Friday, 16 January 2009

Life and Action

Whilst there’s no extended area of high ground in England (unlike Scotland), crossing the country in the north requires crossing the Pennines and this can be quite desolate. Late on Sunday, in the dark and in a storm, my partner and I were surprised by a tree that had fallen, blocking the road and, about a second later, hit it at some speed. The car was a write-off. We were both completely unscathed, however.

I was surprised to find that I still suffered debilitating symptoms of shock (fortunately only for a couple of days). These seemed to fit rather well, interestingly, with what can seem like a dualism at the heart of a Davidsonian picture of the mind between a nomologically causal and a rational pattern of events. So whilst one set of rational considerations turned on my good fortune and the robust nature of modern cars, causally my emotional responses went off on their own disturbing course.

But the unexpected day at home gave me an opportunity to begin to look at Michael Thompson’s new book Thompson, M. (2008) Life and Action: Elementary structures of practice and practical thought, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Here I must admit to some embarrassment. I know nothing about Michael Thompson other than the fact that an essay of his (which appears in this book) is footnoted by McDowell in ‘Avoiding the Myth of the Given’. Thus beginning the book was like arriving at a cinema to see a film the reviews of which one has, astonishingly these days, completely missed.

For the moment the content of the book is a bit of a surprise. The book examines three, in part interrelated, notions: life, action and practice. Jim Conant says on the back (I cheated and looked at that bit) that the account is compelling and stands a chance of transforming the subject. But, if I understand the treatment of life in the first section, it seems a very minimal and rather subtle approach.

Very, very briefly (and with more than my usual caveat), there’s a critical discussion of typical biology textbook accounts of the signs of life (eg: life-forms are organised, are homeostatic, grow and develop, take energy from the environment and transform it etc). But, as Thompson plausibly argues, these signs have to be interpreted in the right sort of way (since, eg., the warming of tarmac is a merely lifeless way of taking energy). In the right way, they are illustrative of a particular kind of process, a vital operation. But whilst stages of the process can be described in, eg., chemical or physical terms (since physics, at least, seems to be able to describe pretty much whatever happens) capturing the process as it expresses life requires seeing a particular form of unity in the right set of events (the events that do not include the intervention of a nuclear bomb, for example).

Bringing that unity into view requires looking to a broader context which frames the subsidiary events. This is the life-form in question. And this thought links to a discussion of the peculiar timeless grammar expressed in utterances such as: “The bobcat breeds in spring” or “As the heat of the summer approaches, the cubs will learn to hunt”. These ‘Aristotelain categoricals’ fit a kind of idealised and functional description appropriate for life-forms.

Well that’s my very rough first understanding of the first third of the book. All very interesting but not in itself what I was expecting, I'd have to say. But I’m waiting with baited breath to see how it will fit first with an outline of a naïve form of action explanation and then finally morally charged practices.

(I return to the second essay here and the third here.)