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!