The deadline for submissions to the Pacific APA either having passed recently, or being about to pass soon, or as I finally publish this actually having passed some time ago, and I realizing that I would therefore be completely unable to both write and submit the paper I was too-idly contemplating, I thought it might at least be a nice idea to write, here, a description of the general plan, and that then became the more general related thought that it would be nice, in fact, to write up a description of My Philosophical Interests, Such As They Remain To Me, tied or not to any particular (actual or, let's be honest, theoretical) writing project. This thought was given added something, I don't know, not urgency; perhaps piquancy or … mental heft, or something, when toward the end of September an ad was posted announcing an Ass't Profship at Stanford one of whose AOSes was that rare bird, the philosophy of action. (Reader: the question of whether I should apply did, absurdly, cross my mind.) But this is meant to be more a stock-taking, and a pretty loose one at that. (So loose, in fact, that I dribbled it out intermittently over the course of over a month, and finally just decided to stop, rather than bringing it to a tidy, much less complete, end. Apologies, faithful readers, for the no doubt great incoherence.) And some of these are far more ambitious than others, as will be clear.
The commonest thread through the most—not necessarily articulated in them—is the defense and articulation of a stridently [sic] non-"naturalist" conception of agency carrying with it more first-person authority than is likely to strike many as strictly plausible.
Well, first of all, the paper whose salient nonexistence prompted this project. (This is likely to be the most detailed entry on this list, since it was most recently and most detailédly on my mind.) Having reread a bunch of early Davidson a couple of months ago, I was reminded, or so I thought, of an argument about the incompatibility of anomalous monism with Davidson's rejection of scheme/content dualism. I thought the argument was made in "Anomalous Monism: Oscillating between Dogmas", but on reviewing that paper I couldn't really make it out again. (I can find the point at which the argument I thought I remembered would come. But the argument that does come isn't what I thought I remembered, and is pretty sketchy.) But in attempting to reconstruct the argument I thought I remembered I came up with one that seemed worth pursuing, assuming I haven't just failed to remember the actual place I read it.
The crux in both cases (i.e., both the Synthese paper's actual argument, and my reconstruction) is that there's at a minimum something fishy about Davidson's assurance that to a given mental event, such as an action or a course of deliberation, there corresponds precisely a physical event. (Or, and I don't think this helps but it is more Davidsonianly correct, that the selfsame event that has a description also has a purely physical description.) It sure seems as if this is edging us toward recognizing an event independent of but susceptible to multiple descriptions—a bit of content schematizable physically or mentally, is the charge. The question is making it stick; the Synthese paper seems to conclude at the point where it should be applying the glue. Having mentioned the Synthese paper on Facebook, Daniel asked why Davidson couldn't simply do what Anscombe does, in "Under a Description", when faced with the question "what is the action that answers to all these different descriptions?" and repeat one of the descriptions. I'm not sure he can, though, and it's also not obvious to me what Anscombe means to be doing when she thus answers. "Under a Description" is stranger than I remembered it; for instance, and connected with the preceding puzzlement, I would have guessed that in answer to the question "how many actions does N.N. perform when he moves his arm, startles a fly, threatens X.'s queen, etc.?" not to be "one", but in the paper she evidently thinks that the answer is one (under the inferred circumstances of the question, namely the case in which there is one bodily movement). So, you know, I wanted to inquire into what kind of answer the one suggested for Davidson is for Anscombe, and what it would have to be for Davidson. The bit of "Under a Description" where Anscombe scoffs at the sensibility of a question such as "how many things are here?" absent further specification of how one is meant to group, well, things into things was, I thought, going to be important here, not least because it was the justification for the title I thought I would use, namely "Which Events are Events?", in honor of Hornsby's "Which Physical Events are Mental Events?".
I am cleverly omitting most of the details here because I want to be sure that I continually forget them and have to remember them afresh, rather than ever developing them.
I mean, what is called awkwardness? Already over two years old; I still think I should do something more with this. Lee Konstantinou's observation that the entire first half can be dropped is sound, but I couldn't figure out (not that I tried very hard) how to get an entry into the subject without it. More generally on Cavell and sociality; both Diamond's "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy" and Gustafsson's "Austinian Examples and Perfect Pitch" being Leitfaden for me, though I persist in thinking that the second errs in its understanding of "the whirl of organism" and why, precisely, that's supposed to be terrifying.—All this stuff is freshly on my mind as a result of reading The Religion of Existence, in the course of doing which Cavell came occasionally to mind as someone with similar, albeit modulated in expression, concerns, related both to the possible grounding of one's projects and existence and how one might react to the relevant revelations. (Possibly a superficial or fantastic similarity.)
The most successful part of the philosophy and literature course I taught at UCSB, all these years ago, was, I think, the sequence of Cavell ("Aesthetic Problems", "Music Discomposed"), Davidson and more Cavell ("What Metaphors Mean" and "Excursus on Wittgenstein's Vision of Language", respectively), and Danto (the two "Works of And Mere …" chapters from Transfiguration of the Commonplace), Danto also having been accompanied by a bit of Ern Malley. (Though I think the most successful single meeting was the one concerned with "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy", several meetings later, though that obviously has its Cavellian bits. Actually there was a lot of good stuff on that syllabus. I recall thinking, in teaching "Fearing Fictions", that I had finally figured out exactly where it went completely off the rails.) I would like to delve more into Cavell's aesthetics, especially since having learned at the 2016 PacAPA how non-mainstream it seems to be.
I am similarly interested in Cavell (and the more recent Stroud!) on skepticism, and what (in different ways) they refer to as "the truth in skepticism", and, what I think is connected to that, how to conceive of progress in philosophy. Connected because it seems to me that for Cavell one truth of skepticism is: technical problems you may not always have with you, but skepticism you will always have with you. This seems right to me, because there is something there, just not what it's theorized as being, but it also isn't clear that argument (anyway, as analytic philosophers like to conceive of it, in the main) is the way out of the mistheorization, and a phenomenon that attaches to a lot of philosophical problems. (Cavell on skepticism is, in a lot of ways, like Cavell on art, and I think that's one of the reasons that his general take is so submerged, in favor of approaches that at least purport to give nice neat answers. (Ontological approaches, for instance, or institutional ones that offload work.) Whereas Cavell insists that it's just inherently problematic and contested, and there's no easy resting place to be had. "But is it art?" you will always have with you, too. Ethics, too. "Oh, great, now we know how to live and don't need to worry about that anymore"—no matter how advanced our practical ethics, that isn't going to happen, at least not because of the study of ethics. So, like, what are we doing? A further metaphysical question pertains to what we're doing day to day: the ideology seems to be that we're trying to convince each other of things. But I doubt that people really are convinced of much except what precise position to take within the larger affiliations that remain unchanged.)
Behavior and intentional action. This somewhat flows into the below, and is perhaps really just an aspect of it, but let's consider it separately, shall we? I claim that there is a strong tendency to act (and to philosophize, as a kind of acting!) as if, as much as possible, episodes wherein (the circumlocution you are about to read is part of the point; I don't want to commit to any particular characterization of the episode) a person originates, in some sense, or in the same sense refrains from originating, a change, which are also episodes that are broadly interesting or significant, are intentional, or are to be called be some other term that is, let's say, maximally agency-involving. For instance, a twitch, or even a bit of finger-drumming, likely count as changes initiated by a person (I'm saying "person" rather than "agent" here deliberately!), but are probably not apt to be described even by the most zealous philosopher as intentional. But the maintenance of conversational distance with a partner who has different standards about how far apart to stand (so that one keeps approaching or backing off during the conversation) has been put to me as intentional, and it's barely more interesting. Correspondingly, if one says of some such thing that one does not consider it intentional, one is often taken as dismissing it in some sense, as if, having classed some performance as not intentional, one were saying that it held no philosophical interest. This strikes me as quite strange (surely the not exactly recent resurgence of interest in virtue in ethics should have gotten us used to the idea that there's much more than their intentional actions that matters in a person's history?), but I've seen it with my own eyes on several occasions. I had, in my dissertation, to say a little about this kind of thing—both conversational distance and a decidedly more interesting in terms of personal history but not I think different in kind case (the breakup of a romantic relationship)—in my dissertation, but not enough; it would be nice to have a more robust story about sub-intentional and habitual actions, and the category of "behavior" that doesn't rise to the level of intentional action. (Of course, there already are examples of such things. The one that comes most readily to my mind is O'Shaughnessy on sub-intentional action but I doubt that's indicative of the state of the art.)
I suspect there's pressure to over-ascribe intentionality from two sorts of opposed philosophical inclinations. When my advisor, a somewhat classical causal theorist of action, pressed the example of conversational distance on me, part of his reason for doing so was that retreating in response to encroachment or encroaching in response to retreat is a complex, controlled undertaking, apparently performed "for reasons" (I am discomfited and wish not to be; backing up will remove my discomfiture; let me back up). On causal theories in general there's no reason to think that agents will often or normally be aware of their reasons and it looks as if everything's all lined up for the application of the theory. On the other side, if you have a McDowell-esque sort of position, you're probably used to making the observation that the fact that rational and non-rational animals both engage in superficially similar behaviors (here using the term neutrally) doesn't mean that the accounts for those behaviors are the same in each case, and that reason can be involved in the rational-animal case and not in the other. For such a person, saying "ok but here reason doesn't enter into it (in an intentionalness-adding way)" might look like special pleading, absent some really good story.
Concomitant with which, I remain interested in basic, skillful, and habitual actions—I have written a little on these, albeit largely destructively, targeting Michael Thompson and Doug Lavin; it would be nice to write something more positive.
Since, as I was working on my dissertation, Anscombe happened to be having a renaissance, and her take on practical knowledge more and more explored and taken seriously by more and more people (including, somewhat to my annoyance, by John McDowell, pushing an account that I thought was really a lot like mine, not at all unsurprisingly), I clearly needed to come up with another, even more heterodox position to espouse, and I think I've found it in the denial of most unconscious phenomena as those tend to be conceptualized; I have tended to express this as simply denying that there are unconscious desires, but I'm willing to extend it pretty broadly (and definitely no unconscious phenomena intimately related to rationalagency, e.g. deciding or deliberating). All that I've actually produced in this direction is around ten thousand (!) mildly directionless words, half-ish concerning David Finkelstein (written between 2012, and, I'm somewhat surprised to discover, early 2015, though it looks as if that was just shuffling stuff around and the last real work was in late 2014) and my belief that there was some reason, which I don't think I was ever able to successfully specify, that his willingness to acknowledge unconscious intentional attitudes played poorly with the rest of his story in Expression and the Inner, and half-ish concerning some putative examples of learning of an unconsciously held mental state (especially the bafflingly popular case of learning of one's love for another); and several blog posts about Krista Lawlor's paper on "Knowing What One Wants". (Also this post, though it's less directly on point.)
This is obviously super ambitious as a project, and I'm not sure I know how I would actually undertake it were I to attempt it (I'm quite confident it could not be carried out competently given my present employment); it's almost the case that the most positive thing I can say on its behalf is that I don't believe I've yet encountered a putative example of unconscious desire that can't be otherwise accounted for, which would be fine, sort of, if "no unconscious desires" were the generally accepted default position that had to be defended against other comers. But indeed the situation is precisely the opposite and the onus is on me. One needs, to carry out this project, a positive picture of the nature of desire and what we're up to in talking about desire, appealing to or attributing desire, etc. (Akeel Bilgrami has a paper—or had, I think I read it in draft on his website and it's possible nothing came of it—about speaker meaning and whether a speaker might be ignorant of it, he denying this possibility, part of which involved asking, well, why is "speaker meaning" even a thing we care about? why do we talk about it at all, and could the concept serve if speakers might be ignorant of their speaker meaning? Of course any attempt to directly port such a line of thought over to desire will founder on the shoals, since everyone will claim that there are lots of things we do with desire-talk and plenty of them can be carried out with respect to unconscious desires. Nevertheless I found Bilgrami's paper refreshing. The question is whether the selfsame concept is invoked in all these cases, anyway.)
Since, however, I recognize the reasonableness of the question "but why would you believe such a strange thing?", here are a couple of considerations, the first of which is explanatory but not, you know, cogent, and the second of which is really only supposed gesture toward opening the question: if you are going to cite beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. as parts of action-explanation and as parts of what gives actions their natures (as being φings, etc.), and you quite reasonably are not going to insist on anything like conscious (= occurrent, in this context) rehearsals of reasons or reasonings, then it sure looks as if, if all these things can be unconscious, it will be possible for an intentional-qua-φing action to be undertaken and the agent not know it under the description φing, which, if you think that when an agent performs an intentional action, she knows nonobservationally that she's performing it, is a problem, and you need to have something to say about that possibility. And I think that! Perhaps one can build one's account of practical reasoning such that the attitudes can be unconscious in the sense that's more robust than merely not being present objects of awareness but the reasoning can't be like that; maybe not. (Frankly I think if you're going to make that stick you've probably gone most of the way to making the more general claim anyway.) But that's a sort of explanation for why I might find myself in this boat in the first place. (This is the same sort of reason why I had to address the very idea of a causal theory of action in my dissertation—not that I wasn't already set against them, but they were specifically relevant because, if you've got an account whereby an action is just the upshot of certain sorts of causes, there's really no reason to think that the causation will ever be accompanied by knowledge, without a lot of extra machinery.) Here, then, is the second: suppose you take a person acting in a way that generally leads others to ascribe an unknown desire to them, and you take a person who has a sort of canonically consciously known and avowable desire. By what right do we say that each of these people has one of the same kind of thing, different only in whether and how it's known? Perhaps you're some kind of functionalist and you claim to observe the ascribed/avowed items playing the same role in the agents' mental lives. I'm not some kind of functionalist—it really does depend on how you conceive of natures of mental things!—but even if you are, it's striking that people to whom unconscious desires and people with ascribable desires with the same content do not generally act similarly. So, in general, it's my strong suspicion that when we flesh out the answer to the question "why do we call both of these phenomena a person's desiring something?", we'll end up with an overall picture of mental life that I want to reject. (This is now nearing the specific issue that I thought was lurking somewhere for Finkelstein, having to do with what we were supposed to make of an unconscious desire of which someone becomes conscious, meaning not merely aware of it as a third person can be, but able to avow it—what, for him, is the nature of a desire such that it can be unavowable and unconscious, and then become avowable? Shouldn't there be an expressivist story about that? How's that happen?)
There is a peculiar phenomenon I have observed when expressing some of these beliefs, which is that they are ruled out of order, because, if you hold them, you will think you know the answer to certain questions which are held to be puzzling. (This is a somewhat tendentious characterization.) E.g., recently in response to the question whether it's possible for a person to make a decision unconsciously, or in ignorance of his or her having decided, I replied that I believed the answer to be "no", because—this is admittedly a trivial answer!—well, because I don't believe a decision is the sort of thing that can be made, or as one might rather say in such a situation take place, and the decider be ignorant. Admittedly: someone saying this had better have something to say about what they take decisions to be, and why other phenomena which bring a divided mind to unanimity don't count as decisions. The replies I received, however, were not concerned with whether I could provide that something more; they were concerned with the fact that my response rendered the question uninteresting. This is strange twice over: first because no question has the right to be considered interesting, just because it can be posed; second because in advance of an understanding of what a decision is the question can't be adjudicated, and once you have one who's to say whether the question will be nontrivial? One might think a "decision" is whatever it is that brings one from multiplicity to singularity of mind, and include within it such phenomena as falling asleep torn between two options and waking up to find that one of them has simply lost all its appeal—in that case the answer is "yes", directly, and the question is again uninteresting.
- Oh almost forgot (did forget, in fact), also Nietzschean moral psychology, but not, I think, as that's commonly meant, more like "Romantic irony and". (But it connects to as that's more commonly meant, or so I suspect; basically, I'd like to firm up the things I gestured at in the piece that, as I still can't quite believe, was published in the JNS.) Also on the moral-psychological tip it would be interesting to see if I could articulate coherently why I came to find Frankfurt's writing on autonomy and and that of those following in his wake distasteful. "Distasteful" is not obviously a philosophical objection!