Michael Brent (University of Denver; BISR)

This week’s mini-interview features Dr Michael Brent, who is assistant professor at the University of Denver and core faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He works on intentions, conscious mental action, the ontology of the mind, and theories of self in classical Indian Buddhist thought. Dr Brent published recently on agent causation, and on meditation and mental action with Candace L Upton. He is also editing a volume on mental action and the conscious mind that will come out later this year with Routledge. Enjoy!


1. How did you first become interested in philosophy of action?


At the start of graduate school, I suffered a youthful infatuation with the provocative work of John McDowell. One day, Prof McDowell visited our Department to deliver a talk, and a gaggle of graduate students, including yours truly, joined him for lunch. Afterwards, on the walk back to campus, we got to chatting about his perplexing claim that “intentional bodily actions are actualizations of our active nature in which conceptual capacities are inextricably implicated” (Mind and World 90). Actualizations, active natures, and inextricable implications, oh my, was I confused. I asked him whether “actualizations” of our “active nature” was something that we caused, and whether the “inextricable implication” was causal, too. His replies left me unsatisfied, so, entirely unbeknownst to him, the honeymoon came to an abrupt end, and I set forth on defending an account of intentional action that is causal, yet not reductive.*


2. What are you working on at the moment?


Right now, I’m working on a bunch of projects. Back in fall 2017, I organized and hosted a conference on mental action, out of which grew a collection of new essays forthcoming with Routledge, which I’ll be editing over the next couple months. In addition, I’ve just finished revising a paper of my own, on conscious mental action. It applies an account of intentional bodily action that I introduced elsewhere to the case of conscious mental action. With any luck, it should see the light of day in the near future. Plus, I’ve a couple papers nearly ready to send back out. One develops what I hope is an improved version of the “disappearing agent” argument (Alvarez and Hyman 1998; Hornsby 2004; Steward 2012), which claims that recent accounts of intentional action do not properly explain your causal role when producing your own actions. Another paper, first presented at a conference in Zagreb, is a continued exploration of conscious mental action, focusing on what it is to think for yourself, using the example of practical deliberation in contexts where causal determinism obtains.


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


My hunch is that there is no generic answer to this question, because there seem to be different kinds of actions performed by different kinds of agents. Some of our actions are intentional, things we do on purpose, while others are accidental, things we do by mistake. Some of our actions are mental, like consciously deliberating about what to do, whereas others involve bodily movements, like reaching for your cup of coffee. Still others are performed by groups of people, like a committee or team, and some are performed by lone individuals, including non-human animals, like a beaver building its dam.


These days, I am interested in intentional actions performed by individual human beings. I want to understand how we move our bodies, and how we think for ourselves, intentionally. I do not share the reductive aspirations of recent accounts of intentional action (e.g., those inspired by Davidson 1963), according to which such actions are neither metaphysically nor explanatorily fundamental, but reduced to and explained just in terms of appropriate causal relations between events. I think these accounts share a problematic assumption about our ontological status as conscious agents, and about the process by which we cause our intentional actions. I argue that you perform intentional actions only by doing something—specifically, by exerting effort. On my view, when you act intentionally, you are causing something to happen. Intentional actions are thus agents causing an effect of some kind—they are instances of agent causation.


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


I tend to think of progress within any given philosophical community as made when an orthodox view, held by one generation, is directly or indirectly challenged by heterodox views introduced by the next generation. In the Anglophone-analytic community, I think it would not be unfair to say that, since the 1960s, the orthodox view has been the reductive causal account of action inspired by the likes of Donald Davidson, Michael Bratman, David Velleman, Michael Smith, and others. These accounts are reductive because they analyze intentional actions in terms of appropriate causal relations between states of mind and corresponding bodily movements. Nowadays, I think it fair to say that this orthodox reductionism is waning, that viable alternatives are appearing, and that this is an important development. Alternatives include accounts of action that make use of the category of process rather than event, those inspired by Elizabeth Anscombe, those employing Aristotelian conceptions of substance and causation, and those treating intentional actions as irreducible features of the world, to mention just a few.


Another important development is the use of empirical findings in psychology and neuroscience to buttress philosophical explanations of intentional action. While the shimmer of the broadly Davidsonian picture might have faded, some philosophers happily augment talk of desires, beliefs, intentions, etc., with talk of “motor representations”, “internal forward models”, “comparators”, and “executive functioning”, and aspire to account for action in terms of appropriate causal relations between the sorts of entities postulated within these scientific frameworks. Although I am not yet convinced of the philosophical viability of such results, given very real concerns about their replication, the existence of a new wave of reductionism is undeniably an important recent development.


Lastly, the topic of mental action is picking up steam, and I think this is important (though by saying this I am undoubtedly tooting my own horn). Mental action touches on so many other topics in philosophy that it really is astounding how little notice it has received. So much of our conscious mental lives seem to involve mental actions of one kind or another: for instance, perceiving, imagining, inferring, believing, and intending seem to be things that we do can do intentionally, by using our cognitive capacities. This would suggest that the topic of mental action intersects with canonical issues in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of language, epistemology, and more. With any luck, increased discussion of mental action could lead to fruitful interactions between philosophers working in these other areas.


5. In what direction would you like to see the field going?


In addition to what I noted above, I would like to see our efforts directed towards critical engagement with the important and rapidly developing field of artificial human intelligence, broadly construed. I do not merely mean that we should discuss the myriad ethical issues surrounding the use of such technology—which are crucial topics in their own right—rather, in addition to those issues, I mean the underlying metaphysical questions, such as: In what sense, if any, are these systems acting intentionally? For instance, are they properly described as “making choices”? In what sense, if any, is their behaviour skilled or intelligent? The current media hype surrounding these technologies seems geared towards generating interest, sales, and profits for the relevant companies, no doubt. But, perhaps especially because such hype tends to portray these technologies in an aggrandized way, they seem worthy of our investigation.


One strand within philosophy of action and agency is normative, broadly construed. Perhaps especially for philosophers who conceptualize agency in this way, an increased discussion of the social, political, and ethical issues that arise when we take seriously the fact of human embodiment, would, I think, be welcome. After all, intentional actions performed by individual human beings tend to be accomplished by someone with a specific body, hence, by someone with gender identity, sex, race, varying cognitive and physical abilities, bodily shape, social and economic standing, and so on. Should our theorizing about action and agency take these factors into account? I think doing so could be very productive indeed, especially if doing so leads to new interactions with philosophers working in these adjacent areas.


*I should say that spending significant time engaged with the work of John McDowell was an incredibly rewarding experience, even if, in the end, I was not fully convinced by it. Murder your darlings, as they say.


Many thanks to Dr Brent for the answers!

2019 February 16


See you soon with our next mini-interview