Pamela Hieronymi (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!