Katja Vogt (Columbia)

Our latest interview features Prof Katja Maria Vogt. Prof Vogt is professor of philosophy at Columbia University. Her work addresses issues important both to ancient and contemporary discussions, such as what kind of values knowledge and truth are and what it means to live a good life. She engages with Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, as well as contemporary philosophy of action. Prof Vogt’s latest book, Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory, has been published last year. Enjoy!

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

In the practical domain, there is no analogue to suspension of judgment. But we often do not know all of the things we would need to know in order to make a considered decision. That’s a problem for ancient skeptics, and it’s a problem for all of us. So, what do we do? I continue to work on this problem, in papers that I’m co-authoring with Jens Haas. More generally speaking, I’m interested in a basic feature of ancient discussions of action: they are part of ethics. For example, if your analysis of akrasia is part of ethics, you are ultimately asking how one should be motivated such as to lead a good human life. Davidson recognized this dimension of the ancient approach, though he puts it in unsympathetic terms: he thinks Aristotle moralizes when he discusses akrasia. Contrary to Davidson, I think the ancient approach is along the right lines. At the same time, I like Davidson’s anti-moralizing instinct. A revised account of akrasia should capture cases, say, of spending yet another night at home reading Aristotle, though one correctly judges that one should go to a party.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

In my book Desiring the Good (2017), I defend a new version of the Guise of the Good, the view that when an agent is motivated to perform an action, something about the action looks good to her. I distinguish between small-scale actions such as walking up the stairs and mid-scale actions or pursuits such as becoming a farmer. I ask how the motivations for the two are related—and how they relate to the largest-scale motivation of wanting one’s life to go well. Right now, I’m thinking about the cognitive and desiderative activities that figure in motivation. I’m interested in the roles of memory and imagination in agency. My approach is ancient-inspired. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the most accessible ancient text, and hence a go-to text for action theorists. But the fact that it is most accessible doesn’t mean that it offers the only resources for theorizing today. Aristotle’s On the Soul, for example, speaks of deliberative imagination. Plato’s Philebus makes a case for studying future- and past-directed cognitive and desiderative attitudes. These approaches seem promising to me and suitable for being in conversation with today’s neuroscience.

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

My account of action starts from the observation that much of what we do is part of performing skills and professional activities, where we know how to do something and where our activities have products. Another chunk of what we do relates broadly speaking to inquiry: we follow the news, exchange and gather information, and engage in more specialized inquiries such as researching or studying a given field. Add to this mid-scale actions such as moving to London and small-scale actions such as putting a book in a suitcase. So, what are we asking when we ask what an action is? Traditionally, we are looking primarily at the last item, small-scale actions. On my view, an action is a movement undertaken by a human being, or potentially by an animal with similarly complex faculties, such that this movement is set off and guided by the agent’s own cognitive and desiderative states, and such that it makes sense to ask the agent “why are you doing this?” This account is intended as including mid-scale actions, as well as small- and mid-scale skill-based and inquiring activities. But it leaves open how we think of certain mental activities, such as deliberating or day-dreaming. And of course, more would need to be said about the relevant guidance, to spell out in which sense the agent herself is the cause of the action.

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

(1) the revival of interest in Elizabeth Anscombe’s work, (2) more attention to planning, projects, and pursuits, (3) a trend in practical philosophy more generally, namely to be in conversation with empirical psychology, neuroscience, biology, and physics.

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

For philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, there is no deep divide between philosophical accounts of action, and accounts in psychology, biology, and physics. There are different questions and different foci, different kinds of insights one can aim for from the perspectives of these fields. But the goal is to understand action. I like this goal, and to achieve it, philosophers need to talk to and learn from researchers in other fields.

Many thanks to Prof Vogt for her answers!

2018 November 24

Hope to see you again next week