Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: Actions, Reasons, Causes … and Ends

by Daniel A. Kaufman


I’ve been saying that I’d like a return to philosophical “normalcy,” meaning that I’d like us to stop indulging what I’ve been calling, alternatively, “crazy” and “desperate” philosophical positions: Panpsychism; Hard Determinism; Eliminative Materialism and “Illusionism”; Platonism; Mind/Body Dualism; and so on.

I’m running an ongoing series of conversations with Crispin Sartwell alongside these prolegomena, the first one of which just posted. Crispin holds a number of the positions I’m calling “crazy” and “desperate” – he seems to be a hard determinist, for one thing – and asked me for further clarification with regard to these labels, beyond what I’ve said already, in the first three installments.

Clearly the terms are prejudicial, as are the views I am expressing in these prolegomena. This is true of all philosophy – is there anyone still who seriously thinks philosophical accounts are not expressions of the philosopher’s temperament, preconceptions, and scruples to one degree or other? – though it is not always put so bluntly.  (I am reminded of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s characterization of overly polite religious disputes by way of an imaginary conversation that went, “Hi, my ridiculous superstition is Christianity. What’s yours?”)  These are views that I want very much to avoid and which I think are terrible for philosophy. But, if someone is inclined towards them, my critique is unlikely to be compelling. I am under the strong impression, however – not least because of what the purveyors of these views say in their own articles and books – that many feel themselves forced into these positions, and part of the purpose of these prolegomena is to show why that’s not the case.

That said, I also think that there are good non-personal reasons for steering clear of these positions and positions like them. For one thing, they are controversial to a degree and in a way that renders them unlikely ever to be resolved, and though I’ve suggested on several occasions that philosophy suffers from widespread indeterminacy generally, I see no reason to increase it. For another, a substantial majority of them represent a significant affront to common sense and ordinary ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. Now, some may want to argue that common sense and ordinary ways of speaking can be wrong, which is of course true, but as I said to Crispin in our conversation, I don’t see how it can be true “all the way down.” Unlike natural science, whose conditions of adequacy lie in making accurate predictions, the only possible conditions of adequacy for a philosophical theory lie in common intuitions and ordinary language. Otherwise, as Stanley Rosen put it in his essential “Metaphysics in Ordinary Language,” there would be no way of distinguishing ordinary from extraordinary speech and philosophy would devolve into a kind of poetry. And saying that they play this role – that they serve as conditions of adequacy – doesn’t turn common sense and ordinary language into axioms or epistemic foundations or anything of the sort. Nor does it imply that they are necessary, infallible or any other such thing.


I have indicated a number of assumptions – many of them venerable and widely held – that push us towards the “desperate” and “crazy” views on which I’ve been focusing, and I’ve already discussed one of them, namely the hypostatic conception of ontological commitment. In this installment, I want to discuss another – and probably the second most important – and that is the idea that reasons are causes. More specifically, that when we say something like, “John went to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls and believed he would find girls at the mall,” we are using ‘because’ in the same way we do when saying things like, “the 8-ball went into the corner pocket, because it was struck by the cue ball.”

The idea, then, is that our reasons for acting should be taken straightforwardly as causes of those actions, in the same way that antecedent events may serve as causes of subsequent events, in what I’ll broadly refer to as “mechanics.” Of course, this depends on the further identification of actions with events, and it is this identification when combined with the view that reasons are causes that gives us all of the problems that we refer to under the umbrella of “free will.” These, then, lead us directly to “crazy” and “desperate” philosophical positions that are supposed to solve that problem, whether Radical Libertarianism (we are uncaused); Hard Determinism (we have no agency); and so on, with all the problems to which they subsequently give rise, especially in the area of ethics.

Now, those who are familiar with my work know that I think that (a) actions are not identical with events, (b) reasons are not causes, and (c) that we have agency.  What I want to do here is develop these ideas in greater depth.

It would seem clear that actions are not merely events, and specifically that that they cannot be identical with bodily movements.  After all, the very same bodily movements may constitute entirely different actions, depending on both the intentions of the actor and the context in which the bodily movements occur, against a backdrop of certain common understandings within a community or larger society. If a student raises a hand in my wife’s high school English class, he is asking a question or making a request – usually to go to the bathroom – but if I am standing curbside in New York City and raise my hand in the face of the oncoming traffic, I am hailing a taxi. And if my arm shoots up in precisely the same manner, as the result of an errant muscle spasm, I haven’t done anything at all, in the relevant sense of ‘doing’.

Consider, after all that if, in the first case, my wife had called a taxi for the student, there is a clear sense in which she would have made a mistake. If, in the second case, someone had told me that I can go to the bathroom, he also would have made a mistake. And if, in the third, anyone had responded in either of these ways – or in any other like them – they would have made a mistake too. The first two mistakes involve misidentification as to which action I have performed, and the third mistake involves thinking that I’ve acted at all.

Actions consist of bodily movements, under interpretations that belong to a larger narrational structure whose logic is teleological, not mechanical. The student raises his arm in my wife’s class in order request permission to go to the bathroom, the doing of which he represents as a good. The same with raising my arm on the street corner in order to hail a taxi, the accomplishing of which I represent as a good (instrumental to the fulfilling of the desire to get to a specific place, the accomplishment of which is also represented as a good). And it’s because of these reasons and ends that these motor movements are interpretable as actions in the first place, as well as being interpretable as the specific actions that they are.

In seeking explanations of what someone has done, everything depends on what we are trying to understand. If I want to know how it is that people’s arms go up or their legs carry them onto and off of buses and in and out of malls, the relevant explanations are going to be neurophysiological and consequently, causal. But if I want to know why a boy got on the bus so that he might arrive at the mall, rather than, say, riding his bike down the street to a friend’s house, then the relevant explanations are going to lie in his reasons and will be teleological: he got on the bus to go to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls and because at that time he represented meeting girls as an overriding good. Had he represented hanging out with his friend as an overriding good, however, he would have gotten on his bike and ridden down the street instead.

Why do we want the second kind of explanation (or better, “account”)?  Why are we interested in people’s actions and the reasons for them and not just in their motor movements and their causes? A prominent reason is that we want to render their actions intelligible from their point of view so that they – both the people and their actions – can be situated within a normative framework.  If the boy had promised his friend that he would hang out with him, but stood him up and went to the mall instead, the friend would want to know his reasons so as to be in the position to render a normative judgment – “You promised we’d hang out, but then you stood me up to go meet girls in the mall? Not cool!” – the point being that meeting girls is not a sufficiently important good to override a promise to meet a friend. But if the boy had stood his friend up, not to go to the mall in order to meet girls, but because he had to rush to the hospital to see his mother, who had just been in a car wreck, his friend likely would have said, “Oh, man, I’m so sorry! I totally understand!” acknowledging, thereby, that visiting his mother in the emergency room was a more pressing good than keeping his promise to hang out.

In future installments, I will suggest, along with Sellars, that this narrational, teleological, normative frame and the forms of life that arise from it, is what defines and constitutes the distinctive world of persons. Persons; intentions; valuations; reasons; and actions. These are the elements that create the social, political, and moral worlds in which we operate. As Sellars wrote, in the very last paragraph of “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”:

[T]he conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives.

These worlds and the people and forms of life that sustain them are not reducible to anything within the Scientific Image. They are not eliminable as unreal or as “illusions.” They are not “made of” and do not “consist in” weird, spooky, non-physical substances or processes. And they are part of the world. Indeed, for us, they are the most significant part of it; the part in which we spend the vast majority of our time and on which we expend the greatest amount of our energies which is why, as Sellars explained, “the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it.”


If we take the road I am suggesting, here, we will find ourselves spared everything to do with the wretched “free will” problem. Agency is simply the capacity to do things for various reasons that are related teleologically to the conception of various things as goods. That we have such agency and do such things, for such reasons, is demonstrable: any of us can point to any number of examples, on any given day. That there are causal forces operating on the motor movements involved has no impact whatsoever on this fact, as actions are not identical with motor movements, reasons are not causes, and reasons are related to actions teleologically rather than causally. The determinist’s position, then, involves basic category errors; the sorts that involve importing concepts, piecemeal, from the Scientific Image to the Manifest Image, something Sellars warns explicitly against.  Motor movements are caused.  Actions are interpreted and reasoned.

As I mentioned in my essay on the free will problem, the position for which I am advocating also makes quick, easy work of Frankfurt-style cases. Once we distinguish actions from mere motor movements and reasons from causes, it’s very easy to see that the voter in the Frankfurt case isn’t the one who voted – despite it being his arms, hands, and fingers that were involved – but rather the mad scientist. Voting, of course, is an action, and not merely an event. If I hypnotize a student to rob a bank, then despite the fact that the relevant motor movements were his, the action – i.e. the robbing – was done by me. (As the consequence of my reasons and my ends, the robbery is my action, regardless of by what material mechanisms by which it was effected.) And in the same vein, re: the Frankfurt case (from my essay on free will):

Had the counterfactual situation obtained, however, and the Mad Scientist’s failsafe gone off, it’s not as if he still would have voted, but against his will.  Rather, though his hands and fingers would have engaged in various motor movements and certain buttons would have been depressed as a result (causal chain!), he would not have been the person who voted. Rather, the Mad Scientist would have voted, using the person’s body as a proxy. How do we know this? Well, for one thing, you could not interpret the person’s bodily movements in light of his reasons – could not comprehend the action from his point of view – as his intentions were to vote Republican. No, his bodily movements are only interpretable as reflecting the Mad Scientist’s reasons and are thus only intelligible as actions, from his point of view. And for another, if the whole sordid affair was discovered by the local authorities, the Mad Scientist would be indicted for fraudulent voting, which indicates that as far as the law is concerned, it was he who voted, not the brain-and-body hijacked person.

Now, Crispin is a hard determinist, and in our first conversation, he made the interesting suggestion that we do not act at all. Rather, we engage in entirely caused and determined motor movements, for which we then offer post-hoc reconstructions, in a teleological vein, largely for the purpose of self-ennoblement. His powerful example drew from his own personal experiences with addiction. I’m sure we will have further opportunity to discuss not just the example but the more general point in one of our future dialogues. But let me start us off, here, by saying the following: (1) I am entirely open to the suggestion that some of our actions may have turn out really to just been mere motor movements; that we might be mistaken in thinking we’ve acted and not just moved; (2) I doubt very seriously that one can plausibly argue that this is the majority or even a large plurality of cases; (3) the implications of such a hard determinism, especially in the moral sphere, risk saddling us with far greater and more numerous implausibiles than the idea that mundane observation that we do, in fact, genuinely act much of the time if not most of it; and finally (and somewhat cheaply), (4), even on Crispin’s account there still will be cases of genuine action, if only those involving the sorts of ennobling self-deceiving post-hoc reconstructions he wants to draw from.


26 responses to “Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: Actions, Reasons, Causes … and Ends”

  1. davidlduffy

    Hi Dan. Clear as always, but this seems to skip the nature of the relationship between the agent qua space of reasons and those corresponding motor movements. We are back to the criticisms of other dualisms. Your summary of Crispin Sartwell’s stance is that there is none or only an intermittent connection (a la the split brain or stroke patient’s post-hoc explanations of why their hand did something). At another pole, psychoneural identity is “just” that reasons are complex dynamical states of neurons across multiple brain regions, so that manifest and scientific are dual rather than complementary.

  2. Not at all. It is the same relationship as that of the Manifest and Scientific Images overall.

  3. “These are views that I want very much to avoid and which I think are terrible for philosophy.”

    So your primary concern is with (the fate of) academic philosophy? Do you really think that emphasizing that all philosophical accounts of reality are “expressions of the philosopher’s temperament, preconceptions, and scruples” will enhance the position of philosophy within the academy?

    At least for those who believe (as I do) — and this is hardly an eccentric belief! — that academic disciplines are all about knowledge in one sense or another, that academic research is first and foremost about adding to a shared knowledge base, this aspect of your approach to enhancing philosophy’s academic status will not work.

    It was a commonplace amongst a certain group of philosophers in the late 19th, early 20th century that *metaphysics* was an expression of temperament. Louis Rougier said this, for example. But this was part of a broader attempt to undermine the epistemic authority of metaphysics and create a space for a different kind of philosophy which could hold its own within an academic context. (In the dialogue, Crispin Sartwell mentions this movement.)

    Let me be clear that there are elements in what you are saying with which I strongly agree. The stuff on hypostatization, for example.

    Or this:

    “… I also think that there are good non-personal reasons for steering clear of these positions and positions like them. For one thing, they are controversial to a degree and in a way that renders them unlikely ever to be resolved, and though I’ve suggested on several occasions that philosophy suffers from widespread indeterminacy generally, I see no reason to increase it.”

  4. I thought the discussion with Crispin Sartwell went very well.

    I’ve been saying that I’d like a return to philosophical “normalcy,” meaning that I’d like us to stop indulging what I’ve been calling, alternatively, “crazy” and “desperate” philosophical positions: Panpsychism; Hard Determinism; Eliminative Materialism and “Illusionism”; Platonism; Mind/Body Dualism; and so on.

    Based on my experience, the promotion and tenure requirements in the humanities seem to be similar to those in the sciences. That is, they are based on papers published in professional journals. I’m suspecting that this indulging in desperate positions is because that’s what gets published.

    I have long thought that this was a poor way of making P&T decisions in the humanities. Maybe there needs to be a completely different way of evaluating professionals in these areas.

    Somewhat related — in your discussion you mentioned that science uses predictions as a way of evaluating science. And you wondered what should be used for philosophy. It occurred to me that perhaps philosophy should be looked at as an art. And, as an art, it should be evaluated in terms of how it engages with the public. And isn’t part of the problem that much of philosophy mainly attempts to engage with academic philosophers rather than with a larger public?

  5. As I said to Crispin at the beginning the institutional well-being of philosophy is *not* my main motivation.

  6. Perhaps these things get published because the editors are interested in the scientific side of analytic metaphysics. It is perhaps like a mathematical proof: all the work goes in to ruling out in a completely rigorous way a few logical possibilities that are very hard to rule out. It actually has little to do with personal beliefs. Personal beliefs would enter into the process in analytic metaphysics, in ways that are quite complicated, perhaps. Just a thought

  7. s. wallerstein

    Doesn’t philosophy (in the broadest sense of the word, not just the academic discipline) need both Warren Harding and Crispin Sartwell (I can’t think of anyone famous who represents him offhand), the apostles of common sense and those of craziness? The dialogue between the two is what’s interesting and valuable about philosophy. Common sense I can hear from any taxi driver or hair cut person and if philosophy is only a more disciplined and coherent version of common sense, why bother with it? The dialogue between the most articulate and rational exponents of both common sense and craziness takes one to psychic places one would not otherwise venture and that’s one of the chief reasons I (and many others) turn to philosophy.

  8. This is a good observation.

  9. s. wallerstein

    Philosophy is about opening your mind and although you may come back to common sense at the end, the only way to come back to common sense with an open mind is to dialogue with and journey through craziness.

  10. I once noted here, in passing, that one of the unfortunate legacies of Logical Positivism is that when its proponents thought they were teaching logic, they were in fact teaching a particularly attenuated rhetoric. This is why “desperate’ positions complained of here, and indeed utter nonsense, can proliferate in otherwise seemingly stodgy professional journals. Chalmers’ work is possibly the most egregious example of this, but such like Rosenberg and the Churchills are not far behind. This is not to say that any of these or other such philosophers are charletons – they appear to sincerely believe what they argue; but they also sincerely believe that the ‘logic’ they deploy in such arguments provide the unbreachable wall that leaves their arguments unassailable – another major flaw in the Logical-Positivist legacy: the arrogance of reason.

    Having been first trained in the Phenomenological tradition (oft referred to derisively as the “Continental” – i.e., ‘not us anglophones’ – tradition), I always found it odd that Analytics refuse to acknowledge the basic empiricism of the better Phenomenological writings, even of – perhaps especially of – the work of Jacques Derrida (who more recalcitrant conservatives denounced as introducing “Jewish thought” into the logic of reading). This is not to say that a lot of nonsense has not been spewed forth in Phenomenological texts; but nonsense can be adapted to a number of logical structures, some looking very much like Logical Positivism. That’s because no matter how soundly reasonable the ground of our thinking, it will require rhetoric to expound to others. And one of the serious, fundamental problems of rhetoric is that it is best used when it is knowingly used; otherwise it persuades us to believe everything we tell to others, when that that is not really wise – of course if we are of good conscience, we want to be truthful; but often, to persuade others, we must push an envelope or two, e.g., committing ourselves to sweeping generalities because we lack details, or relying on metaphor to strengthen the impact of our available facts. As long as we are aware we are doing this, then, in further conversation and clarification, we can make amend; and by then by then we may be able to articulate details we couldn’t before, or demonstrate the real impact of our facts.

    The West has long sought a philosophy that excludes rhetoric entirely. This is neither possible not desirable. I personally would rather have a philosophy that is a kind of poetry to a philosophy that promises a science it cannot deliver.

  11. “… when we say something like, “John went to the mall, because he wanted to meet girls and believed he would find girls at the mall,” we are [not] using ‘because’ in the same way we do when saying things like, “the 8-ball went into the corner pocket, because it was struck by the cue ball.”

    Of course not. This is a simple matter of distinguishing different senses of “because”. I agree that conflating these senses can lead to the philosophical problems you allude to.

    But then you go further and create a dichotomy which looks to me to involve a kind of incipient dualism. (Crispin Sartwell made a similar observation.)

    This is hard to pin down. There is a semantic distinction between actions and events, between reasons and causes, sure. But you seem to want to make these more than simply semantic distinctions.

    As I see it, semantic distinctions are never (or very rarely) firm or absolute. The word “action” when applied to human behavior has no simple, canonical meaning. What I mean by it may be subtly different from what you or somebody means. The fact that we can communicate linguistically with one another does not entail that our understanding of the concepts we use is exactly the same.

    And yet you seem to be assuming that this distinction is absolute in some way, and even (in a sense) foundational; that it tells us something about how the world is.

    Or am I misreading you?

  12. No, you aren’t misreading me. Reasons, actions, and ends are what create the normative dimension, which runs through social, political, legal, and forms of life. It is this dimension that must be viewed stereoscopically with the material-causal-mechanical in order to give a complete picture of the world.

  13. Animal Symbolicum

    One temptation Davidson and his acolytes suffer, a temptation you’ve outlined and diagnosed, is what we might call causalism. But there’s another, associated temptation we might call mentalism: that reasons are items in the mind (or brain).

    So even if you pull a Davidsonian away from causalism, he might still insist that a reason is a mental item that must be connected with the action in the right way, or with the right “logic.” And even with causal relations off the table, the search for some other external relation between the action and item ensues. Here, I think, is where Anscombe comes in handy.

    In situating an action in a teleological structure, she says, we’re not describing the action in relation to something independent of it, mental or physical; we’re describing a feature of the action itself (or its structure) that renders it intelligible in a certain way. “She waved her hand in order to get the taxi driver’s attention” is naturally reformulated as “She waved her hand because it would get the taxi driver’s attention.” One and the same action is being referred to before and after the ‘because.’ Seeking the taxi driver’s attention (and seeing getting it as good) is a feature of, or perhaps partly constitutes, the waving. The waving would not be what it is in this situation were it not for its (also) being the seeking it is. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for going to the mall and being with girls, or breaking eggs and making an omelet, sacrificing your only son and pleasing God, etc.

  14. This is essentially my view. It’s why I wrote this towards the end:

    “That there are causal forces operating on the motor movements involved has no impact whatsoever on this fact, as actions are not identical with motor movements, reasons are not causes, and reasons are related to actions teleologically rather than causally. The determinist’s position, then, involves basic category errors; the sorts that involve importing concepts, piecemeal, from the Scientific Image to the Manifest Image, something Sellars warns explicitly against. Motor movements are caused. Actions are interpreted and reasoned.”

  15. Animal Symbolicum

    Anscombe’s point might be what motivated you to write what you wrote there, but I don’t find it *expressed in* what you wrote, so I hope you’ll forgive me. I was bringing out more of what’s involved in saying that the structure of actions is teleological.

    As far as I can tell, you’ve been arguing that reasons are not items that enter into causal relations; I was pointing out that they’re not the kind of “thing” to enter into *any* external relations, causal or otherwise. Indeed, thinking of them as being in external relations is part of the temptation of thinking of them as items.

    Someone who was hitherto Davidsonian about these things might still read “teleological” in the wrong way, as describing a different, non-causal but external, relation between an item and an action.

    I was simply trying to bring out an important aspect of your view that to my mind hadn’t been made fully explicit.

  16. Once all the prolegomena are finished, I am going to do a thorough revision, for the purpose of turning all the installments into a single book.

  17. 1970scholar

    I really look forward to getting to buy and read this book. I can see that it has the potential for furthering a much needed discussion. “These worlds and the people and forms of life that sustain them are not reducible to anything within the Scientific Image. They are not eliminable as unreal or as “illusions.” They are not “made of” and do not “consist in” weird, spooky, non-physical substances or processes. And they are part of the world. Indeed, for us, they are the most significant part of it;” I think this is what is maybe most important in your project. You are essentially “forcing’ the other side, if that is the formulation, to concede that there is a fundamental problem with being so deflationary while still not opening yourself up to potentially baroque explanations that are unable to withstand rigorous scrutiny.

  18. davidlduffy

    Harry Frankfurt [1978] The problem of action

    The significance to our actions of states and events which depend upon the exercise of our higher capacities should not lead us, however, to exaggerate the peculiarity of what human beings do. We are far from being unique either in the purposiveness of our behavior or in its intentionality. There is a tendency among philosophers to discuss the nature of action as though agency presupposes characteristics which cannot plausibly be attributed to members of species other than our own. But in fact the contrast between actions and mere happenings can readily be discerned elsewhere than in the lives of people…[W]e must be careful that the ways in which we construe agency and define its nature do not conceal a parochial bias, which causes us to neglect the extent to which the concept of human action is no more than a special case of another concept whose range is much wider.

    Wayne Christensen [2011] Natural sources of normativity

    On one view normativity is connected to reasons…Because it emphasizes personhood as the basis for normative perspective, and rationality as the mechanism by which persons respond to normative facts, this way of conceptualizing normativity may seem to favor non-naturalism…However, the schematic structure of the conception of normativity given by Raz is congenial to the autonomous systems account, which proposes a similar structure involving more basic entities and mechanisms. The autonomous systems theorist must reject the idea that personhood and rationality are normatively fundamental, and propose instead that these are grounded in the more basic kind of normativity identified by the autonomous systems account. Indeed, two kinds of grounding are on offer: origins and constitution. With regard to origins, the basic idea is to treat personhood as just a particular kind of agency, and more specifically as a cognitively sophisticated form of agency that has evolved from more basic non-cognitive forms of agency. The normativity of personhood is an elaboration of the normativity of these simpler forms of agency, with special features arising from the psychological attributes of personhood, but also with a great deal of continuity.
    The following arguments provide some support…(i) Psychological and biological mechanisms respond to the same normative facts. Thus, persons have reason to avoid consuming things that will make them ill. Decisions to avoid particular foods based on acquired knowledge and experience are a cognitive means for responding to this normative fact, whereas vomiting after ingestion is a biological regulatory mechanism for responding to the same fact. (ii) Biological mechanisms can respond to normative facts without the aid of psychological mechanisms. For instance, you eat food you believe is OK, but your body detects toxins and reacts with vomiting. (iii) Biological mechanisms can train cognitive mechanisms on which normative facts to recognize. You will for example learn to avoid foods that make you nauseous.

    Barandiaran et al [2009] Defining Agency: Individuality, Normativity, Asymmetry, and Spatio-temporality in Action

    …[N]orms or goals cannot be deduced from universal laws alone, they show up as contingent regularities with a sense of
    ought-to-be in themselves: the norm must be followed, not doing it becomes a failure. Note that this is not the case for all kinds of systems. Planets cannot “fail” to follow the laws of nature. Agents, however,actively regulate their interactions and this regulation can produce failure or success according to some norm. This is what we call the normativity condition..If we are to adopt a naturalistic approach we must be able to justify this normativity based on the
    very “nature” of the agent.

  19. Should I just quote walls of texts from authors that contradict the authors whose walls of texts you’ve quoted?

    Obviously I reject these arguments, and I explain why in the essay. Why not engage the actual arguments rather than chuck quotes at the wall?

  20. Dan

    Just listened again to the last part of the recent dialogue you did with Crispin Sartwell. As I see it, each of you gets certain important things right. For example, your deflationism about metaphysical claims appeals to me. On the other hand, I think Crispin Sartwell is correct to suggest that your attempt to set up a kind of dualism is suspect. You define science unnecessarily narrowly in my view.

    And on the issue of free will (and perhaps personhood), my intuitions match his rather than yours. Basically I see us all as being driven to a great extent by unconscious forces (“pre-linguistic” drives and so on). And often we can see what is driving other people more clearly than we see what is driving our own behavior. This is an insight which many great writers have integrated into novels and plays etc.. It has also been confirmed by psychological research.

  21. alandtapper1950

    Hi Dan: Some belated comments on your important project, from an 18th century perspective. These issues are, I think, familiar to 18C philosophy scholars, where the standard topics at issue include the nature of mind, free-will, causation, morality and God. On offer there were four possible general standpoints. (1) Hard materialism, hard determinism, atheism, anti-humanism. Think Hobbes, Holbach. (2) Hard metaphysical theism or pantheism. Think Thomism, Spinoza. (3) Mitigated scepticism. Think Hume. (4) Common sense philosophy. Think Reid and Stewart. (1) and (2) involve strong metaphysical and epistemic commitments. (3) and (4) reject strong metaphysical commitments.

    Your stance, clearly, is to reject (1) and (2) as non-starters. But I’m not sure whether you (and your version of Sellars) prefer (3) or (4). You reject (1) and (2) on common sense grounds, calling them weird and crazy. You sound like a mitigated sceptic on morality and free-will.

    The mitigated sceptical strategy is to savage all claims to objectivity on any given metaphysical topic and then to contend that no such objectivity was ever needed and subjectivity will do the job of upholding what the average person already thinks about the topic. The common sense approach is to say that metaphysical claims are just fantastical inventions existing only in the dreamworld of the philosophers, and that it is naughty philosophy that leads us stray. This involves no counter-attack against those philosophers’ arguments (unlike the mitigated sceptical position).

    (A fifth position was Kant’s, but that’s another story.)

    But I may be way off track, if — as you may say — my 18C perspective cannot be applied to 20C and 21C problems.


  22. Isn’t the locus classicus for the distinction between reasons and causes to be found in ‘Phaedo’, beginning at 99a? The terminology differs, however. Plato’s Socrates uses ’cause’ in the sense of ‘reason’, while not giving any name to the underlying bodily processes (‘bones and sinews’), the latter being necessary but not sufficient to explain his actions:

    ‘[99a] For, by Dog, I fancy these bones and sinews of mine would have been in Megara or Boeotia long ago, carried thither by an opinion of what was best, if I did not think it was better and nobler to endure any penalty the city may inflict rather than to escape and run away. But it is most absurd to call things of that sort causes. If anyone were to say that I could not have done what I thought proper if I had not bones and sinews and other things that I have, he would be right. But to say that those things are the cause of my doing what I do, [99b] and that I act with intelligence but not from the choice of what is best, would be an extremely careless way of talking. Whoever talks in that way is unable to make a distinction and to see that in reality a cause is one thing, and the thing without which the cause could never be a cause is quite another thing. And so it seems to me that most people, when they give the name of cause to the latter, are groping in the dark, as it were, and are giving it a name that does not belong to it.’

  23. I am familiar with this quote, but not sure what point you are making with it.

  24. Apologies for the lack of explanation. I’ve been working through your ‘Prolegomena’ series and the Phaedo passage came to mind as I was reading this item. I wasn’t really thinking of a point at the time, but just reflecting on some historical context. It was late (in Western Australia), so I posted the comment and went to bed.

    Afterwards I also thought of Aristotle’s four ’causes’, of which his ‘final’ cause obviously corresponds to what we now mean by a ‘reason’, while the modern scientific sense of ’cause’ would be covered by his ‘material’ and ‘efficient’ causes. Of course, Aristotle wasn’t using the word ’cause’ in the modern scientific sense, and the word he used (αἰτία) would be better translated as ‘explanation’.

    So, if there is any point at all there, it is a minor terminological one. I’m in complete agreement with the distinction you’re making between reasons and causes.

  25. Reflecting a bit more on the translation of αἰτία as ‘explanation’, it occurred to me that this is also a loaded term, since some (perhaps especially those with a background in philosophical hermeneutics) reserve ‘explanation’ for what the physical sciences do (from a third-person perspective), while ‘understanding’ is the concern of the humanities, with a debate about the degree to which each term is applicable in the so-called social sciences.