Must There Be Basic Action?

Noûs 47 (2):273-301 (2012)
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The idea of basic action is a fixed point in the contemporary investigation of the nature of action. And while there are arguments aimed at putting the idea in place, it is meant to be closer to a gift of common sense than to a hard-won achievement of philosophical reflection. It first appears at the stage of innocuous description and before the announcement of philosophical positions. And yet, as any decent magician knows, the real work so often gets done in the set-up. I argue that the seemingly innocent idea of basic action is, in fact, bound up with a wide-spread conception of the nature of bodily or physical action (section 3). Its legitimacy is vital to the intelligibility of the causal theory of action, according to which physical action consists of a mere event and a condition of mind joined (in the right way) by the bond of causality. Left unchecked, means-end reason threatens to permeate physical action, and thus threatens the sovereignty of the sphere of material events at the center of the causal theory: such events, including the movements of one’s body when one intentionally moves it, are thought to be constitutively independent of the subject’s rational capacities. Basic action is a necessary countermeasure, a sort of metaphysical containment wall needed to preserve the separate jurisdictions of the mind of the acting subject and what merely happens. I argue that so long as action theory proceeds under the assumption that there must be basic action, it must regard our relation to the progress of our own deeds as not different in principle from Marx’s understanding of the relation of the non-worker (Nichtarbeiter) to the material processes that realize his own ideas, namely the work done on the factory floor. Each is alienated from the progress, or getting done, of his deeds. In each the process of doing something intentionally turns out to be a case of delegating tasks to another power. How the process comes to completion is not willed, and at best watched: the causal work is not the agent’s work, his knowledge not self-knowledge (section 5). We should find this unacceptable. And if this is right, it should be a pressing question whether there must be basic action. I argue that we have no good reason to think so: basic action is not forced on us by argument (sections 2 and 4). It is open to us to consider an alternative, one on which action is not, in the fundamental case, barren of means- end structure, but instead permeated by it: we register as a force in nature not at the limit of the means-end order but precisely in its constitution. [from article introduction]



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Douglas Lavin
University College London

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