Wednesday 29 November 2017

McDowell on action and intention #1

As I described in the previous chapter, in Mind and World McDowell offers an account of perceptual experience as both an application of conceptual capacities and so, by a standard he rejects, an apparently non-natural state but at the same time informed by our second nature, and hence natural on the more relaxed conception of nature he outlines [McDowell 1994]. Such is the rapprochement between denying that the space of reasons can be reduced to the realm of law – and hence be naturalised in the manner preferred by reductionist naturalists – whilst at the same time denying that conceptual capacities (and their governing faculty of spontaneity) are non-natural. They are natural in that we, rational animals, can be educated to see the rational demands that the space of concepts or reasons makes upon us. Whilst a subject may not take a perceptual appearance at face value, if they do then the connections between the world, experience and judgement even though seamless are nevertheless conceptually mediated. They are expressions of the subject’s rationality even when there is no conscious deliberation.
Mind and World also offers a thumbnail sketch of the corresponding ‘output’ to reasoning: action. McDowell first highlights the source of the philosophical resistance to the account of perceptual ‘input’ he has sketched:
Now the difficulty concerns not the passivity of experience as such, but its naturalness. The problem is that operations of sensibility are actualizations of a potentiality that is part of our nature. When we take sensing to be a way of being acted on by the world, we are thinking of it as a natural phenomenon, and then we have trouble seeing how a sui generis spontaneity could be anything but externally related to it. But passivity is not part of the very idea of what it is for a natural potentiality to be actualized. So we should be able to construct a train of thought about actualization of active natural powers, duplicating the difficulties I have exploited in the case of passive natural powers. [McDowell 1994: 89]
According to McDowell, philosophical resistance to his account does not concern the potentially problematic idea that conceptual capacities can be passively drawn on in perception but rather the idea that concepts can form part of the natural world on the assumption that they cannot be reduced to a more basic scientific view of the world (abbreviated to the ‘realm of law’). And hence there should be both the same resistance to, but also logical space for, a corresponding picture of how concepts are, rather than passively actualised in perception, actively deployed in action.
He motivates this corresponding account by invoking the same Kantian slogan that he used, at the start of Mind and World, to motivate his account of perception, which weaves together a more obviously natural element of receptivity with an apparently non-natural element of spontaneity.
Kant says ‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind’. Similarly, intentions without overt activity are idle, and movements of limbs without concepts are mere happenings, not expressions of agency. I have urged that we can accommodate the point of Kant’s remark if we accept this claim: experiences are actualizations of our sentient nature in which conceptual capacities are inextricably implicated. The parallel is this: intentional bodily actions are actualizations of our active nature in which conceptual capacities are inextricably implicated. [McDowell 1994: 89-90.]
The final sentence suggests a key idea for understanding McDowell’s subsequent development of an account of action. Actions are not merely the brute causal bodily consequences of inner conceptual activity, they are themselves saturated with concepts. Thus the reworking of the Kantian slogan is supposed to head off a mistaken assumption that divides the mental and conceptual, on the one hand, from the merely bodily, on the other: a dualism of rationality and merely bodily animal nature. McDowell characterises this division as follows:
[S]hut out from the realm of happenings constituted by movements of ordinary natural stuff, the spontaneity of agency typically tries to take up residence in a specially conceived interior realm… [T]his style of thinking gives spontaneity a role in bodily action only in the guise of inner items, pictured as initiating bodily goings-on from within, and taken on that ground to be recognisable as intentions or volitions. [ibid: 90]
In reacting against this picture, McDowell is reacting against the account of action and intentionality popularised in the final decades of the twentieth century by Donald Davidson in papers such as ‘Actions, reasons and causes’ and ‘Intending’ [Davidson 1980: 3-19, 83-102]. According to Davidson, actions are events which are both caused and rationalised by suitable mental states. (More strictly, they are caused by events related to mental states.) In stressing a causal connection, Davidson argued counter to Wittgensteinian arguments that the reasons for actions could not be causes. Thus whilst claiming to be building on the work of the Wittgensteinian philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in her book Intention, his picture of action is fundamentally different [Anscombe 2000].
This difference between the world-pictures of Davidson and Anscombe is set out by Rederick Stoutland in the following outline.
In the Davidsonian picture, the fundamental relations human beings as such— as knowing the world and acting intentionally in it— have to the world are causal… Our acting in the world is… indirect. We act when our beliefs and desires cause bodily movements that cause events outside our body. The movement of our fingers causes the switch to flip, which causes the light to go on, and so on. Whatever we do in the world is the causal result of moving our bodies and limbs, and hence we might intentionally move them without intentionally doing anything in the world beyond our bodies… The Davidsonian picture has its roots in the Cartesian revolution, which conceived of the physical world as consisting only of what plays a role in the new physics, a physics purified of the teleological, intentional, and normative terms of Aristotelian physics. [Stoutland 2011: 19]
That final description reflects the version of naturalism described by McDowell in Mind and World as disenchanting nature. Stoutland summarises Anscombe’s rival pre-modern approach thus:
Anscombe’s picture is different… Action is… direct. To act is not to have one’s bodily movements caused by one’s beliefs and desires; it is to exercise the power to move one’s body directly and intentionally. Further, to exercise that power is not primarily to cause events outside one’s body; it is to perform actions that extend beyond one’s body and its movements. Walking, running, eating, drinking, pounding, skiing, greeting, writing — ordinary bodily activities all — do not consist of bodily movements plus events they cause; they are our moving our bodies in ways that extend beyond them… [Stoutland 2011: 19]
Although there is a significant different in style, to which I will return, McDowell’s account returns to Ansombe’s tradition. The earlier quotation from Mind and World continues:
Here too, we can return to sanity if we can recapture the Aristotelian idea that a normal mature human being is a rational animal, with its rationality part of its animal, and so natural, being, not a mysterious foothold in another realm. [ibid: 91]
Thus the agenda for his subsequent account of action is to set out just such an Aristotelian picture in which concepts are realised not just in prior deliberation about action, as in Davidson’s picture, but in the actions themselves.
This helps to motivate a further choice McDowell makes. In her book Intention, Anscombe writes:
Very often, when a man says, ‘I am going to do such and such’, we should say that this was an expression of intention. We also sometimes speak of an action as intentional, and we may also ask with what intention the thing was done… [I]f we set out to describe this concept, and took only one of these three kinds of statement as containing our whole topic, we might very likely say things about what ‘intention’ means which it would be false to say in one of the other cases... Realising this might lead us to say that there are various senses of ‘intention’, and perhaps that it is thoroughly misleading that the word ‘intentional’ should be connected with the word ‘intention’... Where we are tempted to speak of ‘different senses’ of a word which is clearly not equivocal, we may infer that we are in fact pretty much in the dark about the character of the concept it represents. [Anscombe 2000: 1]
Anscombe thus sets herself the target of shedding light on the concept of ‘intention’ so as to show the complex pattern of usage underlying a univocal concept. Neglecting her emphasis on expression, subsequent philosophy of action has also taken unification to be a challenge. What is the connection between an intention for the future, a ‘prior intention’, intentional action and the interlocking structure of intentions with or for which an action is done? One difficulty is that a prior intention may not lead to an action. The action may be stopped by environmental factors or the agent may change her mind. On one approach, such as Davidson’s, prior intention is taken to be a pure form of intention with its connection to intention in action a secondary task. Given his aim of showing how concepts can structure actions themselves rather than just mental antecedents, McDowell takes intentional action or intentions in action as his starting point. As well as Anscombe and Davidson, he draws on John Searle, Brian 1991, 2003; Searle 1983; Sellars 1966].
One key element of the emerging picture is that it is able to resist at least the first moves of an objection raised by Dreyfus that McDowell falsifies the phenomenology of skilful absorbed behaviour or ‘skilled coping’ [Dreyfus 2005]. Dreyfus objects that McDowell over intellectualises skilful activity by arguing that it is an exercise of conceptually structured rationality. That, according to Dreyfus, presupposes an unengaged, contemplative perspective. As I will describe, McDowell’s central claim is that action, like experience on his account of perception, can be engaged and unreflective whilst nevertheless expressing a conceptually structured rationality.
In the final chapter of this book, I will return to the issue of whether McDowell is right to downplay the distinction between passive actualisations of conceptual rationality in experience and active expressions in action in favour, simply, of the natural or otherwise status of concepts in both cases under the faculty of spontaneity. I will argue, instead, that the account of action looks more philosophically innocent than the developing account of perceptual experience because of this difference between active and passive.
Intention in action
McDowell offers a three-part account of intentions and intentional action comprising:
·         an account of the nature of intentions.
·         a discussion of the connection between intentions, practical reasoning and self-knowledge of intentional action.
·         a discussion of the (right way to express the) content of an intention.
But starting, in this section, with his discussion of the nature of intentions and intention in action is a good way to highlight the parallels with his account of perception. I will describe the second and third element together in the next section.
Intentions in action are a mark of the deliberateness of actions but they can be the result of prior deliberation or practical reasoning or they can be spontaneous. Thus, as Searle comments:
All intentional actions have intentions in action but not all intentional actions have prior intentions. I can do something intentionally without having formed a prior intention to do it, and I can have a prior intention to do something and yet not act on that intention. Still, in cases where the agent is acting on his prior intention there must be a close connection between the prior intention and the intention in action, and we will also have to explain this connection. [Searle 1980: 52-3]
McDowell’s starting point is to aim to give an account of intention in action. But this then generalised into an ‘image of intentions as a kind of continuant whose instances change their shape as time passes’ [McDowell 2011: 16]. Once he has clarified the nature of intentions in action he will connect prior intentions to them through the notion of changes in shape. To shed light on his account, McDowell contrasts it with Searle’s. Taking the example of someone who is standing on a kerb with the prior intention to cross the street when the lights turn green, McDowell summarises Searle’s account thus:
[W]hen she sees the light turn green, that intention – a prior intention, an intention for the future – starts to generate intentions in action. The object of the intention for the future is crossing the street; the objects of the intentions in action that it generates are the limb movements that need to happen if the person is to cross the street. As those limb movements begin, she begins crossing the street. If all goes well, she gets to the other side, thereby completing an action of crossing the street. On Searle’s account, the action is a causally structured complex: its components are, first, the intentions in action that the prior intention began to generate when the agent saw the light turn green, and, second, the limb movements on which the intentions in action are targeted, which the intentions in action will have caused. [ibid: 2]
When one realizes that the time determined for acting by the original prior intention has come (when one sees the light turn green, in my example), the intention that was the prior intention starts to generate, directly, suitable intentions in action, and thereby indirectly to generate suitable limb movements. [ibid: 4]
On this account, the prior intention and the intention in action are distinct psychological entities with the former generating the latter when the time is right. Further, they have distinct contents. The prior intention has as its object or content a future action such as getting to the other side of the road. By contrast, according to Searle, the intention in action concerns subsidiary components of such an action: in this case, limb movements.
McDowell stresses that his own account is simpler and more natural. The key idea is that, rather than there being (at least: see below) two distinct intentions, a prior intention simply becomes an intention in action when the time is right. It changes its shape. Of course, cases of changing one’s mind between forming the prior intention and having the opportunity to execute it have to be excluded. Thus he adds the qualifications ‘provided the agent does not forget the intention, knows the time has come, is not prevented from acting accordingly, and does not change her mind’ [ibid: 3].
To help to make the idea that the same intention changes shape from prior intention to intention in action, McDowell invokes Gareth Evans’ discussion of the changing shape of de re thoughts [Evans 1980]. With the passing of time, the same piece of knowledge can be expressed at one time as: ‘the light is turning green’ and then later as ‘the light just turned green’ and then ‘the light turned green a while ago’. These differences require that the subject keeps track of time, whether informally or with a clock. Such keeping track of events across time mirrors similar structures in keeping track of objects across space reflected in the difference between the thought that ‘this object…’ and the thought, about the same object, expressed as ‘that object…’. If the combination of sameness and difference can be accommodated in those cases (within a neo-Fregean account of singular thought) then the idea of a prior intention simply becoming an intention in action is so much more familiar.
Furthermore, it seems natural to think that the idea of keeping track of things is a feature of an intention in action in another way. In the example of crossing the street, the intention in action remains future directed until the action is complete. At any given point in street crossing, one still intends to get from that point to the far side. Thus, the very idea of acting requires an ability to track the progress of one’s action. ‘Unless one is keeping track of how far one has come, one cannot intelligibly intend to go on from there to the other side of the street’ [ibid: 5]. And hence, the idea of an intention that changes its shape as events are tracked through time seems natural. And hence, again, the idea that the connection between prior intention and intention in action might simply be a matter of the same entity, the same continuant, changing its shape as events are tracked.
Given that McDowell invokes Evans’ analysis of singular thought in order to shed light on the role that tracking plays in action, one might think that the future directed quality of an intention in action is itself a form of de re thought as George Wilson (and to a lesser extent Robert Brandom) suggests [Wilson 1989, Brandom 1994]. But as McDowell argues, this cannot be right because an ongoing action is not yet the sort of particular to which a de re thought can attach. Crossing a street can be interrupted. And thus the intention in action of street crossing can be frustrated. But that does not make it false to say that the intention was to cross the street even if no such crossing actually comes to pass because, for example, blocked by traffic in the second lane. Since actions only become the particulars aimed at on completion, they cannot be the targets of intentions in the way that de re thoughts single out objects. (I will ignore the contrasting case McDowell discusses of activities, by contrast with actions, such as walking where as soon as one is walking, one has walked and hence a de re form of intentionality is possible).
Michael Thompson makes a similar point:
[T]hough the truth of, say, “I baked a loaf of bread” or “I have baked a loaf of bread” entails the existence of an act of baking a loaf of bread with myself as agent, yet, I want to say, the truth of “I am baking a loaf of bread” does not. The situation with the supposed event, or act, of bread-baking is just as it is with the would-be loaf itself: if it is true to say that I have baked a loaf, then it is true to say that there is a loaf that I have baked. We might give it, or each of them, if there are several, a name. But the truth of “I am baking a loaf” does not entail anything of the sort. [Thompson 2008: 134-5]
Both Searle and O’Shaughnessy propose accounts of intention in action which are in one sense more fine grained than McDowell’s. Of the latter’s account, he says:
Now O’Shaughnessy also envisages another set of intentions that would figure in some­one’s crossing a street: intentions directed at moving one’s limbs in the necessary ways. The idea is that these intentions reflect motor skills – not just the ability to make the movements needed for the routine exercise of a skill such as walking, but sometimes a more finely-tuned responsiveness to circumstances, as when one puts a foot down carefully to compensate for an unevenness in the surface. [McDowell 2011: 10]
Rather than multiplying intentions or the components of intentions, McDowell again suggests a role for the notion of changing shape to accommodate the fine grained details of the limb movements, or motor-intentionality that underpins the execution of action. Motor intentions are the shapes taken by the overarching intentions in actions as they realise themselves. One reason for thinking this is that, in general, one does not intend to move one’s limbs as the means to an end of an overall action. One intends the action and then the subsidiary limb movements take care of themselves as a matter of ordinary competence. They are presupposed, just as the tracking of time and the tracking of the progress of actions are presupposed by intentional agency. But the specific movements of limbs are only intentional in so far as they underpin an overall intended action such as crossing the road by walking.
One’s limb movements in walking are surely not intentional under descriptions that involve the specifics of what one does at a given moment with one’s hips and knees. Normally competent walkers do not know what they do when they walk at that level of description. What we can say is, perhaps, that one’s movements are intentional under specifications like “moving as walking requires,” or perhaps “moving as stepping over that obstacle requires.” Ordinary competence in walking determines which movements, described in terms of what one does at the relevant joints, conform to such specifications; that determination is not a task for the practical thinking that intention belongs to. [ibid: 11]
In cases where one adjusts one’s footfall to compensate for an unevenness in the surface, one’s competence in walking further determines the shape of the somewhat indeterminate intention to cross the street. That is not to say that the further determination requires standing back and taking further thought. Nevertheless, the accommodations made are things one intentionally does. This helps to emphasise the way in which intentions are not distinct from actions and hence the unfolding action determines with greater specificity the shape of the overall intention.
Whilst rejecting the need for a multiplicity of intentions marks a contrast between his account and both those of Searle and
Acting physically is exercising motor capacities. And exercising a motor capacity is as such a bodily phenomenon. But according to the dual aspect conception, it is also psychological, and not just in an isolable component but through and through. A psychological concept, expressible by “willing,” applies not to some supposed psychic initiating occurrence, but to the relevant bodily goings-on, those describable as a subject’s exercising a motor capacity, in their entirety. Willing is not something that causally initiates bodily acting and perhaps supervises it from outside. Willing is in the acting, not in the sense that willing is part of an action, but in the sense that “willing” is a characterization of the acting itself, apt for capturing its psychological aspect. [McDowell 2011: 13]
O’Shaughnessy thinks that willing, so understood, is widespread in animal life. By contrast, intending is more restricted, although it does apply outside rational animals. The fine grained apparently purposive behaviour of a cat, for example, merits the description that it is intentionally stalking a bird [cf Anscombe 2000: 86]. Where it exists, such intending is a distinct addition to willing, itself understood as acting viewed psychologically. O’Shaughnessy suggests that it causes the willing. For this reason, he thinks that intentions do not ‘actually enter the precincts of the action itself’ [O’Shaughnessy 1991: 282].
McDowell compares this account of the relation of intention and action with the case of sawing through a tree trunk with the aim of causing the tree to fall. In such a case, the intention remains external to the tree’s actually falling. But surely that cannot be an apt model of the connection between an intention in action and, say, crossing the street?
Instead, McDowell extends the dual aspect theory from willing to intention in action.
Why not conceive intention in action as a special form taken by willing, in animals that are at least, as we might put it, proto-rational?... If intention in action is a species of willing, then, like the willing plain and simple… it can be in action… in an O’Shaughnessy-like sense, that it just is acting, characterized in a way that captures a now more sophisticated psychological aspect that this kind of acting has. [McDowell 2011: 14]
Such a move is akin to the way that the picture of perceptual experience in Mind and World is made to accommodate non-rational (rather than proto-rational as here) animal experience. Rationality structures the perceptual experiences of rational animals. Non-rational animals can also have perceptual experiences. But McDowell argues that the experiences of non-rational animals does not form a pre-conceptual component of the conceptually structured experience of a rational animal. Rather, experience can take these two distinct forms, as distinct species of the same genus. The same goes for sensations such as pain which are conceptually structured for rational, linguistic animals (see chapter 2).
There is an obvious difficulty with this suggestion, however. Whilst ‘proto-rational’ animals such as cats may be describable as acting intentionally, it is rather less plausible to ascribe to them prior intentions such as the intention to stalk the bird when the light turns green. Does not the existence of prior intentions block the idea that intentions in action can be regarded simply as actions themselves under a partly sophisticated psychological – mental – description?
McDowell concedes that such an objection would be difficult to accommodate if the order for accounting for intentions had to start with prior intentions and offer an independent account of them before then connecting that to intention in action, now construed as just a way of thinking about acting. Such an approach would have difficulty with merely proto-rational animals capable of intention in action but not prior intention.
But his alternative is to start with intention in action, now understood as action construed either rationally or proto-rationally, and then build an account of prior intentions, or intentions for the future, for rational animals on its basis. The worry is that because an intention for the future cannot be a redescription of an actual action then, because of the link between the two, neither can intention in action just be an action. But holding onto the idea that an intention in action is an action then a prior intention or intention for the future can be thought of as a ‘potential action biding its time’ [ibid: 15]. Just as a prior intention becomes an intention in action when the time is right (given the qualifications set out earlier) so a potential action becomes an action when its time has come (given the same qualifications).
If rationality can be in bodily activity as opposed to behind it, we have a vivid contrast with a familiar picture according to which a person’s mind occupies a more or less mysterious inner realm, concealed from the view of others. If physical activity can be rationality in action, as opposed to a mere result of exercises of rationality, we have a vivid contrast with the tendency to distance a person’s body from the mind that is the seat of her rationality. [McDowell 2011: 17]
This then is McDowell’s account of intentions: as a species of continuant, which changes its shape through time and the course of an action. As I have suggested, it is broadly in the tradition of Anscombe’s account in Intention of a direct expression of a rational, or proto-rational animal’s power to move its body in a way that manifests conceptual structure. It differs from views in which conceptual activity take place merely in an interior realm leaving actions as mere causal outputs.
But it varies in one significant respect from the way Anscombe sets out her account. As has been argued by Richard Moran and Martin Stone and also by Rachel Wiseman, the emphasis on expression in Anscombe’s account is not an accident [Moran and Stone 2011; Wiseman 2016]. Rather it marks the importance of the linguistic expression of intentions to exemplify their role in iterated rationalising explanations that Anscombe stresses and to which I will turn in the next section. As a result, she approaches intentions not via an investigation of the nature of a particular type of mental state but rather through the use of the concept of intention in a particular style of rational explanation of events.
If one simply attends to the fact that many actions can be either intentional or unintentional, it can be quite natural to think that events which are characterisable as intentional are a certain natural class, ‘intentional’ being an extra property which a philosopher must try to describe. In fact the term ‘intentional’ has reference to a form of description of events. What is essential to this form is displayed by the results of our enquiries into the question ‘Why?’ Events are typically described in this form when ‘in order to’ or ‘because’ (in one sense) is attached to their descriptions… [Anscombe 2000: 84–85].
As Wiseman says: ‘The concept of intention applies in each case to the description and assigns it to a calculative order; it does not apply to some state or property, mental or physical, of a human being.’ [Wiseman 2016: 161]. In accord with this approach, Anscombe argues that expressions of prior intentions should not be understood to report a present tense mental state but rather a species of prediction for the future but made, as I will discuss in the next section, on the basis of practical rather than theoretical reasoning.
Michael Thompson also warns against construing intentions as mental states [Thompson 2008]. His argument depends on two key claims. The first is the priority of a naïve action theory of the form: I am doing A because I am doing B over the sophisticated form: I am doing A because I want (or intend or am trying) to do B. The second has a move to the interior and is generally (and wrongly) supposed to be explanatorily prior. The second is the importance of the imperfective aspect of: I am doing A. As noted earlier in this section, it does not follow from the fact that I am doing A that there is any completed or perfected act of doing A to which to refer. Thompson argues that this imperfective form is the basic form of action explanation and, as I will describe in the next section, this fits McDowell’s account of the content of intention (eg. I am crossing the road). From this, however, Thompson argues that intentions are hardly mental states.
Intention and wanting are states only in the thinnest possible sense, the sense in which a thing’s falling under any predicate, or at least any tensible predicate, might be characterized as its “being in a state”. Though the distinction between “The tree is falling over” and “The tree was falling over” is one of tense, yet we resist thinking of these propositions as representations of states in any emphatic sense, for the simple reason that they are internally related to a third, “The tree fell over,” in which their content is, as I put it, uncoiled; this places our thoughts in a radically different categorical space, the space of kinēsis, if you like, and not of stasis. But “He was doing A intentionally,” “He is doing A intentionally” and “He did A intentionally” evidently constitute a triad of just that type (though its elements fit it especially to the representation of rational life), and so also, on the present conception, do “He intended to do A,” “He intends to do A” and “He did A intentionally”. [Thompson 2008: 133-4]
The fact that both Anscombe and Thompson develop accounts of intention both similar to and influential on McDowell’s but both pitch them in a formal rather than material mode – talking of the concept of intention and its patterns of explanation rather than the nature of intentions – may form the grounds of a kind of ad hominem worry about McDowell’s own talk of intentions as continuants that change their shape. This might buttress an antecedent worry about the ontological status of prior intentions as actions waiting to happen. What sort of thing is such a still waiting action?

But this connection to Anscombe and Thompson can be taken the other way. Without the assumption that mental particulars are states of inner space, a view McDowell has done much to undermine (see chapters 1 and 4 in particular), there is no intrinsic danger in speaking of the nature of intentions as a species of continuant, a process described under a rational aspect, resisting any temptation then to think of this as a mental state. Characterising them further, however, requires looking in more detail at the kind of reasoning involved in forming prior intentions and in intentional action.