PHILOSOPHY of Action
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Giuseppina D'Oro (Keele)
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!