Brian O'Shaughnessy's "Trying and Acting" argues that there is at least one species of mental action that differs from bodily action in a fundamental respect. According to O'Shaughnessy, when we assert 'A did x', where x is a bodily action, we imply that there was an event which was "the active generation of x," an act of willing or trying which is not identical to, but rather the cause of, A's x-ing. Something similar holds for certain sorts of mental action: if I try to remember a name, and succeed, then my remembering the name is presumably an event caused by my trying to remember. But, O'Shaughnessy maintains, there are also kinds of mental action to which this analysis does not apply. If I voluntarily talk (inwardly) to myself or imagine raising my arm, there is no distinction between my act of willing and an event my willing produces. Rather, in such cases, the willing just is the acting. So, O'Shaughnessy concludes, not all willings are tryings-to-produce; we must leave room for a form of willing which is internally, non-productively active.
O'Shaughnessy's discussion suggests that a consideration of mental action should lead us to distinguish two fundamentally different forms of being active, one of which has a productive structure, while the other is not ordered toward producing some result. Interestingly, two other papers in the collection arrive at similar conclusions, albeit from quite different angles. Pamela Hieronymi's "Two Kinds of Agency" argues that if we assume that certain attitudes held by a subject "embody her answer to some question" (for instance, that my belief that p embodies my answer to the question whether p, and that my intention to φ embodies my answer to the question whether to φ -- claims that Hieronymi has defended in other work), then we should also recognize two distinct kinds of agency that a subject can exercise with respect to her own attitudes. On the one hand, she can sometimes exercise managerial control over them by intentionally taking means to influence them in ways that serve her purposes, much as she can intentionally influence objects in her environment in ways that serve her purposes. But, Hieronymi argues, a subject also exercises a different and more fundamental sort of control over her attitudes in virtue of being able to reconsider her answer to the questions to which they embody answers. This evaluative control differs in important respects from other forms of agency: it does not involve the ability to alter one's attitudes in whatever way one wills, and it is not exercised from a reflective, distanced standpoint, with the aim of producing a certain effect on the attitude in question. Nevertheless, Hieronymi argues, evaluative control should count as a form of agency; it is simply a different form from the managerial variety, which we find more familiar because of its prominence in the bodily case.
Thomas Crowther's "Perceptual Activity and the Will" also argues for the existence of a form of mental agency whose structure is not productive/manipulative. The case he considers is quite different from O'Shaughnessy's or Hieronymi's: not active imagining or attitude-formation but the kind of active perceptual attending involved in listening to something or watching something. Crowther argues persuasively that listening to O is not analyzable in instrumental terms, as a matter of performing a task whose goal is hearing O. Listening to O -- in contrast to listening out for O -- is not an activity that terminates with hearing O, for if one is listening to a songbird, for instance, one does not merely aim to have heard it at some moment, but to hear whatever sounds it makes over some period of time. Crowther concludes that the relation between listening-to and hearing is not productive; rather, listening to O is a matter of actively maintaining or sustaining aural contact with O, an activity of keeping oneself in a position to hear, not of bringing hearing about.
I found this to be an especially thought-provoking trio of papers. What they suggest, to me at least, is that what we first and foremost need is not a theory of action that applies to mental as well as bodily cases, but rather a more searching investigation of what different forms of "being active" are possible, and of the logical or metaphysical distinctions among them...
Friday, February 19, 2010
Forms of "Being Active"
An interesting excerpt from Matthew Boyle's NDPR review of Lucy O'Brien and Matthew Soteriou (eds.), Mental Actions: