested in these questions, probably influenced by all the priming, bias and related research in behavioural psychology – however reliable that actually is.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

Well, I probably should not be saying this given the context, but I am not doing as much action theory these days as I used to: I guess I wanted my work to have more direct and obvious applications than the highly theoretical arguments within the philosophy of action, so I started doing more and more ethics and applied ethics, even though I continued approaching these new topics from an action-theoretical point of view, so for example I wrote a book on double effect, which enabled me to apply many insights from action theory to normative and even applied questions. Today most of my work is in ethics and applied ethics (and increasingly bioethics and ethics of technology). But let me give you an example of how action-theoretical concepts still play a big role, I hope: I am currently working on something I call the ´control paradox´; technology and innovation are supposed to give us more and better control over both ourselves and the environment; but, funnily enough, we mostly discuss technological innovation in terms of risks for loss of control – so the paradox is supposed to be this idea that we innovate in order to gain more control but by innovating we actually risk losing the very thing we are trying to improve on. I am thinking of so-called self-driving cars, drones and autonomous weapons, smart environments, but also simple things like passwords – and even Facebook, or so I am going to argue. Briefly, I think the practice of delegation is crucial to the control paradox, and delegating is an action-theoretical concept (and obviously control itself is too!).

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

Enough with the small talk, eh? My account of what an action is would probably be too traditional and conventional to be worth your time, but maybe I am less of a traditionalist - and also more inclusive - when it comes to intentional action – so that for example I believe that automatic actions are intentional actions and also that side-effects are intentional actions – even though the latter is something that Michael Bratman would probably endorse too, so not very original. I actually think that these two claims are somewhat related though: both automatic actions and side-effects have in common that, on some accounts, we intend neither – even though the reasons why we would not speak of intention are different in each case, so that in the former case that has to do with lack of deliberation and maybe even lack of awareness; while in the latter case the double effect debate is very clear about the fact that side-effects are just as foreseen as means or ends; still, they are supposed to be unintended (but, indeed, not necessarily unintentional). I don´t want to overdo my claim here but it is tempting to think of the connection between these two separate and very different debates as having to do with over-intellectualism about agency.

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

Having already confessed to being – at best – a former philosopher of action, you will forgive me if I am not so up-to-date with all recent developments in the field. If you are thinking of important in terms of influence within the field, then I guess we can´t not mention Joshua Knobe´s work, even though the initial excitement seems to have died down a bit or anyway have moved on to other fields. And the same I would probably say for joint agency, social ontology etc.

If instead you are thinking in terms of what I take to be important independently from its influence on the field, one thing I would mention is Carolina Sartorio´s work on omissions. And personally, I am also happy that the questions I have spent a lot of time on are starting to get a bit more traction: I am thinking for example of Barbara Montero´s recent monograph with OUP, Thought in Action.

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

Well, that´s easy: the direction that I am trying to take myself! No, honestly, I do think it is beneficial to use insights from action theory – and action-theoretical concepts – to deal with a lot of normative and even applied issues, like the examples I have given above. And I am not just talking about double effect, I also mean, say, questions relating to consent, or responsibility – and even, indeed, technological innovation.

Allow me again to use the practice of delegating a task as an example: we delegate tasks to colleagues, family members, fellow citizens, but also – increasingly – devices such as our mobile phones and above all software and algorithms. Who is in control once we have delegated? And who is responsible for the successful completion – or maybe failure – of the delegated task? Those are questions in the philosophy of action proper I believe; but their ramifications are so obvious and urgent that – even within a system of division of academic and scientific labour – it would be very useful if philosophers of action would investigate these questions themselves; in this respect, I must say that someone like John Searle – who gets a lot of bad press – is an example of having gradually moved on, during his career, to apply theoretical insights to practical questions.

2018 April 28

Many thanks to Dr Di Nucci for his answers!

Sabine Döring (University of Tübingen)

This week we publish Professor Sabine Döring’s insightful answers to our interview questions. She is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tübingen. Her publications range over action explanation, emotions, motivation and cognitive neuroscience. Enjoy!

1. How did you become interested in Philosophy of Action?

My interest in philosophy of action developed hand in hand with my interest in philosophy of emotion. It was triggered by the problem that at least some emotional actions, namely expressive actions, don’t seem to fit into the mould of Donald Davidson’s standard belief-desire model of action explanation.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

My main research project at the moment is a book on the role of emotions in agency, which, on my account, requires an understanding of the normative requirements that apply to our mental states in general. In my 2015 paper 'What’s Wrong with Recalcitrant Emotions? From Irrationality to Challenge of Agential Identity' I argued against the currently predominant view that it is irrational to experience an emotion that persists despite the agent’s conflicting judgement. There just is no rational requirement forbidding this, even though recalcitrant emotions do sometimes seem to challenge the agent’s identity. Starting on from this, I aim to establish that other rational requirements are grounded in the property of being constitutive of agency, so as to explain the distinctive norms on emotions on this basis.

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

This is a hard question as I am skeptical about whether we can provide a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what actions are. This problem arises not least because theories of action are typically embedded in more comprehensive theories which in their turn are guided by specific interests. Thus, it makes a difference whether I am a philosopher of mind, who is primarily interested in understanding action in relation to bodily movements and their empirical explanation; or whether I am an ethicist whose main concern is with the autonomous acts or actions of self-governed agents. My main interest in full-blooded action, guided by the agent, and not so much in actions as events or processes. Full-blooded action requires the agent to act for reasons which he or she sees as such. An autonomous agent must guide his or her actions via reasons seen as reasons, which, on my view, means that he or she must comply with the rational requirements that apply to his or her intentions and other mental states, so as to make his or her action an expression of his practical identity.

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

The first project that comes to my mind here is the attempt to provide an account of intentions which presents them as distinct mental states. This project was influentially undertaken in Michael Bratman’s Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (1987). Opposing the early Davidson, according to whom intentions could be analyzed as complexes of beliefs and desires, Bratman established that intentions play a unique role in psychological explanations and are subject to specific rational requirements. As the relevant requirements are understood as requirements of coherence between mental states, contemporary theories of practical rationality and normativity now make a crucial distinction: that between rationality as coherence between an agent’s mental states and rationality as a matter of correctly responding to reasons. Some philosophers (such as J. David Velleman, Christine Korsgaard or Michael Smith) hold that the normativity of the relevant requirements could be derived from the constitutive features of agency. The solution of our metanormative and, more specifically, metaethical problems would thus emerge from the philosophy of action: agency would give us all we need in order to give an account of practical normativity. Despite all arguments put forward against this project (notably by David Enoch), I still regard it as promising and thrilling.

The focus on intentions as distinct mental states has led to a second more recent development which I find important: cognitivism about intentions (as put forward by Velleman or Kieran Setiya). This is the view that intentions are or involve beliefs about what one is doing, a view that is meant to flesh out Elizabeth’s Anscombe’s idea that our knowledge of our actions is “knowledge without observation“. By this Anscombe means that the agent has some immediate awareness of his or her physical activity and of the goals that the activity is aimed at. While Anscombe’s idea may seem intuitively plausible, it’s tough and yet important to substantiate this intuition.

A third development I regard as important is a more thorough examination of what desires are. In philosophy of action, desires are typically described as “pro-attitudes” whose determinate characteristic is their motivational force. Yet contemporary philosophers neglected the issue of the nature of desire. This issue came into focus only recently (see, in particular, Federico Lauria & Julien Deonna’s 2017-OUP volume The Nature of Desire). It led to evaluativism, i.e., the view that desires just are, or necessarily involve, positive evaluations of their objects. Evaluativism currently enjoys widespread popularity in many philosophical circles it is supposed to explain how desires can rationalize action and thereby solve a particular puzzle about the role that desires play in the explanation of action. However, as I have argued together with Bahadir Eker in our 2017-chapter 'Desires without Guises: Why We Need Not Value What We Want', evaluativism does not offer any help whatsoever in dealing with the relevant puzzle. Furthermore, evaluativism, in both of its doxastic and perceptual versions, overstates and mischaracterizes the connection between desires and evaluations.

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

I would like to see a stronger link not only between action theory and the theory of practical rationality and metaethics, but also between action theory and normative ethics. A good example is Gideon Yaffe’s ambitious Attempts (2010) which is guided by the thought that an adequate understanding of the normative commitments of intentions will have significant implications for how we ought to structure the criminal law.

2017 April 21

Many thanks to Prof Döring for her answers!

John Schwenkler (Florida State University)

This week I have the pleasure of publishing Dr John Schwenkler’s answers to our mini-interview questions. Dr Schwenkler currently serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy of Florida State University. In his publications he has tackled many issues of practical knowledge, knowledge of actions, intentions, self-knowledge and other aspects of actions and epistemology. Enjoy!

1. How did you become interested in Philosophy of Action?

My work in the philosophy of action grew out of a project on the relationship between perception and self-consciousness. Action is an interesting case where the scope of self-consciousness – of what an agent can know, not infallibly, but in a way that an outside observer of her action cannot – is not limited to her internal mental states, but includes her bodily movements and also what happens in the wider world, insofar as this is part of the execution of her intention. Moreover, perception seems to play a central role in making this self-consciousness possible, though perhaps not by providing evidence that supports the agent's knowledge of what she does.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

I am nearly finished writing a book-length commentary on G.E.M. Anscombe's Intention. I also have projects underway concerning the nature of intention and practical reasoning.

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

Following Anscombe (as I understand her), I hold that intentional action is practically known movement. This requires explication, of course: we need to clarify the sense of 'movement' and explain what it is for movement to be practically known. I think it requires some qualification as well, since sometimes we do things intentionally without knowing that we are doing what we intend. But I think it stands up well as a characterization of the fundamental case.

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

Gilbert Ryle's book The Concept of Mind is usually treated as an instance of outmoded philosophical behaviorism, but that's a mistake. Ryle's account of intelligent action is filled with insight that philosophers today could learn a lot from if we could bring ourselves to approach his argument on its own terms.

Anscombe's Intention is indisputably the seminal work in 20th-century philosophy of action, though most of that tradition has consisted in obscuring her best insights, thanks largely to the work of ...

Donald Davidson, whose paper ‘Actions, Reasons, and Causes’ is correct in its central thesis – that the reason-giving explanation of action is a kind of causal explanation – but not in the way that thesis is developed there and in the flood of work that came in its wake. That work assumes that all legitimate causal explanation has the form of explanation that we find in the natural sciences, paradigmatically fundamental physics (or at least a layperson's caricature of it). Given this assumption, the Davidsonian tradition insists on assimilating the workings of the mind to that model. But no such assimilation is possible. (P.S. Davidson was also wrong to claim that Ryle and Anscombe denied that reasons-explanations were causal.)

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

I think I've tipped my hand there! I think there are lots of insights in Anscombe's and Ryle's work that today's philosophers of action need to revisit. To do that, however, we need to lose the habit of reading that work anachronistically, in terms of the project of Davidson and his followers. I don't mean to say that this project has been fruitless (that's not true!!), but only that it's a mistake to think that there's no viable alternative to it. And we can't read philosophers like Ryle and Anscombe – or, for that matter, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant – productively unless we are willing to take their projects seriously on their own terms.

2017 April 14

Many thanks to Dr Schwenkler for his answers!

Joshua Shepherd (Carleton University)

Today we publish the answers of Dr Joshua Shepherd. Dr Shepherd is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department of Carleton University. He has published widely on several aspects of action and agency including their connections with consciousness, control, free will, automatic and zombie action, and mental actions like deciding. His book Consciousness and Moral Status is in the making and he is also Principal Investigator of the ERC project ‘Rethinking Conscious Agency’. Enjoy.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

In the summer of 2018 I will begin a five year project called ‘Rethinking Conscious Agency,’ funded by the European Research Council, and hosted at the University of Barcelona. As part of this project, I have a number of articles planned on different aspects of the psychological architecture underpinning consciousness, agency, and their relationships. One part of this that seems to be coming together is a book tentatively titled The Shape of Agency. In it, I try to give accounts of control over behavior, non-deviant causation, the nature of agency, the nature of skill, and the places of knowledge and practical reasoning in all this.

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

I’m a causalist, and my view is in line with causalists like Goldman, Brand, Mele, and Bratman. In accounting for action, my emphasis is on control over behavior. So, in a 2014 paper called ‘The contours of control’ (in Philosophical Studies), I offer an account of control. The rough idea is that to possess control is to possess an ability to flexibly and repeatedly bring one’s behavior to match the content of relevant motivational states (like intentions), across sufficiently wide sets of circumstances. And then to exercise the control that one possesses is to behave in a particular case via causal pathways that would be those normally operative in the good cases, where ‘would be’ is indexed to wide sets of counterfactual circumstances. With such an account in hand, one can begin to talk of intentional action – to act intentionally is to exercise a sufficient degree of control over one’s behavior in executing some relevant motivational state. As I say, that’s rough. It doesn’t address side-effects, or people who think there’s a good category ‘action’ that’s something distinct from ‘intentional action,’ among other things. The 2014 paper spells the rough idea out in more detail, and the in-progress book will expand upon that and hopefully clarify some bits of the account that have been nagging me.

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

I’m not confident I can accurately name the most important developments. The field is impressively broad and rich, with connections between action, moral psychology, and ethics on one end, and between action, consciousness, mind, metaphysics and epistemology on another. And of course, there are cross-connections between items within these two clusters. For my part, here are three areas full of exciting recent work.

The first concerns work on the psychological architecture underlying action. This is an enormous area. Some of this focuses on attention (Wayne Wu), some focuses on decision making (Al Mele), some focuses on perception and its connection with knowledge of action (Thor Grünbaum). Some focuses on the interface between cognition and motor control (I’m thinking of important papers by Steve Butterfill and Corrado Sinigaglia, and by Myrto Mylopoulos and Elisabeth Pacherie). Some of this focuses on the structure of control, including work on automaticity, motor control, skill learning, conscious control, etc. – see Wayne Christensen or Ellen Fridland.

The second area surrounds the phenomenology (or sometimes the ‘awareness’) of action, its surprising complexity, and its implications for other philosophical debates. Lots of great philosophers have written in this area – Terence Horgan, Uriah Kriegel, Elisabeth Pacherie, Tim Bayne, Hong Yu Wong, and Oisin Deery come to mind.

The third area involves exploration of the epistemic issues in action, including action’s rational structure (Michael Thompson, Markos Valaris), the nature of knowledge-how (lots of people), of understanding (John Bengson), the role of knowledge (including knowledge-how, and sometimes self-knowledge) in accounts of action and skill (Carlotta Pavese, Lucy O’Brien, John Hyman, Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, Ernest Sosa).

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

I would like to see the increase of something that is happening a bit more lately, but which could happen much more, namely, conversation and cross-fertilization between people and ideas at different ends of various spectra – so, conversation between Anscombeians and Causalists (done by, e.g., Sarah Paul, John Schwenkler, Kieran Setiya), between the aforementioned who emphasize connections of action and epistemology, or psychological architecture, or phenomenology, and those who emphasize metaphysics (I haven’t named people in this group, and there are too many to name, but Maria Alvarez, Randy Clarke, Andrei Buckareff, Matt Soteriou, Constantine Sandis, Jesus Aguilar, Stephen Kearns, Markus Schlosser, Rowland Stout, Douglas Lavin, Helen Steward, and many others). I think cross-fertilization often leads to new insights, is intrinsically interesting, sometimes helps us avoid merely verbal disputes, and generates greater understanding of one’s colleagues.

2017 April 7

Many thanks to Dr Shepherd for his answers!

Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco (University of Surrey)

This weekend starts with the answers of Prof Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco. She is Professor in Moral and Legal Philosophy at the University of Surrey Centre for Law and Philosophy. Her work addresses questions on intentions, practical reasoning and reasons, dignity, and legal normativism. She is well known for her monograph Law and Authority under the Guise of the Good. She also co-edited with George Pavlakos Reasons and Intentions in Law and Practical Agency, and more recently Dignity in the Legal and Political Philosophy of Ronald Dworkin with Salman Kurshid and Dr Lokendra Malik.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a monograph whose focus is a new conception of negligent acts. It is a very exciting new way of thinking about the topic as the research is located at the intersection of action theory, moral psychology, perception, and legal and moral responsibility. To summarise, the book starts with the idea that we are confronted with the puzzle that we can only be responsible for what we can control, and by acting in negligence we are not able to control the act due to our non-culpable ignorance. This standard view leads necessarily to a sceptical position. Thus, assigning responsibility for negligence necessitates establishing that an act is performed or an omission committed prior to the negligent act, which is done in culpable ignorance. However, if you do something knowing that you should not have done it, then you are acting akratically. The sceptic claims that, unfortunately, we do not sufficiently understand how weakness of the will (akrasia) really works and therefore, we cannot explain how responsibility in negligence is possible. Contra the sceptical position, I show that there is a surprising and so far unidentified deep relationship between negligence and akrasia where ignorance, imagination, perception of pleasure and a kind of control play a key role in inadvertently acting.

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

Actions should be understood as a spectrum whose central or paradigmatic case is intentional action. Other types of action, e.g. compulsive, non- intentional, can be understood in relation to the paradigmatic case. We can say that an intentional action is an activity or something we produce in the world as we understand it. Following Elizabeth Anscombe, I have argued that an intentional action has four key characteristics: A) intentional action is composed of a number of stages or series of actions whose later stages swallow up former stages. B) Intentional action is something actually done, brought about according to the order conceived or imagined by the agent. C) Intentional action involves knowledge that is non-observational, but it might be aided by observation. D) In acting intentionally, we exercise our practical knowledge. We can understand practical knowledge if we understand the structure of practical reasoning.

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

The work of Elizabeth Anscombe and its rediscovery and re-interpretation in the context of its historical background, the philosophies of action of Thomas Aquinas and Ludwig Wittgenstein, have shed light on new and fascinating views on intentional action. Additionally, recent work on omissions [see also our first interview with Randolph Clarke], duress, self-deception and the role of knowledge in action has contributed to enrich the landscape of legal and moral responsibility.

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

I would like to see further reflection on philosophy of action connected to crucial problems of substantive law and theoretical insights on the nature of legal and moral responsibility. More work on the history of ideas related to action theory stimulates our own understanding of contemporary problems and motivates new ways forward. Additionally, establishing a broad church for a conversation among philosophers with different philosophical methodologies, cognitive scientists/neuroscientists and lawyers will enrich the field of legal and moral responsibility. Finally, further dialogues between Ancient Philosophers, whose work focuses on the metaphysics of action, and action theorists would enable us to develop deeper understandings of both the idea that intentional action runs in parallel with practical reason and the view that there is an underpinning plausible metaphysics to it.

2017 March 31

Many thanks to Prof Rodriguez-Blanco!

Markus Schlosser (University College Dublin)

We are publishing this week Markus Schlosser’s answers to our questions. He is Lecturer in Philosophy at University College Dublin and has published extensively on agency, free will, reasons and causes, and the connections between philosophy, neuroscience and cognitive science. He recently published ‘Embodied Cognition and Temporally Extended Agency’ and ‘Traditional Compatibilism Reformulated and Defended’, and his next piece, titled ‘Dual-system theory and the role of consciousness in intentional action’, is coming out soon in B. Feltz, M. Missal, & A. Sims (eds.) Free Will, Language, and Neuroscience with Brill. Last but not least, he also wrote the 'Agency' entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

In my recent research, I looked at the dual-process theories that are currently widely deployed in psychology and cognitive science. They most commonly distinguish between cognitive processes that are fast, automatic, and unconscious, and processes that are slow, deliberate, and conscious. My main research question was whether the standard causal theory of action, as we know it in philosophy, can be captured within this dual-process architecture. I argue that the causal theory can be accommodated in this framework, if we add certain conditions about the causal histories of habitual actions.

In other work, I defended representationalism about the mind against challenges from embodied and enactive cognition. The debates on this have focused on the execution of skills that are governed by the circumstances, and they have neglected temporally extended planning agency, such as teaching a course, doing a Master’s degree, or going on vacation. My main argument is that the explanation of planning agency requires the ascription of representational mental states.

Most recently, I have become interested in Eastern philosophy, initially Buddhism and then Advaita Vedanta (the main school of Hinduism). I am especially intrigued by their claim that the individual sense of self is illusory and how this bears on their conceptions of agency. Another interesting aspect is that Eastern philosophy sees questions about the self and agency directly linked with questions about human suffering. The identification with desires is seen as a major cause of suffering, mediated by the formation of attachments and cravings. In future research I hope to explore those issues from the perspective of Western philosophy.

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

In most of my work, I have defended the standard causal theory of action. It says, in rough outline, that action is to be explained in terms of the intentionality of intentional action, and that intentional action is to be explained in terms of non-deviant causation by the agent’s desires, beliefs, and intentions. There are many well-known problems with this position, but I have yet to see a better alternative. In my research, I have proposed solutions to the problem of deviant causal chains, I have argued that the problem of the disappearing agent is a pseudo-problem, I have defended the view against the rival agent-causal theory, and I have discussed various empirical challenges from the neuroscience of free will, the research on automaticity, and situationism.

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

All depends here on what we mean by ‘recent’. Since Anscombe and Davidson’s important contributions, I would identify the following three milestones. First, Frankfurt’s early work on the hierarchical model of agency. Second, Bratman’s focus on planning agency and his argument for the irreducibility of intentions. Third, evidence and theories from empirical psychology and cognitive science (on automaticity, conscious control, the role of attention, the influence of situational factors, the sense of agency, etc.).

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

In the philosophy of action, I would like to see more engagement with empirical research, even though this has become somewhat problematic with the replication crisis in social psychology. A lot of the research that is most interesting for the philosophy of action comes from this area (such as the research on automaticity and implicit bias). The empirical research on self-control has also been in a crisis. For a couple of decades it seemed that the limited resource model of willpower has very solid empirical support. But this has changed rather dramatically in the past few years, and now one has to wait and see where the research will take this area. It can be frustrating for philosophers when their arguments and theories are hostage to empirical science in this way. Nevertheless, I think that the philosophy of action can benefit greatly from empirically informed theorizing. Concerning my own research direction, I hope to bring ideas from Eastern philosophy into the philosophy of action, and I would like to see more of that in the field and within Western philosophy in general. I believe that Eastern thought has a lot to offer and that it can open exciting new pathways in Western debates.

2018 March 24

Many thanks to Dr Schlosser!

Helen Steward (University of Leeds)

This week we have the pleasure of publishing the answers provided by Helen Steward who is Professor of Philosophy at Leeds University. Prof Steward is acclaimed for her work on metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action and free will. She also led the project ‘Persons as Animals: Understanding the Animal Bases of Agency, Perceptual Knowledge and Thought’ and is the author of A Metaphysics for Freedom.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

I'm currently thinking more about an idea I've been defending for a while - that actions are best thought of as processes (not events) - and the relation between that thesis as I understand it and the fascinating processual philosophy of biology being developed and defended by e.g. John Dupré. The Dupré view hopes to dispense altogether with the category of substance (and hence, I take it, with the subsumed category of agent), except as a kind of convenience. I'm more inclined to think we have to have both substance and process - and that the categories are mutually dependent - so I'm wondering about how the challenging biological arguments marshalled by Dupré are to be met.

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

On my view, an action is an agent's causing something to happen in/to their body, and perhaps also in the world beyond that body, in such a way that the agent thereby settles something. I don't believe that actions have to be intentional, or that they must be the upshot of practical reasoning; as I understand it, actions are performed by many quite simple animals. What is crucial is that where we have something that is genuinely an action we have something that can be traced to the agent as its discretionary source - even if the agent's role is merely to permit it to occur when she could have prevented it (as e.g. may be the case with sub-intentional actions, habitual actions, etc.). I conceive of agents as hierarchically-organised biological entities, in which much activity is devolved to sub-systems. What is distinctive of action is that it is produced or permitted by the top-level system, as it were - the agent herself.

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

The three most important recent developments in philosophy of action, for my money, are:

(i) the increasing recognition that philosophy of biology is highly relevant to the philosophy of action (and vice versa!)

(ii) the recent spate of excellent work on the category of power;

(iii) recent challenges to the dominance of the category of event when it comes to conceptualising action.

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

I'd like to see philosophy of biology interacting more closely with philosophy of action. I think it would have benefits for both fields. Denis Walsh has argued that evolutionary theory requires to be freed from the so-called 'Modern Synthesis' theory of evolution, which views evolution as a fundamentally molecular phenomenon - and that the role played by adaptive agents in evolution needs to be recognised. Philosophy of action needs to feed into this debate. I'd also like to see metaphysicians developing the necessary ontologies for thinking about action in new ways - ontologies which I think are going to have to include concepts of power, process and ability - and new conceptions of what causation is. Another area which I think needs attention is the way in which we human beings categorise and conceptualise movement and change in the world around us. Developmental psychologists have done a lot of work on this - and it is unquestionably relevant to understanding how we have come to have the conceptions of action, change, movement, causation, etc. that we have. We'd improve our philosophy of causation - and thereby our philosophies of action and of explanation - by paying more attention to it.

2018 March 17

Many thanks to Prof Steward!

Alfred R. Mele (Florida State University)

This Saturday we are publishing Prof Al Mele’s answers to our questions. He is currently the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University, and he was the Director of the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control Project, and Director of the Big Questions in Free Will Project. He has published on several issues connected to actions including free will and responsibility, the relation of free will and science, irrationality, agency, self-deception, luck, motivation and autonomy. His most recent monographs are Aspects of Agency: Decisions, Abilities, Explanations and Free Will, and Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. He also edited Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

Just this week, I completed a book manuscript entitled Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility. The main question addressed is this: What can we learn about moral responsibility from thought experiments about manipulated agents? I have spent a lot of time in the past fifteen years or so on connections between science (especially neuroscience) and such things as free will and moral responsibility. This book – like my 2017 book, Aspects of Agency – is almost exclusively theoretical. Next on the agenda is completing some articles I have agreed to write; the topics are self-deception, reasons explanation, decision making, and more on the neuroscientific skepticism about free will. And then, I believe, I will critically explore the scientific case for the thesis that we have a very poor understanding of why we do the things we do.

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

I’ve never taken a stand on exactly what it is for something to be an action. I have taken a stand on what it is for an action to be intentional (for example, in a 1994 article coauthored with Paul Moser). Broadly speaking, I take actions to be events with a causal history of the right sort. Spelling out what the right sort is isn’t something I’ll try to do here.

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

Given that the philosophy of action dates back to Plato, I have elected to interpret “recent” as “since 1950 or so.”

a. Donald Davidson’s revival of causal theories of action explanation in his 1963 article, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.”

b. Harry Frankfurt’s reshaping of the moral responsibility and free will landscape in his 1969 article, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.”

c. Intention’s becoming a central topic in the philosophy of action. Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Bratman deserve considerable credit for this.

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

The philosophy of action is going in several directions at once and probably will continue to do so. That is a good thing in my opinion. There is traditional theoretical work, scientifically informed work on a wide range topics in the field (intentions, intentional action, conscious control, self-control, weakness of will, moral responsibility, the sense of agency, and free will, for example), and survey-style experimental philosophy on such concepts as intentional action, moral responsibility, weakness of will, and free will. The philosophy of action is a good home for all of this.

2018 March 10

Many thanks to Prof Mele for his answers!

Giuseppina D'Oro (Keele University)

Our next guest on the site in our series of mini-interviews is Guiseppina D’Oro who is reader in Philosophy at the University of Keele. She is an expert on Collingwood and philosophy of action, and has published on the philosophy of mind, metaphilosophy and the distinctions between the human and the natural sciences. She edited with Søren Overgaard The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology, and as well as putting together a volume titled Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Anti-Causalism in the Philosophy of Action with Constantine Sandis.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

The advent of the Anthropocene, a geological period in which human kind has become a significant geological force capable of initiating irreversible environmental changes, has prompted claims that historical narratives should go well beyond the relatively recent human past and locate human actions in the context of a deeper, longer-term, geological history (see Dipesh Chakrabarty's ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’). It is also claimed that the advent of the Anthropocene spells the end of the distinction between the historical past (the history of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian civilizations etc.) and the natural past. Advocates of deep history on a geological time scale claim that the distinction between the historical and the natural past is based on questionable anthropocentric assumptions, on a form of human exceptionalism which takes the human being out of the realm of nature. My recent research argues that the distinction between the historical past and the natural past is not based on a form of human exceptionalism, but on the view that understanding past agents requires understanding their actions as expressions of norms rather than subsume them under empirical regularities or natural laws. “Action”, understood as a response to norms, should not be conflated with “human action”, or the deeds performed by the biological species “human”. The naturalization of the past that has been advocated in the wake of the Anthropocene is based on the conflation of the category “action” with that of “human action”. I have defended this claim in a recent talk, “Beyond Scientism and Historicism: Collingwood and the role of the philosophy of history”, which will also appear as a paper soon.

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

Let me say what actions are not. Actions are not events, not because actions are transcendent metaphysical entities, but because they are the correlative of a distinctive form of explanation, which is distinct in kind from the explanation of events. This conception of action has its roots in the metaphilosophical view that method determines subject matter and thus that how we explain determines what is being explained or the nature of one’s subject matter. On this view scientific method can never explain actions, because through the methods of science one can only come to know the explanandum of science: events. I have defended the claim that actions elude scientific explanations in “The Touch of king Midas: Collingwood on why actions are not events”.

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

I will mention two. A crucial development in the philosophy of action was the shift to a causalist orthodoxy in the aftermath of Davidson’s 1963 essay “Actions, Reasons and Causes”. Prior to Davidson the orthodoxy in the philosophy of action was anti-causalist. Pre-Davidsonian non-reductivists claimed that actions are explained by appealing to norms, while events are explained by appealing to empirical regularities or laws. For example: one does not explain why drivers stop at red traffic lights in the same way in which one explains why the sunflower turns towards the sun. On this account of how the explanation of action differs from the explanation of events, to speak of reasons as the causes of action makes no sense because the relation between actions, and the norms which they express, is not a temporal one. Davidson persuaded many that it makes sense to speak of “rationalizing causes” of action, something that would have previously been regarded as a category mistake. I have defended pre-Davidsonian non-reductivism in my “Reasons and causes: the philosophical battle and the metaphilosophical war”.

Another important development in the philosophy of action is connected to the rising fortunes of externalism and the view that justification must track the truth. In the philosophy of action this has led to the view that if the facts are not as agents conceive them to be then the considerations in the light of which an agent acts fall short of being reasons for acting. Externalism’s popularity has led to a focus on reasons in an epistemological context that is very removed from the interpretative concerns of a humanistically oriented philosophy of history and social science. I have argued that the notion of “reasons for acting” is suppler than the externalist allows it to be, and that there are different contexts of justification (epistemic, moral, hermeneutic) which should be duly distinguished in “The justificandum of the human sciences: Collingwood on reasons for acting”.

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

It is clear from the above that whereas I think that the “causalist turn” and the “externalist turn” were important developments which shaped the agenda of the philosophy of action, I do not agree with some of their underlying assumptions. I liked the philosophy of action best when it was embedded within the philosophy of history and social science and addressed methodological questions concerning the nature of explanation in the human and natural sciences. I would like to see a return to the concerns which were central to the philosophy of action before Davidson legitimized talk of reasons as causes and before externalism denied the status of “reasons” to considerations lacking a connection with truth.

2018 March 3

Many thanks to Prof D’Oro for her answers!

Bence Nanay (University of Antwerp & University of 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 asco-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!

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.

2018 February 17

Many thanks to Prof Hieronymi!

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.

2018 February 10

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.

2018 February 3

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.

2018 January 27

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.

2018 January 20

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.

2018 January 13

Many thanks to Prof Smith for his answers!