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!