Elisa Freschi (Vienna)

This week’s mini-interview presents the answers of Dr Elisa Freschi. Dr Freschi works at the University of Vienna and is a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, at the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia. She is an expert on Indian Philosophy, works on comparative philosophy, epistemology, and philosophy of language, and also works on actions and authored the ‘Indian Philosophers’ entry for the Companion to the Philosophy of Action. She is also co-Principal Investigator of the WWTF project Reasoning tools for deontic logic and applications to Indian sacred texts. Enjoy!

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

I started working on the various understandings of what constitutes an action and very soon realised that different philosophers have a completely different opinion about what `action' means, ranging from `intention' to `movement'. Thus, the naïve idea that we know what `action' means is in fact nothing more than that, namely naïve. This prompted me to think more about the extent to which the differences are determined by one's methodology and presuppositions. The fact that philosophy of action is a relatively recent development as a separate field of study in the Euro-American world shows that philosophers came to it via something else and this something else determined their approach to action. For instance, if a philosopher come to philosophy of action via their interest for ontology, they would think of, e.g., substances and qualities and actions as inhering in them. Thus, they would need to see actions as primarily movements.

By contrast, philosophers who came to philosophy of action via moral philosophy, are more likely to think of actions as starting with one's intention to act. In fact, the moral consequences of an action are usually linked to the moment one decides to act, even if, because of external circumstances, one cannot perform one's intended action. But, again, intention is also hard to individuate. Does the first moment of one's thinking about something count, or rather the last moment before the actual performance of the action? What makes you really responsible for murder? Legal theorists therefore need to be pragmatic and speak of actions only in case they lead to consequences, preferably direct consequences. Novelists have done more work exploring indirect consequences, just think of the Brothers Karamazov!

2. What are you working on at the moment?

I have no project addressing philosophy of action, but I am working on related topics, mostly on deontics. Within the project Reasoning Tools for Deontic Logic and Applications to Indian Sacred Texts we try to make sense and offer formalisations of the Sanskrit philosophy of prescriptions. We work especially on texts of the Mīmāṃsā school of Indian philosophy. This had an interesting account of action as consisting in the `coming into being' (bhāvanā) of a given effect, including among effects also the influence on other people of actions such as `commanding'. That is, according to Mīmāṃsā authors also speech acts would count as actions because of their illocutionary and perlocutionary effects. Mīmāṃsā authors add that each action has an agent, an effect and a procedure. For instance, one can get to the same result via various procedures, which are the intermediate activities included in the main action (think of the action of `cooking': it includes many intermediate activities, such as fetching water, putting it in a pan, etc.). We focus mostly on the special case of actions which are commands and look at their interaction. The logicians within the project collaborate with experts of AI in developing tools which should ultimate improve our understanding of the way we can enjoin a machine to perform a given movement and what it should do in case of conflicting commands. Understanding the way commands interact and are suspended and what is exactly the action being enjoined (an undertaking? the actual completion of the action?) have theoretical and practical consequences insofar as they lead to different formalisms and different applications.

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

I use as a working device the definition I discussed in question 2, namely each action involves an actor, an effect and a procedure to be performed. This allows me to include mental actions, such as learning by heart (effect= one's acquired memorisation, procedure= the repetition of the verses to be memorised), as well as speech acts and knowledge. By contrast, the sheer contentless awareness of a person who is performing deep meditation would not count as action (whereas the effort to reach it counts). I am not dogmatic about this definition (and would be glad to read possible objections or suggestions), but it works well for my purposes.

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

I am taking the question to referring to major changes in the last decades. In this sense, I think that Austin's speech act theory was a milestone insofar as it added an important player in the debate.

Then, there is the big debate on free will and intentional actions as fueled by evidences from the neurosciences. I am thinking of the work of Alfred Mele and Daniel Wegner, for instance. Although I do not think that this ontological approach works at the phenomenological level, it surely created very interesting discussions.

Last, I appreciate the recent turn towards a focus on eccentric types of action, like animal action, collective action, failed attempts to act and omissions. As good examples of work on these issues one might think of the publications of Margaret Gilbert, Jennifer Hornsby and Kent Bach.

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

I am very happy that philosophy in general is slowly becoming more sensitive to stimuli coming from different traditions and times. As I wrote in my answer to question 1., I think that many of our theories of actions depend on the way philosophy of action developed in our tradition of philosophy. I am sure we can learn a lot from philosophical schools taking an approach which challenges our assumptions about action. The exposure to other philosophical schools can reveal that our alleged intuitions about actions are instead nothing but cultural prejudices.

Let me mention as example the connection between philosophy of action and philosophy of language. In the Indian philosophical landscape, philosophy of language is always an important perspective and actions are analysed also from a linguistic point of view (as it happened in Euro-American philosophy after the linguistic turn). The linguistic perspective made it possible to discuss topics such as the role of actors within actions in the light of sentences like “The chariot goes”, where agency is attributed to an unconscious thing. (By the way, thinkers like Someśvara will explain that this is only a linguistic usage, like when words in languages such as Sanskrit are attributed a grammatical gender.)

Personally, my work on philosophy of action in Sanskrit philosophy was deeply influenced by a conversation with Chakravarti Ram-Prasad (who was at that point leading together with Jonardon Ganeri a project on the concept of the self as agent in Sanskrit philosophy) and after an invitation by Constantine Sandis to contribute to his Companion to the Philosophy of Action. Thus, I cannot but hope that philosophers will continue to take seriously materials coming from distant times and/or places instead of limiting themselves to the contemporary world.

Many thanks to Prof Freschi for her answers!

2018 December 16

We hope to welcome you back next weekend again!