Roman Altshuler (Kutztown)

Today’s mini-interview features Dr Roman Altshuler who is Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Kutztown University. Dr Altshuler specialises in ethics, philosophy of action, and existentialism. He has addressed several aspects of agency and issues connected to it, like identity, free will, character, will and issues pertaining to death. He also co-edited with Michael J Sigrist the volume Time and the Philosophy of Action. Enjoy!

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

I had some exposure to Anscombe as an undergrad, but was really gripped by the problem of free will thanks to Kant and Existentialism, perhaps due especially to Richard Moran’s way of weaving Existentialism together with philosophy of action in his teaching. I was studying Kant and continental philosophy in graduate school, and knew I wanted to write about free will. When I went to study abroad and could focus on whatever I wanted, I realized that continental philosophy wasn’t going to take me very far with my topic. Along with reading Allison and others on Kant’s theory of freedom, sort of on a whim I got Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity out of the library and read it during a week in Berlin, which no doubt made it particularly memorable. I was especially fascinated by her reply to critics, where she develops the version of constitutivism that was to become her Self-Constitution, and which was then available on her website in draft form. In the typical style of a confused graduate student, I started going down rabbit-holes, and Kane’s Significance of Free Will made me think I needed to understand philosophy of action to make sense of free will, so I picked up Davidson’s Essays on Actions and Events and went from there.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve shifted focus a bit to try to understand what ethnonationalism is about and how it fits in with the sorts of deep concerns about meaning in life that philosophers worry about. I am also thinking about the ways Existentialist thinkers anticipated and can inform some developments in contemporary action theory. Both Sartre and Beauvoir, for example, are explicit that taking responsibility for action is a diachronic process, and this accords well, I think, with recent currents that take action, or at least intentional action, as involving reflexive endorsement of some sort, such that genuine agency requires a sort of diachronic commitment on the part of the agent. Where I differ from many contemporary accounts is on the question of whether such commitment requires any explicit awareness on the part of the agent. Taking responsibility for one’s agency, I suspect, is a largely organic and implicit affair. I’m also working on the ways our agency is narratively structured, and how these action narratives intersect with the long-term diachronic narratives by which we constitute ourselves and seek to structure our lives in relation to our mortality.

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

I suspect it’s some kind of change in the world, and I think this goes for mental actions as well as any others: acting is bringing about a change, and one that has reference to something outside the agent. But I think the emphasis on defining action is itself problematic, because it makes it seem as if action is a phenomenon that we simply encounter in the world, ready for analysis. It reinforces a tendency to see actions as discrete entities that we can safely isolate from their context and examine on their own terms, but that disregards all the work that goes into isolating them in the first place. Human beings don’t simply perform actions; we think and move our bodies in various ways as part of a continuous stream of behavior. Some of those ways stand out to us because they deal with concrete problems we encounter, but some only stand out retroactively, because it turns out that in the course of our moving about in the world we’ve upset someone or harmed someone or otherwise made a mistake. These sorts of contexts lead us to isolate the bit of behavior involved in causing or resolving the problem and to focus on what that piece of behavior is and how it is brought about; thus the problem that while engaged in the action of grading papers, I may be performing an unrelated activity such as surfing Facebook. Contrary to the idea that action individuation has little relevance for the rest of action theory, then, I suspect that a certain form of the problem has foundational relevance for the field: it is only by individuating actions, picking them out from a stream of behavior, that we have a subject matter for action theory in the first place.

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

As I’ve already noted, the constitutivist views of Christine Korsgaard and David Velleman, especially, strike me as fascinating and fruitful recent developments, not least because of their potential for understanding not simply individual actions, but the agency of which those actions are a part. On these views, action structures agency, which in turn structures actions.

There has also been a great deal of recent interest in understanding the temporality of action, rather than treating agential structures in largely atemporal ways. Some of the most interesting currents here include ongoing work on narrative identity, work on diachronic reasoning that people like Luca Ferrero are doing, Helen Steward and Jennifer Hornsby’s work on actions as processes rather than events, and attempts to justify our reasons for acting by reference of our future selves, as in the premise of Agnes Callard’s Aspiration. At the other end of the scale, questions about basic action have returned, urging us to think about the role temporality plays in even the most minimal agential units rather than simply in the ways we string them together.

Finally, I’m happy to see an increasing amount of sophisticated work on continental thinkers, which either explicitly or implicitly brings them into dialogue with concerns in analytic philosophy. I’m thinking of things like Patrick Stokes’s work on Kierkegaard and identity, Jon Webber’s work on Sartre and Beauvoir, and the ongoing industry of Heidegger scholarship that is now two generations removed from Hubert Dreyfus’s pioneering work.

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

I’d love to see all of the above continuing, and hopeful that we’ll see more attempts to bring these often disparate currents into coherent views of agency. I also welcome the appearance of more work inspired by Anscombe but written in a way I can make sense of!

Many thanks to Dr Altshuler for his answers!

2018 October 20

We hope to see you back again next weekend with new answers on Philosophy of Action!