PHILOSOPHY of Action
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Bob Lockie (UWL)
This week's answers come from Dr Bob Lockie who is Senior Lecturer at the University of West London as well as a chartered academic psychologist. Dr Lockie works mainly on free will, agency, responsibility, as well as on philosophy of mind/psychology, and metaphilosophy. He recently published his monograph Free Will and Epistemology: A Defence of the Transcendental Argument for Freedom. Enjoy!
1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?
I suspect that, incipiently, I’ve always been interested in these issues. Academically, I think this interest has at least three sources: i) my background in psychology, then latterly the philosophy of mind, pressing the question as to what is a self, an agent, agency – these questions disciplined (positively) by Freud, Descartes and various non-deflationary academic and clinical psychological literatures; negatively, by my rejection of Wittgenstein, behaviourism and various other deflationary psychological literatures (e.g. Kahneman-Tversky). ii) My interest in issues of moral responsibility and my conviction, somewhat after Nagel, after ultimately rejecting much of the framework of presupposition underpinning the ‘moral realism’ debates of the 1970’s and 80’s, that the fundamental issue of moral realism comes down to this: are there transcendent ‘oughts’? That is, are there things we really ought to do [or ought not to do] whether we actually do them or not? This means that I endorse the view that these debates should focus, not on various oddly dissociated ‘theoretical’ issues in ontology, language, quasi ‘scientific’ realism etc. but rather on such ‘oughts-based’ questions: as to whether there is real moral responsibility (‘ultimate desert’) in the world. iii) My interest in issues of epistemic responsibility and the ‘ethics of belief’ tradition after such luminaries as Clifford, Descartes, Alston, and of course, my teacher, Richard Foley. This epistemic deontology tradition sees epistemic justification as reasoning as one ought. That is, the agent directing his thought, his mental actions, diligently, responsibly, as he should. The latter informs much of my recent book, but has been the basis for my thought in epistemology for the last 25 years.
2. What are you working on at the moment?
I aim to develop a book-length treatment (presently somewhere between the planning and drafting stage) involving the articulation and defence of a broadly Bartlettian (holistic, top-down, schema-driven) conception of high-level, characteristically human knowledge – as against the neo-Gettier bottom-up, preservation / contamination, ‘concept of knowledge’ tradition that has dominated epistemology for the last half-century.
3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?
i) An action is a mental or motor determination of something by an agent. ii) This ‘something’ could be something being done to an object, to another agent in the world, a movement of the agent’s own body, a determination of events in that agent’s mind (a control of thought, a mental action), or some other, cognate, determination. iii) Mental actions are quite as real as bodily actions and are in no sense derivative or metaphorical or less central to the concept of ‘action’ than motor actions. iv) Actions exist on a continuum with behaviour, itself on a continuum with such biological occurrences or movements as may fall short even of behaviour in terms of the possession of ‘minded’ origination, determination and control. v) Actions, however, and agency proper, require determination by an agent – that is: at least a being possessed of a mind that is capable of being influenced by normative reasons (minimally: to be capable of instrumental rationality, more paradigmatically and centrally, to be a being capable of assuming moral or epistemic responsibility for some of its mental or motor determinations). vi) I contend that these determinations must really be that agent’s determinations, rather than those of entirely (reductively) sub-agential events or happenings (notwithstanding that of course, such agents may be composed of sub-agential items); however, in stating this contention the reader must be aware that I am begging the question against wholly reductive accounts of agency and action. vii) Actions then, are a class of motor or mental determinations, referable-to and determined-by an agent (one who is a reasons-affected being) possessed of a mind. viii) These minds must be minds that are selves (given that not all minded beings are selves). ix) The notion of a self is perhaps coextensive with that of a person, perhaps not; but I do not propose to analyse it further, though it will involve, in addition to the foregoing, at least such levels of psychological sophistication as are detailed constructively (through scientific description, elucidation and explication) in chapter 4 of my recent monograph – especially (in addition to the ‘reasons-affected’ remarks above) reflexive psychological properties. x) Things like agents, actions, minds, and their concomitant properties of agency, responsibility, reflexive thought, are a part of the furniture of the universe – as ontologically real as things such as quasars, proteins, rivers, animals; or properties such as acidity, hydrostatic pressure, infection, life.
4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?
i. Van Inwagen’s development of a strongly incompatibilist world view. Whatever your views about the specifics of his arguments (the consequence argument, the direct argument) the importance lies in his making academically respectable the type of reasoning which every pre-philosophical intellect embraces until it is beaten out of them – that there could not be free will / responsibility in a determined world. Notwithstanding that he had his predecessors and contemporaries (Ginet, Wiggins) I think it true that he, more than anyone, overturned a glibly dismissive, arch, shallow, compatibilist near-consensus in analytic philosophy – one that had prevailed for more than a century, and which had been far too influential in English language philosophy for more than 300 years – Kant’s ‘freedom of the turnspit’, his ‘petty word jugglery’.
ii. Frankfurt’s development of the compatibilist position which (alongside Strawson) represented the first real advance in that position since Hobbes, and which led to the wholesale abandonment of classic compatibilism in the space of just a few years. The preceding development of course led numbers to eschew compatibilism per se, but among those who remained compatibilists, after Frankfurt placed other resources at their disposal, few if any remained classical, neo-Hobbesian compatibilists. Frankfurt’s advances were predominantly his development of the first (hierarchical) mesh theory – of higher-order desires – but also, of course, deserving of mention was his extraordinarily influential attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities.
iii. The overlapping executive functioning literatures in psychology, clinical neurology and neuroscience that are now (I hope, partly after my own work) beginning to be known and deployed in the philosophical literature. The work of these psychologists, neuroscientists and clinicians is of extraordinary value in achieving a real understanding of human nature and our actual powers of agency and control. It gives lie to various armchair (often scientistic) deflationary claims as to our powers of agency. Pioneers such as Luria, Baddeley & Hitch, Shallice are joined now by a great number of often brilliant clinicians and scientists.
5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?
I’d like to be surprised by the field developing in directions I precisely cannot foresee! Nevertheless, in terms of directions I can:
i. I’d like to see more philosophers wrestle with the problems of reflexivity which I have attempted to engage with in my own work (e.g. how can you, the determinist, claim to be determined to accept the truth of determinism? Whither epistemic justification then? Whither moral responsibility, or anything like?)
ii. I am heartened by the convergence / triangulation of realistic, honest, ‘hard compatibilists’ who acknowledge compatibilism will not give us all we want – and some bullets must be bitten – with those ‘revisionists’ stating something similar, with erstwhile ‘hard incompatibilists’ who acknowledge that nevertheless some things of value will remain to us ‘after the fall’ (as it were). I’d like to see more of this honesty and convergence (where possible, natural and unforced – not merely for its own sake).
iii. I’d like to see the field continue (at least in part) to buck the trend in analytic philosophy more generally and retain a search for a ‘bigger picture’ – as opposed to the pettiness and contrivance so prevalent in our late-stage analytic philosophical culture across other sub-areas of the discipline.
iv. I’d like to see a more disciplined use of the scientific literature – by people who actually understand the relevant psychological, neuroscientific, etc. literatures in the round (as it were) rather than as a tourist, cherry-picking a few scientistic anecdotes, in isolation from a broad and deep framework knowledge of the field as a whole.
Many thanks to Dr Lockie for his answers!
2018 October 13
We hope to see you back again next weekend for some more answers on Philosophy of Action!