Thursday, January 25, 2007

David Velleman, The Possibility of Practical Reason, "Introduction" (Part II)

[This is a continuation of the summary of our discussion of the "Introduction" to David Velleman's The Possibility of Practical Reason, which begins in the previous post.]

Velleman's Account of What Makes Behavior Into an Action

Velleman dismisses the "standard model" and the "hierarchical model" of what makes behavior into an action. What is Velleman's model?

Velleman's striking view is the following (this, as usual, is a rough summary): what makes something an action is that it is done with the "higher-order aim of knowing what [one] is doing". The Freudian slip case isn't an action because the speaker doesn't utter "I hereby declare this meeting closed" or "I live in a building with a hated pool" in order to know what he is doing. The climber dropping his partner and the speaker's crying don't count as actions for the same reason--the person doesn't drop his partner or cry in order to know what he is doing.

The workshop consensus about this view was that it was very strange. It seems straightforwardly false that I do the various things I do in order to know myself. Jason has often used the example of saving a drowning child to illustrate the strangeness of Velleman's view. Say I see my child drowning and I jump in to save his life. A philosopher asks me, "Why did you do that?" It seems that Velleman would think it reasonable to say "So as to better know myself". But that would be a weird thing to say.

There has been some feeling among some of the members of the workshop that we're not really grasping something important about Velleman's view, because the (rough) way of presenting it that was just given looks very implausible. I think one of David's reasons for assigning this "introduction" this week was that it looked like Velleman had an account of how the desire for self knowledge was not an "agential" reason, but something "sub-agential", and so not the kind of thing that you'd cite in an action-explanation. So, perhaps with self-knowledge as a sub-agential reason, you wouldn't get strange explanations of why you jumped in the river to save your child like the one given in the previous paragraph. But after a closer look, we couldn't find anything more substantial than Velleman's claim that the desire for self-knowledge is "sub-agential", and there was not an explanation of what that means. Does being "sub-agential" mean the desire for self-knowledge doesn't, or can't, figure in ordinary action-explanations? It's not clear.

There was a fair amount of discussion of points of detail, but I will conclude with one foundational question that was pressed (like many of the others) by Jason.

The Constitutive Aim of Action
Why think that there is some one thing that is the constitutive aim of action? It looks like a specifically philosophical urge to find a single, overarching principle that holds together everything that falls within the grab bag of behavior we call actions. Maybe some of our actions aim at world peace, and others at achieving some personal satisfaction, and some aim at amassing wealth, and so on? Need there be some aim that all of these share? Jason suggested that there need not be. Giving up the search for such a single aim present in all actions might radically change the shape of a theory of action, possibly for the better.

The workshop will meet again in two week's time to discuss some portion of John Campbell's Reference and Consciousness. See you there.


Jason Bridges said...

Good stuff again. With respect to the idea of a 'constitutive aim of action', the main point seems to me that Velleman's argument that there must be such a constitutive aim if there are to be reasons for action is invalid. The considerations he raises show at most that the existence of reasons for action requires that there be aims we pursue in action other than that of doing what we have most reason to do; it does not show that all actions share some single such aim.

Jason Bridges said...

I don't agree with Jason's comment above.

Jason Bridges said...

Right back at you, jerk.

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