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Hegel and Analytic Philosophy of Action

A primary fault line in the analytic philosophy of action is the debate between causal/Davidsonian and interpretivist/Anscombian theories of action. The fundamental problem of the former is producing a criterion for distinguishing intentional from
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  1 Hegel and Analytic Philosophy of Action Christopher YeomansPurdue UniversityPlease cite the published version, Owl of Minerva 42(1-2) (2010-11): 41-62. What follows is the final draft version.The analytic philosophy of action begins, as one might expect, with anattempt to delineate its subject matter. Treatments of the field often start either with Wittgenstein’s f  ormulation –   “w hat is left over if I subtract the fact that my armgoes up from the fact that I raised my arm ?” i   – or with a series of examples designedto motivate the difference between action and mere behavior – e.g., my raising myarm to catch the attention of my dinner date as opposed to raising it through amuscle spasm or it being forced up accidentally by a clumsy waiter. There iswidespread agreement within this tradition that the remainder in the first formulation or the differentiating element in the second is an intention of the agent with respect to the action. ii Here, however, agreement ends, and a variety of formulations of what it is to be an intention – or what it means to act for reasons –  have been proposed. The primary fault line in this debate separates those that advocate a causal relation between intention and action – a position most oftentraced to Donald Davidson – and those that deny causality in favor of what is often phrased as an ‘interpretive’ relation between the two – a position most often tracedto Elizabeth Anscombe.The causal view has an important intuitive appeal. As the second way of phrasing the problem of action in terms of the distinction between action and thingsthat happen to me shows, it is natural to insist on the active aspect of action as  2essential to it. To act is to do something, to produce some change in the world, andit is difficult to understand what sense we can make of this without invoking thenotion of causation at some point. The burden of the non-causal, interpretivist accounts is therefore to produce a positive account of the productive relation of intention to action that does not invoke the concept of causation. This burden isoften motivated as a point about action explanation: An agent may have manyreasons present to her, each of which would interpret the action by placing it in adeterminate position against the background of our common understanding of whypeople do the things they do, but when we say that an agent acted because of acertain reason, we mean to pick that reason out from the group in virtue of somemore substantial relation between it and the action. As Davidson puts it, “a person can have a reason for an action, and perform the action, and yet this reason not bethe reason why he did it. Central to the relation between a reason and an action it explains is the idea that the agent formed the action because   he had the reason,” and the reason only interprets or makes intelligible the action in virtue of the causal relation that underlies and secures the explanatory ‘because’. iii   The agent’s intention is just that reason that has that causal relation to the action. Now, it should be said that Davidson’s own initial presentation of the causal view is much more concerned with defeating objections than to articulating in detailthe nature of the causal relation between reasons and action. Later, Davidsonhimself noted that “Unavoidable mention of causality is a cloak for ignorance; we must appeal to the notion of cause when we lack detailed and accurate laws .” iv Theappeal of the causal theory is therefore not be located in the subtlety or specificity of   3its analysis of the relation between reasons and action, but rather in the intuitionthat no non-causal analysis of that relation can properly account for it. To act is todo or produce something, and these seem like causal notions. And, in turn, manyhave thought that our best grip on causation is in terms of laws that correlate causeand effect. The problem is, not every causal chain between reasons and actionconstitutes an intentional action. Here is the way Davidson first exemplifies thepoint:A man may try to kill someone by shooting at him. Suppose the killer misseshis victim by a mile, but the shot stampedes a herd of wild pigs that tramplethe intended victim to death. Do we want to say the man killed his victim intentionally  ? The point is that not just any causal connection betweenrationalizing attitudes and a wanted effect suffices to guarantee that producing the wanted effect was intentional. The causal chain must followthe right sort of route. v   Davidson’s example is of an external ly deviant causal chain, where something goes wrong between the agent’s immediate physical movement and the further effect  aimed at in the intention. But the same problem can occur between the intention as a prior mental state and the physical movement. In George Wilson’s example, a waiter who desires to startle his employer by knocking over a stack of glasses isinstead so unnerved by the desire that he involuntarily steps into the glasses,knocking them over and startling his employer. Clearly, the desire caused hisemployer to be startled, but we balk at saying that the waiter intentionally startledhis employer. The biggest difficulty for causal views is therefore to produce a  4criterion for distinguishing non-deviant from deviant causal chains, without whichthe invocation of causation in the relation between reasons and actions remains amethodological commitment rather than the centerpiece of an account.If the primary challenge for causal views is to specify the right  kind  or  form of causation between reasons and actions, the challenge for non-causal views is to givean alternative, substantive account of the relation underlying the explanatory force of the ‘because’ in explanations of the form, ‘A did X because of Reason B.’ vi Now,one might think that this challenge is rather unfair, given how little the causal viewshave been able to say, in detail, about the supposedly nomological relation betweenreasons and actions –   and particularly given Davidson’s own view that there are nolaws that address the former qua reasons or intentions , i.e., as distinctively mentalevents. Then again, here we are, with the intuitions that modern philosophy and itspervasive scientism have given us. But I doubt that our basic, intuitive conception of agency as something productive or broadly causal is scientistic in srcin, even if theinsistence to model such causal relations by natural laws is. The less tendentioussrcin of this intuition in fact comes out in the way that the attempts of non-causaltheorists to meet the challenge end up bringing back in covert references to broadlycausal notions. For example, in the course of his criticism of causal theories of action, Ca rl Ginet argues for thinking of the “ actish   phenomenal quality” of an act  such as mentally saying a word as an intrinsic, rather than causal mark of action. But, Ginet goes on, “The only way I can think of to describe this phenomenal quality is to say suc h things as ‘It is as if I directly produce the sound…, as if I directly makeit occur…” – that is, to use agent- causation talk radically qualified by ‘as if.’” vii So  5both the causal and the non-causal theorist must spell out in some informativedetail the nature of the productivity that characterizes action.Anscombe makes a first attempt in claiming that intention is characterized, at  least in part, by being a kind of ‘knowledge without observation.’ viii This notion haspuzzled many, and Anscombe herself has difficulty clearly articulating it. But there is a different element in Anscombe’s view that appears more promising as a response to the challenge of a positive account rivaling the promissory note issuedby the causal view, and this is the theme of teleology that pokes its head through thedense discussions of  Intention   at points. First, Anscombe claims that “The primitivesign of wanting is trying to get” (§36), which suggests a teleological criterion of  striving or trying for intentional attitudes rat  her than the more negative ‘knowle dge without observation.’ M ore importantly, Anscombe has a wonderfully suggestivetreatment of the relation between different intentional descriptions of action:Are we to say that the man who (intentionally) moves his arm, operates thepump, replenishes the water supply, poisons the inhabitants, is performing  four  actions? Or only one? The answer that we imagined to the question ‘Why?’ brings it out that the four descriptions form a series, A -B-C-D, inwhich each description is introduced as dependent on the previous one, though independent of the following one…[I]f we say there are four actions, we shall find that the only action that B consists in here is A; and so on. Only,more circumstances are required for A to be B than for A just to be A. And far more circumstances for A to be D, than for A to be B…So there is one action with four descriptions, each dependent on wider circumstances, and each related to the next as description of means to end…When terms are relat  ed inthis fashion, they constitute a series of means, the last term of which is, just by being given as the last, so far treated as end. ix  When I explain why the agent acted, my explanation therefore tracks a series of nested goals, each of which brings with it more context through the way that it is connected with the previous goal. So explanation by D (‘He moved his arm in order
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