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!