Michael E. Bratman (Stanford)

We publish this week the answers of Prof Michael E Bratman from Stanford University. Prof Bratman is well known for developing his theory of intentions and planning agency, and for his wide-ranging and in-depth work on diachronic agency, structure of intentions and motivations, agents' values and shared agency. Enjoy reading.


1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?


Putting to one side here my personal biography, I think it is clear that our western philosophical tradition has – with notable exceptions focused more intensely on issues about knowledge and mind than on issues about agency. Yet questions about the ways in which we are agents are gripping within self-reflection and of fundamental importance throughout a wide range of concerns both in philosophy and in a wide range of other disciplines. These questions about agency have been less thoroughly investigated than have questions about mind and knowledge; and there seems a great deal of room for seeing things in newly fecund ways. So what’s not to like?


2. What are you working on at the moment?


Two main projects. (A) A collection of inter‐related essays of mine from the past decade – Planning, Time, and Self‐Governance: Essays in Practical Rationality –  (readers can buy it at a special discount here) is just now appearing, courtesy of OUP. It tries to take steps to deepen our understanding of the normative significance of basic norms of consistency, coherence, and stability, norms guidance by which is – or so I conjecture ‐ a fundamental feature of human planning agency.


My hope is further to develop and to deepen some of the basic ideas that emerge in these essays and caste them into the form of a sustained, book‐length treatment. (B) In my 2014 book, Shared Agency: A Planning Theory of Acting Together, I focused on small‐scale cases of shared intentional/shared cooperative activity. An important question I did not try to answer is whether, and if so how, the philosophical ideas at the center of my proposals can be “scaled up” as part of a fruitful model of important forms of larger institutional functioning and institutional agency. My hope is to develop a positive answer to this challenge, in part by way of a friendly philosophical merger with important ideas from H. L. A Hart.


3. What is your account of what an action is?


Before we address this question we need to recognize that there are many different kinds of agents –think about cows, cats, the great apes, very young humans, and adult humans in our modern world. If we seek to say what is common throughout all such forms of generic agency we will be led, I think, to ideas in the spirit of Harry Frankfurt’s appeal, in his “The Problem of Action,” to the idea of behavior that is potentially under the control of an appropriate kind of guidance mechanism that tracks an end. (I see this as a broadly causal model.) But I think that we need to avoid a kind of genus-envy, and that some of the most important issues – both for philosophy and for a wide range of other disciplines come to the fore when we reflect on more specific forms of agency that are realized by adult humans like us.


In particular, I think we should be struck by the complex forms of organization/coordination – both in an individual life over time and socially, across different agents – that are fundamental for and pervasive in the lives we tend to live. And a central thought of mine is that the capacities for these forms of organization are grounded in our capacities for planning agency. We need a theoretically adequate framework for understanding such planning agency; and this is one 2 substantial contribution philosophy of action can make to other disciplines – including law, cognitive science, political theory, artificial intelligence, primatology, and decision theory.


4. What were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


(A) The field‐shaping interactions, mostly in the 1960s, between Elizabeth Anscombe and Donald Davidson. A central question that emerges is how we should understand the relative importance for a systematic account of our human agency of, on the one hand, rationalizing purposiveness, and, on the other hand, our knowledge of our own intentional agency. However, a question neither philosopher sufficiently grappled with was how our intentions concerning future conduct support fundamental forms of cross‐temporal and social organization of action. Anscombe harbored skepticism about such intentions; Davidson acknowledged them in his later work, but didn’t give them much to do.


(B) Harry Frankfurt’s work on “the structure of a person’s will” showed us both the importance of distinguishing between different kinds of agents and the possibility of using models of these structures of will to articulate non-homuncular models of forms of free agency and self‐governance.


(C) The fundamental importance of intention‐involving planning to our temporally extended human agency. A breakthrough paper was Gilbert Harman’s 1976 essay, “Practical Reasoning”. I see my work on the planning theory as an effort to develop these ideas about intention‐involving planning in a systematic way as part of a broadly naturalistic model of our temporally extended agency (both individual and shared), of “the will,” and of self-governance.


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


I am a “let many flowers bloom” sort of philosopher. But I do want to highlight the importance of distinctive forms of cross-temporal and social organization in our human lives. I also think that philosophers of action can make important contributions, not only to Philosophy but also to a wide range of other disciplines, by investigating and articulating basic theoretical resources – conceptual, metaphysical, normative – needed for a deeper understanding of distinctive forms of agency, including planning agency and various forms of shared agency.


2018 June 03

Many thanks to Professor Bratman for his answers!


Visit us again next weekend for a new interview.