Monday, 5 November 2007


I’d meant to spend Sunday afternoon catching up with various things I need to read, including Lennart Nordenfelt’s Rationality and Compulsion (OUP 2007) but went instead for a walk along the low ridge of hills that encloses Kendal from the West in part to try to work out why I’m just not getting on with that book.

Lennart is a charming fellow whom I met when he visited Warwick a few years ago. His style is almost self-consciously old-fashioned. He must be the last person left who describes his own linguistic-analysis-based approach to philosophy as ‘logic chopping’. There is a pleasing rigour to his approach to philosophy of psychiatry which is built upon an analysis of action, not a million miles from Bill Fulford’s work.

The new book is divided into two halves. The first summarises his approach, expressed more fully in two other books, to the philosophy of action. The second half, which I will probably enjoy more, applies this to mental illness. My qualm has something to do with the atmosphere, rather than the analysis itself, of the first half. What sent me off on my walk yesterday was the third of three niggles.

1) In what may be a throw-away remark, Nordenfelt suggests (p78) that a want to do F is a disposition to form an intention to do F. (Actually, he suggests a want is a disposition and then in the next sentence he says that if one wants F then ipso facto one will have a disposition to form the intention, which isn’t quite the identity hinted at. But I assume that is what he means.)

I think that there’s something wrong with that claim though I’m not sure I have a knock down argument. What is plausible is that if I want to do F then I will be disposed to intend to do it. (Contrary wishes may block me forming the intention to act but not negate the disposition.) But might a want just be a disposition to intend? Suppose I have a longstanding wish to be agreeable to friends when visiting them and fall in with their plans but that I have no idea what sort of thing they will want to do. If, over breakfast, they suggest we go to see the Warhol exhibition, this suggestion will, in the context, determine what I agree to, and thus intend to do. Nothing has changed about my character over breakfast - changing one’s dispositions to intend is akin to learning to like English beer which slowly transforms one’s behaviour in pubs - so my dispositions to intend are, I assume, the same as they were. Thus, in some sense, I already had the disposition to intend to see Warhol and thus had that want. But that is not something I even could have been aware of. (One might say: the genuine want at work is the longstanding want to be agreeable and it is this which selects seeing Warhol, when that is suggested. But the challenge is to derive this from the dispositions in play not to impose it on them.)

Actually, the fact that I’m trying to find an objection suggests my real qualm is deeper. It is that wants can be the sorts of things that one offers as reasons for one’s intentions. My long-standing wants concerning pizza will help rationalise my intentions to act when the new Kendal Pizza Express opens next month. But that rational answerability seems to be missing from a merely dispositional analysis.

2) More surprisingly, Nordenfelt comments at the start of the book (p4) that actions are abstract (like the number 4) and thus cannot be observed ‘with the senses’. This is surely a startling claim, seeming to undermine the very idea of witnesses to criminal acts, for example, but I’ve not been able to find much defence of it yet. I guess that the argument for it may start with the idea that actions are behaviour plus mental states and couple this with a Cartesian assumption that others’ mental states cannot be perceived with the senses. But it seems to me that the conclusion is sufficient to cast doubt on the Cartesian assumption, not the other way round.

3) The third niggle was especially striking in the context of also reading Matthew Ratcliffe’s book (mentioned before on this blog) criticising the idea that interpersonal understanding is a form folk theory. It is worth quoting Nordenfelt’s account of understanding other people’s action at length:

“What does it mean to answer the question ‘what is this?’ in relation to actions? Assume that two persons (A and B) witness the occurrence of a behaviour performed by a man C. Assume that they witness C is waving his hand. A asks B what is going on.
B’s first task is to identify the performance as an action in the first place. The context is not legal, so B can wholly concentrate on the issue of intentionality. Does this behaviour issue from some intention of C’s? B’s task is one of interpretation. The answer is not self-evident since the intention in question, being a mental event, is not observable. B has to find evidence for assuming the existence of the intention. Different methods for this exist. If C is approachable for questioning one can simply ask him what he is doing. This is a recommendable procedure in many instances. However, it is not waterproof. C may lie about his intentions… A second task is therefore to put C’s behaviour in a context. Where does the waving take place? Is there a human being in the neighbourhood to whom the waving can be directed? Is there anybody else doing the same thing as C?
Further observation by B may detect the following circumstances. C is standing together with a number of other people, all waving their hands, in front of a building. In a window on the upper floor of the building a man is standing looking at all the people outside. It is evident that the group outside are calling this person’s attention to something. Thus, the primary question can be answered: C’s behaviour is intentional. It is an action.
Preliminarily, B can now identify C’s action as an action of waving.” (p69-70)

This strikes me as a very odd view of understanding. If one had to do all this work merely to understand that C is a part of a crowd waving, one would be a very unusual kind of person. It is, I think, a mad view.

Now, of course, it may not be an account of everyday phenomenology but rather a reconstruction of how, if challenged, one might justify one’s normally seamless understanding. But that is not how it is presented and I fear that by starting with such an ‘alienated’ conception even a piece of reconstructive epistemology will be misleading.

My worry, in other words, is that the dryness of a kind of analytic philosophy may not merely be an impediment to its popularity but may also distance it from the very phenomena it is trying to understand.