Our mini-interviews so far

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!

Janice Chik Breidenbach (Ave Maria)

Our mini-interview this week features Dr Janice Chik Breidenbach. Dr Breidenbach is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. Her work ranges over actions, rationality, metaphysics and philosophy of science. Dr Breidenbach’s recent publications include discussions of Thomistic Animalism, and connections between animalism, and action and substance causation. She is working on her book bearing the provisional title The Unity of Action: A Metaphysics of Agency. Enjoy!


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


I was introduced to the subject through a Philosophy of Criminal Law course I took at Princeton with Gideon Rosen in 2005. Although my intention had been to attend law school, Rosen’s course impressed on me the importance of clarifying the concepts of agency, voluntariness, and responsibility, for the purposes of doing philosophically coherent legal scholarship. Reading Anscombe’s Intention in graduate school subsequently ‘sealed my fate’, as it were. Since then I’ve been intrigued by the metaphysical problems raised by the philosophy of action, and contained implicitly by applications of action theory (as in e.g. legal scholarship).


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I’m working on the various ways in which Aristotelian metaphysics can provide meaningful action-theoretic concepts to our contemporary discussion. In particular, I’m interested in the way Aristotle’s naturalistic view of us as animals, a variety of animalism, might inform an account of action and agency, particularly one that is non-causalist. I’m still drawn to the interdisciplinary appeal of action theory, and am finalizing an essay on action-theoretic issues underlying the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, to be included in a forthcoming Cambridge Companion volume on the First Amendment.


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


Action is the actualization or exercise of a power naturally possessed by an animal. It can be characterized as a special kind of change or motion, or as a process. Contra Davidson, animals such as spiders, sparrows, and seals are agents. Human agency assumes the same metaphysical structure, but includes the distinctive power of rational deliberation for the sake of one’s chosen ends. This Aristotelian account of action excludes causalist and neo-Humean theories, but it is compatible with recent efforts to provide a disjunctivist conception of agency.


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


A welcome recent trend has been resurgent interest in Anscombe’s Intention. Relatedly, there has been increasing attention given to non-causal theories of action, or alternatives to a neo-Humean account. Finally, we’re starting to see more empirical engagement with the field, which is a positive development for any area of philosophy.


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


It would be interesting to see more scholarship on the action-theoretic foundations or implications of certain theological concepts and debates. For instance, speculation about the agency of rational but non-corporeal beings typically is uninformed by so much of existing action theory research, and the same problem pervades the classic ‘faith vs. works’ debate introduced by Luther.


Many thanks to Prof Breindenach for her answers!

2018 December 10


We hope to welcome you back next weekend again

Maureen Sie (TiLPS, Tilburg)

This week we are continuing our mini-interview series with the answers of Prof Maureen Sie. She is Chair of Philosophy of Moral Agency at TiLPS, Tilburg University, and also chair of the Practical Philosophy division of the Dutch Research School of Philosophy (OZSW). Prof Sie’s work addresses free will, philosophy of action, moral psychology, and meta-ethics, and she engages intensely with scientific results. Recently she co-edited with Derk Pereboom a volume of essays titled Basic Desert, Reactive Attitudes and Free Will. Enjoy!


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


When I was orienting myself what to write my master thesis about (in the early nineties), I found a book in the library by Hannah Arendt, a philosopher that had not been discussed in any of the courses I took at the department of Philosophy in Utrecht (in the whole curriculum there was not one single text or book of a female philosopher, though Beauvoir was mentioned once, in connection to her lover). The title of the book Thinking intrigued me and the question raised on the page I opened did too “could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of specific results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil- doing or even actually “condition” them against it?” (Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1971, p. 5). For Arendt the value of thinking, to say it in a very abbreviated manner, is primarily in enabling us to act. Hence, she understands theory (thinking) from the perspective of acting. Although I have not worked on Arendt since then, I think that she sparked my interest in the philosophy of action.


After that I wrote a dissertation on free will and moral responsibility in the late nineties arguing that the justificatory issue taking central stage in the philosophical discussions loses its practical urgency vis-a-vis actions that express what I then called “potential normative disagreements.” That is, I argued that once we see that many of the actions we respond to with blame, moral indignation and resentment (hereafter: the moral sentiments) potentially disclose a disagreement with our values and norms, the incompatibilist worries lose much of their grip on us (it was later published as Justifying Blame: Why Free Will Matters and Why it does Not).


2. What are you working on at the moment?


In the more recent past I have addressed the topic of free will and moral responsibility in relation to findings in the behavioral, cognitive and neurosciences which show that much of what we do is influenced in ways that escape our attention. Those findings—especially the surprise with which they were met by the scientists and the conclusions they draw from them—made me realize that the view of moral agency I took for granted in articulating my Strawsonian view on the importance of the moral sentiments, might not be as widely shared as I thought. To me, the importance of moral sentiments is crucial in becoming aware of the reasons for our actions, for exchanging them, and more broadly, to (opening) the moral conversation on how to regulate our shared practices with one another: to figure out what normative expectations we think legitimate, under what circumstances and for what reasons. Such a view makes sense when you believe that much, if not the majority, of the considerations on which we act escapes our awareness.


In current discussions of moral responsibility I am primarily drawn to the scaffolding views of moral responsibility, defended by Victoria McGeer and Manual Vargas. They focus on the crucial role moral sentiments play in steering interacting agents in directions we judge desirable and enabling them to develop the specific abilities required to function as moral agents. Besides these scaffolding functions, the moral sentiments also remain crucial in sorting out how to interact with one another (I argue for this in Sie 2016, 2018a).


I have also contributed to discussions on how to understand and evaluate the ‘moral hypocrisy’ paradigm in social psychology (Sie 2015); our moral responsibility for implicit bias (Sie 2017, 2018a); and the empirical research on love as the basis of moral agency (Sie, 2018b). Social psychologists working in the moral hypocrisy paradigm share the idea that what we do is primarily motivated by the wish to appear moral. I have argued that the empirical literature suffers from a very simple-minded understanding of moral agency, focusing mainly on the fascinating work of the psychologist Daniel Batson. When one evaluates the literature from a philosophical point of view, one can accommodate the view that we often act for reasons without being aware of what exactly those reasons are. In that case the pessimistic conclusions drawn by some psychologists turn out to be unwarranted.


I suspect that it is clear why implicit bias is of interest to someone who believes that the majority of what we do is done for reasons that escape our awareness. In Sie 2017, co-authored with Nicole van Voorst Vader-Bours, I have argued that we best understood our moral responsibility for harmful stereotypes and prejudices as indirect, a responsibility we bear on account of us being part of a collective in which those prejudices and stereotypes are kept alive.


Finally, with respect to my ideas on love as a basis for moral agency, I just published my first venture in this domain examining and elaborating on the framework offered by C.S. Lewis in his The Four Loves. I like the fact that he distinguishes four kinds of love (friendship, romantic love, affective love and charity, which I rename kindness), has a keen eye for their darker sides and understands them as mutually depending on one another to prevent these darker sides from getting the upper hand. I also think the framework he develops is well-suited to discuss what we can learn about morality from the empirical literature on love (e.g. the neuroscientific research on oxytocin).


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


An action is a move within a social setting that expresses an individual’s particular take on things, like her views, values, and what she cares about. In its most exemplary form such a move is made intentionally with the aim of expressing that individual’s particular take. Take as examples when someone invites a controversial political figure to their university because they believe in the value of free speech, or when someone does not applaud a philosopher’s lecture at a public gathering to express that they take offense at the kind of person this philosopher is and they believe that protesting in these minor ways is the best way of someone in their position to communicate their resistance to people like them.


What I find more interesting to attend to, though, is the fact that we often act without such aims, sometimes accidentally and occasioned by the situation we find ourselves in, i.e., not realizing why we do what we do. I might for example end a friendship with someone by making a particular remark, something I did not plan on doing and something that comes about in a particular social setting without which the remark would not have made sense or be possible. Nevertheless, I might come to realize afterwards that with that remark, I ended my friendship with that person and also come to understand that as an action of mine.


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


Attention on:

(1) the embedded, embodied and extended nature of our agential capacities (e.g. see the work of people like the aforementioned Victoria McGeer and Manual Vargas, but also philosophers like Jesse Prinz and David Velleman, who all addressed one or more of these aspects), and closely related to this,

(2) the social dimension of our agency (e.g., the work of Barbara Herman, Bryce Huebner, Catriona Mackenzie) and

(3) how to understand the role of deliberative awareness, the awareness of the reasons for which we act, in their ‘production’ (e.g., the work of Nomi Arpaly, Philip Pettit, Angela Smith, Neil Levy).


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


I very much enjoy the interaction of scientists from outside philosophical with topics such as free will and moral responsibility (e.g., Libet, Wegner, Gazzaniga) and moral judgment and decision-making (e.g., Jonathan Haidt, Timothy Wilson, Cordelia Fine, Daniel Batson, Kahneman and Tsversky, Thaler and Sunstein and so on) that has generated an enormous (public) interest in those topics. As a result, many have taken up discussing these issues in less philosophically specialized ways (e.g. Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, Jesse Prinz, Joshua Greene, John Doris, Gregg Caruso, Owen Flanagan), often also engaging with a wider audience. In my own country (the Netherlands) I have gained much from discussing philosophy in public debates with scientists whose work led them to make, often bold and unsubstantiated claims, about free will and moral responsibility, and also from witnessing how people without a background in philosophy respond to sophisticated philosophical positions such as compatibilism.


I hope the field in general will continue to develop in dialogue with other disciplines and the wider public. However, I also hope that it will keep accommodating more specialized discussions about which it is not immediately clear what they contribute to other disciplines or to a better grasp on the many challenges our society faces. Not because I always take a deep interest in those discussions themselves, but because I believe that it is in engaging in those discussions that many philosophers acquire the “thinking tools” that enable them to make valuable contributions to discussions that do matter.


Many thanks to Prof Sie for her answers!

2018 December 1


We hope to welcome you back next weekend again

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

Paul Russell (Lund)

This week we are continuing our mini-interview series with the answers of Prof Paul Russell. Prof Russell works at Lund University and is the Director of the Lund|Gothenburg Responsibility Project (LGRP). His work is focused on action theory and ethics – with free will weighing heavily –, early modern philosophy, and philosophy of religion. His selected essays with the title The Limits of Free Will has been published just last year. Enjoy!


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


My interest in the philosophy of action developed very largely through the free will issue. Early on, as an undergraduate, I had strong incompatibilist intuitions and I was sympathetic to Kant’s dismissal of compatibilist accounts as a “wretched subterfuge” but this changed over time. Related to all this, during my final years as an undergraduate, I developed a strong interest in the philosophy of history and in issues relating to the explanation of human action that arise from that. When I began my PhD studies I planned to write about the implications of the Marxist theory of history for our understanding of human freedom and moral responsibility. As my work in this area developed, it became clear that I had more to contribute on the subject of Hume’s compatibilism and P.F. Strawson’s account of moral responsibility. This was the topic of my first book, Freedom and Moral Sentiment.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


My major project at the present time is a book on what I call “Free Will Pessimism”. Free will pessimism is not the same as free will scepticism. On the contrary, free will pessimism turns on denying scepticism about free will and moral responsibility. What I argue is that all the parties in the traditional free will debate – including sceptics – assume that any defensible account of conditions of freedom and moral responsibility must exclude conditions of fate and moral luck. Against this view, I maintain that a truthful account of our human ethical predicament must reject any such assumption. Moreover, recognizing this shows that we need to acknowledge a real source of pessimism (features that we find disturbing and disenchanting) about our situation as ethical agents in the world.


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


There are, of course, many technical and subtle distinctions that should be drawn for a formal statement about the nature of action – not to mention any number of difficult problems and issues to be addressed. Informally stated, however, action should be understood as a sub-category of activity and processes of change that take place in the world. What makes action distinct from mere change and natural activity is that action has its source in a (conscious) agent, who guides and directs processes and activities of this kind. In this sense, there is an “inside” to action that requires interpretation and understanding. The agents involved need not be either human (e.g. God, angels, etc.) or rational (e.g. children, animals, etc.) and to this extent we may consider action that is not narrowly understood as brought about by rational, adult human agents. Nevertheless, the paradigm case of action that we generally focus on is behaviour and conduct brought about by rational human agents. Action in this narrower sense involves norms of rationality and deliberation, which both expands and contracts the range of issues that may fall under this heading. Among the core questions we face in this area is what is the relationship between agents and their actions (e.g. is it a causal relationship?); what sort of activities and processes constitute the boundaries of action (e.g. are there mental actions?; are actions willings that bring about bodily movement?; and so on); and, finally, what is the relationship between intelligence/rationality and agency (e.g. can unintelligent beings be genuine agents?). These various questions point us in the direction of an understanding of what action is and is not, while at the same time they make clear that the category of “action” is itself highly problematic and contested.


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


There can be no doubt that over the past half-century the most fundamental issue arising in the “philosophy of action” concerns the prospects of a causal theory of action. I can remember the period in the 1970s and early 1980s when there was a dramatic shift away from non-causal theories to causal views – much of this being propelled by Donald Davidson’s work. While I think this has moved the subject in a generally positive direction, it could be argued that many interesting issues and problems have simply been dropped or set aside as a result of these developments (e.g. a whole range of issues relating to the “autonomy of the human sciences” are now, it seems to me, largely neglected in the contemporary climate). In my own end of things, concerning problems of freedom and responsibility, I would mention the challenge of scepticism about free will and pluralism about moral responsibility as major developments that are still providing stimulus and producing significant insights into the problems we face in these areas.


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


The field of philosophy of action is broad and has various components and aspects to it. Throughout all of philosophy, however, there is now much greater emphasis on the importance of empirical evidence and investigations as a basis for philosophical understanding of these matters. It is a positive feature of the philosophy of action over the past half-century that it is no longer restricted to “conceptual” or “linguistic” investigations and analysis. Having said this, it is also possible for this process to go too far and to adopt a set of assumptions and aims that are excessively “scientistic” in character. One dimension of this is a suspicion or lack of respect for methods and findings coming from outside the natural sciences. These attitudes can take the form of hostility to historical and literary sensibilities. We need these broader interests and concerns to make sense of our ethical lives, particularly as this concerns issues of freedom and moral responsibility. In general, genealogical techniques and sensibilities are no less important than those of the natural sciences when it comes to acquiring an adequate philosophical understanding of human action and agency. The philosophy of action is a key point where issues of naturalism and normativity come together and intersect and we need more than the methods and findings of the natural sciences to understand these matters in their full complexity.


Many thanks to Prof Russell for his answers!

2018 November 17


We are looking forward to welcome you back next week

Margaret Gilbert (UC Irvine)

I’m really thrilled that we can present you this week with the answers are of Prof Margaret Gilbert. Prof Gilbert is the Abraham I. Melden Chair in Moral Philosophy at University of California Irvine. Her work work includes the widely read On Social Facts and A Theory of Political Obligation. She published this year Rights and Demands: A Foundational Inquiry. Enjoy!


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


I should first clarity that insofar as I have focused my attention on philosophy of action it has been on the sub- or adjacent field that focuses on two or more people acting together. My interest in this started with a general interest in the nature of social phenomena---on the nature of the specifically "social" realm. In 1978 I completed an Oxford D. Phil. thesis on the topic, with the title On Social Facts. In 1989 I published a book with the same title that incorporated a new idea. In relation to acting together it is this: those who act together pool their wills in the service of particular goal. In terms that I now prefer, they jointly commit themselves to espouse as a body a particular goal, and their acting together is their severally acting in order to conform to this commitment, coordinating the actions of one with that of the other or others as needed in the service of the goal.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I have just finished a book, Rights and Demands: A Foundational Inquiry, which links closely to my work on acting together. When people act together, they thereby accrue rights against and obligations towards each other. This is something those acting together understand. Though I made this point in my book On Social Facts, I did not there attempt to explore in what sense and how acting together involves rights and obligations. Rights and Demands focuses on the kind of right that is at issue---which I call a "demand-right". X has such a right against Y if X has the standing to demand some action of Y, where the standing in question is a matter of authority. It argues, centrally, that joint commitment is one ground of such rights and it may be their only ground, at least when X and Y are different people. The book should be accessible to those with no prior knowledge of contemporary rights theory, and can serve as an introduction to it. Current projects include further work on the topic of collective moral responsibility and related matters.


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


As far as a case of acting together is concerned I would start with what I said earlier. For two or more people to act together is for them to be jointly committed to espouse as a body a certain goal, and for each to be acting in order to conform to this commitment, meshing the actions of one with that of the other or others in the service of the goal. I believe that this account fits the way people understand acting together in their everyday lives---without articulating this understanding. Given a few more sentences I would say something about joint commitment: what it is and how it comes to be. A useful way into this is to start with a personal decision. As I see it, when I decide to do something, I place upon myself a peremptory normative constraint. As long as the decision stands, I would be making a mistake, all else being equal, should I act contrary to the decision, and my having inclinations to the contrary does not mean that all else is not equal. Those who jointly commit one another in some way impose upon each of them a normative constraint of this kind. This joint commitment comes about by means of each party's expression of readiness jointly to commit them all, in conditions of common knowledge.


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


An important landmark in the theory of acting together was the recent publication of Michael Bratman's book Shared Agency, which reflects decades of thinking on the topic. Michael and I have been debating the nature of acting together, collective action---or, in his terms, shared agency---since the early 1990s. At this point Michael has added many clauses to his original account of shared intention, which is the core of his account of shared agency. In large part he aims for an account of shared agency whose core is the intentions of the individuals involved---their personal intentions. He would rather not invoke something like my notion of joint commitment. It is not clear to me, however, that personal intentions are even part of the constitution of a shared intention, as I've discussed in various places.


Other important recent and not-so-recent developments include an explosion of interest in acting together and related phenomena in fields outside philosophy such as social psychology and robotics. Some practitioners in these scientific fields have taken a strong interest in what philosophers have been saying on the subject. One is primatologist and developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello. Joint commitment as I understand it figures prominently in his recent book A History of Human Morality: he sees it as the crucial step in that history. A recent issue of Philosophical Psychology contains a set of essays responding to his book by philosophers, including myself, among others.


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


I'd like everyone to end up agreeing with me. Smiley face here. Actually---if I'm going to say something along those lines---I'd like everyone to end up understanding and representing my work accurately, since often it is represented in ways that aren't accurate. I'm happy for people to disagree with me or to show that I'm wrong in one or another way but being misrepresented is hard. Sometimes people pick up on a phrase---in my case "plural subject" which I have used to refer to those who are jointly committed in some way---and misinterpret it, suggesting that I think that above and beyond the subjective states of those individuals who are acting together there's a subjective state that belongs to no one of these. Some prominent writers on acting together---I have in mind seminal articles by Michael Bratman and John Searle in the early 1990s---have prefaced their accounts by saying its important not to posit a "group mind" or "super-mind" when offering an account of such action. They don't make it particularly clear what they wish to avoid, but I'm pretty sure I avoid it in my own work. I realize that I've not answered your question properly. I think the field will find its own way as it should. I would definitely like the marriage of philosophical and empirical work on acting together to continue. Thank you for your time.


Many thanks to Prof Gilbert for her answers!

2018 November 10


Hope to see you all again next weekend with a new mini-interview

Timothy Schroeder (Rice University)

I have the pleasure to share with you this weekend Timothy Schroeder’s answers to our questions. He is Professor of Philosophy at Rice University. Prof Schroeder works mainly on ethics and moral psychology, with a focus on desires, addiction, responsibility and deliberation, as well as philosophy of mind. Most recently he co-authored In Praise of Desire with Nomy Arpaly. Enjoy!


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


I finished my graduate studies thinking of myself as a scientifically-oriented philosopher of mind, and wrote a book about desire from that perspective. And only after I wrote the book did I start to wonder who would really be interested in it! It seemed to me that the philosophers who cared the most about the nature of desire were all working in moral psychology, motivation-oriented metaethics, the theory of free will, and action theory. And so bit by bit moral psychology and action theory drew me in, and these days that's most of what I think about.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


A book on the low-level neuroscience of action, and its interpretation by philosophers, is the main project right now. At the level of, say, functional neuroanatomy we know a lot about how the "shin bone is connected to the knee bone" in the brain's action production systems. And this knowledge, at this level, is very secure. It's not as though there could be a huge group of cells in pre-frontal cortex reaching down to exert control over the spinal cord that we just never noticed before! And it's also strikingly detailed. So how should we interpret it? To my eye, this "causal map" of action production has three main kinds of input: representations of available basic actions, representations of how things stand in the world (beliefs and perceptions), and influence in the form of dopamine, a key chemical in the brain (with maybe serotonin in a mostly complementary role; that's less clear to me). These influences come together to generate a choice of basic action (with influence from habit and other factors). But now, how should the contribution of dopamine be interpreted? Some action theorists have started trying to figure this out, proposing theories in terms of value judgments, or in terms of expectations, or in terms of Appetite as opposed to Reason. My own view is that the contribution of dopamine to action is the contribution of intrinsic desires. But what I believe, more firmly than my own hypothesis, is that this is an important project for action theorists to be engaged in. Insofar as an action theorist has causal commitments in her theories - and how could she not? - the action theorist has to be at least consistent with the causal facts. So making these facts accessible to all of us, and arguing for their importance to philosophy, is a big part of the project of the book.


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


The most basic actions are choices (also known as tryings or immediate intentions), and then the less basic actions are the consequences of those choices. As for what makes something a choice, it is being a command (an "imperative representation" as Millikan puts it), execution of which is a psychologically basic competence of the individual, that is performed for a (better or worse) reason, or at least in the light of such reasons. And what makes an imperative representation of that sort into one that is made for a reason, and so into a choice? To be made for a reason is for it to be the causal product of practically rationalizing attitudes that cause the command to be issued in virtue of their standing in a (perhaps partially) rationalizing relation to that command. Or, if one chooses in the light of one's reasons, then the cause (or the main cause, or causal explanation) of one's imperative representation is something not rationalizing, such as a habit, but it is still true that a full causal explanation of the choice would include the way in which it happened in virtue of not being contrary to some of one's practical attitudes (and so in light of them).


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


A while back, there was a strong turn toward morally loaded philosophy of action, especially in service of debates about moral motivation. And around then, or maybe a little after, there was a separate strong turn toward theorizing joint agency and related phenomena. I wouldn't claim to be a sociologist of the field, but to me it looked a bit like people were tired of theorizing action itself, arguing about causal theories of action vs. non-causal theories, investigating the idea of basic actions, or individual intentions...stuff like that. And so people branched out. More recently, we have begun to see knowledge of relevant neuroscience begin to creep into the theory of action, and that might turn out to be a stable trend into the future.


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


Not surprisingly, I'm excited to see the field think more about the constraints on philosophy that come from neuroscience. Even philosophers who like a Wittgensteinian or Brandomesque theory of mind as the background for thinking about action agree that it's no coincidence that neural events cause arm motions at the same time as justifications for voting lead to voting by raising a hand: we all have causal commitments insofar as we have theories that purport to explain events. My hunch is that a close look at the neuroscience will reveal important new constraints on philosophical theorizing. The neuroscience itself cannot entail that theory A is right, but it can entail that theory A cannot be true if it is also true that desires necessarily have property B and lack property C. And that would itself be great for philosophical theorizing: to see which sets of our causal commitments are jointly inconsistent, and to then start thinking about what to give up in response.


Many thanks to Prof Schroeder for his answers!

2018 November 3


Hope to see you all again next weekend with a new mini-interview

Yudai Suzuki (International Budo University)

This week we publish the answers of Dr Yudai Suzuki who is Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the International Budo University in the scenic Katsuura. Dr Suzuki specialises in action theory, more specifically in questions of teleology, disjunctivism, bodily movements, motivation, and the ontology of actions - focusing on process views -, and he is also interested in Heidegger and meaning of life. He is also a Japan Society for the Promotion Fellow. Enjoy!


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


How I developed an interest in philosophy of action goes back to how I became interested in philosophy in general. In adolescence, I asked myself banal questions, “What are we living for?” and “What is the meaning of life?” These quasi-existential questions led me to read Heidegger; hence, I began my career of philosophical research by investigating Heidegger’s esoteric thought. I put in special efforts to clarify his more abstract ideas by comparing it with Husserl’s Logical Investigations, which had greatly influenced Heidegger. In contrast with the epistemological air of Logical Investigations, Heidegger’s emphasis fell on our practical side, i.e., on what we humans do in the world rather than what we believe about the world. This attracted me. Then, partially because of my original interest in existentialism, I was also led to start research on actions themselves.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I have been trying to revive teleology in philosophy of action, which causalism has dominated in the recent decades. Although standard causalists admit that every action has a goal (a telos), they infer from an agent having a mental representation of the goal, i.e., a desire or an intention, that this representation causes the action (mostly, the agent’s bodily movement). I argue against this causalist view and maintain that the action relates to the goal - not indirectly through its representation, but directly - because the action itself is directed toward the goal.


Concerning this roughly described teleological view, at the moment, I am working mainly on three correlated topics: (1) disjunctivism, (2) embodiment, (3) and processes.

(1) I am defending an action’s “disjunctivism,” according to which a comparisons of mere bodily movements with intentional movements reveals that they are essentially different because the latter are teleological, whereas the former are not.

(2) I am developing the view that intentions in action are not representations distinct from the action but are embodied in it. Intentions in action are teleological features intrinsic to the action, not causally extrinsic.

(3) Actions are better understood not as events of complete changes, but as processes that can also be progressing changes. Viewing actions as capable of progressing is required for theories of action, and, moreover, enables us to appeal to the analogy between material objects and actions. Material objects, such as a clay statue, can be thought of as different from the lump of clay from which the statue was made. Likewise, an action can be considered a different process from mere bodily movement by which the action is constituted.


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


Actions are teleological processes, i.e., processes directed toward goals. Processes can be actions not because they relate indirectly to goals by being caused by mental representations about goals, but because they themselves change as they are directed toward goals. Actions are what they are because of their intrinsic feature of being directed toward goals, not because of an extrinsic feature of being caused by something else. Their intrinsic feature of direction toward goals is their capacity to adjust themselves flexibly to the situation to achieve the goals. This teleological feature intrinsic to actions is termed “intention in action”; therefore, intentions are not distinct from actions, but embodied in them. Moreover, having the teleological feature, intentional bodily movements differ essentially from mere bodily movements that constitute them and lack the teleological feature. Intentional bodily movements stand in the same relation to mere bodily movements as the relation between a clay statue and the lump of clay that will constitute the eventual statue.


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


(1) The first is the anti-psychologistic approach to reasons for action, spearheaded by Jonathan Dancy. It opened the way of thinking about reasons not as an agent’s mental representations but as something objective about which those representations are. (2) The second is the reappraisal of Anscombe’s work on practical self-knowledge that agents possess about what they are doing. (3) The third is the reconsideration of actions’ ontological status as processes, not as events.


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


I hope that philosophy of action becomes more influenced by alternatives that are developing to the mind–brain identity theory (including functionalism), such as embodied cognitive science and enactivism. The causal theory of action and the mind–brain identity theory have so far gone hand in hand. However, now, a new alternative to the causal theory of action should emerge, corresponding to the new wave in philosophy of the mind.


Big thanks to Dr Suzuki for the answers!

2018 October 27


See you all again next weekend with some fresh stuff on actions

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 The 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!

Bob Lockie (UWL)

This week's answers come from Dr Bob Lockie who is Senior Lecturer at the University of West London as well as a chartered academic psychologist. Dr Lockie works mainly on free will, agency, responsibility, as well as on philosophy of mind/psychology, and metaphilosophy. He recently published his monograph Free Will and Epistemology: A Defence of the Transcendental Argument for Freedom. Enjoy!


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


I suspect that, incipiently, I’ve always been interested in these issues. Academically, I think this interest has at least three sources: i) my background in psychology, then latterly the philosophy of mind, pressing the question as to what is a self, an agent, agency – these questions disciplined (positively) by Freud, Descartes and various non-deflationary academic and clinical psychological literatures; negatively, by my rejection of Wittgenstein, behaviourism and various other deflationary psychological literatures (e.g. Kahneman-Tversky). ii) My interest in issues of moral responsibility and my conviction, somewhat after Nagel, after ultimately rejecting much of the framework of presupposition underpinning the ‘moral realism’ debates of the 1970’s and 80’s, that the fundamental issue of moral realism comes down to this: are there transcendent ‘oughts’? That is, are there things we really ought to do [or ought not to do] whether we actually do them or not? This means that I endorse the view that these debates should focus, not on various oddly dissociated ‘theoretical’ issues in ontology, language, quasi ‘scientific’ realism etc. but rather on such ‘oughts-based’ questions: as to whether there is real moral responsibility (‘ultimate desert’) in the world. iii) My interest in issues of epistemic responsibility and the ‘ethics of belief’ tradition after such luminaries as Clifford, Descartes, Alston, and of course, my teacher, Richard Foley. This epistemic deontology tradition sees epistemic justification as reasoning as one ought. That is, the agent directing his thought, his mental actions, diligently, responsibly, as he should. The latter informs much of my recent book, but has been the basis for my thought in epistemology for the last 25 years.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I aim to develop a book-length treatment (presently somewhere between the planning and drafting stage) involving the articulation and defence of a broadly Bartlettian (holistic, top-down, schema-driven) conception of high-level, characteristically human knowledge – as against the neo-Gettier bottom-up, preservation / contamination, ‘concept of knowledge’ tradition that has dominated epistemology for the last half-century.


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


i) An action is a mental or motor determination of something by an agent. ii) This ‘something’ could be something being done to an object, to another agent in the world, a movement of the agent’s own body, a determination of events in that agent’s mind (a control of thought, a mental action), or some other, cognate, determination. iii) Mental actions are quite as real as bodily actions and are in no sense derivative or metaphorical or less central to the concept of ‘action’ than motor actions. iv) Actions exist on a continuum with behaviour, itself on a continuum with such biological occurrences or movements as may fall short even of behaviour in terms of the possession of ‘minded’ origination, determination and control. v) Actions, however, and agency proper, require determination by an agent – that is: at least a being possessed of a mind that is capable of being influenced by normative reasons (minimally: to be capable of instrumental rationality, more paradigmatically and centrally, to be a being capable of assuming moral or epistemic responsibility for some of its mental or motor determinations). vi) I contend that these determinations must really be that agent’s determinations, rather than those of entirely (reductively) sub-agential events or happenings (notwithstanding that of course, such agents may be composed of sub-agential items); however, in stating this contention the reader must be aware that I am begging the question against wholly reductive accounts of agency and action. vii) Actions then, are a class of motor or mental determinations, referable-to and determined-by an agent (one who is a reasons-affected being) possessed of a mind. viii) These minds must be minds that are selves (given that not all minded beings are selves). ix) The notion of a self is perhaps coextensive with that of a person, perhaps not; but I do not propose to analyse it further, though it will involve, in addition to the foregoing, at least such levels of psychological sophistication as are detailed constructively (through scientific description, elucidation and explication) in chapter 4 of my recent monograph – especially (in addition to the ‘reasons-affected’ remarks above) reflexive psychological properties. x) Things like agents, actions, minds, and their concomitant properties of agency, responsibility, reflexive thought, are a part of the furniture of the universe – as ontologically real as things such as quasars, proteins, rivers, animals; or properties such as acidity, hydrostatic pressure, infection, life.


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


i. Van Inwagen’s development of a strongly incompatibilist world view. Whatever your views about the specifics of his arguments (the consequence argument, the direct argument) the importance lies in his making academically respectable the type of reasoning which every pre-philosophical intellect embraces until it is beaten out of them – that there could not be free will / responsibility in a determined world. Notwithstanding that he had his predecessors and contemporaries (Ginet, Wiggins) I think it true that he, more than anyone, overturned a glibly dismissive, arch, shallow, compatibilist near-consensus in analytic philosophy – one that had prevailed for more than a century, and which had been far too influential in English language philosophy for more than 300 years – Kant’s ‘freedom of the turnspit’, his ‘petty word jugglery’.


ii. Frankfurt’s development of the compatibilist position which (alongside Strawson) represented the first real advance in that position since Hobbes, and which led to the wholesale abandonment of classic compatibilism in the space of just a few years. The preceding development of course led numbers to eschew compatibilism per se, but among those who remained compatibilists, after Frankfurt placed other resources at their disposal, few if any remained classical, neo-Hobbesian compatibilists. Frankfurt’s advances were predominantly his development of the first (hierarchical) mesh theory – of higher-order desires – but also, of course, deserving of mention was his extraordinarily influential attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities.


iii. The overlapping executive functioning literatures in psychology, clinical neurology and neuroscience that are now (I hope, partly after my own work) beginning to be known and deployed in the philosophical literature. The work of these psychologists, neuroscientists and clinicians is of extraordinary value in achieving a real understanding of human nature and our actual powers of agency and control. It gives lie to various armchair (often scientistic) deflationary claims as to our powers of agency. Pioneers such as Luria, Baddeley & Hitch, Shallice are joined now by a great number of often brilliant clinicians and scientists.


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


I’d like to be surprised by the field developing in directions I precisely cannot foresee! Nevertheless, in terms of directions I can:

i. I’d like to see more philosophers wrestle with the problems of reflexivity which I have attempted to engage with in my own work (e.g. how can you, the determinist, claim to be determined to accept the truth of determinism? Whither epistemic justification then? Whither moral responsibility, or anything like?)


ii. I am heartened by the convergence / triangulation of realistic, honest, ‘hard compatibilists’ who acknowledge compatibilism will not give us all we want – and some bullets must be bitten – with those ‘revisionists’ stating something similar, with erstwhile ‘hard incompatibilists’ who acknowledge that nevertheless some things of value will remain to us ‘after the fall’ (as it were). I’d like to see more of this honesty and convergence (where possible, natural and unforced – not merely for its own sake).


iii. I’d like to see the field continue (at least in part) to buck the trend in analytic philosophy more generally and retain a search for a ‘bigger picture’ – as opposed to the pettiness and contrivance so prevalent in our late-stage analytic philosophical culture across other sub-areas of the discipline.


iv. I’d like to see a more disciplined use of the scientific literature – by people who actually understand the relevant psychological, neuroscientific, etc. literatures in the round (as it were) rather than as a tourist, cherry-picking a few scientistic anecdotes, in isolation from a broad and deep framework knowledge of the field as a whole.


Many thanks to Dr Lockie for his answers!

2018 October 13

We hope to see you back again next weekend for some more answers on Philosophy of Action!

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!

Santiago Amaya (Universidad de los Andes)

This week I have the pleasure to present you with the answers of Dr Santiago Amaya. Dr Amaya is assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy of Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. His work is focused on basic actions, mistakes and slips in actions, philosophy of psychology and metaethics. He is engaged in an investigation with Manuel Vargas on ‘Getting Better at Simple Things’. Enjoy!


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


I came to the philosophy of action wanting to become a scholar in Ancient Greek Philosophy. At the time, I was puzzled by some ideas about practical reasoning and motivation that figured in Aristotle’s Ethics and his Rhetoric. Somebody asked if I had read Anscombe and Davidson. I was embarrassed. Frankly, I didn’t know who they were.


Two weeks later, after reading the few books and articles that were then available in Bogotá, it started dawning on me. I was too interested in developing my own views to become a good Aristotle scholar. There was, on the other hand, a whole area of research in philosophy and I was still young enough to jump straight to it.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I am interested in understanding how limited agents like us can be simultaneously engaged in a variety of different projects. Key to it, on my view, is the capacity to scatter our agency over time: to focus on ongoing activities, while keeping an eye on forthcoming tasks, in ways that allow you to go back and forth between them. I call this capacity vigilance. Currently, I am writing a couple of papers saying what vigilance is.


I am also interested in figuring out what forgiveness is. As I see it, forgiveness is a process of taking distancing from some of the sentiments that express blame. Understanding that process, therefore, requires understanding the dynamics of emotional change. The view that I am developing is that these dynamics are socially determined in various significant ways. I have just finished working on a paper on this idea and there is a second one on the horizon.


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


I do not have an account and I am skeptical that we need one. I mostly survive by talking about intentional actions or intentional behaviour. Am I in trouble?


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


I do not know about importance but I can tell you which recent developments please me the most.

I welcome the fact that philosophy of action is becoming a more scientifically informed enterprise. I also like that we are now thinking a little bit deeper about the role that memory, attention, and imagination play in structuring our agency. Finally, I am also encouraged that philosophers of action are discussing more about habits, spontaneous actions, and skilled behavior.


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


Philosophers of action have talked a lot about full-blooded actions and agency par excellence. I would like us to talk more about our mistakes, our half-hearted efforts, our clumsy attempts, and the like. To my mind, the latter are more telling about who we are as agents.


We have also overlooked the ways in which externals goods or their absences shape our agency. But there is much to be said about this. Identifying or not with your desires might be important for becoming an agent. My bet is that being poor, or sick, or beautiful, or well connected, matters more.


2018 September 15

Many thanks to Dr Amaya!


Hope to see you all back next weekend with another set of interesting answers about Philosophy of Action.

Piotr Tomasz Makowski (University of Warsaw)

I’m happy to present you this week the answers of Dr Piotr Tomasz Makowski. Dr Makowski is an associate professor at the University of Warsaw. He is working on praxiology, intentions and shared agency, capacities and reasons for action, as well as on organizational behavior and strategy focusing on routines, capabilities and psychological micro-foundations of strategy. He recently also published a volume titled Tadeusz Kotarbinski’s Action Theory which received favourable reviews. Enjoy!


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


My interest in the philosophy of action has its origins in my early admiration for the practical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, but to be fully aware that I am really interested in this field I had to wait until the work on my PhD dissertation related to naturalistic metaethics (2010). Besides that the philosophy of action is really absorbing, then I realized that it is less elusive than ethics and its metaethical reflection, especially if one accepts a naturalistic stance.


The true turning point for my philosophical development was the work of the Polish philosopher Tadeusz Kotarbiński from the Lvov-Warsaw School of thought. Paradoxically, I was attracted by his philosophy of action while working on Davidson’s and Bratman’s accounts of action, during my Fulbright fellowship in California. Kotarbiński is a fascinating philosophical figure – almost unknown in the mainstream, but his work on action is no less important than the work of such classics as Anscombe or Davidson. At least, this is the view I defend in my recent book Tadeusz Kotarbiński’s Action Theory – Reinterpretive Studies.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


Beginning from my Polish National Science Centre grant (2012-2015) in which I tried to use action-theoretical ideas on the terrain of management sciences I became more and more interested in organization science. This interest has grown to the extent that my current work is split into Philosophy of Action and Organizational Behavior/Strategy (I have several papers to develop on both fields). I also am working on a bigger project related to intentionality of organizational routines, in which I combine philosophy of action and cognitive psychology with the research on routines in organization science. Besides, I am still willingly engaging in dissemination of my work on Kotarbiński.


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


Despite my longstanding sympathy for naturalism, I belong to those who like to see human agents as significantly different from other agents such as robots, or non-human primates. I accept this view because then the question of action becomes truly interesting and—as it seems—more important philosophically. I take it that this significance is related to conditions of practical success. (So, my succinct and oversimplifying answer to the question of ‘what is it to act?’ could be: ‘to act is to get things done’).


Human agents are effectiveness-oriented beings in a similar sense as non-human agents are, but the job of the philosophy of action is to unveil the conditions and dimensions of being effective that are specific for humans. The idea of searching for the conditions of effectiveness in action comes from Kotarbiński’s philosophy. It becomes philosophically understandable when we consider the roles of crucial concepts that refer to human agency (e.g. intentions). I believe that the viewpoint proposed by Kotarbiński is still tremendously important—both for action theory and for scientific disciplines that explore the nature human actions (automated and consciously intended, mental and physical, improvised and planned, individual and shared).


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


Answer to this question depends on what we mean by 'recent'. If we mean: the 20th century philosophy of action, I would point to Donald Davidson and Elisabeth Anscombe who are considered as classics in the analytic tradition and to Tadeusz Kotarbiński and his 1955 Treatise on a Good Job (edited in English as Praxiology). This book highly deserves republication prepared by a competent translator to make it enter the canon of the philosophy of action (detailed reasons why Kotarbiński’s philosophy of action belongs to the canon can be found in my book).


If by recent developments we mean things that happened in relation to the philosophy of action afterwards, I would point to three:

(1) Michael Bratman’s ‘planning theory’ (especially his 1987 book): it shaped our philosophical understanding of temporarily extended forms of human agency. Although it has several imperfections (one of them I initially discussed in my 2015 paper), it is no doubt one of the most influential books for mature philosophy of action.


(2) Psychological developments of bounded rationality (esp. Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory, Gerd Gigerenzer’s heuristics): the idea of resource-bounded agents—coming from Herbert A. Simon’s works—changed the way how we understand rationality, decision-making and economization strategies in action. In this sense, the paradigm of bounded resources still has the chance to shed a fresh light on standard problems in action theory.


(3) Cognitive-psychological and neuro-scientific accounts of intentions—the role of psychology and neuroscience for the philosophy of action has become more important than XX-century authors could imagine. In this regard, the work of Elisabeth Pacherie (especially her 2008 paper published in Cognition) appears as an exemplary case of fruitful marrying these fields.


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


The influence of cognitive psychology and neurosciences on the philosophy of mind has been growing. If one agrees that action theory is a part of the philosophy of mind, then one should also accept the influence of neurosciences and psychology on action theory as a package deal. There are many dimensions of human agency the theory of which would benefit from meticulous and penetrating psychological work on this area (intentionality of the so-called automatic actions is a good case here). Generally, I take it that the conceptual apparatus developed by cognitive and social psychology focused on human performance is instructive for the philosophy of action as such. Thus, although I am still an enthusiast of standard philosophical theorizing on such issues as intentions, plans, wants or desires, I would be happy to see the philosophy of action as more abundantly nourished by cognitive-psychological research.


2018 September 8

Many thanks to Dr Makowski!


We will welcome you back next weekend with some new answers.

Genki Uemura (Okayama)

It is with great pleasure that I introduce our readers this week to Dr Genki Uemura’s views on action theory. Dr Uemura is senior assistant professor at Okayama University. He works mainly on Husserl and his followers, phenomenology, action explanation and motives, and collective actions. He is also involved in running the Setouchi Philosophy Forum. Enjoy!


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


I encountered philosophy of action for the first time, if I remember it correctly, in my final undergraduate year. Out of curiosity, I read the Japanese translation of Davidson’s “The Logical Form of Action Sentences”. I don't think that I could follow Davidson’s argument in detail, but I was strongly impressed by the elegance of his solution to the problem of inferences involving adverbial modifications. At that time, however, I would have never thought that I will write something on actions. I was studying classical phenomenology, Husserl in particular. I’m still in this field. In fact, it was by working on Husserl’s manuscripts on actions that I started engaging with some topics in philosophy of action.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


Recently I gave a talk on the representational structure of actions as processes. It draws on some insights from the aforementioned manuscripts of Husserl. I will keep on working on it and make it into a full paper. It’s written in Japanese, but I hope to write on this topic in English too. I’m also working on an account of collective actions by the classical phenomenologist Gerda Walther. She has a nice idea to explain actions performed by masses of people.


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


An action is an upshot of a voluntary, creative process that may be called “acting”. The action and the process of acting hang together in a complex manner, which I have no idea yet how to explain in a few sentences. I take this idea from Husserl.


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


Renewed and/or fresh interest in 1) actions as process, 2) anti-psychologism about reasons for actions, and 3) the phenomenology of agency. Thanks to the emergence of the first two in current debates, I could find the relevance of classical phenomenology of action for contemporary philosophy of action. I’m not sure whether it is really appropriate to say that the last one, phenomenology of agency is a recent development in philosophy of action. One may take it as a topic in recent philosophy of mind. Anyway, the booming of this topic has also been helpful for my research on classical phenomenology.


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


It would be great if phenomenology of agency would be integrated with the major topics in philosophy of action. But, I would be most excited if this field goes in a direction that I have never thought about.


2018 September 1

Many thanks to Dr Uemura!


See you all next weekend with a new interview.

Joshua Knobe (Yale)

I’m very lucky that I can post this week Dr Joshua Knobe’s answers to our questions. Dr Knobe is a fellow at Yale, appointed in both the Program in Cognitive Science and the Department of Philosophy. He is a founder of experimental philosophy and a trailblazer in working out how to apply empirical methods to study questions in philosophy. His publications address questions about intentional actions, responsibility, causation, and morality among other issues. Dr Knobe also edited with Shaun Nichols of volumes 1 and 2 of Experimental Philosophy. Enjoy!


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


Back when I was an undergraduate, I was working on a series of studies in collaboration with a graduate student named Bertram Malle. He was pursuing an exciting research program on the way people ordinarily distinguish between intentional and unintentional behavior – looking at the roles of belief, desire, skill, etc. – and we ended up publishing the results in a social psychology journal.


At the time, I did not regard this project as being in any way a contribution to the philosophy of action. I just saw it as a straightforward piece of social-psychological research. So when I went to graduate school in philosophy, I assumed that I would just be putting this kind of work aside.


The thing that changed my mind was a paper by the philosopher Alfred Mele. He wrote a response to our social psychology paper, treating it as a serious contribution to the world of philosophy. Of course, he disagreed with many of the claims we made, but what was really important – far more important than the individual points of agreement and disagreement – was just the raw idea that empirical work like this could be part of the philosophical conversation. After reading through his response, I started to feel that there was some real potential to keep working on this sort of topic but to to do it in a way that felt more deeply connected to the existing literature in philosophy.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


My latest project in the philosophy of action is a paper with psychologist Adam Bear about how people ordinarily understand causal determinism. We presented experimental participants with a description of a deterministic universe and then asked them various questions about what it would be possible to do in such a universe. If the universe were deterministic, would it be possible to fall in love? To construct complex arguments? To resist one's immediate impulses?


Participants thought that many things would be possible even if the universe were deterministic. It would still be possible to fall in love, to construct complex arguments, to have moral values. But participants also thought that some things would not be possible if the universe were deterministic. To give two examples, participants thought it would not be possible to leave their long-term spouse unexpectedly to pursue a new love interest and that it would not be possible to decide not to go to a party in order to study for an exam. Note that the point is not just that participants thought one could not be morally responsible for doing such things in a deterministic universe. Rather, they thought that it would not even be possible to do such things at all.


In subsequent studies, we found that people's responses to this type of question are surprisingly systematic and predictable. People see certain types of actions "going with the flow" and other types of actions as going against the flow of things and setting off on one's own distinctive course. Then people think that if the universe were completely deterministic, one could continue to perform actions that involved going with the flow but could not perform actions that involved setting off on one's own distinctive course.


Of course, many philosophers will disagree with the views that our participants are expressing in these studies, but even if one disagrees, it might be highly informative to learn these facts about ordinary folk judgment. On one hand, they show how fundamental the notion of indeterminism is to people's ordinary understanding of action.(People think that if the universe was deterministic, certain kinds of actions just would not be possible at all.) On the other, they help to pinpoint a striking aspect of the folk understanding – the notion of "going with the flow" – that might otherwise have gone more or less unnoticed.


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


In my view, this is not the question we should be asking. Suppose that we are interested in various properties that human behaviors can have: property F, property G, and so forth. We might investigate the significance of each of these properties for moral questions, for empirical questions, for legal questions, and all these investigations could help us to get at matters of real philosophical importance. But now suppose someone says: "But there is a further question that none of these investigations have addressed. Which of these properties is really the property of being an action? Is it property F? Or property G? Or some other one?" My view is that this further question is just a distraction from the important philosophical issues. If we have already identified these different properties, and if we are already thinking systematically about their significance for morality, explanation, law, etc., then nothing of real importance hangs on the question as to which of them counts as the property of being an action.


Yet, though the question itself is a bad one, a lot of the work that philosophers have done in an attempt to answer it has been deeply important. Much of this work proceeds by looking at people's intuitions about action. Now, it is plausible that people's intuitions about action provide evidence for claims about which property is the property of being an action, but the more important thing is that facts about people's intuitions also provide evidence for claims about people – about how our minds work, how we conceptualize the world, how we make sense of each other's behavior. These sorts of issues might not have been a focus of 20th century philosophy of action, but they were absolutely central to more traditional philosophical work, all the way from Aristotle to Nietzsche. My own view is that facts about people's intuitions about action are philosophically important primarily insofar as they contribute to the kinds of questions posed within this earlier tradition.


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


My own research is mostly in experimental philosophy, and in that field, things work a little bit differently from in most of the rest of the discipline. In many areas of philosophy, my sense is that a lot of the focus is on work by extremely established senior figures, and that more junior researchers are often writing papers framed in part as responses to work by these senior figures. In experimental philosophy, this pattern is clearly inverted. Many of the most important findings, the ones that really drive the field forward, are those from junior researchers who are not yet especially well-known. For that reason, it might be best for me to answer your question by talking about three developments coming out of the work of people who are still students or postdocs.


a. David Rose and his collaborators have an exciting series of papers showing that people's way of thinking about material objects is, in many ways, surprisingly similar to their way of thinking about actions. When an agent performs an action, it seems natural to think about that action in terms of its purpose. But one might think that physical objects are different in this respect. If people come upon a tree or a river, one might think that they would not think about it as having any kind of purpose but instead simply understand it as having a particular material constitution. Strikingly, Rose and his collaborators find that this is not the case. People seem to understand all of these objects as having a purpose, or telos, and this teleological understanding impacts way of thinking about mereology, persistence, and other issues that have traditionally been central to research on the metaphysics of material objects.


b. My students Joanna Demeree-Cotton and Jennifer Dangle have a new paper looking at why people are reluctant to ascribe moral responsibility to people who grew up in bad formative circumstances (as in Susan Wolf's famous JoJo case). The usual view is that this intuition provides evidence for something along the lines of a normative competence theory. (If you grew up in bad formative circumstances, you could not have figured out what was the right thing to do and are therefore not rightly held responsible.) Demeree-Cotton and Daigle find evidence that there is actually something more complex afoot here. In cases where an agent grew up with bad formative circumstances and then does something wrong, people are more inclined to say that the action does not reflect the agent's "true self." That is, people think that the agent has a morally good true self and that the action does not reflect the person she really is deep down inside.


c. Dylan Murray and collaborators have a series of papers looking at how people ordinarily understand determinism. When people learn that an agent's behavior was causally determined, what exactly do they conclude about that behavior? The most surprising finding coming out of this research is that people sometimes conclude that the behavior was not in any way influenced by the agent's own mental states. In other words, when people hear that a behavior was causally determined, they infer that the behavior was not in any way explained by the agent's beliefs, desires and intentions. In my view, the fact that people make this inference shows something truly fundamental about the way they ordinarily conceptualize action. There has been a lot of very fruitful work by other researchers building on Murray's findings (including my own paper with Adam Bear, which I mentioned above), but my sense is that we are still only scratching the surface of the phenomenon Murray has uncovered.


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


When I first began working in the philosophy of action, the field was relatively disconnected from research on action that took place outside the discipline of philosophy. Philosophers knew that there was ongoing research about action in psychology, linguistics, law, artificial intelligence, and so forth, but for the most part, philosophers were not especially concerned with these developments. There was a sense that one could have a serious research program in the philosophy of action even while remaining completely ignorant of research on the topic within any other discipline.


Clearly, philosophers proceeding along broadly these lines did a lot of great work, and I certainly wouldn't want to disparage the decades worth of valuable research that took this path. Still, my own sense is that the best way to make further progress is not just to continue pursuing the same approach.


Indeed, I would recommend conceptualizing the field in a somewhat different way. The core aim is to find the answers to certain questions about action. The people who are making valuable progress on these questions happen to be housed in different departments within the university (philosophy, psychology, linguistics, law, etc.), but the best path forward is not to make such a big deal of the distinctions between these different departments. Instead, the goal should be just to focus on the questions themselves and to draw on whichever existing research traditions most help us to make progress on them.


2018 August 26

Many thanks to Dr Knobe!


Hope to see all of you next weekend with a new interview.

Ulrike Heuer (UCL)

This week we have the pleasure of offering you Dr Ulrike Heuer’s replies to our questions. Dr Heuer is a member of faculty at the Department of Philosophy of University College London. Her work addresses several core topics in Philosophy of Action and Ethics, like intentional agency, responsibility, practical reasons, normativity, and obligations. She also co-edited Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes from the Ethics of Bernard Williams with Dr Gerald Lang. Enjoy the material!


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


My work has been concerned mainly with understanding normativity, in particular understanding reasons for action. It was about ten years ago that it dawned on me that giving an account of what it is to respond to reasons (‘reason’ in the sense of a fact that makes an action appropriate or inappropriate being perhaps the most basic normative notion) crucially depends on answering questions in the philosophy of action, in particular on getting a clearer view of what intentional agency is. While I was visiting at Harvard in 2008-9, Christine Korsgaard ran a seminar on Action Theory which I attended, and which has had a lasting impact on my work.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I’m currently writing a book, developing a capacity-based view of intentional agency and on its basis an account of acting for a reason and the limits of responsibility.


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


This is a difficult question to answer since what should count as an action might vary depending on the context. ‘Action’ can (and perhaps should) be understood as including omissions as well as the actions of non-human animals. It is then not the same as doing something for a reason, nor does it require a (goal-directed) movement of one’s body, the latter excluding omissions, the former actions of non-human animals. Perhaps the broad sense of action is best captured in Harry Frankfurt’s ‘The Problem of Action’ as behaviour that is under the agent’s control and (in some sense) guided by her.


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


I don’t have comprehensive knowledge of philosophy of action and can only comment on those aspects that affected my own work:


(1) the renewed interest in G.E. M. Anscombe’s seminal work;


(2) work that attempts to gain a better understanding of know-how and skills, and their role in an account of agency;


(3) a beginning interaction of work in ethics with the relevant parts of philosophy of action. Answering questions in normative ethics (e.g. concerning the relevance of intentions to assessing actions), or in metaethics (e.g. about explaining our ability to recognize and respond to reasons) can benefit from paying attention to work in the philosophy of action.


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


I would like to see a more thorough exploration of the ways in which our understanding of normativity depends on assumptions in the philosophy of action or the philosophy of mind more generally.


2018 August 18

Many thanks to Dr Heuer!


Come back next weekend for another set of interesting answers.

Lilian O'Brien (UCC)

Dear Readers, this week we bring you Dr Lilian O’Brien’s answers to our questions. Dr O’Brien is a member of faculty in Philosophy at University College Cork in Ireland. She published an introductory book to the Philosophy of Action, and has written on topics like action explanation, psychologism and anti-psychologism, and agency. Enjoy!


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


I first became interested in the philosophy of action when I read “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”. That was for a seminar on the first-person perspective in mind and action led by Jaegwon Kim. I was intrigued by the deviance problem, rationalizing action explanation, and also the first-person perspective in action.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I have recently been working on an account of rationalizing action explanation that attempts to side-step questions about the metaphysics of intentional action. When we scrutinize the questions and answers of our everyday rationalizing practices, it looks like interlocutors asking and answering those questions simply presuppose that the agent has satisfied whatever conditions must be satisfied for the bit of behaviour to count as an intentional action. They focus their attention on, roughly, rational relations obtaining among the contents of the agent’s thoughts. Given this, causal understanding and rational understanding can come apart. A related project is a characterization of what kind(s) of understanding we gain when we quite fully understand our own intentional actions on the basis of first-person access to them. I am also interested in how this understanding relates to the kind of understanding that we can gain about the intentional actions of other agents on the basis of their testimony about their reasons, aims, and so on.


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


I’m open to the idea that there are different kinds of agent and different kinds of action, so I’m a bit sceptical that there is going to be a neat account of action. Here’s roughly how I think about the intentional action of a pretty sophisticated planning agent. Let’s assume that the agent has a thought about her action that contributes to making it the intentional action that it is – this is the kind of thought that she would express if she were to answer a question about what she is up to in acting.


What kind of thought could play this role? Turning to another issue, many philosophers have noted that when an agent is attempting to perform an intentional action, it is possible for her to succeed or fail – in attempting she becomes subject to practical standards. If she is attempting to raise her hand, or walk, or run for the bus, she must move in a certain way, she must reach a certain place by a certain time etc. But how does she become subject to practical standards? We could begin to address both questions if we accepted the following suggestion: when an agent is performing an intentional action, the agent holds herself to certain standards in her behaviour.


This involves regarding herself as a failure as an agent if she doesn’t meet these standards and a success as an agent if she does. Roughly, an intentional action is a bit of behaviour in which (i) the agent holds herself to standards by reference to which she takes it that she can fail or succeed as an agent, and (ii) she meets these standards. Reflexive evaluative attitudes are a good place to start, I think, if we wish to characterize sophisticated intentional actions.


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


I find it hard to choose only 3 - there has been a lot of great work done in the last decade or two that has made philosophy of action the rich field that it is now. One development of great interest is discussion of the diachronic will – when it is rational to abandon an intention, whether there are reasons to abide by one’s plans, and so on. Work by Luca Ferrero, Sarah Paul, and Sergio Tenenbaum comes to mind. Behind these discussions is of course Michael Bratman’s planning theory.


Another important development draws issues in action theory together with issues in value theory - constitutivist views, such as those developed by Korsgaard and Velleman, are a very interesting development, and they have resulted in deeper debates about the normativity of rationality, such as work by Kolodny, Enoch, and Kiesewetter.


A final development I would mention stems from work on the nature of reasons - Dancy’s work is particularly important here. This has led to innovative work on action and its explanation, such as Maria Alvarez’s work. There have been a number of exciting developments in the metaphysics of action and agency, such as work on omissions and the application of non-Humean views of causation to agency and action, but I won’t go on.


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


I don’t think of the philosophy of action as deeply unified, and there is no particular direction that I would like to see it go in – it is traveling in many excellent directions as it stands.


2018 August 11

Many thanks for Dr O’Brien!


Check back again in a week for the next set of answers.

Constantine Sandis (Hertfordshire)

This week I give you the 25th set of answers in our series of mini-interviews. It is a real pleasure to publish at this point the answers of one of the co-founders of this page, Prof Constantine Sandis from the University of Hertfordshire. (We have also interviewed our other founder Andrei Buckareff earlier.) Prof Sandis has published on most of the core topics of action theory like causal and non-causal explanation, reasons, concepts of action and explanation, co-edited Philosophy of Action: An Anthology with Jonathan Dancy, and A Companion to the Philosophy of Action with Tim O’Connor, besides several other volumes, and his Character and Causation: Hume’s Philosophy of Action is forthcoming soon. Besides, he hosted Bloomsbury’s Why Philosophy Matters lecture series. Enjoy!


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


In my third year as an undergraduate student I studied Philosophy of Mind with Peter Hacker. After the standard 8 tutorials, he asked me if I would like to have four more tutorials on issues relating mind to action. This was characteristically kind of him, and I proceeded to write essays on action, intention, voluntariness, and reasons. He instructed me to read Anscombe and Davidson, of course. But also Kenny and, most importantly, Alan R. White, whose introduction to criminal law, Grounds of Liability, had a particularly huge influence on me, as had his paper 'What We Believe' when I was writing an earlier essay on belief. So, it was really questions in the philosophy of criminal law about the concepts of voluntariness and the intentional that got me interested in the philosophy of action. H.L.A. Hart writing about Glanville Williams anticipated much of what experimental philosophy would later try to say about intentional action, but he did so from the proverbial armchair. I still believe that philosophy of action has more to learn from criminal law than the other way round, though it is definitely a two-way process.


I later wrote my MA dissertation on the so-called Weakness of Will, before proceeding to wrote a PhD on the explanation of action, with Jonathan Dancy as my supervisor. By then I had become really involved in the debate on the ontology of reasons for action. But it struck me as odd that those involved had almost nothing to say about either action or explanation. So, I tried to argue that one cannot place explanatory constraints on the notion of a reason for action without saying more about the nature of both what it is meant to explain and how it is meant to do so.


While I had read, 'Action, Reasons, and Causes' as an undergraduate I was struck to discover, as a graduate student, just how prevalent the view that all actions are intentional under some description was. This seemed counter-intuitive to me since clearly one may do some things intentionally and others unintentionally. I struggled with this for some years but eventually came to defend the view (in my book The Things We Do and Why Do Them) that while the event of my doing one thing intentionally may be identical to the event of my doing some other thing unintentionally, such events are not themselves intentional under any description.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I just finished writing a book on Hume's philosophy of action last week and editing another book, which will be out with Routledge in a few months. I now have a number of other projects I'm just returning to, including a collaboration with Microsoft Research on the explanation of AI behaviour. I'm also working on way too many new books. One is a tradebook on mistakes and why we make them, another explores what it takes to understand oneself and others, and a third is a long overdue textbook on the philosophy of action.

But the one that has been taking up most of my recent time attempts to demonstrate the relevance of philosophy of action for normative and practical ethics. I argue that it is quite remarkable how all the main theories of right action say next to nothing about what they take an action to be. My suspicion is that different concepts and conceptions of action render different normative theories more or less plausible, but that the proponents of such theories all assume that they either share a common notion of action or that one can simply plug in one's favourite action theory without this affecting the debate in any way. Take away this assumption, and the whole of normative (and by extension applied) ethics needs to be considered anew.


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


I think that any such account is bound to fail, so let me try to tell you why in about 10 (or a couple more) sentences. In ordinary language, the word 'action' is ambiguous. It can refer to either what one does or to one's doing (of) it. Some philosophers of action use the words 'doing' and 'deed' (or 'thing done') to disambiguate between the two. These should be treated as technical terms marking important conceptual space, since in ordinary language all of these terms retain the original ambiguity of 'action' to a relatively high degree. So, I think there are at least two different concepts of action, each equally legitimate and important for different reasons.


To complicate matters more, different philosophers have different conceptions of each of these two things. They might thus distinguish them as processes and products, types and tokens, universals or particulars, and so on. And they may have further debates about the ontology of any of these things e.g. whether act tokens are really processes or events. On my view, even these debates are misguided though, because neither doings nor things done are events. We may, of course talk of the event of my doing something, just as we might talk of the process of my doing that very same thing. But the 'of' here marks a relation that is not one of identity. Thus, we can have both processes and events of people acting, neither of which are either doings or things done.


I suppose one might be able to extract the negative view that actions are neither events nor processes from all this. But I'm not too fussed about such pronouncements since we could equally say that in philosophy the term 'action' is used technically, to refer to the 'event' of someone acting (where 'event' is arguably also used technically). In short, I am a conceptual pluralist about actions. The important thing is not to say what actions are or are not, but to not conflate all these different senses and to note that it makes sense to predicate certain things of actions in one sense of the term, but not others. The book I'm working on relating action to normative ethics is in part an exploration of which sense of action is best suited to deontic predicates and which to evaluative ones. It's also interesting, I think, to ask whether the sense of 'action' in which these things can have consequences is the same as that in which they can be done intentionally.


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


I shall treat 'recent' to mean post-Wittgensteinian. The first is Anscombe's insight that a single action can have multiple descriptions, each revealing different psychological aspects. Anscombe doesn't distinguish doings from things done, but her examples work much better with the former and I think that this is what she really has in mind.


The second important development, then, is Jennifer Hornsby's distinction between doings and things done. While versions of this distinction existed in the early 20th century, Hornsby places an emphasis on the difference between actions that are repeatable (things done) and ones that are non-repeatable particulars (doings). This is important for both action explanation and action justification.


Finally, I would like to highlight Fred Dretske's distinction between triggering and structuring causes of action. Dretske is mostly praised for his work in epistemology, while his work in the philosophy of action was unfortunately overshadowed by Davidson's popularity. Dretske understands action as the process of perception triggering bodily movements. Strictly speaking, triggering and structuring causes have two distinct explanantia, but Dretske wasn't always very clear about this. To explain an action, is not to look for the cause of a bodily movement but to ask why some other phenomenon triggered the movement in question. This eliminates all sorts of worries about deviant causal chains. If it seems pessimistic of me to highlight 'recent' developments which all occurred in the previous century, let me say that I think it's next to impossible to know without the benefit of hindsight what will prove to be an important development and what is a passing fad. The current obsession with process views of action is an interesting case in point.


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


It would be weird, I suppose, for one's answer to this question to be completely unrelated to that given to question 2. Hence, I'd like to see a much closer connection between philosophy of action and normative ethics, and I'd like to see a move away from pure action theory to a more conceptually and historically sensitive approach. It would also be nice to have a more integrated philosophy of action that combines insights from neuro-physiology and social psychology with historical sensitivity and conceptual clarity, not least in relation to understanding AI.


Finally, I'd like to see more philosophers take seriously the sociality of everyday action. One of my graduate students, Katja Behrens, is completing her thesis that is partly about how contemporary accounts of collective action and shared agency are premised on a problematically individualistic or atomistic conception of what it is to act. I'd like to see more work that treats social action as the norm and more isolated actions, such as those of Robinson Crusoe, as the ones in need of special explanation. This would involve returning to the connection between action and rule-following that Peter Winch highlighted in The Idea of a Social Science.


2018 August 4th

Thanks to Prof Sandis!


Check back next weekend on the 11th for our next set of answers.

Adrian Haddock (Stirling)

We bring you this week the thoughts of Dr Adrian Haddock who is senior lecturer at the University of Stirling. He works mainly on action, perception and objectivity, and explores these ideas in the current analytic tradition and in German Idealism. Dr Haddock has published several papers on self-consciousness, bodily movements, disjunctivism, and knowledge of action, among other things. Enjoy!


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


In the course of my earliest attempts at philosophy, I was struck by the thought that the possibility of thought and knowledge rests not only on perception—on being given the world—but also on action—on changing the world. I wanted to understand (what I was then tempted to call) “the two fundamental mind-world relations”. And after hurling myself into the available literature, I found that it was action, and specifically bodily movement, that gripped me the most. Wittgenstein’s question was crucial here: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” I found it tempting to think that what is left over is my contribution as agent. And insofar as I found it tempting to think this, I found it tempting to separate my contribution as agent from the movements of my body, and as such to separate myself from my body—to throw my body into the world, as merely one of the many things that I might try to change.


I very much wanted to avoid these separations, and in my earliest writings I strove to avoid them by showing how to endorse a position that provided for my contribution as agent not to fall short of my bodily movements; in the terms of Anton Ford’sThe Province of Human Agency”, I strove to avoid “volitionism”. But I took the separation of my agentive contribution from what happens outside of my body—from what Davidson calls “the rest” (in his remark “all I ever do is move my body, the rest is up to nature”)—for granted; in Ford’s terms, I endorsed “corporealism”.


In the intervening years, I have come to see that this position must equally be overcome, in favour of what Ford calls “materialism”—the position made available by three of the best examples of philosophical reflection on action in the contemporary literature: Ford’s writings, Michael Thompson’sNaïve Action Theory”, and Anscombe’s Intention.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I am still preoccupied with the thought that struck me in my earliest reflections. Specifically, I am writing a book that seeks to bring out the significance of the first-person character of attempts to give voice to (what I was then tempted to call) “the two fundamental mind-world relations”: “I perceive something”, and “I am doing something to something”. As the years have passed, I have come to appreciate the truth of Anscombe’s remark that “‘I’ is neither a name nor another kind of expression whose logical role is to make a reference, at all”. And perhaps the most striking consequence of this remark for my own reflections is that neither “I perceive something”, nor “I am doing something to something” can be understood as forms for representing relations: “I perceive something”, for example, cannot be a form for representing a relation whose relata are signified by “I” (“a subject”), and by a singular term that replaces “something” (“an object”).


That raises the question of how these attempts are to be understood. I have come to see that what is at stake here is the very idea of a mind, or a subject—a member of the plurality of minds, or subjects: an idea on which the very idea of thought about objects depends for its intelligibility. And I have come to see that a rethinking of the discourse of subjectivity is needed, if the discourse of objectivity is to be intelligible. This rethinking must not only acknowledge the insight—common, I think, both to Kant and to Wittgenstein, and reflected in Anscombe’s remark—that the discourse of subjectivity cannot be assimilated to the discourse of objectivity on pain of destroying subjectivity altogether; it must equally show how to make sense of the manifoldness or plurality that—as the ideas of perception and action make vivid—characterises the first discourse no less than the second.


The mistake of assimilating the first to the second defines almost all of contemporary Anglophone philosophy, and earns it the title of empiricism, or naturalism; whereas the mistake of expelling plurality from the first characterises those varieties of idealism that rightly work with the idea of universal self-consciousness, but in failing to provide for manifoldness on the side of the subject merit the rebuke (memorably voiced by Franz Rosenzweig) of never advancing beyond “the one and universal nothing” with which they begin. The book that I am writing is an attempt to get clear about both of these mistakes, with a view to beginning to see how to avoid them.


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


I confess to being suspicious of this question, and specifically of its use of the indefinite article. This is not because I do not think there can be any comprehension of the idea of an action in the sense of something “real, particular and individual” (as Thompson puts it); it is because I do not think there can be any comprehension of this idea without an understanding of the idea of an action in the sense of something general (what is sometimes called “an act type”)—and specifically without an understanding of the specific shape that the nexus of general and particular takes in this case.


A central lesson of Thompson’s work, as I see it, is that this nexus cannot be understood on the familiar model of a general concept and the particular objects that fall under it. It is rather a matter of a general form progressively particularising itself over time. This raises a number of fascinating and difficult questions, which contemporary philosophy has barely begun to reckon with.


Most obviously, it forces the issue—which is present in the history of philosophy, perhaps most notably in Aristotle’s difficult idea of the identity of an individual with its essence—of how to understand the idea of a self-particularising form. And if that was not enough, it raises the further question of how to understand the very idea of a nexus of general and particular that is at once thinkable, and temporally progressive—what Sebastian Rödl calls “a movement [sc., a kinēsis] that is a thought”. As I see it, any attempt to shed light on the idea of an action must confront these difficult questions.


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


The serious engagement with Anscombe’s Intention that is now taking place strikes me as the single most important development, not merely in recent philosophy of action, but in recent philosophy. And within this development, three interrelated moments stand out: first, the conception of action as a progressively self-particularising form; second, the attempt to comprehend this form as that of practical reasoning; and third, the attempt to comprehend this form as essentially self-conscious—as what Anscombe calls “practical knowledge”.


Contemporary reflection on these moments strikes me as still in its earliest stages. But I cannot think of a better task than to try to understand them—alongside the reasons given above, I agree with Anscombe and Thompson that only insofar as these moments are understood is it possible for philosophy to begin to approach the topic of ethics. It was not possible to get these moments into focus within the broadly Davidsonian framework that governed my own early reflections—a testament as much to the systematic character, and as such to the brilliance of this framework, as to its limitations. The fact that they are now coming into focus is a ground for real happiness and optimism.


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


I think that I have effectively answered this question. But one final remark might be worth making. If progress is to be made in the areas that I have outlined, it will be important not to succumb to a tendency that it is possible to encounter in contemporary philosophy—the tendency to confuse what is clear with what is already familiar. A remark attributed to Stephen Sondheim nicely brings out the general character of this tendency. On being told that the songs in his musicals were not “hummable”, Sondheim is said to have responded: “If people come out of a musical humming the songs, that is probably because they were already humming them when they went in.”


2018 July 28

Many thanks to Dr Haddock for his answers!


Visit us again soon for our next set of answers.

Ellen Fridland (King's College London)

Dear readers, this week I have the pleasure to share with you the answers of Dr Ellen Fridland of King’s College London. She is working mainly on empirically informed philosophy of mind, philosophical psychology, and know how. Dr Fridland published in depth on skills and their roles in acting, on agents’ control over their behavior, on learning and motor control, and other issues relevant to the way we act and behave. Enjoy!


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


Well, I’ve never really considered myself to be a philosopher of action. I work on skill and, until recently, that hasn’t really been a mainstream topic in philosophy of action. I once had a conversation with Josh Shepherd where I said as much to him and he replied a little incredulously that, of course I was a philosopher of action. “What else could you be?” he asked. And you are asking me for this mini-interview, so, perhaps he was right. Skills, of course, in their most paradigmatic forms, are intentional actions and I’ve done some work trying to spell out how to understand the intelligence involved in skilled action.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I’m working on two big projects: A book on the nature of skill, Skill in Action, that will be published with OUP and a volume co-edited with Carlotta Pavese, The Handbook of Skill and Expertise, that will be published with Routledge.


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


I don’t know what an action is but I’m developing an account of skill where skills are defined as functions from intentions to controlled actions, which are implemented by control structures that have been developed through practice. On my account, skills are characterized by three kinds of control: strategic, attentional, and motor. And I think the most important question then is to say how it is that processes that exhibit these different kinds of control become integrated with one another. I think practice is key to understanding how, for instance, motor routines get linked up to personal-level intentions. And I think practice is also crucial for understanding how controlled actions retain the ability to be adjusted, manipulated and intervened upon by agents, throughout performance.


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


I think the most exciting developments in the philosophy of action are those that link up with empirically informed philosophy of mind. That goes for work on intentions as well as work on skill.


I’m especially thrilled to see that people are working on skilled action control and trying to figure out how agent-level processes and motor representations connect. I’ve been really into work by Myrto Mylopoulos, Elisabeth Pacherie, Josh Shepherd, Wayne Christensen, John Sutton, Barbara Montero, Steve Butterfill and Corrado Sinigaglia.


I’ve also started to get interested in work on perceptual imagination and thinking about how imagination and action, especially in terms of planning and counterfactual reasoning about actions, are related. I’ve been really keen on Neil van Leeuwen’s and Peter Langland-Hassan’s work in this respect.


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


I really like where the field is going. More of that!


2018 July 21

Many thanks to Dr Fridland for her answers!


Visit us again soon for our next set of answers.

Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University)

Welcome all! This week we publish the answers of Prof Eddy Nahmias from Georgia State University. Prof Nahmias is Chair of Philosophy and Associate Faculty at the Neuroscience Institute there. He published extensively on free will and its connections to neuroscience and psychology. Prof Nahmias also conducted x-phi experiments and explored some ethical issues connected to debates about autonomy and the will. He co-edited with Thomas Nadelhoffer and Shaun Nichols Moral Psychology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. Enjoy!


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


I’m interested in the various features of human agency that are most essential in allowing us to have some degree of autonomy and responsibility for our actions. I got interested in these issues from a literary and existentialist angle when I was an English major at Emory University. At the same time I was reading Dawkins and Dennett and thinking about what evolution and neuroscience tell us about human agency and potential limitations on our free will. When I started studying the free will problem as a graduate student at Duke University I became most interested, on the one hand, in Harry Frankfurt’s (evolving) accounts of action, free will, and moral responsibility, and on the other hand, in scientific explanations of human behavior, across various levels. The second half of my dissertation considered the challenges to free will from situationist social psychology and offered an evolutionary account for the capacities I argued were essential for free will. I then shifted a bit from considering the ways scientific discoveries suggested we have limited free will to defending the possibility of free will against the misguided challenges from neuroscientists and psychologists who claimed they were discovering that free will is an illusion, whom I labeled ‘willusionists.’


2. What are you working on at the moment?


Now that I am a department chair, I’m working on … less. But I’m trying to find time to work on three projects. One is continuing the ideas I developed with Oisin Deery using interventionist accounts of causation to address debates about free will and responsibility. In a recent Phil Studies paper we argue that interventionism allows a way to explain (relative) causal sourcehood for actions, and applied this to the Manipulation Arguments for incompatibilism to show why determinism differs in principle from intentional manipulation. We think interventionism can do a lot more to understand agency and action.


Second, I began looking at the literature on punishment a few years ago and became convinced that the best descriptive and justificatory account of punishment is the communicative theory. It fits nicely with an evolutionary account of our punitive psychology, a Strawsonian account of the reactive attitudes, a compatibilist account of free will, and a unifying account of the various purposes of punishment, one that maintains the notion that (some) criminals deserve to be punished while avoiding both the excesses of retributivism and the medicalized model of approaches that assume free will is an illusion. Andrea Scarantino and I are drawing on work from pragmatics and emotional communication to systematize the various messages punishment is (and should be) communicating.


Third, I am trying to understand why everyone—scientists, philosophers, and ordinary people—thinks consciousness is essential for free will. My collaborators, Corey Allen and Brad Loveall, and I did some x-phi work to test intuitive connections, and the results fit nicely with a proposal I’d like to develop more fully: that the capacity to consciously experience suffering, joy, emotions, and reactive attitudes like guilt and admiration are essential for an agent to be able to care—for the (potential) outcomes of her actions to really matter to her. And free will requires being able to have cares (a suggestion made in work by Frankfurt, Dave Shoemaker, Chandra Sripada, and others).


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


Frankfurt’s work on action, free will, and responsibility. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” and the work it inspired. And empirical work on human and animal agency, from evolution to neuroscience to psychology to experimental philosophy.


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


More of the above three developments! Plus, more work on the phenomenology of action and agency. And I think philosophers of action should consider and contribute to developments in A.I. and robotics. Philosophers might help in developing robots that can perform (genuine) actions, and we will need to help figure out when to count a robot’s movements as an action, an autonomous action, a free action, and/or an action for which it is responsible and potentially blameworthy.


2018 July 07

Many thanks to Prof Nahmias for his answers!


Visit us again soon for the next mini-interview.

Sebastian M Rödl (Leipzig)

After a little summer-time off it is nice to welcome back our readers to our mini-interviews series with a mid-week special. This time we publish Prof Sebastian M Rödl’s answers. Prof Rödl wrote on actions, intention, good and evil, self-consciousness, judgment and knowledge. His book Self-Consciousness is well known and more recently he published Self-Consciousness and Objectivity: An Introduction to Absolute Idealism. Enjoy!


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


By reading Michael Thompson’s “Naive Action Theory.” Since Anscombe’s Intention, there has been no work in this area of comparable depth and power.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I seek to say how absolute knowledge is internal to practical knowledge.


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


Human action is the knowledge of the good as the ultimate ground of what is actual. This is the true definition of human action, for it is the definition it gives of itself.


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


Consideration of the way in which practical knowledge is knowledge of what is actual. The involvement of the second person, or address, in the constitution of human agency.


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


It would be a major advance if it were realized that there is no such thing as action theory, defined as Thompson defined it: a study

of human action that does not use the concept of an ultimate end or unconditional goodness. That is, it should be realized that the philosophical study of human action is inherently ethical; that it is part of the effort to bring to explicit consciousness, and thus to live in comprehension of, the human relation to the good, which relation action itself is.


2018 June 26

Many thanks to Prof Rödl for his answers!


Visit us again on the 30th June, for our next set of answers.

Michael E Bratman (Stanford University)

We publish this week the answers of Prof Michael E Bratman from Stanford University. Prof Bratman is well known for developing his theory of planning agency, and for his wide-ranging and in-depth work on diachronic agency, structure of intentions and motivations, agents' values and shared agency. Enjoy reading.


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


Putting to one side here my personal biography, I think it is clear that our western philosophical tradition has – with notable exceptions focused more intensely on issues about knowledge and mind than on issues about agency. Yet questions about the ways in which we are agents are gripping within self-reflection and of fundamental importance throughout a wide range of concerns both in philosophy and in a wide range of other disciplines. These questions about agency have been less thoroughly investigated than have questions about mind and knowledge; and there seems a great deal of room for seeing things in newly fecund ways. So what’s not to like?


2. What are you working on at the moment?


Two main projects. (A) A collection of inter‐related essays of mine from the past decade – Planning, Time, and Self‐Governance: Essays in Practical Rationality – (readers can buy it at a special discount here) is just now appearing, courtesy of OUP. It tries to take steps to deepen our understanding of the normative significance of basic norms of consistency, coherence, and stability, norms guidance by which is – or so I conjecture ‐ a fundamental feature of human planning agency.


My hope is further to develop and to deepen some of the basic ideas that emerge in these essays and caste them into the form of a sustained, book‐length treatment. (B) In my 2014 book, Shared Agency: A Planning Theory of Acting Together, I focused on small‐scale cases of shared intentional/shared cooperative activity. An important question I did not try to answer is whether, and if so how, the philosophical ideas at the center of my proposals can be “scaled up” as part of a fruitful model of important forms of larger institutional functioning and institutional agency. My hope is to develop a positive answer to this challenge, in part by way of a friendly philosophical merger with important ideas from H. L. A Hart.


3. What is your account of what an action is?


Before we address this question we need to recognize that there are many different kinds of agents –think about cows, cats, the great apes, very young humans, and adult humans in our modern world. If we seek to say what is common throughout all such forms of generic agency we will be led, I think, to ideas in the spirit of Harry Frankfurt’s appeal, in his “The Problem of Action,” to the idea of behavior that is potentially under the control of an appropriate kind of guidance mechanism that tracks an end. (I see this as a broadly causal model.) But I think that we need to avoid a kind of genus-envy, and that some of the most important issues – both for philosophy and for a wide range of other disciplines come to the fore when we reflect on more specific forms of agency that are realized by adult humans like us.


In particular, I think we should be struck by the complex forms of organization/coordination – both in an individual life over time and socially, across different agents – that are fundamental for and pervasive in the lives we tend to live. And a central thought of mine is that the capacities for these forms of organization are grounded in our capacities for planning agency. We need a theoretically adequate framework for understanding such planning agency; and this is one 2 substantial contribution philosophy of action can make to other disciplines – including law, cognitive science, political theory, artificial intelligence, primatology, and decision theory.


4. What were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


(A) The field‐shaping interactions, mostly in the 1960s, between Elizabeth Anscombe and Donald Davidson. A central question that emerges is how we should understand the relative importance for a systematic account of our human agency of, on the one hand, rationalizing purposiveness, and, on the other hand, our knowledge of our own intentional agency. However, a question neither philosopher sufficiently grappled with was how our intentions concerning future conduct support fundamental forms of cross‐temporal and social organization of action. Anscombe harbored skepticism about such intentions; Davidson acknowledged them in his later work, but didn’t give them much to do.


(B) Harry Frankfurt’s work on “the structure of a person’s will” showed us both the importance of distinguishing between different kinds of agents and the possibility of using models of these structures of will to articulate non-homuncular models of forms of free agency and self‐governance.


(C) The fundamental importance of intention‐involving planning to our temporally extended human agency. A breakthrough paper was Gilbert Harman’s 1976 essay, “Practical Reasoning”. I see my work on the planning theory as an effort to develop these ideas about intention‐involving planning in a systematic way as part of a broadly naturalistic model of our temporally extended agency (both individual and shared), of “the will,” and of self-governance.


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


I am a “let many flowers bloom” sort of philosopher. But I do want to highlight the importance of distinctive forms of cross-temporal and social organization in our human lives. I also think that philosophers of action can make important contributions, not only to Philosophy but also to a wide range of other disciplines, by investigating and articulating basic theoretical resources – conceptual, metaphysical, normative – needed for a deeper understanding of distinctive forms of agency, including planning agency and various forms of shared agency.


2018 June 03

Many thanks to Professor Bratman for his answers!


Visit us again next weekend for a new interview.

Andrei A Buckareff (Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York)

This week we publish with much joy the answers of Andrei A. Buckareff, who is one of the two founders of this website. He is currently works Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York. He wrote on mental action, reasons-explanations and intentional action, agent-causation, and also the legal and ethical consequences of our views of action. He is also prolific as an editor having co-published with Jesús Aguilar and Keith Franksih New Waves in Philosophy of Action, and Agency, Freedom and Moral Responsibility with Carlos Moya and Sergi Rosell, as well as Alternative Concepts of God: Essays on the Metaphysics of the Divine with Yujin Nagasawa. Enjoy!


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


Like many who work in the philosophy of action, my point of entry was with the free will debate. Before I went to university, I developed an interest in theological puzzles related to divine providence and foreknowledge and creaturely free will. My interest in the problem only increased once I began my studies. The first philosophical essay I wrote was on free will. It was for an introductory philosophy course during my first-year. I argued that Augustine was best understood as defending a version of compatibilism (something I still believe about the later views of Augustine).


I had the good fortune of taking a free will course during my junior year. It was a team taught course. One of the instructors, J.P. Moreland, was a libertarian. The other instructor, David Ciocchi, endorsed a version of compatibilism. It was in that course that I was first exposed to foundational issues in the philosophy of action. We read parts of Alvin Goldman’s Theory of Human Action (1970). I soon concluded that sorting out one’s foundational action theoretic commitments was vital if one wished to stake out a well-informed position in other debates over agency, including free will. While I continued (and still continue) to work on free will, the primary focus of my research became questions about the nature of intentional action and reasons-explanations of action.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


My research at the moment has focused on applying a neo-Aristotelian ontology of causal powers and a metaphysic of causation that grows out of it to thinking about intentional agency. This project has thus far resulted in a few articles and a couple of book chapters. The heart of the project is a book I am co-authoring with Jesús H. Aguilar (Rochester Institute of Technology) for The MIT Press that is tentatively entitled, Revising Natural Agency: Causal Powers, Causal Processes, and the Causal Theory of Agency.


The focus of the project on which I am working on with Jesús Aguilar is on revising the causal theory of action by doing two things. First, we urge revisiting the ontological commitments of the theory and argue that we should build a causal theory of action up from a broadly neo-Aristotelian ontological foundation and dispense with the neo-Humean orthodoxies that have dominated so much of contemporary metaphysics, including the metaphysics of mind and action.


Second, we contend that in order to successfully deal with challenges to the causal theory of action, we should distinguish between a causal theory of intentional agency and a causal theory of action. We take the former to imply the latter. Hence, most of our effort is spent on articulating a causal theory of intentional agency. We show how it relates to a causal theory of action, and consider how the framework we develop can aid in responding to numerous challenges faced by causalism in the literature, such as the problems of agential guidance, causal deviance, the absent agent, and intentional omissions. While work on the project is empirically informed, one of the primary motivations for the project was to try to infuse a little more ontological seriousness into work on the metaphysics of agency and examine how a powers metaphysics can be expanded. My hope is that some of this work will help shed light on related issues in the philosophy of mind (such as mental causation) as well as debates in the metaphysics of free will on ability.


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


I actually follow the boring standard schemas provided by proponents of the standard (causalist) story of action. So some behavior A (whether overt or mental) is an action if and only if it is caused in the right way by some mental items directed at A-ing that motivated and causally explain A. I do not, however, think this schema is adequate to capture what agency is.

I assume that our exercises of agency include, but are not limited to our actions. They would include our omissions to act. And I assume that we exercise agency with respect to the outcomes of our actions. So, I have presented the following schema for a causal theory of intentional agency in my paper, “I’m Just Sitting Around Doing Nothing: On Exercising Intentional Agency in Omitting to Act” (forthcoming).


(CTAg) For any causal process A, A is an exercise of intentional agency by an agent S if and only if (i) A commences with the acquisition by S of an intention directed at a particular result; and (ii) S guides the process through to the final execution of the agent’s intention by responding appropriately to the constellation of inputs from various causal powers of the agent and causal powers of objects in the agent’s environment that partner with one another and the constituent causal powers of the intention until S successfully executes her intention.


I will not try to defend CTAg here or elaborate on it. I offer some reasons for accepting it and revising causalism in the aforementioned paper. But CTAg is just one part of the story Jesús Aguilar and I are developing in our book.


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


How best to answer this question depends in part upon what one means by “recent.” I will stick to developments from 1950 onwards.


The first one should be obvious, I hope.

1. The publication of Elisabeth Anscombe’s Intention (1957) and Donald Davidson’s “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” (1963)

For many of us working in the philosophy of action today, however much we may express appreciation for the work of both Anscombe and Davidson, we will identify with the views expressed in one of these essays more than the other. Of course, the scope of Anscombe’s monograph was broader than Davidson’s article. But what Davidson left out (e.g., any discussion of practical knowledge) is precisely what those (like myself) who align themselves more closely with Davidson think is not central for getting a satisfactory theory of intentional action. Rather, the causal story is central and can be viewed as supplemented and enhanced by an account of practical knowledge and its importance.


The second item on this list may be less obvious to many.

2. The rediscovery of Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “The Problem of Action” (1978)

This article is often overlooked or it is merely mentioned in passing, with most responses to Frankfurt’s worries expressed in his essay amounting to so much hand-waving. But a growing number of people I know have been poring over the arguments in this essay. Jesús Aguilar and I take this essay to be the starting point for our project in the book we are writing.


There is a growing consensus that Frankfurt’s essay presented some of the most significant challenges to any theory of action that fails to take seriously agential-guidance. I am convinced that Frankfurt identified what is central to intentional agency, namely, guidance. I believe that Frankfurt showed that a host of the problems we associate with thinking about how we exercise agency in our intentional behavior can be traced back to a failure to give an adequate account of guidance. The challenge he presents is one that is potentially devastating for the proponent of the causal theory of action who maintains a blind allegiance to a story about the causal production of actions in terms of events that temporally precede their effects.


Finally, in a footnote in his book, The Mind in Nature, C.B. Martin asserted that action-theorists “typically neglect to discuss 83 per cent of all agent activity, namely, mental, in-the-head activity” (2007, 178, fn. 1). I am not certain on what basis he reached the conclusion that 83% of what we do is in our heads; but I hope that others will agree that many (if not most) of the actions we perform are mental actions. So, the third development is one that was long overdue.

3. The rise of interest in mental action and agency

While some types of mental action and agency, like doxastic agency and decision-making, received some attention over the years, questions about mental action and agency, more generally, took backseat to work on the nature of overt action and agency.

Examples abound of arm-raisings, kicking, and either killing someone or making a hole-in-one when playing golf. But it has really only been within the last twenty-five years that there has been growing interest in working on mental action, generally. Such work is vital not only for better understanding the nature and scope of our agency, but it is also essential for us to get a better grasp of some mental action-types that figure prominently in some debates. For instance, how does the nature of our control over deliberation relate to our control over our attitudes formed (such as intention and belief) formed thereby? Having an adequate account of mental action and our agency in performing mental actions will take us some distance towards getting an adequate answer to such questions. I have tried to address some of these issues in my own work.


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


I used to complain about the failure of some philosophers who work on free will to take seriously foundational work in the philosophy of action. I used to also complain that some philosophers of action failed to recognize the connections between some of their views and other commitments in the philosophy of mind. I have not stopped complaining about either (after all, one’s views about say, the nature of intentional action will most likely make certain options in the free will debate and in debates over the metaphysics of mind closed to one). But I have since realized that it is important for us to go further.


I once expressed my concerns about people working on free will failing to take seriously foundational questions in the philosophy of action to a metaphysician friend. He responded by noting how one’s views on questions in metaphysics related to foundational ontology and the metaphysics of causation were no less important. I soon came to the conclusion that my friend was correct. Since then, I have urged people I know who work in the philosophy of action to be more explicit about some of the ontological commitments of their theories of action and (for those who tell causal stories about action and agency) to be more explicit about their assumptions regarding the metaphysics of causation. By sorting out, say, one’s metaphysics of causation, one is in a better position to recognize whether or not one can tell a causal story about something like agential guidance. This is all to say that I would like to see philosophers of action be a bit more ontologically serious. There already are some fine examples of people whose work exhibits this quality. Recent essays by Timothy O’Connor, Rowland Stout, Michael Brent, Helen Steward, E. J. Lowe, Randolph Clarke, Helen Beebee, Stephen Mumford and Rani Anjum, John Heil, and Erasmus Mayr stand out. There are others. I hope we see more work like theirs in the future.


2018 May 26

Many thanks to Prof Buckareff for his answers!


Visit us again in a week, on the 2nd June, for our next set of answers.

Christine M. Korsgaard (Harvard)

We are publishing this week with great pleasure Prof Christine M. Korsgaard’s answers to our mini-interview questions. She is presently the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor at Harvard University. Prof Korsgaard is well known for her work on Kant, agency and action, normativity, animal ethics and other issues in meta-ethics and ethics. Her last published book is Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, and her new work Fellow creatures: Our obligations to the other animals is coming out this summer. Enjoy!


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


I became interested in the philosophy of action when I was working on the question of what makes the instrumental principle or hypothetical imperative normative. Why is it a requirement of reason that we should take the means to our ends? Of course, I also wondered whether whatever story we tell about that could be extended to the moral principle or categorical imperative. I found myself claiming that the instrumental principle is a constitutive standard of action, a standard based on the very nature of action (or agency). Then I realized that if I were going to make claims like that, I had better know what action or agency is.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


At the moment I am working on the good, specifically on the question why there is such a thing as the good, and whether we can give an explanation of that which is naturalistic. I distinguish between what I call the “functional” sense of good and the “final” sense of good. In the functional sense, something is good when it has the properties that enable it to perform its function, and to perform its function well. In the final sense, something is good when it is suitable as an end of action or is the condition that results from the successful pursuit of such ends. My question is about the final sense of good. I believe that there is such a thing as final good because there are creatures in the world for whom things can be good or bad—namely, sentient animals. In other words, the final good derives from the good-for relation. Part of the reason animals have a good in the final sense is that they are agents, who pursue the things that are functionally good for them as the ends of action. So, in that sense I think the evolution of conscious agency helps to explains why there is such a thing as final good.


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


Kant defines action as the capacity to be by means of one’s representations the cause of the object of those representations. (That’s in The Metaphysics of Morals, at 6:211. He says he’s defining “the faculty of desire” but he means the capacity to act.) Fans of the belief/desire model will think of “representation” as being something like belief, and will then worry that the “desire” part has been left out. I’m taking it that whether you find something desirable or aversive is part of the way you “represent” it. That way the definition covers both the actions of human beings, who are conscious of our practical attitudes and their influence on our choices, and the actions of the other animals, who may not be.


But I think there are actually two conceptions of action, a more naturalistic one and a normative one. In the naturalistic sense, an action is an intentional and purposive, or goal-directed, movement guided by the agent’s representations. I intend that as a capacious description, one that covers even the instinctive actions of simple animals. In the case of human beings (with the “higher” animals things get tricky here), we also work with a normative conception of action, according to which an action is an intentional and goal-directed movement that issues from, and is expressive of, the self. We are working with the normative conception when we hold people responsible for their actions, and more broadly when we take the things people do as appropriate grounds for attitudes such as liking and disliking, love and hate, approval and disapproval, and in general for evaluative attitudes whose objects are the agents themselves—that is, whose objects are the agents’ selves. I take one of the central questions of the philosophy of action to be how these two conceptions are linked. Many philosophers assume that the link is that, in the case of actions that make these evaluative attitudes appropriate, the representation that guides the action is expressive of the agent’s self or character. I think that instead it is because of the way in which it is through action that, as I argue in Self-Constitution, we constitute the self.


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


I think of philosophy of action as having emerged as a field with the work of Davidson and Anscombe. In the tradition, many of the questions we would now identify as questions in the philosophy of action were dealt with under the heading of questions about free will. This very shift is itself helpful, because it is easy for people to be skeptical about free will, or at least to think that they are, but it’s much harder for people to be skeptical about whether people (and the other animals) actually do things, and whether doing and undergoing are really different things.


However, for a long time after the work of Anscombe and Davidson, moral philosophy and the philosophy of action remained separate. I believe that this was partly because everyone assumed that moral standards are what I call external standards, imposed on action from outside, rather than constitutive standards that arise from the nature of action. I think moral philosophers are paying much more attention to questions about the nature of action now, and that’s to the good. Moral philosophy is full of moments of unclarity or confusion that result from a failure to pin down the assumptions about action that are at work in it. Just to take an easy example, many moral philosophers think you can do “the right thing for the wrong reason” without asking themselves whether your reason for acting is part of the “right thing” itself, or something that stands outside of it.


Finally, I think it is important to understanding human action to ask how it is both different from and continuous with the actions (or the activities, or the voluntary movements—there is some controversy about what exactly to say here) of the other animals. I think more people who try to think about action are doing that now.


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


People who come to questions about action from the philosophy of mind tend to contrast action with perception. It’s as if the contrast were: perception is the way the world comes into the mind, and action is the way the mind goes out into the world. People who come to the philosophy of action from ethics, on the other hand, tend to contrast action or volition with belief. There are two kinds of reasons, theoretical reasons for belief and practical reasons for action: how are they similar and how are they different? These contrasts are similar but they are certainly not the same, nor of course, is there any reason for thinking one of them is “the right contrast.” But someone needs to think about how these still somewhat divided discussions fit together.

More generally, I think it is a problem with philosophy at present that people think of themselves as working in fields, and often limit their reading to what counts as being “in their field.” It’s understandable, of course, with the overwhelming volume of journal literature that is being produced. One has to limit one’s reading somehow, and the peer review process, unfortunately, tends to guard the established boundaries between fields. These developments tend to prevent people from developing or even working towards big philosophical systems, like those of Plato or Aristotle or Kant or Hegel, in which the connections between various parts of philosophy get explicitly explored and worked out. Because philosophy of action is so obviously connected to metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and ethics, philosophers of action are in an excellent position to make war on this sort of philosophical parochialism. I hope they will.


2018 May 12

Many thanks to Prof Korsgaard for her answers!


Next week I’ll be away at the annual conference of the Philosophical Association of Japan in Kobe, so the next set of answers will appear in two weeks, on the 26th May.

Joëlle Proust (Institut Jean-Nicod, Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris)

We are publishing this week Prof Joëlle Proust’s answers to our questions. Prof Proust is co-founder of SOPHA (the Society for Analytic Philosophy in the French language), HOPOS (The International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science), ESAP (the European Society for Analytic Philosophy), and ESPP (the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology).

She is currently working at Institut Jean-Nicod, Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. She has written extensively about action, agency, mental action, consciousness, metacognition, and intentions. Her last book is The Philosophy of Metacognition. Enjoy!


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


I came to the philosophy of action through cognitive psychopathology. In the early nineties, I had engaged in a collaborative research with a specialist of the early episodes of psychosis, the French psychiatrist Henri Grivois. Grivois’ rich clinical descriptions were fascinating as evidence of the role of non-linguistic forms of cognition in humans (a subject that, until then, I had only explored on the basis of animal evidence). His patients often reported having the vivid impression that others watched them and often imitated them. He was in a position, however, to observe their own impulsive tendency to imitate others' gestures (echopraxia), words (echolalia) or to take up others' goals. Grivois speculated that these dispositions were functionally related. We developed together a theory of schizophrenic delusions in which a perturbed representation of action determined both an impairment in the selection and control of actions, and a perturbed self-awareness. This hypothesis was further elaborated and successfully tested in collaboration with neuroscientist of action Marc Jeannerod. Since then, my interest in the representation of action led me to explore in much more detail and compare the mental actions in human children, adults and non-humans, a philosophical issue that psychologists study under the label of "metacognition" (i.e. the control and monitoring of one's own cognitive abilities).


2. What are you working on at the moment?


My present research is about cognitive phenomenology. My proposal is that the experience of thought has to be analysed in analogy with the experience of bodily action. In the latter case, non-conscious forward models allow the acting system to predict the specific types of feedback it should get on its way to a goal. In this process, expected and observed values are sub-personally compared, which elicits conscious feelings of ability, effort and self-efficacy; predicting discrepancies also allows the agents to efficiently (if non-consciously) correct their trajectory to their goal. A similar analysis can be proposed for mental actions, except that expected feedback is in this case much more difficult to identify by theorists (although more and more is known about the relevant non-conscious heuristics that underlie these predictions), and that discrepancies between expected and observed feedback elicit specialized "noetic" feelings, which differ from the feelings of ability that are elicited in bodily actions.


In a nutshell, my present work explores two proposals: 1) there are only two kinds of cognitive phenomenology: one kind, exemplified by internal speech and other forms of sensory imagery, has the function of indexing the currently active epistemic goal; the other kind consists in noetic feelings, such as the feeling of understanding, of knowing, of being right or wrong. Their function is to anticipate and monitor progress to the goal. 2) My second proposal is that the specific awareness of noetic feelings as of our past or future cognitive outcomes can be explained by a semantic relation between indexing and noetic feelings that I call "functional projection".


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


My definition of action is articulated as a causal relation between a motivating goal representation G and the attempt to bring it about by executing H. Acting to obtain goal G, then, means

Df: Being motivated to have goal G realised → (causes) trying to bring about H in order to see G realised, where H refers to the set of bodily and cognitive dispositions that have been selected as instrumental for the realisation of G.

This definition needs to be fleshed out by specifying, in each case, the selection mechanism for a specific forward model (i.e. an instrumentally reliable dynamic representation mediating a given goal and its external target).


Mental actions have a similar structure.

Df: Being motivated to have mental goal G realised → (=causes) trying to bring about H in order to see G realised, where H refers to the set of cognitive dispositions and normative comparators that have been selected as constitutive constraints for H reliably producing G.

This characterization stresses the functional association of epistemic normativity and receptivity. Given the importance of normative requirements in mental actions, there has to exist a capacity for observing, or for intuitively grasping, where norms lie in a given case. Constitutive norm sensitivity is a receptive capacity without which no mental action could be performed. No such normativity is present in bodily action.


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


Helen Steward's proposal of an ontology of action as process-based rather that event-based is an important clarification for articulating the causal structure of action.


Work on joint action helps me realize that an individualistic concept of action – whether bodily or mental – cannot be adequate for an account of its cooperative nature and for its role in communication. I share with Steve Butterfill the conviction that we need an account of joint action that is compatible with the premise that joint action plays a role in explaining how humans develop abilities to think about minds and actions of others. Steve Butterfill's own work offers promising routes of investigation. The recent book I co-edited on Metacognitive Diversity with Martin Fortier is an attempt to overcome my own past individualistic stance on mental action.


A theory of group agency, as proposed by List and Pettit, is an important source of inspiration for philosophers who want to explore collective epistemic actions as non-aggregative, non-reducible forms of actions, and the nature of the underlying group attitudes. I found this book a source of inspiration for proposing a conceptual analysis of consensual acceptance as a group attitude.


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


On a naturalist approach to action, a teleological explanation should be offered for the switch from ‘motivational’ states to ‘executive states’. The puzzle that a teleological explanation solves is that agents do not need to "voluntarily" switch into the active condition for genuinely acting, because efficient willing, somewhat paradoxically, is something that happens to them. There is much more to be said about this puzzle.


Teleological explanations have a recurrent form that needs to be explored more closely in connection with issues such as freedom and responsibility. How responsible for their actions are agents who behave just as their peers do in a given culture, in the absence of alternative models (for example, by treating brutally animals, subordinates, and members of an outgroup)? Similarly, granting that teleological explanations apply to so-called arational thoughts, it would be interesting to distinguish the forms of trade-offs, temporal constraints and associated evolutionary pressures that explain the persistence of impulsive actions. Most of our mental actions are impulsive. Still, given time limitations, they are quite rational. Individualistic and collective conceptions of action might in combination shed light on this issue.


2018 May 05

Many thanks to Prof Proust for her answers!

Ezio Di Nucci (University of Copenhagen)

We publish this week Dr Ezio Di Nucci’s mini-interview answers. Dr Di Nucci works at the moment as Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen. He has published extensively on actions, double effect, and several topics in ethics and bioethics, including drones, questions connected to robots and AI, and the ethics of killing. He recently co-edited with Filippo Santoni Drones and Responsibility and published his monograph Ethics without Intention. Enjoy!


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


I am not really sure, but I do remember that sometime during my undergrad in Rome I discovered Anscombe´s Intention – probably through Wittgenstein´s philosophy of psychology remarks in the second part of the Investigations. Anscombe got me interested in the concept of intentional action; and then when I got to Edinburgh for graduate school there were plenty of people working in or around the philosophy of action, starting from Rae Langton and Richard Holton, with whom I did my Masters Dissertation on questions of responsibility; and then Matt Nudds and Bill Pollard (who supervised my PhD), Andy Clark, Mike Ridge, Till Vierkant, etc. And also graduate students like Conor McHugh and Dave Ward - and Markus Schlosser at St. Andrews. Working in such a tiny field like action theory you are very often kind of on your own locally, but in Edinburgh in the ´00 there was more than enough support and feedback.


I ended up writing my PhD on whether so-called automatic actions qualify as intentional actions – arguing that they did. At the time philosophers mostly thought that was a non-problem – following Davidson – but I have the impression that now people are (finally?) starting to be increasingly interested in these questions, probably influenced by all the priming, bias and related research in behavioural psychology – however reliable that actually is.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


Well, I probably should not be saying this given the context, but I am not doing as much action theory these days as I used to: I guess I wanted my work to have more direct and obvious applications than the highly theoretical arguments within the philosophy of action, so I started doing more and more ethics and applied ethics, even though I continued approaching these new topics from an action-theoretical point of view, so for example I wrote a book on double effect, which enabled me to apply many insights from action theory to normative and even applied questions. Today most of my work is in ethics and applied ethics (and increasingly bioethics and ethics of technology). But let me give you an example of how action-theoretical concepts still play a big role, I hope: I am currently working on something I call the ´control paradox´; technology and innovation are supposed to give us more and better control over both ourselves and the environment; but, funnily enough, we mostly discuss technological innovation in terms of risks for loss of control – so the paradox is supposed to be this idea that we innovate in order to gain more control but by innovating we actually risk losing the very thing we are trying to improve on. I am thinking of so-called self-driving cars, drones and autonomous weapons, smart environments, but also simple things like passwords – and even Facebook, or so I am going to argue. Briefly, I think the practice of delegation is crucial to the control paradox, and delegating is an action-theoretical concept (and obviously control itself is too!).


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


Enough with the small talk, eh? My account of what an action is would probably be too traditional and conventional to be worth your time, but maybe I am less of a traditionalist - and also more inclusive - when it comes to intentional action – so that for example I believe that automatic actions are intentional actions and also that side-effects are intentional actions – even though the latter is something that Michael Bratman would probably endorse too, so not very original. I actually think that these two claims are somewhat related though: both automatic actions and side-effects have in common that, on some accounts, we intend neither – even though the reasons why we would not speak of intention are different in each case, so that in the former case that has to do with lack of deliberation and maybe even lack of awareness; while in the latter case the double effect debate is very clear about the fact that side-effects are just as foreseen as means or ends; still, they are supposed to be unintended (but, indeed, not necessarily unintentional). I don´t want to overdo my claim here but it is tempting to think of the connection between these two separate and very different debates as having to do with over-intellectualism about agency.


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


Having already confessed to being – at best – a former philosopher of action, you will forgive me if I am not so up-to-date with all recent developments in the field. If you are thinking of important in terms of influence within the field, then I guess we can´t not mention Joshua Knobe´s work, even though the initial excitement seems to have died down a bit or anyway have moved on to other fields. And the same I would probably say for joint agency, social ontology etc.


If instead you are thinking in terms of what I take to be important independently from its influence on the field, one thing I would mention is Carolina Sartorio´s work on omissions. And personally, I am also happy that the questions I have spent a lot of time on are starting to get a bit more traction: I am thinking for example of Barbara Montero´s recent monograph with OUP, Thought in Action.


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


Well, that´s easy: the direction that I am trying to take myself! No, honestly, I do think it is beneficial to use insights from action theory – and action-theoretical concepts – to deal with a lot of normative and even applied issues, like the examples I have given above. And I am not just talking about double effect, I also mean, say, questions relating to consent, or responsibility – and even, indeed, technological innovation.


Allow me again to use the practice of delegating a task as an example: we delegate tasks to colleagues, family members, fellow citizens, but also – increasingly – devices such as our mobile phones and above all software and algorithms. Who is in control once we have delegated? And who is responsible for the successful completion – or maybe failure – of the delegated task? Those are questions in the philosophy of action proper I believe; but their ramifications are so obvious and urgent that – even within a system of division of academic and scientific labour – it would be very useful if philosophers of action would investigate these questions themselves; in this respect, I must say that someone like John Searle – who gets a lot of bad press – is an example of having gradually moved on, during his career, to apply theoretical insights to practical questions.


2018 April 28

Many thanks to Dr Di Nucci for his answers!

Sabine Döring (University of Tübingen)

This week we publish Professor Sabine Döring’s insightful answers to our interview questions. She is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tübingen. Her publications range over action explanation, emotions, motivation and cognitive neuroscience. Enjoy!


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


My interest in philosophy of action developed hand in hand with my interest in philosophy of emotion. It was triggered by the problem that at least some emotional actions, namely expressive actions, don’t seem to fit into the mould of Donald Davidson’s standard belief-desire model of action explanation.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


My main research project at the moment is a book on the role of emotions in agency, which, on my account, requires an understanding of the normative requirements that apply to our mental states in general. In my 2015 paper 'What’s Wrong with Recalcitrant Emotions? From Irrationality to Challenge of Agential Identity' I argued against the currently predominant view that it is irrational to experience an emotion that persists despite the agent’s conflicting judgement. There just is no rational requirement forbidding this, even though recalcitrant emotions do sometimes seem to challenge the agent’s identity. Starting on from this, I aim to establish that other rational requirements are grounded in the property of being constitutive of agency, so as to explain the distinctive norms on emotions on this basis.


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


This is a hard question as I am skeptical about whether we can provide a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what actions are. This problem arises not least because theories of action are typically embedded in more comprehensive theories which in their turn are guided by specific interests. Thus, it makes a difference whether I am a philosopher of mind, who is primarily interested in understanding action in relation to bodily movements and their empirical explanation; or whether I am an ethicist whose main concern is with the autonomous acts or actions of self-governed agents. My main interest in full-blooded action, guided by the agent, and not so much in actions as events or processes. Full-blooded action requires the agent to act for reasons which he or she sees as such. An autonomous agent must guide his or her actions via reasons seen as reasons, which, on my view, means that he or she must comply with the rational requirements that apply to his or her intentions and other mental states, so as to make his or her action an expression of his practical identity.


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


The first project that comes to my mind here is the attempt to provide an account of intentions which presents them as distinct mental states. This project was influentially undertaken in Michael Bratman’s Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (1987). Opposing the early Davidson, according to whom intentions could be analyzed as complexes of beliefs and desires, Bratman established that intentions play a unique role in psychological explanations and are subject to specific rational requirements. As the relevant requirements are understood as requirements of coherence between mental states, contemporary theories of practical rationality and normativity now make a crucial distinction: that between rationality as coherence between an agent’s mental states and rationality as a matter of correctly responding to reasons. Some philosophers (such as J. David Velleman, Christine Korsgaard or Michael Smith) hold that the normativity of the relevant requirements could be derived from the constitutive features of agency. The solution of our metanormative and, more specifically, metaethical problems would thus emerge from the philosophy of action: agency would give us all we need in order to give an account of practical normativity. Despite all arguments put forward against this project (notably by David Enoch), I still regard it as promising and thrilling.


The focus on intentions as distinct mental states has led to a second more recent development which I find important: cognitivism about intentions (as put forward by Velleman or Kieran Setiya). This is the view that intentions are or involve beliefs about what one is doing, a view that is meant to flesh out Elizabeth’s Anscombe’s idea that our knowledge of our actions is “knowledge without observation“. By this Anscombe means that the agent has some immediate awareness of his or her physical activity and of the goals that the activity is aimed at. While Anscombe’s idea may seem intuitively plausible, it’s tough and yet important to substantiate this intuition.


A third development I regard as important is a more thorough examination of what desires are. In philosophy of action, desires are typically described as “pro-attitudes” whose determinate characteristic is their motivational force. Yet contemporary philosophers neglected the issue of the nature of desire. This issue came into focus only recently (see, in particular, Federico Lauria & Julien Deonna’s 2017-OUP volume The Nature of Desire). It led to evaluativism, i.e., the view that desires just are, or necessarily involve, positive evaluations of their objects. Evaluativism currently enjoys widespread popularity in many philosophical circles it is supposed to explain how desires can rationalize action and thereby solve a particular puzzle about the role that desires play in the explanation of action. However, as I have argued together with Bahadir Eker in our 2017-chapter 'Desires without Guises: Why We Need Not Value What We Want', evaluativism does not offer any help whatsoever in dealing with the relevant puzzle. Furthermore, evaluativism, in both of its doxastic and perceptual versions, overstates and mischaracterizes the connection between desires and evaluations.


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


I would like to see a stronger link not only between action theory and the theory of practical rationality and metaethics, but also between action theory and normative ethics. A good example is Gideon Yaffe’s ambitious Attempts (2010) which is guided by the thought that an adequate understanding of the normative commitments of intentions will have significant implications for how we ought to structure the criminal law.


2017 April 21

Many thanks to Prof Döring for her answers!

John Schwenkler (Florida State University)

This week I have the pleasure of publishing Dr John Schwenkler’s answers to our mini-interview questions. Dr Schwenkler currently serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy of Florida State University. In his publications he has tackled many issues of practical knowledge, knowledge of actions, intentions, self-knowledge and other aspects of actions and epistemology. Enjoy!


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


My work in the philosophy of action grew out of a project on the relationship between perception and self-consciousness. Action is an interesting case where the scope of self-consciousness – of what an agent can know, not infallibly, but in a way that an outside observer of her action cannot – is not limited to her internal mental states, but includes her bodily movements and also what happens in the wider world, insofar as this is part of the execution of her intention. Moreover, perception seems to play a central role in making this self-consciousness possible, though perhaps not by providing evidence that supports the agent's knowledge of what she does.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


I am nearly finished writing a book-length commentary on G.E.M. Anscombe's Intention. I also have projects underway concerning the nature of intention and practical reasoning.


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


Following Anscombe (as I understand her), I hold that intentional action is practically known movement. This requires explication, of course: we need to clarify the sense of 'movement' and explain what it is for movement to be practically known. I think it requires some qualification as well, since sometimes we do things intentionally without knowing that we are doing what we intend. But I think it stands up well as a characterization of the fundamental case.


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


Gilbert Ryle's book The Concept of Mind is usually treated as an instance of outmoded philosophical behaviorism, but that's a mistake. Ryle's account of intelligent action is filled with insight that philosophers today could learn a lot from if we could bring ourselves to approach his argument on its own terms.


Anscombe's Intention is indisputably the seminal work in 20th-century philosophy of action, though most of that tradition has consisted in obscuring her best insights, thanks largely to the work of ...


Donald Davidson, whose paper ‘Actions, Reasons, and Causes’ is correct in its central thesis – that the reason-giving explanation of action is a kind of causal explanation – but not in the way that thesis is developed there and in the flood of work that came in its wake. That work assumes that all legitimate causal explanation has the form of explanation that we find in the natural sciences, paradigmatically fundamental physics (or at least a layperson's caricature of it). Given this assumption, the Davidsonian tradition insists on assimilating the workings of the mind to that model. But no such assimilation is possible. (P.S. Davidson was also wrong to claim that Ryle and Anscombe denied that reasons-explanations were causal.)


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


I think I've tipped my hand there! I think there are lots of insights in Anscombe's and Ryle's work that today's philosophers of action need to revisit. To do that, however, we need to lose the habit of reading that work anachronistically, in terms of the project of Davidson and his followers. I don't mean to say that this project has been fruitless (that's not true!!), but only that it's a mistake to think that there's no viable alternative to it. And we can't read philosophers like Ryle and Anscombe – or, for that matter, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant – productively unless we are willing to take their projects seriously on their own terms.


2017 April 14

Many thanks to Dr Schwenkler for his answers!

Joshua Shepherd (Carleton University)

Today we publish the answers of Dr Joshua Shepherd. Dr Shepherd is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department of Carleton University. He has published widely on several aspects of action and agency including their connections with consciousness, control, free will, automatic and zombie action, and mental actions like deciding. His book Consciousness and Moral Status is in the making and he is also Principal Investigator of the ERC project ‘Rethinking Conscious Agency’. Enjoy.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


In the summer of 2018 I will begin a five year project called ‘Rethinking Conscious Agency,’ funded by the European Research Council, and hosted at the University of Barcelona. As part of this project, I have a number of articles planned on different aspects of the psychological architecture underpinning consciousness, agency, and their relationships. One part of this that seems to be coming together is a book tentatively titled The Shape of Agency. In it, I try to give accounts of control over behavior, non-deviant causation, the nature of agency, the nature of skill, and the places of knowledge and practical reasoning in all this.


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


I’m a causalist, and my view is in line with causalists like Goldman, Brand, Mele, and Bratman. In accounting for action, my emphasis is on control over behavior. So, in a 2014 paper called ‘The contours of control’ (in Philosophical Studies), I offer an account of control. The rough idea is that to possess control is to possess an ability to flexibly and repeatedly bring one’s behavior to match the content of relevant motivational states (like intentions), across sufficiently wide sets of circumstances. And then to exercise the control that one possesses is to behave in a particular case via causal pathways that would be those normally operative in the good cases, where ‘would be’ is indexed to wide sets of counterfactual circumstances. With such an account in hand, one can begin to talk of intentional action – to act intentionally is to exercise a sufficient degree of control over one’s behavior in executing some relevant motivational state. As I say, that’s rough. It doesn’t address side-effects, or people who think there’s a good category ‘action’ that’s something distinct from ‘intentional action,’ among other things. The 2014 paper spells the rough idea out in more detail, and the in-progress book will expand upon that and hopefully clarify some bits of the account that have been nagging me.


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


I’m not confident I can accurately name the most important developments. The field is impressively broad and rich, with connections between action, moral psychology, and ethics on one end, and between action, consciousness, mind, metaphysics and epistemology on another. And of course, there are cross-connections between items within these two clusters. For my part, here are three areas full of exciting recent work.


The first concerns work on the psychological architecture underlying action. This is an enormous area. Some of this focuses on attention (Wayne Wu), some focuses on decision making (Al Mele), some focuses on perception and its connection with knowledge of action (Thor Grünbaum). Some focuses on the interface between cognition and motor control (I’m thinking of important papers by Steve Butterfill and Corrado Sinigaglia, and by Myrto Mylopoulos and Elisabeth Pacherie). Some of this focuses on the structure of control, including work on automaticity, motor control, skill learning, conscious control, etc. – see Wayne Christensen or Ellen Fridland.


The second area surrounds the phenomenology (or sometimes the ‘awareness’) of action, its surprising complexity, and its implications for other philosophical debates. Lots of great philosophers have written in this area – Terence Horgan, Uriah Kriegel, Elisabeth Pacherie, Tim Bayne, Hong Yu Wong, and Oisin Deery come to mind.


The third area involves exploration of the epistemic issues in action, including action’s rational structure (Michael Thompson, Markos Valaris), the nature of knowledge-how (lots of people), of understanding (John Bengson), the role of knowledge (including knowledge-how, and sometimes self-knowledge) in accounts of action and skill (Carlotta Pavese, Lucy O’Brien, John Hyman, Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, Ernest Sosa).


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


I would like to see the increase of something that is happening a bit more lately, but which could happen much more, namely, conversation and cross-fertilization between people and ideas at different ends of various spectra – so, conversation between Anscombeians and Causalists (done by, e.g., Sarah Paul, John Schwenkler, Kieran Setiya), between the aforementioned who emphasize connections of action and epistemology, or psychological architecture, or phenomenology, and those who emphasize metaphysics (I haven’t named people in this group, and there are too many to name, but Maria Alvarez, Randy Clarke, Andrei Buckareff, Matt Soteriou, Constantine Sandis, Jesus Aguilar, Stephen Kearns, Markus Schlosser, Rowland Stout, Douglas Lavin, Helen Steward, and many others). I think cross-fertilization often leads to new insights, is intrinsically interesting, sometimes helps us avoid merely verbal disputes, and generates greater understanding of one’s colleagues.


2017 April 7

Many thanks to Dr Shepherd for his answers!

Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco (University of Surrey)

This weekend starts with the answers of Prof Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco. She is Professor in Moral and Legal Philosophy at the University of Surrey Centre for Law and Philosophy. Her work addresses questions on intentions, practical reasoning and reasons, dignity, and legal normativism. She is well known for her monograph Law and Authority under the Guise of the Good. She also co-edited with George Pavlakos Reasons and Intentions in Law and Practical Agency, and more recently Dignity in the Legal and Political Philosophy of Ronald Dworkin with Salman Kurshid and Dr Lokendra Malik.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


I am working on a monograph whose focus is a new conception of negligent acts. It is a very exciting new way of thinking about the topic as the research is located at the intersection of action theory, moral psychology, perception, and legal and moral responsibility. To summarise, the book starts with the idea that we are confronted with the puzzle that we can only be responsible for what we can control, and by acting in negligence we are not able to control the act due to our non-culpable ignorance. This standard view leads necessarily to a sceptical position. Thus, assigning responsibility for negligence necessitates establishing that an act is performed or an omission committed prior to the negligent act, which is done in culpable ignorance. However, if you do something knowing that you should not have done it, then you are acting akratically. The sceptic claims that, unfortunately, we do not sufficiently understand how weakness of the will (akrasia) really works and therefore, we cannot explain how responsibility in negligence is possible. Contra the sceptical position, I show that there is a surprising and so far unidentified deep relationship between negligence and akrasia where ignorance, imagination, perception of pleasure and a kind of control play a key role in inadvertently acting.


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


Actions should be understood as a spectrum whose central or paradigmatic case is intentional action. Other types of action, e.g. compulsive, non- intentional, can be understood in relation to the paradigmatic case. We can say that an intentional action is an activity or something we produce in the world as we understand it. Following Elizabeth Anscombe, I have argued that an intentional action has four key characteristics: A) intentional action is composed of a number of stages or series of actions whose later stages swallow up former stages. B) Intentional action is something actually done, brought about according to the order conceived or imagined by the agent. C) Intentional action involves knowledge that is non-observational, but it might be aided by observation. D) In acting intentionally, we exercise our practical knowledge. We can understand practical knowledge if we understand the structure of practical reasoning.


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


The work of Elizabeth Anscombe and its rediscovery and re-interpretation in the context of its historical background, the philosophies of action of Thomas Aquinas and Ludwig Wittgenstein, have shed light on new and fascinating views on intentional action. Additionally, recent work on omissions [see also our first interview with Randolph Clarke], duress, self-deception and the role of knowledge in action has contributed to enrich the landscape of legal and moral responsibility.


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


I would like to see further reflection on philosophy of action connected to crucial problems of substantive law and theoretical insights on the nature of legal and moral responsibility. More work on the history of ideas related to action theory stimulates our own understanding of contemporary problems and motivates new ways forward. Additionally, establishing a broad church for a conversation among philosophers with different philosophical methodologies, cognitive scientists/neuroscientists and lawyers will enrich the field of legal and moral responsibility. Finally, further dialogues between Ancient Philosophers, whose work focuses on the metaphysics of action, and action theorists would enable us to develop deeper understandings of both the idea that intentional action runs in parallel with practical reason and the view that there is an underpinning plausible metaphysics to it.


2017 March 31

Many thanks to Prof Rodriguez-Blanco!

Markus Schlosser (University College Dublin)

We are publishing this week Markus Schlosser’s answers to our questions. He is Lecturer in Philosophy at University College Dublin and has published extensively on agency, free will, reasons and causes, and the connections between philosophy, neuroscience and cognitive science. He recently published ‘Embodied Cognition and Temporally Extended Agency’ and ‘Traditional Compatibilism Reformulated and Defended’, and his next piece, titled ‘Dual-system theory and the role of consciousness in intentional action’, is coming out soon in B. Feltz, M. Missal, & A. Sims (eds.) Free Will, Language, and Neuroscience with Brill. Last but not least, he also wrote the 'Agency' entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


In my recent research, I looked at the dual-process theories that are currently widely deployed in psychology and cognitive science. They most commonly distinguish between cognitive processes that are fast, automatic, and unconscious, and processes that are slow, deliberate, and conscious. My main research question was whether the standard causal theory of action, as we know it in philosophy, can be captured within this dual-process architecture. I argue that the causal theory can be accommodated in this framework, if we add certain conditions about the causal histories of habitual actions.


In other work, I defended representationalism about the mind against challenges from embodied and enactive cognition. The debates on this have focused on the execution of skills that are governed by the circumstances, and they have neglected temporally extended planning agency, such as teaching a course, doing a Master’s degree, or going on vacation. My main argument is that the explanation of planning agency requires the ascription of representational mental states.


Most recently, I have become interested in Eastern philosophy, initially Buddhism and then Advaita Vedanta (the main school of Hinduism). I am especially intrigued by their claim that the individual sense of self is illusory and how this bears on their conceptions of agency. Another interesting aspect is that Eastern philosophy sees questions about the self and agency directly linked with questions about human suffering. The identification with desires is seen as a major cause of suffering, mediated by the formation of attachments and cravings. In future research I hope to explore those issues from the perspective of Western philosophy.


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


In most of my work, I have defended the standard causal theory of action. It says, in rough outline, that action is to be explained in terms of the intentionality of intentional action, and that intentional action is to be explained in terms of non-deviant causation by the agent’s desires, beliefs, and intentions. There are many well-known problems with this position, but I have yet to see a better alternative. In my research, I have proposed solutions to the problem of deviant causal chains, I have argued that the problem of the disappearing agent is a pseudo-problem, I have defended the view against the rival agent-causal theory, and I have discussed various empirical challenges from the neuroscience of free will, the research on automaticity, and situationism.


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


All depends here on what we mean by ‘recent’. Since Anscombe and Davidson’s important contributions, I would identify the following three milestones. First, Frankfurt’s early work on the hierarchical model of agency. Second, Bratman’s focus on planning agency and his argument for the irreducibility of intentions. Third, evidence and theories from empirical psychology and cognitive science (on automaticity, conscious control, the role of attention, the influence of situational factors, the sense of agency, etc.).


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


In the philosophy of action, I would like to see more engagement with empirical research, even though this has become somewhat problematic with the replication crisis in social psychology. A lot of the research that is most interesting for the philosophy of action comes from this area (such as the research on automaticity and implicit bias). The empirical research on self-control has also been in a crisis. For a couple of decades it seemed that the limited resource model of willpower has very solid empirical support. But this has changed rather dramatically in the past few years, and now one has to wait and see where the research will take this area. It can be frustrating for philosophers when their arguments and theories are hostage to empirical science in this way. Nevertheless, I think that the philosophy of action can benefit greatly from empirically informed theorizing. Concerning my own research direction, I hope to bring ideas from Eastern philosophy into the philosophy of action, and I would like to see more of that in the field and within Western philosophy in general. I believe that Eastern thought has a lot to offer and that it can open exciting new pathways in Western debates.


2018 March 24

Many thanks to Dr Schlosser!

Helen Steward (University of Leeds)

This week we have the pleasure of publishing the answers provided by Helen Steward who is Professor of Philosophy at Leeds University. Prof Steward is acclaimed for her work on metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action and free will. She also led the project ‘Persons as Animals: Understanding the Animal Bases of Agency, Perceptual Knowledge and Thought’ and is the author of A Metaphysics for Freedom.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


I'm currently thinking more about an idea I've been defending for a while - that actions are best thought of as processes (not events) - and the relation between that thesis as I understand it and the fascinating processual philosophy of biology being developed and defended by e.g. John Dupré. The Dupré view hopes to dispense altogether with the category of substance (and hence, I take it, with the subsumed category of agent), except as a kind of convenience. I'm more inclined to think we have to have both substance and process - and that the categories are mutually dependent - so I'm wondering about how the challenging biological arguments marshalled by Dupré are to be met.


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


On my view, an action is an agent's causing something to happen in/to their body, and perhaps also in the world beyond that body, in such a way that the agent thereby settles something. I don't believe that actions have to be intentional, or that they must be the upshot of practical reasoning; as I understand it, actions are performed by many quite simple animals. What is crucial is that where we have something that is genuinely an action we have something that can be traced to the agent as its discretionary source - even if the agent's role is merely to permit it to occur when she could have prevented it (as e.g. may be the case with sub-intentional actions, habitual actions, etc.). I conceive of agents as hierarchically-organised biological entities, in which much activity is devolved to sub-systems. What is distinctive of action is that it is produced or permitted by the top-level system, as it were - the agent herself.


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


The three most important recent developments in philosophy of action, for my money, are:

(i) the increasing recognition that philosophy of biology is highly relevant to the philosophy of action (and vice versa!)

(ii) the recent spate of excellent work on the category of power;

(iii) recent challenges to the dominance of the category of event when it comes to conceptualising action.


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


I'd like to see philosophy of biology interacting more closely with philosophy of action. I think it would have benefits for both fields. Denis Walsh has argued that evolutionary theory requires to be freed from the so-called 'Modern Synthesis' theory of evolution, which views evolution as a fundamentally molecular phenomenon - and that the role played by adaptive agents in evolution needs to be recognised. Philosophy of action needs to feed into this debate. I'd also like to see metaphysicians developing the necessary ontologies for thinking about action in new ways - ontologies which I think are going to have to include concepts of power, process and ability - and new conceptions of what causation is. Another area which I think needs attention is the way in which we human beings categorise and conceptualise movement and change in the world around us. Developmental psychologists have done a lot of work on this - and it is unquestionably relevant to understanding how we have come to have the conceptions of action, change, movement, causation, etc. that we have. We'd improve our philosophy of causation - and thereby our philosophies of action and of explanation - by paying more attention to it.


2018 March 17

Many thanks to Prof Steward!

Alfred R. Mele (Florida State University)

This Saturday we are publishing Prof Al Mele’s answers to our questions. He is currently the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University, and he was the Director of the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control Project, and Director of the Big Questions in Free Will Project. He has published on several issues connected to actions including free will and responsibility, the relation of free will and science, irrationality, agency, self-deception, luck, motivation and autonomy. His most recent monographs are Aspects of Agency: Decisions, Abilities, Explanations and Free Will, and Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. He also edited Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


Just this week, I completed a book manuscript entitled Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility. The main question addressed is this: What can we learn about moral responsibility from thought experiments about manipulated agents? I have spent a lot of time in the past fifteen years or so on connections between science (especially neuroscience) and such things as free will and moral responsibility. This book – like my 2017 book, Aspects of Agency – is almost exclusively theoretical. Next on the agenda is completing some articles I have agreed to write; the topics are self-deception, reasons explanation, decision making, and more on the neuroscientific skepticism about free will. And then, I believe, I will critically explore the scientific case for the thesis that we have a very poor understanding of why we do the things we do.


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


I’ve never taken a stand on exactly what it is for something to be an action. I have taken a stand on what it is for an action to be intentional (for example, in a 1994 article coauthored with Paul Moser). Broadly speaking, I take actions to be events with a causal history of the right sort. Spelling out what the right sort is isn’t something I’ll try to do here.


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


Given that the philosophy of action dates back to Plato, I have elected to interpret “recent” as “since 1950 or so.”


a. Donald Davidson’s revival of causal theories of action explanation in his 1963 article, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.”

b. Harry Frankfurt’s reshaping of the moral responsibility and free will landscape in his 1969 article, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.”

c. Intention’s becoming a central topic in the philosophy of action. Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Bratman deserve considerable credit for this.


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


The philosophy of action is going in several directions at once and probably will continue to do so. That is a good thing in my opinion. There is traditional theoretical work, scientifically informed work on a wide range topics in the field (intentions, intentional action, conscious control, self-control, weakness of will, moral responsibility, the sense of agency, and free will, for example), and survey-style experimental philosophy on such concepts as intentional action, moral responsibility, weakness of will, and free will. The philosophy of action is a good home for all of this.


2018 March 10

Many thanks to Prof Mele for his answers!

Giuseppina D'Oro (Keele University)

Our next guest on the site in our series of mini-interviews is Guiseppina D’Oro who is reader in Philosophy at the University of Keele. She is an expert on Collingwood and philosophy of action, and has published on the philosophy of mind, metaphilosophy and the distinctions between the human and the natural sciences. She edited with Søren Overgaard The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology, and as well as putting together a volume titled Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Anti-Causalism in the Philosophy of Action with Constantine Sandis.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


The advent of the Anthropocene, a geological period in which human kind has become a significant geological force capable of initiating irreversible environmental changes, has prompted claims that historical narratives should go well beyond the relatively recent human past and locate human actions in the context of a deeper, longer-term, geological history (see Dipesh Chakrabarty's ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’). It is also claimed that the advent of the Anthropocene spells the end of the distinction between the historical past (the history of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian civilizations etc.) and the natural past. Advocates of deep history on a geological time scale claim that the distinction between the historical and the natural past is based on questionable anthropocentric assumptions, on a form of human exceptionalism which takes the human being out of the realm of nature. My recent research argues that the distinction between the historical past and the natural past is not based on a form of human exceptionalism, but on the view that understanding past agents requires understanding their actions as expressions of norms rather than subsume them under empirical regularities or natural laws. “Action”, understood as a response to norms, should not be conflated with “human action”, or the deeds performed by the biological species “human”. The naturalization of the past that has been advocated in the wake of the Anthropocene is based on the conflation of the category “action” with that of “human action”. I have defended this claim in a recent talk, “Beyond Scientism and Historicism: Collingwood and the role of the philosophy of history”, which will also appear as a paper soon.


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


Let me say what actions are not. Actions are not events, not because actions are transcendent metaphysical entities, but because they are the correlative of a distinctive form of explanation, which is distinct in kind from the explanation of events. This conception of action has its roots in the metaphilosophical view that method determines subject matter and thus that how we explain determines what is being explained or the nature of one’s subject matter. On this view scientific method can never explain actions, because through the methods of science one can only come to know the explanandum of science: events. I have defended the claim that actions elude scientific explanations in “The Touch of king Midas: Collingwood on why actions are not events”.


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


I will mention two. A crucial development in the philosophy of action was the shift to a causalist orthodoxy in the aftermath of Davidson’s 1963 essay “Actions, Reasons and Causes”. Prior to Davidson the orthodoxy in the philosophy of action was anti-causalist. Pre-Davidsonian non-reductivists claimed that actions are explained by appealing to norms, while events are explained by appealing to empirical regularities or laws. For example: one does not explain why drivers stop at red traffic lights in the same way in which one explains why the sunflower turns towards the sun. On this account of how the explanation of action differs from the explanation of events, to speak of reasons as the causes of action makes no sense because the relation between actions, and the norms which they express, is not a temporal one. Davidson persuaded many that it makes sense to speak of “rationalizing causes” of action, something that would have previously been regarded as a category mistake. I have defended pre-Davidsonian non-reductivism in my “Reasons and causes: the philosophical battle and the metaphilosophical war”.


Another important development in the philosophy of action is connected to the rising fortunes of externalism and the view that justification must track the truth. In the philosophy of action this has led to the view that if the facts are not as agents conceive them to be then the considerations in the light of which an agent acts fall short of being reasons for acting. Externalism’s popularity has led to a focus on reasons in an epistemological context that is very removed from the interpretative concerns of a humanistically oriented philosophy of history and social science. I have argued that the notion of “reasons for acting” is suppler than the externalist allows it to be, and that there are different contexts of justification (epistemic, moral, hermeneutic) which should be duly distinguished in “The justificandum of the human sciences: Collingwood on reasons for acting”.


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


It is clear from the above that whereas I think that the “causalist turn” and the “externalist turn” were important developments which shaped the agenda of the philosophy of action, I do not agree with some of their underlying assumptions. I liked the philosophy of action best when it was embedded within the philosophy of history and social science and addressed methodological questions concerning the nature of explanation in the human and natural sciences. I would like to see a return to the concerns which were central to the philosophy of action before Davidson legitimized talk of reasons as causes and before externalism denied the status of “reasons” to considerations lacking a connection with truth.


2018 March 3

Many thanks to Prof D’Oro for her answers!

Bence Nanay (University of Antwerp & University of Cambridge)

This week we publish Prof Bence Nanay’s answers. He is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp, as well asco-director of the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. Professor Nanay has published extensively on the philosophy of action, philosophy of mind and perception, and is also accomplished in aesthetics. His latest book titled Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception and he is also author of Between Perception and Action.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


My main project at the moment is a book about mental imagery and its importance in our everyday perception and everyday life in general. While there is more philosophy of perception in that book, there is a fair amount about motor imagery and the role it plays in action initiation.


The general claim here is that motor imagery plays an important causal role in bringing about action execution – even though it is not a classic ‘motivating state’. So we should reject the classic philosophy of action assumption that the set of motivating states is the same as the set of mental states causally involved in triggering the action.


I also have a side-project about desires and in what sense we can consider them to be motivating states. My view is that desires do not have desire-like direction of fit.


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


That's a tough one because I don't think we can give a necessary and sufficient condition for what actions are. But here is a general approach (if not definition). Bodily actions are bodily movements that are triggered, guided and often accompanied by certain specific kinds of mental states. Just what these mental states are and how they relate to the bodily movements is the big question.


I argued in Between Perception and Action (Oxford University Press, 2013) that there are two such mental states: one that represents the environment in an action-relevant manner (and maybe also our body and our goals) and another that ‘moves us to act’. The first is a representational state, the second isn’t. If we have both, we have an action. If we have none, we don’t. If we have only one of the two, we get these gray areas of action-attributions, which I call semi-actions.


All this is about bodily actions. I have no idea what mental actions are.


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


By far the most important development is that the field pays more and more attention to empirical findings. Action is something that has been studied very thoroughly by psychologists and neuroscientists and it is intellectually irresponsible to ignore these findings when we philosophize about action. I am very happy to see that less and less philosophers of action are intellectually irresponsible.


The second development, which is very much related, is that philosophy of action is increasingly considered to be part of philosophy of mind and not of ethics.


The third important development is the turn away from the assumption that action needs to be conscious and as a result, introspection could deliver everything we need to know about action. We now know that action (like most of our mental phenomena) can be unconscious and this puts constraints on just how much introspection can help us in philosophy of action (or in philosophy in general).


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


I would like the current trends to continue: I hope philosophy of action is going to be more and more empirically grounded, and that it will rely less and less on introspection. I also hope that there will be more bi-directional interactions between empirical scientists working on action and philosophers of action so philosophy of action could have a helpful influence on the empirical fields.


2018 February 24

Many thanks to Prof Nanay!

Pamela Hieronymi (Professor of Philosophy, UCLA)

For this week Prof Pamela Hieronymi kindly sent us her answers. She is respected for her work on philosophy of action, especially on reasons and free will, ethics and moral responsibility, and philosophy of mind.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


I am working to complete a manuscript, provisionally titled Minds that Matter. Its immodest ambition is to unwind the traditional problem of free will and moral responsibility. I think the problem can be unwound, because – I believe – the problem is created by certain philosophical pictures to which we are naturally (or culturally) prone. One such picture is what I will call the ordinary notion of control, another is what I will call the merited-consequences conception of responsibility. Both are natural, and fine for certain purposes, but together they lead to the traditional problem of free will and moral responsibility. The solution, I believe, is to revisit these models, understand what has gone wrong, and replace them with something better. This is what I will attempt. The result will be an account that, I hope, does justice to both the fact that we are products of our environment and experiences and the fact that we, and our actions and attitudes, nonetheless rightly matter to one another.


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


In ordinary intentional action, we bring things to be as we would have them to be – we impose our will upon the world. Such action is voluntary. Ordinary intentional action is a subset of the larger category of rational activity. Rational activity is the settling of questions. Settling a question is not voluntary; you are constrained by your take on the question. Certain states of mind, such as beliefs, intentions, and certain emotions, such as pride or resentment, are non-voluntary rational activities, while other states of mind, such as imagining a blue square or remembering where you left your keys, are voluntary mental actions.


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


This is a hard question. Taking a long view of “recent” and allowing myself four: (1) Davidson’s insistence that reasons for action must explain the event that is the action, resulting in the ascendance of the “Humean” belief-desire picture; (2) Bratman’s focus on intention as plans and his development of norms for plans (which had a significant impact in computer science); (3) the melding of philosophy of action with discussions of moral responsibility (spurred by the work of Frankfurt, Watson, et al), on the one hand, and discussions of moral motivation (spurred by Williams’ claim about internal reasons and the subsequent whirlwind of response), on the other; and, finally, (4) the more recent return to the pre-Davidsonian picture, with a focus on intention and on Anscombean themes of practical knowledge, answerability, and reasons for action.


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


I would like to see analytic philosophy become more relevant. To this end, I would like to see a shift in our assumptions, not only about the volume of publications we expect from job applicants and in tenure cases, but also about the genre in which we publish. The current norm tends towards long, quasi-technical, research articles which often presume, of the reader, familiarity with some rather detailed literature and developed jargon, as if we were participating in an on-going blog conversation amongst ourselves (with an over worked and overly restrictive set of moderators). In the early and middle 20th century, the genre seemed instead to be the essay: a shorter piece which begins with an intuitive statement of a philosophical problem together with some motivation for it—a statement of a problem that is, in principle, assessable to an intelligent reader. (Even some very technical essays, addressing technical problems, begin this way.) The Journal of the American Philosophical Association, in its editorial statement, seems to be aiming for such a shift.


2018 February 17

Many thanks to Prof Hieronymi!

Kieran Setiya (Professor of Philosophy, MIT)

This week we present you with the answers of Prof Kieran Setiya from MIT. Professor Setiya has published significant original work on the philosophy of action - including reasons and reasoning -, virtue ethics, and the epistemology of self-knowledge and moral values. A collection of his essays under the title Practical Knowledge has been published in 2016 and his latest work out there is aimed at both philosophers and the wider public dealing with midlife crises. Enjoy.



1. What are you working on at the moment?


Lately, I have been thinking about the way in which love and moral concern are directed at particular individuals. I think there are deep puzzles about this and that we need to address them in order to come to grips with the nature of beneficence and rights. I explore these puzzles in part through recent work by Caspar Hare on the trolley problem, in part through the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. I have also been thinking about humanism and the distinctive worth of human beings. My broader interests include the ethics of climate change and the theory and practice of public philosophy. My most recent book was a mash-up of philosophy and self-help, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.


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


Before giving a one-sentence answer, here are 14 sentences about the question.

As Jennifer Hornsby has observed, ‘action’ is ambiguous between actions as events and things done. Actions as events are picked out by noun phrases such as ‘Kieran’s walk home on Tuesday’ or ‘the drawing of a distinction in 1997.’ Things done are picked out by verb phrases such as ‘walked home’ or ‘is drawing a distinction.’ Things done are predicated of agents in two ways, which correspond to the linguistic distinction between progressive and perfective aspect: the distinction between ‘Kieran was walking home’ and ‘Kieran walked home.’


As I understand it, action theory is interested primarily in things done, predicated of agents, not in actions as events. But the topic of things done is much broader than that of action theory proper. Things done include the doings of inanimate objects, as when a storm kills the crops. Wittgenstein’s question, ‘What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?’ can be generalized: ‘What is left over if I subtract the fact that the crops die from the fact that the storm kills them?’

Philosophers sometimes try to bring the distinctive topic of action theory into focus by emphasizing the word ‘action’ or by asking what counts as something ‘I do.’ But this is unhelpful. When the doctor taps my knee, I kick my leg. That is an action I perform, and it is something I do. But it is not what action theorists hope to understand. Their questions are not captured by Wittgenstein’s arithmetic, or by emphasizing words, but by asking what it is to act intentionally, or for reasons.


To act intentionally is to manifest one’s capacity for guiding knowledge of what one is doing and why, a manifestation that may be imperfect, so that one is not sure one is acting as one intends.


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


1. Not so recent, but recently revived: the idea of practical knowledge as described in Elizabeth Anscombe’s Intention and Stuart Hampshire’s Thought and Action. However hard it is to formulate or understand, I think there is something right in the idea that acting intentionally, or for reasons, has to do with a distinctive kind of knowledge of what one is doing. The republication of Intention in 2000 was a real step forward for action theory. Someone should republish Thought and Action.


2. The idea that standards of practical reason can be derived from, and are explained by, the nature of intentional action, otherwise known as ‘constitutivism about practical reason.’ I learned about this approach, which I call ‘ethical rationalism,’ from a book that shares my conviction that acting intentionally is a function of knowing what one is doing: David Velleman’s Practical Reflection. I became obsessed with it in reading Christine Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity. And I argued against it in Reasons without Rationalism and some of the essays in Practical Knowledge. Although I am sceptical of rationalism or constitutivism, I think it is immensely important as an approach to the nature of practical reason that promises to be neither mysterious nor subjective or relativistic.


3. The idea that action theory should pay attention to the metaphysics of progressive and perfective aspect, to the nature of event- or process-forms, and to the Aristotelian machinery of capacities and actualizations. There is inspiration to be found in Michael Thompson’s ‘Naïve Action Theory’ (Part Two of Life and Action) and in recent work by Helen Steward.


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


Despite thinking that the revival of Anscombe in action theory has been a good thing, I would like to see less partisan work on the ideas that come out of Intention. There has been a tendency to bifurcation between ‘Anscombeans’ who think she must be right about almost everything and those who think Anscombe is utterly wrong. I would be surprised if either prediction is true. I also think that certain readings of Anscombe have become gospel even though their basis is very unclear. An example is the claim that practical knowledge is the cause of what it understands, taken by many to be a universal truth, but which Anscombe apparently states in a carefully qualified form. I discuss this, along with the allegation that practical knowledge is only of the progressive, in ‘Anscombe on Practical Knowledge.’


I would like to see more work at the intersection of action theory and normative ethics. Anscombe wrote Intention, apparently, to defend the doctrine of double effect. But there is surprisingly little interaction between action theorists and moral philosophers who work on related topics.


Finally, I think action theory should engage more with disciplines outside philosophy. This has happened to some extent with work in psychology, such as Wegner on the illusion of conscious will or Nisbett and Ross on ignorance of why we act as we do. But the morals drawn from the relevant studies strike me as largely unwarranted: the philosophical work here is to explain why the studies are less troubling than they are taken to be. I would be more excited to see philosophers engage with treatments of action in anthropology and sociology. The social character of intentional action has been neglected in the focus on raising one’s arm or pushing a button. I suspect that there is a lot to be learned by building bridges.


2018 February 10

Many thanks to Prof Setiya!

Manuel Vargas (Professor of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego)

Prof Manuel Vargas kindly answered our questions for this week. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Vargas is recognised for his insightful contributions to the free will debates, moral psychology, Latin American philosophy and philosophy of law. His website also offers plenty of useful information for students interested in majoring in Philosophy, and he is also active in supporting and promoting the development of Latin American Philosophy. His works include his book Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility and he edited with Gideon Yaffe the volume Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman . Enjoy.



1. What are you working on at the moment?


At the moment, I’m trying to think about the plausibility, power, and problems with theories of moral responsibility that treat individual moral blameworthiness as in some way a partial function of stuff outside an agent’s head. Roughly, that means I’m thinking about the social, structural, and cultural conditions that affect an agent’s blameworthiness.

I’ve also been starting to think a bit about ways in which other kinds of agency are affected by social context, partly in light of reading figures like Uranga, Lugones, Schutte, and others.


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


I suppose my default view of action involves something along Davidsonian-Bratmanian lines, with paradigmatic cases of action involving beliefs, desires, and intentions. In general, my disposition here is one of mostly minimal metaphysics—we start with relatively simple, naturalistically plausible elements that are in any plausible story of our psychology. Then, we build up from there with the thought that further postulates have to earn their keep.


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


In “foundational” philosophy of action, the detailed efforts to explain shared/joint agency seem to me to be particularly important. In those areas less concerned with saying what action, as such, turns out to be, I’d say the development of work in philosophy of law that draws from the philosophy of action is important, and so is the “social turn” in work on responsible agency. But these assessments surely reflect my own biases more than any independent assessment of what is important for the field more generally.


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


I’m inclined to think that at this point the field is not just one field, but really several fields with tenuous links of variable significance. There are folks worried about the nature of action as such, and relatedly, about core cases of ordinary human action. There is a somewhat different group of people who are worried trying to understand whether there is something metaphysically distinct about human action, distinct from other kinds of agency out in the world. Many of those folks approach issues through the lens of reflections about free will. Finally, there are folks who are reflecting on relatively sophisticated forms of agency that are not about free will, but that various “special” cases of agency—autonomy, responsibility, aesthetic agency, and so on. The fields of philosophy of action are not done growing. Philosophical reflections on non-human agency and what’s distinctive about it, for example, strikes me as a promising growth area for philosophers of action. I love this explosion of work and am happy to see the field explore these diverse topics. I will pass over in silence the developments in the field that strike me as ill-conceived.


2018 February 3

Many thanks to Prof Vargas!

David-Hillel Ruben (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London and Honorary Research Fellow, Birkbeck, London)


Our latest answers come from David-Hillel Ruben who is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of London and Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, London. Professor Ruben is widely acclaimed for his work on Marxism, philosophy of action, metaphysics, social philosophy and explanation.  Enjoy.



1. What are you working on at the moment?


My book, The Metaphysics of Action: Trying, Doing, Causing, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. There is a significant role for analytic metaphysics to play in its application to the theory of action (and to the philosophy of social science too). I have long held this belief about analytic metaphysics and its applications to other areas of philosophy, a belief evidenced by my first book, Marxism and Materialism (1977, 1979), by The Metaphysics of the Social World (1985) and finally by an earlier book in action theory, Action and Its Explanation (2003).


I’m hardly alone in the belief that analytic metaphysics can be applied in action theory. There are many examples of other philosophers who have worked similarly in the philosophy of action. Much of Donald Davidson’s work, and the comment on it, are in this tradition. John Bishop’s Natural Agency (1989), Helen Steward’s first book, The Ontology of Mind (1997), Anton Ford’s splendid ‘Action and Generality’ (2011) and ‘Action and Passion’ (2014), and E.J. Lowe’s Personal Agency: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action (2010), are five further excellent examples that spring to mind. Although the distinction is to some extent artificial and very porous, I would contrast this metaphysical approach in the philosophy of action with one more rooted in philosophical psychology.


It is part of the tradition in which I work to approach metaphysical and ontological questions often by looking at language, and I do a great deal of that sort of work in the book, but the goal is not the analysis of the assertions or sentences or concepts, but an understanding of the metaphysics and ontology of the human world to which such discourse commits us. Gettier wasn’t interested in knowledge-talk or even the concept of knowledge; at bottom, he wanted to know what makes it true that a person knows something. The objective of the analyses in the book are not sentences or statements or discourse or concepts, but what these things are about or true of, even though such discovery typically comes through a careful consideration of the ontic commitments embedded in the sentence.


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


I believe that an action is a basic or fundamental particular, and so that no resolution of it into simpler components could be successful. ‘Expressions which are in no way composite signify….action and affection….’to lance’, ‘to cauterize’, action; ‘to be lanced’, ‘to be cauterized’, [are terms indicating] affection’ (Aristotle De Categoriae, 4). I wish I could prove this, even to my own satisfaction, but I can’t. After all, successive failures don’t show that the next attempt won’t be successful.


However, I have become interested in Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge-First Programme, and the way in which some action theorists have appropriated it, in order to try to show the alleged fundamentality of action. I don’t give Williamson’s specific programme much hope, but I think it provides a good way in which to get started thinking about the issues of the simplicity or the complexity of both concepts and of the particulars to which the concepts apply.


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


I want to give a rather double-edged answer to this question. On one hand, philosophy does not need and does not flourish with orthodoxies, and it is always good when they are challenged, even if the challenges themselves are flawed. So I whole-heartedly approve of the way in which those writing in the neo-Anscombian and neo-Aristotelian traditions have challenged the Davidsonian research programme in the philosophy of action, and I have profited by that work. Long may it continue.


But I confess to finding some of it more obscure than I would like. And I remain uncomfortable with some of the concepts they employ. I still find the idea of agent causation ultimately un-illuminating, and talk of powers somewhat suspect. I respect that many philosophers are reaching out for a viable alternative to the Humeian ontology embedded, however distantly, in (for example) Davidsonian theory of action, and the reaching out is to be applauded, because that is how progress in philosophy is made. But alas, I was philosophically trained in the 1960’s, and by my lights the new material, with only a few exceptions, misses the clarity, precision, and rigour of what it is trying to replace. Perhaps that is inevitable at the beginning of a philosophical paradigm shift. It’s only an autobiographical remark, but I am simply baffled by some of it.


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


I think philosophy today in general is in amazingly good health. The level of discourse in analytic metaphysics, for example, is superb, through the efforts of philosophers like David Lewis, Kit Fine, and so many others. As is obvious from my comments above, I think that, with whatever faults I may detect in them, the attempts to forge new ways of thinking in action theory have been serious and suggestive, and I would wish them to continue.


But - and I apologise for the arrogance in this remark made about so many philosophers who are so much cleverer than I - I would wish for this literature to aim for greater clarity. It now seems to me that we have the beginnings of several different philosophical discourses about action in Anglo-American philosophy, and that we have some difficulty in translation between them. Well, maybe such discourses cannot be translated into one another - that is what makes them a ‘different’ discourse. Maybe there is just a Kuhnian ‘leap’ required here. But anything that can be done to make that leap as narrow as possible, and to make for mutual intelligibility between the discourses about action, would be very much to be welcomed. I do not mean to imply that some very important work in this vein has not already been done; it has. I would just like to see more of it.


2018 January 27

Many thanks to Prof Ruben for his answers!

Randolph Clarke (Florida State University)

The second set of answers comes from Randolph Clarke who is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of Philosophy of Florida State University. Professor Clarke has been working on free will, agency, intentional action and moral responsibility. His latest book Omissions is an exciting study of responsibility for omissions and the relation of omissions and negligence. Enjoy reading.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


I’m working on a paper distinguishing varieties of agent causation. Proponents of causal theories of action commonly say that they don’t believe in agent causation. But Davidson and Goldman both held that if an agent performs an action and that action causes some event, then the agent causes that event. If we agree, then we accept one variety of agent causation. Of course, generally when people say they reject agent causation, they have in mind something more controversial than this. But there are a variety of things that differ from this modest variety of agent causation to a lesser or greater extent. The aim of the paper is to distinguish several of them and explore reasons why one or another of them might be thought to exist or not to exist, or to be required for agency or free will.


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


I’ve noticed that when I try to tell non-philosophers what action theory is, examples tend to be the best way to identify the subject matter. And working from some paradigm cases to some borderlines might be the best way to proceed. Some general characterizations that are commonly given are either too broad or too narrow. For example, the things we do include things (such as snoring) that aren’t actions. And self-movement seems to leave out mental action.


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


Frankly, it is simply the variety of lines of enquiry that impresses (and pleases) me. I’m glad to see that there’s excellent work on such diverse topics as practical reason, practical knowledge, intention, rational explanation, the metaphysics of action, omissions, free will, and moral responsibility.


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


I’m happy to see it going in many directions.


2018 January 20

Many thanks to Prof Clarke for his answers!


Michael Smith (Princeton)

Our first set of answers comes from Michael Smith who is McCosh Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. Professor Smith has been working on actions, reasons and motivation, among other things. His book The Moral Problem is a classic in the field. Enjoy reading.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


In 2017 I gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University, so right at the moment—this is being written at the very beginning of 2018—I am revising those lectures for publication. The basic aim of the lectures was to derive facts about what we ought to do from facts about the kind of thing that we are, facts that we know a priori. More specifically, I argue that substantive conclusions about what we have reasons to do follow from the mere fact that we are essentially 'Cartesian Agents', that is, beings who have the dual capacities to know what the world in which we live is like and realize our desires in that world. These reasons in turn provide us with all we need to understand the moral reasons we have for acting in certain ways; they tell us why we have non-moral reasons for action like those associated with love and friendship, the production of works of art, and engagement with works of art; they enable us to see why such non-moral reasons may conflict with, and even outweigh, moral reasons in certain circumstances; and they can therefore be pressed into service in giving an account what we are morally obliged to do, permitted to do, and forbidden from doing. The provisional title of the book is A Standard of Judgement.


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


In my view, actions are a sub-class of events, namely, those events that are caused in the right way by certain psychological states. Think of all the various things that happen in the world. Some of these are things that we know how to make happen, where our knowledge of how to make them happen isn't explained by our knowledge of how to make other things happen. These are the events that are candidates for being actions. Consider an example like the movement of my finger. This is something that I know how to make happen, and my knowledge of how to make it happen isn't explained by my knowledge of how to make something else happen. In this way, my knowledge of how to make my finger move contrasts with my knowledge of how to, say, flip a switch, or set a roller coaster in motion. It is therefore a candidate for being an action. What makes any particular movement of my finger an action is its causal history. If the finger movement is caused by some desire I have that the world be a certain way, and by my belief that making my finger move would make the world that way, then if that belief is in turn part of my know-how, and if it causes the finger movement in combination with my desire via an exercise of my capacity to be locally instrumentally rational, then the resulting movement of my finger is an action. Note that all actions, so understood, are caused by agents' exercises of their rational capacities. These exercises, though action-like, are clearly not actions in the sense just explained, or a regress would loom. Their nature must therefore be understood differently—see my answer to the next question.


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


The single most important recent development in philosophy of action is the intense focus on the active-passive distinction, and the different things that might be meant when we invoke this distinction. The difference between a needle someone is holding being caused to enter their body as a result of their being pushed by someone else, on the one hand, and their injecting themselves with the needle in the ordinary way, on the other, is a distinction of one kind that we can make between someone's having something happen to them with respect to which they are active (the latter) or passive (the former). But if we focus just on the former, and now imagine two different people who inject themselves, one of whom is addicted to the drug they inject and the other not, then there is plainly another sense in which only one of the agents who injects themselves is active with respect to their injecting themselves (the latter). The other (the former) is passive.


In my view, these different versions of the active-passive distinction can all be explained in terms of which rational capacities are being exercised in the performance of the action. They might be exercises of a capacity to be merely locally instrumentally rational, or they might be exercises of additional capacities to be globally instrumentally rational, or exercises of additional capacities to be more globally coherent in the formation of beliefs and desires, or exercises of additional capacities to respond to the normative reasons that there are for them to act in one way rather than another. Accordingly, there are many different active-passive distinctions, and these can be ordered along a spectrum.


The second important development in philosophy of action is the widespread recognition of the need to admit the existence of rational capacities, and the role that their exercise plays, in an understanding of actions, something that in turn requires us to give accounts of the nature of both.


The third important development in philosophy of action—and it is at this point that philosophy of action bleeds into metaethics—is a robust debate about how these rational capacities are to be understood, and whether an understanding of them requires us to admit the existence of an irreducible reason relation.


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


With academic disciplines becoming more and more specialized, and advances in academic fields leading to ever more rapid technological change, technological change that has a profound affect on the weal and woe of people all over the world, it seems to me more important than ever that we encourage large scale theorizing. I would therefore like to see more integration of cognitive science, philosophy of action, metaethics, social and political philosophy, sociology, and political science. Just as philosophers mustn't poach on empirical preserves, but must leave space in their theories for details to be filled in by empirical scientists, so empirical scientists must begin their investigations with a robust sense of what the most reasonable frameworks are within which such investigations can take place. If I am right that certain normative claims can be defended a priori—see again my answer to the first question—then the most reasonable frameworks will themselves embrace these normative claims. The hope is that this would lead to better policy outcomes when it comes to the regulation of technological change.


2018 January 13

Many thanks to Prof Smith for his answers!