Markos Valaris (UNSW)

This week I present you the answers of Dr Markos Valaris. Dr Valaris is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Sidney. He works mainly on the human capacity to do things for reasons, focusing on action, reasoning, Kant, self-knowledge and other aspects of epistemology. He also co-edited The Philosophy of Knowledge: A History which will appear any day now. Enjoy!

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

My first contact with the philosophy of action was in a graduate seminar by John McDowell, when I was a student at Pitt. We read the classics of modern action-theory, but what has stayed with me was the overall framing of the topic as understanding how our rational nature manifests in the world.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

I am still working on the same topic! My work in the area consists in trying to do justice to the following thought: actions (specifically, physical actions) are both physical events in the publicly observable world (“I do what happens”, as Anscombe suggests) and at the same time manifestations of the mind. Doing justice to this idea, it seems to me, requires moving beyond orthodox causal theories of action, which take the bodily movements that constitute our actions to be merely the causal outcomes of suitable mental causes. In fact, I think that it requires us to expand our conception of what can count as “mental” at all: physical actions, on the sort of view I am trying to develop, are themselves the “workings of our minds”, as Ryle put it long ago. This type of approach can, it seems to me, be fruitfully combined with recent work on Anscombe’s thoughts on practical knowledge, as well as with long-running debates around embodied and extended cognition in the philosophy of mind. The results should be illuminating on a number of fronts, including classic mind/body metaphysical issues, and more recent debates concerning skill and knowledge-how. I have a couple of articles going on these issues at the moment, but I am also hoping to develop this line of thought further in the form of a monograph.

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

I doubt that a general and informative account of what action is is possible. There are just too many things that can count as actions in some sense or another, some of which may have nothing to do with rational agents, or even living beings, at all. Of course, the philosophy of action is not primarily concerned with action in this maximally broad and likely indefinable sense. But there is still enough variation in the sorts of action that can be relevant to different philosophical projects that it remains doubtful that they all share an underlying nature: the concept of the “philosophers’ actions” is likely a family resemblance concept.

To specify the sort of action I have been working on, I would repeat my formula from before. There are some publicly observable worldly happenings which are at the same time manifestations of our minds.

These are the things I am interested in. I follow Michael Thompson in taking actions in that sense to be processes that possess a certain kind of structure, namely, instrumental structure: you are acting when you are doing one thing for the sake of another. When all goes well this structure embodies a form of knowledge: in doing X for the sake of Y you know that you are doing Y by doing X. I diverge from Thompson on some of the details, for example in thinking of processes as temporally extended particulars and in suspecting that demonstratives will play a major role in an account of action and practical knowledge.

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

This is a hard question. I certainly can’t purport to answer on behalf of the field as a whole. From my point of view, I’d list the following, in no particular order. First, the intense interest in the topics of knowledge-how and skill has brought the philosophy of action into contact with other areas of philosophy (such as epistemology) as well as cognitive science, which in my view has been a very good thing.

Second, while of course dissent from orthodox causal theories of action has never been absent, it certainly feels like there is an intensification of the search for coherent and fruitful alternatives.

This is also related to the third development I will cite, which is the increased attention being paid to Anscombe’s Intention as a possible inspiration for such alternatives.

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

I am broadly happy with the direction the field is moving in: I like the fact that it is in close contact with other areas of philosophy, and the fact that it seems more pluralistic than in the recent past. More of both of these things would be good!

Many thanks to Dr Valaris for his answers!

2018 September 26

Join us again next weekend for a set of answers on Philosophy of Action!