Andrei A Buckareff (Marist College, New York)

This week we publish with much joy the answers of Andrei A. Buckareff, who is one of the two founders of this website. He is currently works Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York. He wrote on mental action, reasons-explanations and intentional action, agent-causation, and also the legal and ethical consequences of our views of action. He is also prolific as an editor having co-published with Jesús Aguilar and Keith Franksih New Waves in Philosophy of Action and Agency, Freedom and Moral Responsibility with Carlos Moya and Sergi Rosell, as well as Alternative Concepts of God: Essays on the Metaphysics of the Divine with Yujin Nagasawa. Enjoy!

1. How did you become interested in the philosophy of action?

Like many who work in the philosophy of action, my point of entry was with the free will debate. Before I went to university, I developed an interest in theological puzzles related to divine providence and foreknowledge and creaturely free will. My interest in the problem only increased once I began my studies. The first philosophical essay I wrote was on free will. It was for an introductory philosophy course during my first-year. I argued that Augustine was best understood as defending a version of compatibilism (something I still believe about the later views of Augustine).

I had the good fortune of taking a free will course during my junior year. It was a team taught course. One of the instructors, J.P. Moreland, was a libertarian. The other instructor, David Ciocchi, endorsed a version of compatibilism. It was in that course that I was first exposed to foundational issues in the philosophy of action. We read parts of Alvin Goldman’s Theory of Human Action (1970). I soon concluded that sorting out one’s foundational action theoretic commitments was vital if one wished to stake out a well-informed position in other debates over agency, including free will. While I continued (and still continue) to work on free will, the primary focus of my research became questions about the nature of intentional action and reasons-explanations of action.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

My research at the moment has focused on applying a neo-Aristotelian ontology of causal powers and a metaphysic of causation that grows out of it to thinking about intentional agency. This project has thus far resulted in a few articles and a couple of book chapters. The heart of the project is a book I am co-authoring with Jesús H. Aguilar (Rochester Institute of Technology) for The MIT Press that is tentatively entitled, Revising Natural Agency: Causal Powers, Causal Processes, and the Causal Theory of Agency.

The focus of the project on which I am working on with Jesús Aguilar is on revising the causal theory of action by doing two things. First, we urge revisiting the ontological commitments of the theory and argue that we should build a causal theory of action up from a broadly neo-Aristotelian ontological foundation and dispense with the neo-Humean orthodoxies that have dominated so much of contemporary metaphysics, including the metaphysics of mind and action.

Second, we contend that in order to successfully deal with challenges to the causal theory of action, we should distinguish between a causal theory of intentional agency and a causal theory of action. We take the former to imply the latter. Hence, most of our effort is spent on articulating a causal theory of intentional agency. We show how it relates to a causal theory of action, and consider how the framework we develop can aid in responding to numerous challenges faced by causalism in the literature, such as the problems of agential guidance, causal deviance, the absent agent, and intentional omissions. While work on the project is empirically informed, one of the primary motivations for the project was to try to infuse a little more ontological seriousness into work on the metaphysics of agency and examine how a powers metaphysics can be expanded. My hope is that some of this work will help shed light on related issues in the philosophy of mind (such as mental causation) as well as debates in the metaphysics of free will on ability.

3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?

I actually follow the boring standard schemas provided by proponents of the standard (causalist) story of action. So some behavior A (whether overt or mental) is an action if and only if it is caused in the right way by some mental items directed at A-ing that motivated and causally explain A. I do not, however, think this schema is adequate to capture what agency is.

I assume that our exercises of agency include, but are not limited to our actions. They would include our omissions to act. And I assume that we exercise agency with respect to the outcomes of our actions. So, I have presented the following schema for a causal theory of intentional agency in my paper, “I’m Just Sitting Around Doing Nothing: On Exercising Intentional Agency in Omitting to Act” (forthcoming).

(CTAg) For any causal process A, A is an exercise of intentional agency by an agent S if and only if (i) A commences with the acquisition by S of an intention directed at a particular result; and (ii) S guides the process through to the final execution of the agent’s intention by responding appropriately to the constellation of inputs from various causal powers of the agent and causal powers of objects in the agent’s environment that partner with one another and the constituent causal powers of the intention until S successfully executes her intention.

I will not try to defend CTAg here or elaborate on it. I offer some reasons for accepting it and revising causalism in the aforementioned paper. But CTAg is just one part of the story Jesús Aguilar and I are developing in our book.

4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?

How best to answer this question depends in part upon what one means by “recent.” I will stick to developments from 1950 onwards.

The first one should be obvious, I hope.

1. The publication of Elisabeth Anscombe’s Intention (1957) and Donald Davidson’s “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” (1963)

For many of us working in the philosophy of action today, however much we may express appreciation for the work of both Anscombe and Davidson, we will identify with the views expressed in one of these essays more than the other. Of course, the scope of Anscombe’s monograph was broader than Davidson’s article. But what Davidson left out (e.g., any discussion of practical knowledge) is precisely what those (like myself) who align themselves more closely with Davidson think is not central for getting a satisfactory theory of intentional action. Rather, the causal story is central and can be viewed as supplemented and enhanced by an account of practical knowledge and its importance.

The second item on this list may be less obvious to many.

2. The rediscovery of Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “The Problem of Action” (1978)

This article is often overlooked or it is merely mentioned in passing, with most responses to Frankfurt’s worries expressed in his essay amounting to so much hand-waving. But a growing number of people I know have been poring over the arguments in this essay. Jesús Aguilar and I take this essay to be the starting point for our project in the book we are writing.

There is a growing consensus that Frankfurt’s essay presented some of the most significant challenges to any theory of action that fails to take seriously agential-guidance. I am convinced that Frankfurt identified what is central to intentional agency, namely, guidance. I believe that Frankfurt showed that a host of the problems we associate with thinking about how we exercise agency in our intentional behavior can be traced back to a failure to give an adequate account of guidance. The challenge he presents is one that is potentially devastating for the proponent of the causal theory of action who maintains a blind allegiance to a story about the causal production of actions in terms of events that temporally precede their effects.

Finally, in a footnote in his book, The Mind in Nature, C.B. Martin asserted that action-theorists “typically neglect to discuss 83 per cent of all agent activity, namely, mental, in-the-head activity” (2007, 178, fn. 1). I am not certain on what basis he reached the conclusion that 83% of what we do is in our heads; but I hope that others will agree that many (if not most) of the actions we perform are mental actions. So, the third development is one that was long overdue.

3. The rise of interest in mental action and agency

While some types of mental action and agency, like doxastic agency and decision-making, received some attention over the years, questions about mental action and agency, more generally, took backseat to work on the nature of overt action and agency.

Examples abound of arm-raisings, kicking, and either killing someone or making a hole-in-one when playing golf. But it has really only been within the last twenty-five years that there has been growing interest in working on mental action, generally. Such work is vital not only for better understanding the nature and scope of our agency, but it is also essential for us to get a better grasp of some mental action-types that figure prominently in some debates. For instance, how does the nature of our control over deliberation relate to our control over our attitudes formed (such as intention and belief) formed thereby? Having an adequate account of mental action and our agency in performing mental actions will take us some distance towards getting an adequate answer to such questions. I have tried to address some of these issues in my own work.

5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?

I used to complain about the failure of some philosophers who work on free will to take seriously foundational work in the philosophy of action. I used to also complain that some philosophers of action failed to recognize the connections between some of their views and other commitments in the philosophy of mind. I have not stopped complaining about either (after all, one’s views about say, the nature of intentional action will most likely make certain options in the free will debate and in debates over the metaphysics of mind closed to one). But I have since realized that it is important for us to go further.

I once expressed my concerns about people working on free will failing to take seriously foundational questions in the philosophy of action to a metaphysician friend. He responded by noting how one’s views on questions in metaphysics related to foundational ontology and the metaphysics of causation were no less important. I soon came to the conclusion that my friend was correct. Since then, I have urged people I know who work in the philosophy of action to be more explicit about some of the ontological commitments of their theories of action and (for those who tell causal stories about action and agency) to be more explicit about their assumptions regarding the metaphysics of causation. By sorting out, say, one’s metaphysics of causation, one is in a better position to recognize whether or not one can tell a causal story about something like agential guidance. This is all to say that I would like to see philosophers of action be a bit more ontologically serious. There already are some fine examples of people whose work exhibits this quality. Recent essays by Timothy O’Connor, Rowland Stout, Michael Brent, Helen Steward, E. J. Lowe, Randolph Clarke, Helen Beebee, Stephen Mumford and Rani Anjum, John Heil, and Erasmus Mayr stand out. There are others. I hope we see more work like theirs in the future.

2018 May 26

Many thanks to Prof Buckareff for his answers!

Visit us again in a week, on the 2nd June, for our next set of answers.