Practical Knowledge and the Good

There has been much recent work on practical knowledge of action that emphasizes its non-observational and non-inferential character. This essay argues that these theories fail to account for the practical character of such knowledge, and that such
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   " Practical Knowledge and the Good There has been much recent work on practical knowledge of action that emphasizes its non-observational and non-inferential character. This essay argues that these theories fail to account for the  practical character of such knowledge, and that such failure typically stems from a lack of attention paid to the action itself. This essay argues that one must have practical knowledge of oneÕs own actions because acting intentionally is to be engaged in the activity of realizing a self-determined order of reasons, an order that is the constitutive principle of the very event it understands. Since this rational order can be formally displayed as a valid practical argument whose premises show the good of drawing the conclusion, knowledge of this order is also always knowledge of the good. Finally, this account of practical knowledge of action is the necessary action-theoretic foundation for an account of the virtue of practical wisdom. Elizabeth AnscombeÕs  Intention  is a landmark text in twentieth century analytic action theory. As David Velleman famously remarked, however, although  Intention is Òoften quoted,Ó it is Òrarely understood.Ó This essay aims at both a better understanding of AnscombeÕs extraordinary text and a broader account of its value for both action theory and ethics. Its primary thesis is that AnscombeÕs theory of the intentionality of action  just is a theory of practical knowledge, or Òknowledge in intention.Ó While there has been much recent discussion of this variety of knowledge, there has so far not been an account of why it is the  central concept of the book, and arguably, the central concept of practical  philosophy as a whole. This essay aims not only to fill this gap in our understanding of Anscombe, but also, in so doing, to chart a path toward a theory of action that is essentially, rather than accidentally, related to ethics. As a way into this material, consider two well-known and widely discussed theses from  Intention : (1) intentional actions must   be known by the subjects performing them in a peculiarly immediate and non-evidential way, and (2) intentional actions are pursued by   # the subjects performing them Òunder the guise of the good.Ó "  Let us call these familiar claims the knowledge  and the  goodness  requirements on action explanation. Both of AnscombeÕs requirements have come under heavy fire; many argue that not only is it  possible to perform actions intentionally without knowing that one is or without understanding oneÕs action as good (or both), but also that such failures are altogether common in the course of human life. #  Even those who claim to follow the spirit (if not the letter) of Anscombean action theory typically hold to just one of these theses while explicitly rejecting the other. $  For all that has been written about these two requirements, few have noticed that for Anscombe they stand or fall together. On her account, knowing what one is doing and knowing the good of doing it are two aspects of one and the same  practical self-knowledge. The argument of this paper proceeds as follows. In section I, I discuss the central  problem of  Intention , which is the problem of distinguishing intentional from unintentional descriptions of action. AnscombeÕs theory of practical knowledge is a solution to this problem, one that connects intentional descriptions of action with an 1  This phrase comes from David VellemanÕs influential essay critiquing the traditional connection between  practical reasons and the good. See Velleman, ÒThe Guise of the Good.Ó 2  Keith Donnellan and Donald Davidson were early detractors of the knowledge requirement, while Michael Stocker and Gary Watson were early detractors of the goodness requirement. See Davidson, ÒIntendingÓ; Donnellan, ÒKnowing What I Am DoingÓ; Stocker, ÒDesiring the BadÓ; Watson, ÒFree Agency.Ó 3  For example, Kieran Setiya, Michael Thompson, and David Velleman accept knowledge but not goodness, whereas Davidson accepts goodness without knowledge. See Davidson, ÒHow Is Weakness of the Will Possible?Ó; Setiya,  Reasons Without Rationalism ; Thompson,  Life and Action ; Velleman,  Practical  Reflection ; Velleman, ÒThe Guise of the Good.Ó   $ agentÕs practical reasons by conceiving of intentional descriptions as objects of a distinctively practical mode of knowledge. In section II, I argue that the typical or  paradigmatic example of an intentional action is an event whose part-whole structure is constituted by the agentÕs practical thought and reasoning, such that we ought to understand action on the model of self-constitution. Finally, in section III, I argue that the rational order identified in section II is formally displayed in the practical syllogism, which is a representation of the action as the conclusion of a valid practical argument, one whose premises show the good of drawing it. Although it has been largely neglected in the literature, AnscombeÕs discussion of the practical syllogism makes clear that on her account knowledge of the good is internal   to knowledge of action because an agentÕs  practical reasons and will constitute her action. Therefore an agentÕs knowledge of her reasons just is her knowledge of her action, which just is her knowledge of the good in a specifically practical sense; these are all different descriptions of one and the same  practical self-knowledge. This account of practical knowledge is superior to its rivals in the literature  because it unifies the various characteristics that Anscombe attributes to practical knowledge in  Intention . Far more importantly, however, it brings to the foreground the reasons why a theory of practical knowledge is so important in the first place. For if we are inclined to think that living well is, first and foremost, a matter of right practical reasoning, then we will need an account of human life and action according to which  practical reason is internally rather than externally related to it. The theory of action as self-constitution by practical reason provided in  Intention  provides us with such an   % account, and is therefore the necessary action-theoretic ground for an ethics according to which the good life is constituted by practical judgments that are wise. I. Intentional Descriptions, Practical Reasons, and the Knowledge Requirement  A. The specification problem  Let us begin with a starting point that few will want to deny: For any intentional  performance of an action, it is always the case there will be many true descriptions of what the person is doing that are not intentional. For instance, Jones walks into a room and flips a light switch. We can describe this under any number of true descriptions: Jones ÔÔmoves such-and-such muscles,Õ Ôraises his arm,Õ Ôilluminates the room,Õ Ôcasts a shadow on the wall,Õ Ôproduces a clicking noise,Õ Ôwakes up and perturbs the unsuspecting dog,Õ Ôalerts a prowler to the presence of the owner of the house,Õ and so on, ad infinitum. Let us suppose that all of these descriptions of what Jones causes to happen are true; there remains the question of which descriptions are intentional. A theory of action must supply an answer, as both law and morality depend upon some there being some principled way to separate what Jones does as a matter of his practical agency  proper and what he merely effects as a result of his exercise of that agency. 4  Let us call this the  specification problem . 5   4  The distinction will weigh heavily in discussions about the doctrine of double effect. For an in depth discussion of how AnscombeÕs theory of practical knowledge bears on those debates, see [citation removed for blind review]. 5  The specification problem is a problem within action theory, concerning the intentionality of action, but its import is clearly not limited to it. For it is clear that in order to evaluate any action as good or bad, we need to be able accurately to describe what kind of action it is. Suppose that I walk into a room and see someone Ôplunging a knife into SmithÕs thigh.Õ This level of description is not yet specific enough for   & AnscombeÕs account of the intentionality of action is anchored in our practice of asking for and providing practical reasons that both justify and explain what one does. Intentional actions, she argues, are the ones Òto which a certain sense of the question ÔWhy?Õ is given application,Ó where the relevant sense of the question is Òthat in which the answer, if positive, gives a reason for acting.Ó 6  Furthermore, we grasp this Òspecial senseÓ by looking at how we actually deploy and answer the question, and it is within this  practice that Anscombe finds the ground for her knowledge requirement  . Anscombe notes that it is constitutive of the practice of asking for reasons that one must assume some intentional description of what a person is up to. If Smith asks Jones, ÔWhy are you Ôwaking up poor FidoÕ? Smith is assuming that Ôwaking up FidoÕ is an intentional description of what Jones is doing; the connection with the ÔWhy?Õ question depends upon this assumption. Of course, Jones can refuse the ÔWhy?Õ question under that description, but the practice itself clearly presupposes some pre-theoretical notion of intentional descriptions that might be accepted, rejected, or revised by oneÕs interlocutor. Posing the ÔWhy?Õ question can reveal a description to be unintentional when the agent refuses to give the question application under it. Suppose that Smith asks Jones, ÒWhy did you wake up poor Fido?Õ moral evaluation. Am I witnessing someone who is properly described as Ôdefending himself from unlawful attackÕ or am I witnessing someone Ôcommitting murderÕ? It clearly matters to our moral evaluation of the action which of these two candidate descriptions is properly intentional, and a theory of action needs to be able to determine which action concepts are rightfully deployed within this intentional context. 6  Anscombe,  Intention , 9.
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