Monday, July 4, 2011

Basic Action

I happened to read an article on "action theory" this morning. (This has nothing to do with any ill-conceived plan of reading the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy cover to cover in preparation for comprehensive exams.) Apparently, there has been some debate about what constitutes the most basic action. Granted that many actions are done by doing something else which brings it about, there must be some action which is not done by doing anything else. Is a bodily action the most basic, or, since it seems to be possible to perform actions which fall short of bodily change (like trying to move a phantom limb), is there some action called "willing" that precedes and causes bodily action?

Since I'm the kind of guy who jumps right in on a conversation in progress, I'm eager to offer my solution to this problem. But so as not to appear as pompous and obnoxious as I actually am, I will put my first contribution in the form of a sort of puppet show. Let's imagine that two action theorists are sitting in a bar having a vexed back and forth over the question of whether Theorist A lifts his drink by trying to lift his drink, and Theorist B has for some time been trying to prove his point by endeavoring to attempt to lift his own drink without actually doing so, and has just hit on the idea that his very failure to prove his point proves his point. Suddenly, Hegel walks into the bar and, using his world-historical powers of perception, instantly locates the most interesting conversation in the room. (It's the one surrounded by a growing puddle of spilled beer.) Having just been awakened from nearly 180 years of peaceful slumber and thrown into a philosophical illustration, Hegel is groggy and in a somewhat diffident mood, so instead of driving the truth home like a corkscrew into the minds of the Action Theorists, he simply asks why they think it is that trying only ever shows up when it fails.

Action Theorist A thinks he sees the point of this question, and answers, "Well, stranger, that's because 'trying' is just what we call it when a sufficiently motivated action doesn't happen because it turns out to be impossible or at least prevented by the present circumstances."

Hegel has never heard anyone do analytic philosophy before, so he has to think about this for a minute. Absently, he grabs Action Theorist B's beer and gulps it down (what's left of it) while he works the matter over. "Entschuldigung!" he exclaims as he drains the glass and finally notices what he has been doing. "I'm so accustomed to thinking by drinking, I just drank your beer without realizing it."

"There, you see!" both Action Theorists shout at once.

Action Theorist A, shouting B down continues, "The eighteenth-century German dude--"

"Hegel," Hegel introduces himself.

"Hegel--pleased to meet you--Hegel performed a basic action without trying."

Action Theorist B rolls his eyes, "I think what Hegel is trying to say is that just not being conscious of the means by which you do something doesn't mean you aren't really doing it."

"Actually," Hegel interjects, "I was trying to apologize for drinking your beer. But now that you mention it, it is inevitable that the two of you would draw opposite conclusions from the case, because immanent in the abstract form of the action lies a contradiction (ah, yes, now we're talking). On the one hand, it is necessary that the abstract basis of an action (as lifting one's hand is the abstract basis of raising a glass) serve as the region of the action's actualization. On the other hand, it is precisely by cancelling this abstract basis as action that it can serve as such a context for the concrete action."

The Action Theorists stare, confounded. "Well," Hegel says, planting Action Theorist A's glass back on the table and buttoning up his coat, "It's been a pleasure."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why are you doing that?

A human being does each thing he does for a purpose. If this statement seems obvious and transparent, that may be because having a purpose is too easily confused with wanting something. Indeed, one commonly finds purpose explicated in terms of wanting. I am doing this because I want that. Such explanations appeal to a mechanistic view of action. The wanting bone connects to the doing bone I guess.

Too many commentators explain the first page of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics with an illustration involving a chain of desires, like this one from Christopher Shields, who asks us to imagine that a philosophical friend has asked us why we are buying milk:
If we answer seriously and honestly that we want to buy milk for our morning porridge, and he presses on, wanting to know why we intend to eat porridge in the morning, then we may well answer that we find porridge healthy and delicious, especially with milk, which we may then excuse ourselves to buy. Insensible of our lack of interest, the philosopher may persist, wanting to know why we desire to eat delicious and healthy food. Again, we may respond, that it is because we enjoy delicious food, that eating brings us pleasure, and that we desire health for the obvious reason that health is good—and, lest it be asked, we all desire good things for ourselves. If we have not by now slipped away, we may hear the philosopher posing the same question, earnestly let us allow, ad nauseam, or at least until such time as we say, with exasperation, that we do all these things we do for the sake of happiness.

This sort of account seems cogent. I don't think I could give a more complete justification of milk-buying (except that I don't eat "porridge"). The problem is that it doesn't look anything like Aristotle's illustration of a hierarchy of purposes. The connection between bridle-making and horsemanship has nothing to do with what the bridle-maker wants. It can only be explained in terms of purpose. The purpose of bridle-making is to enable excellence in horsemanship—regardless of whether some individual bridle-maker wants to do so.

This idea of purpose only makes sense in terms of an order that goes beyond the individual. Bridle-making advances the good of a political community, regardless of how it affects the bridle-maker.

But for all that, it is still not clear how a human being can in making a bridle be doing something for a purpose. Sure enough, he is performing an action; sure enough, the action has a purpose, because the bridle is of use, but since this use belongs to the larger community, how can the purpose belong to the individual's action?

What people are saying about philosophy

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Attempted paraphrase of "Perception" section of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

(My reading relies heavily on Pinkard's Sociality of Reason. Yes, I will be happy if I can comprehend a single chapter of a secondary source on Hegel.)

So there are things and properties of things. The properties are what sense-certainty tries to get a hold of in complete independence from any higher order apprehension (that is, in abstraction from perception and everything which contextualizes perception itself). Now, they are perceived not as detached units but as properties of a thing perceived through them. But how does perception get a hold of this thing in which the properties inhere? That is, how can this thing be the object of perception? It is not itself a property, so it does not have the relatedness to a thing which mediates universal properties. Then it is a self-related individual, a one. As such it does not have the properties which would differentiate it from other ones. Thus it is a thing with properties and it is a thing without properties.

The attempt to reconcile this contradiction by way of a distinction between primary and secondary qualities fails because it implies that the thing is not the universal medium of the properties, but rather perception itself is responsible for their unity. The thing itself with its actual properties (primary qualities) on this account must lie beyond the reach of perception. This conclusion is not only epistemologically frustrating but incoherent: there remains nothing for perception to attribute that second set of properties to, even mistakenly. No thing in perception means no thing for perception to be in error about.

The properties which we perceive must be perceived as the properties of the one thing. And only by way of these properties can we perceive the thing as a determinate one differentiated from other ones. These propositions are the product of the experience of sense-certainty, which demonstrated the impossibility of unmediated knowledge of particulars. The perception of the thing as a one which as such has no properties essential to it falls back into the same impossibility, since it would have to know its object in exactly the same way, as a blank, undifferentiated singular thing.