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."