PHILOSOPHY of Action
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Adrian Haddock (Stirling)
We bring you this week the thoughts of Dr Adrian Haddock who is senior lecturer at the University of Stirling. He works mainly on action, perception and objectivity, and explores these ideas in the current analytic tradition and in German Idealism. Dr Haddock has published several papers on self-consciousness, bodily movements, disjunctivism, and knowledge of action, among other things. Enjoy!
1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?
In the course of my earliest attempts at philosophy, I was struck by the thought that the possibility of thought and knowledge rests not only on perception—on being given the world—but also on action—on changing the world. I wanted to understand (what I was then tempted to call) “the two fundamental mind-world relations”. And after hurling myself into the available literature, I found that it was action, and specifically bodily movement, that gripped me the most. Wittgenstein’s question was crucial here: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” I found it tempting to think that what is left over is my contribution as agent. And insofar as I found it tempting to think this, I found it tempting to separate my contribution as agent from the movements of my body, and as such to separate myself from my body—to throw my body into the world, as merely one of the many things that I might try to change.
I very much wanted to avoid these separations, and in my earliest writings I strove to avoid them by showing how to endorse a position that provided for my contribution as agent not to fall short of my bodily movements; in the terms of Anton Ford’s “The Province of Human Agency”, I strove to avoid “volitionism”. But I took the separation of my agentive contribution from what happens outside of my body—from what Davidson calls “the rest” (in his remark “all I ever do is move my body, the rest is up to nature”)—for granted; in Ford’s terms, I endorsed “corporealism”.
In the intervening years, I have come to see that this position must equally be overcome, in favour of what Ford calls “materialism”—the position made available by three of the best examples of philosophical reflection on action in the contemporary literature: Ford’s writings, Michael Thompson’s “Naïve Action Theory”, and Anscombe’s Intention.
2. What are you working on at the moment?
I am still preoccupied with the thought that struck me in my earliest reflections. Specifically, I am writing a book that seeks to bring out the significance of the first-person character of attempts to give voice to (what I was then tempted to call) “the two fundamental mind-world relations”: “I perceive something”, and “I am doing something to something”. As the years have passed, I have come to appreciate the truth of Anscombe’s remark that “‘I’ is neither a name nor another kind of expression whose logical role is to make a reference, at all”. And perhaps the most striking consequence of this remark for my own reflections is that neither “I perceive something”, nor “I am doing something to something” can be understood as forms for representing relations: “I perceive something”, for example, cannot be a form for representing a relation whose relata are signified by “I” (“a subject”), and by a singular term that replaces “something” (“an object”).
That raises the question of how these attempts are to be understood. I have come to see that what is at stake here is the very idea of a mind, or a subject—a member of the plurality of minds, or subjects: an idea on which the very idea of thought about objects depends for its intelligibility. And I have come to see that a rethinking of the discourse of subjectivity is needed, if the discourse of objectivity is to be intelligible. This rethinking must not only acknowledge the insight—common, I think, both to Kant and to Wittgenstein, and reflected in Anscombe’s remark—that the discourse of subjectivity cannot be assimilated to the discourse of objectivity on pain of destroying subjectivity altogether; it must equally show how to make sense of the manifoldness or plurality that—as the ideas of perception and action make vivid—characterises the first discourse no less than the second.
The mistake of assimilating the first to the second defines almost all of contemporary Anglophone philosophy, and earns it the title of empiricism, or naturalism; whereas the mistake of expelling plurality from the first characterises those varieties of idealism that rightly work with the idea of universal self-consciousness, but in failing to provide for manifoldness on the side of the subject merit the rebuke (memorably voiced by Franz Rosenzweig) of never advancing beyond “the one and universal nothing” with which they begin. The book that I am writing is an attempt to get clear about both of these mistakes, with a view to beginning to see how to avoid them.
3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?
I confess to being suspicious of this question, and specifically of its use of the indefinite article. This is not because I do not think there can be any comprehension of the idea of an action in the sense of something “real, particular and individual” (as Thompson puts it); it is because I do not think there can be any comprehension of this idea without an understanding of the idea of an action in the sense of something general (what is sometimes called “an act type”)—and specifically without an understanding of the specific shape that the nexus of general and particular takes in this case.
A central lesson of Thompson’s work, as I see it, is that this nexus cannot be understood on the familiar model of a general concept and the particular objects that fall under it. It is rather a matter of a general form progressively particularising itself over time. This raises a number of fascinating and difficult questions, which contemporary philosophy has barely begun to reckon with.
Most obviously, it forces the issue—which is present in the history of philosophy, perhaps most notably in Aristotle’s difficult idea of the identity of an individual with its essence—of how to understand the idea of a self-particularising form. And if that was not enough, it raises the further question of how to understand the very idea of a nexus of general and particular that is at once thinkable, and temporally progressive—what Sebastian Rödl calls “a movement [sc., a kinēsis] that is a thought”. As I see it, any attempt to shed light on the idea of an action must confront these difficult questions.
4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?
The serious engagement with Anscombe’s Intention that is now taking place strikes me as the single most important development, not merely in recent philosophy of action, but in recent philosophy. And within this development, three interrelated moments stand out: first, the conception of action as a progressively self-particularising form; second, the attempt to comprehend this form as that of practical reasoning; and third, the attempt to comprehend this form as essentially self-conscious—as what Anscombe calls “practical knowledge”.
Contemporary reflection on these moments strikes me as still in its earliest stages. But I cannot think of a better task than to try to understand them—alongside the reasons given above, I agree with Anscombe and Thompson that only insofar as these moments are understood is it possible for philosophy to begin to approach the topic of ethics. It was not possible to get these moments into focus within the broadly Davidsonian framework that governed my own early reflections—a testament as much to the systematic character, and as such to the brilliance of this framework, as to its limitations. The fact that they are now coming into focus is a ground for real happiness and optimism.
5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?
I think that I have effectively answered this question. But one final remark might be worth making. If progress is to be made in the areas that I have outlined, it will be important not to succumb to a tendency that it is possible to encounter in contemporary philosophy—the tendency to confuse what is clear with what is already familiar. A remark attributed to Stephen Sondheim nicely brings out the general character of this tendency. On being told that the songs in his musicals were not “hummable”, Sondheim is said to have responded: “If people come out of a musical humming the songs, that is probably because they were already humming them when they went in.”
2018 July 28
Many thanks to Dr Haddock for his answers!
Visit us again soon for our next set of answers.