Representations, Reasons, and Actions
by Daniel A. Kaufman
More and more it seems to me that the way in which philosophy has gone the most wrong is in trying to assimilate human action with the motions of bodies, as understood in the natural sciences. This effort has made a mess of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of action, as well as ethics, and has also led scientists, especially working in the so-called “cognitive sciences,” down any number of empty rabbit holes. It is the product of a more general mistake that I have been talking about recently and that is the effort to reduce the Manifest to the Scientific Image – either wholesale or piecemeal – or simply eliminate it in, leaving the Scientific Image as our sole picture of the world, the motivation for which seems to be a somewhat inchoate and entirely unargued for scientism. One sees this in everything from the efforts to “naturalize” philosophical disciplines like epistemology and ethics to the insistence on monistic, materialist ontologies, which means that one must either reduce or in some way fictionalize anything that cannot be characterized as being “made of” matter or energy and explained in the manner characteristic of the natural sciences.
The trouble, of course, is that the world includes selves and the social and cultural realities that selves create, and neither selves nor social/cultural realities can be rendered or explained within the Scientific Image. The resisting element, it seems to me, is representation and the role that it plays with respect to people’s actions and their reasons for them.
To represent a thing or a state of affairs is to consider it from a particular point of view and under a particular description that depends upon that point of view. One of the things that is notable about this is that representations of things are neither generalizable nor transferable. That I have a certain belief about something, under a certain representation, does not mean that I have the same belief about it under a different one. After watching Madonna’s speech at the Woman’s March that took place in the wake of Trump’s election, for example, I might believe that she is a self-important bore, but it is entirely conceivable that I might not think this of the Material Girl, if I didn’t know that they were the same person. And what is true of beliefs is also true of desires. It may be true that I want something, when represented a certain way, but would not want the very same thing, represented differently. George Orwell, in recounting his time spent fighting in the Spanish civil war, said that he was quite in the mood to shoot “fascists,” but when he saw a man from the opposing side emerge from his trench, pants halfway around his ankles, he found that he couldn’t think of him as a “fascist” and that he was disinclined to shoot him. (1)
In the philosophy of language, the realization that we cannot freely exchange different representations of the same thing is described as a kind of “opacity” that is created in “intensional” – by which is meant representational – contexts. The reason I am highlighting it here, is because W.V. O. Quine, the father of contemporary philosophical naturalism, maintained that this way of characterizing the world is incompatible with natural science, in which explanations are not and should not be dependent upon any particular representation of a thing or an event and thus, on any particular point of view. Hence his effort to purge intensional idioms from the language of science and his insistence on a purely “extensional” semantics, by which is meant one in which every term is substitutable for every other co-referential term, without changing in the truth value of the sentence in which the term appears.
I agree with Quine that the language of natural science is and must be extensional, but draw a very different conclusion from this than he does. Because the language of people and their actions and reasons cannot but be intensional, and because I don’t think that the world of people, their actions, and the social realities they create by way of those actions can be conceived of or treated as “fictions” – indeed, in my view the very suggestion is absurd – natural science is always going to be the wrong framework within which to understand them.
What makes X a reason for doing something is that X is represented as a means to some other thing, Y, that is represented as an end. Doing things for reasons, then, is always teleological, which means that explanations in terms of reasons are always going to be teleological in nature. If I assault someone, it’s because I represent him as a menace, and if I aid someone, it’s because I represent him as deserving of assistance. I do both because I represent the relevant states of affairs – where menaces are removed and those deserving assistance aided – as goods.
This alone should make us realize not just that accounting for actions in terms of reasons is nothing like the explanations that we give of physical motion in terms of causes, but that the role reasons play with respect to actions cannot be causal, at least not in anything like the sense meant in the natural sciences, which have eschewed final causes for centuries, biology notwithstanding. Explanations in biology may be teleonomic, but they do not involve representation and consequently, are not intentional.
Also unlike causes in natural science, the primary epistemic role of reasons is not to predict future actions, but to render them intelligible from the actor’s point of view. When we ask a person for his reasons for doing something, we want to know why it made sense to him. Our interest is not in the action itself, but in his performing it. Whereas the natural sciences provide us with myriad events that are sufficient for subsequent ones and thus of great use in making predictions, our accounts of actions in terms of reasons mainly provide us with intelligible narratives, in which we and others feature, as if we were characters in a story.
An action is an event represented in a certain way and performed by a person for certain reasons. The very same motor movements may constitute entirely different actions, depending upon the relevant representations (including representations of the relevant contexts), which is sufficient to show that actions are not reducible to or identical with mere events. For example, to raise one’s hand is to ask a question, given one set of representations, but given a different set, to raise a hand could be to bid on an item at an auction or to request permission to go to the bathroom.
Actions, then, cannot be assimilated to the “motions” that it is the task of the natural sciences to explain. Rather, they are one part of the intelligible narratives I just mentioned, which also include selves and their reasons for acting. We want to render a person’s actions intelligible from his point of view, in good part, because we want to render both his actions and his point of view intelligible in a larger human story that is valued in good part for its meaningfulness. The understanding sought, then, is much more like that involved when we read literature than of the kind involved when we are engaged in scientific investigation, and this, in my view, is what fundamentally separates the natural sciences from the social sciences and humanities. The former are primarily about the identification of causes, while the latter are primarily about the development of meaningful stories about ourselves and the natural, social, and cultural worlds that we inhabit and which make up “the world,” as conceived in the Manifest Image.
From the 1960’s on, this narrational view of persons, their actions, and the stories into which they figure has been viewed with suspicion as a kind of “epiphenomenalism,” at best, and at worst as nothing more than fiction, obscuring the physical-mechanical “reality” that lay underneath. (2) And it is the supposed intolerableness of this that has led virtually all of analytic philosophy to flock to Donald Davidson and his argument in “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” (1963) that reasons should be understood as causes, in the scientific sense. (3)
It is as a force in opposition to this view that I increasingly see my philosophical work, and especially, my recent emphasis on the reality of agents and actions and of the human narratives in which they figure.
- George Orwell, “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” (1943)
- Giuseppina D’Oro and Constantine Sandis, “From Anti-Causalism to Caualism and Back: A History of the Reasons/Causes Debate,” in their Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Anti-Causalism in the Philosophy of Action (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 7.