Lilian O'Brien (UCC)

Dear Readers, this week we bring you Dr Lilian O’Brien’s answers to our questions. Dr O’Brien is a member of faculty in Philosophy at University College Cork in Ireland. She published an introductory book to the Philosophy of Action, and has written on topics like action explanation, psychologism and anti-psychologism, and agency. Enjoy!


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


I first became interested in the philosophy of action when I read “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”. That was for a seminar on the first-person perspective in mind and action led by Jaegwon Kim. I was intrigued by the deviance problem, rationalizing action explanation, and also the first-person perspective in action.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I have recently been working on an account of rationalizing action explanation that attempts to side-step questions about the metaphysics of intentional action. When we scrutinize the questions and answers of our everyday rationalizing practices, it looks like interlocutors asking and answering those questions simply presuppose that the agent has satisfied whatever conditions must be satisfied for the bit of behaviour to count as an intentional action. They focus their attention on, roughly, rational relations obtaining among the contents of the agent’s thoughts. Given this, causal understanding and rational understanding can come apart. A related project is a characterization of what kind(s) of understanding we gain when we quite fully understand our own intentional actions on the basis of first-person access to them. I am also interested in how this understanding relates to the kind of understanding that we can gain about the intentional actions of other agents on the basis of their testimony about their reasons, aims, and so on.


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


I’m open to the idea that there are different kinds of agent and different kinds of action, so I’m a bit sceptical that there is going to be a neat account of action. Here’s roughly how I think about the intentional action of a pretty sophisticated planning agent. Let’s assume that the agent has a thought about her action that contributes to making it the intentional action that it is – this is the kind of thought that she would express if she were to answer a question about what she is up to in acting.


What kind of thought could play this role? Turning to another issue, many philosophers have noted that when an agent is attempting to perform an intentional action, it is possible for her to succeed or fail – in attempting she becomes subject to practical standards. If she is attempting to raise her hand, or walk, or run for the bus, she must move in a certain way, she must reach a certain place by a certain time, etc. But how does she become subject to practical standards? We could begin to address both questions if we accepted the following suggestion: when an agent is performing an intentional action, the agent holds herself to certain standards in her behaviour.


This involves regarding herself as a failure as an agent if she doesn’t meet these standards and a success as an agent if she does. Roughly, an intentional action is a bit of behaviour in which (i) the agent holds herself to standards by reference to which she takes it that she can fail or succeed as an agent, and (ii) she meets these standards. Reflexive evaluative attitudes are a good place to start, I think, if we wish to characterize sophisticated intentional actions.


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


I find it hard to choose only 3 - there has been a lot of great work done in the last decade or two that has made philosophy of action the rich field that it is now. One development of great interest is discussion of the diachronic will – when it is rational to abandon an intention, whether there are reasons to abide by one’s plans, and so on. Work by Luca Ferrero, Sarah Paul, and Sergio Tenenbaum comes to mind. Behind these discussions is of course Michael Bratman’s planning theory.


Another important development draws issues in action theory together with issues in value theory - constitutivist views, such as those developed by Korsgaard and Velleman, are a very interesting development, and they have resulted in deeper debates about the normativity of rationality, such as work by Kolodny, Enoch, and Kiesewetter.


A final development I would mention stems from work on the nature of reasons - Dancy’s work is particularly important here. This has led to innovative work on action and its explanation, such as Maria Alvarez’s work. There have been a number of exciting developments in the metaphysics of action and agency, such as work on omissions and the application of non-Humean views of causation to agency and action, but I won’t go on.


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


I don’t think of the philosophy of action as deeply unified, and there is no particular direction that I would like to see it go in – it is traveling in many excellent directions as it stands.


2018 August 11

Many thanks for Dr O’Brien!


Check back again in a week for the next set of answers.