On Friday, 14 May 2010, Dr Giuseppina (Josie) D’Oro presented the first seminar of the Keele Philosophy Forum’s 2010 Summer Series. The topic was “The Concept of Action” and Josie spoke for about one hour followed by two hours of questions and discussion, one in the seminar room, the second one in Keele’s award-winning coffee bar, Le Cafe.

The starting point of the paper was the claim that debates in philosophy of action, in particular with regard to the concept of action, were not so much generated by new discoveries concerning our actions, but by shifts in the metaphysical commitments of the participants.  One such recent shift, she noted, was a renewed interest in revisionary metaphysics (understood along the lines of Strawson’s destinction between revisionary and descriptive metaphysics).

Against the background of a revisionary metaphysics, an action is a particular type of event in the same way in which a Siamese cat is a type of cat. By contrast, Josie attempted to offer a view of the relationship between events and actions from the perspective of descriptive metaphysics. On her account, action and event are fundamental categories. As such, they have the same metaphysical status, although they are different categories.

Thus, she continued, actions are the explananda of “sciences of mind”, whereas events are those of the sciences of nature.  When I explain something causally, as I do in the natural sciences, that something is an event; by contrast, when I explain something in terms of reasons, as I do in sciences of mind, that something is an action.  These are not explanations of the same thing. If method determines the categories of one’s metaphysics and if explanation in terms of reasons is difference from explanation in terms of causes, then the category subsuming the former is distinct from the category under which falls the latter. But reasons and causes are different: for instance, the former are normative, whereas the latter, descriptive.

One advantage of such an approach, she noted at the end, was that it can be seen as offering a better account of our usual intuitions concerning the difference between actions and events. A second advantage is that it escapes the difficulties of the opacity problem.

Out of the many questions raised and debated, I mention here only two. The first concerns the assumption of descriptive metaphysics that there is no value-neutral description of reality, but only a description through categories. Hence, causality does not refer to something in reality, but it is a form of explanation. The implication of this, as Josie noted, is that, if two categories are distinct, what they explain is going to be distinct: the category of action is central for a type of explanation of something, whereas the category of event is central for a type of explanation of something else.

Yet, what I don’t understand is how we can determine whether the things these types of explanation explain are different. We can make sense in principle of the idea of two different ways of explaining the same thing; on what basis can we determine that what action explanation explains is distinct from what event explanations clarify? If we answer that the things explained are different because the metaphysical categories in terms of which the two types of explanation explain are different, then the question will be how we can determine that these two categories are metaphysically distinct.

In this way, I get to my second question: on Josie’s account, ‘action’ and ‘event’ are not related in the way in which ‘Siamese cat’ and ‘cat’ are. The fundamental notion in the case of the second pair is ‘cat’, whereas, she argued, in the case of the first pair, the notions are equiprimordial – they have the same metaphysical status of fundamental categories. To mark the difference between them, she centred the first on the notion of reason and the second, on the notion of cause. ‘Cause’ is of course traditionally a fundamental category and, depending what one means by it, ‘reason’ can probably be too.

My worry is that, on this account, action and event become so different that it is no longer possible to understand so many aspects that they seem to have in common and their ‘grammar’. Both, for instance, can have in common the fact that they involve bodily movement. It may also seem that both may share certain ‘moments’: say, the action of signing a document involves several movements of the hand; assume now that we have two sets of identical movements, one of the person who is hyponotised and asked to sign, the second of the person who is hypnotised and asked to sign and who ‘wakes up’ towards the end, but continues to sign voluntarily.

In such a case, we would have to say that, in the second case, the part towards the end is an action, whereas the beginning is an event. In the second case, however, the entire set of movements constitute an event. If this way of accounting for the difference is correct, then it is not clear why we cannot regard the genus of actions and events as bodily movement and the specific difference as given by reason and cause, respectively. This would turn the initial analogy into an analogy where actions may stand for Siamese cats and events for Burmese cats. But this seems to me to introduce a difference between these two notions which is less radical than that Josie suggested in her paper.

Concerning the ‘grammar’ of the notions: to determine whether a person’s cooking a mushroom dinner for another is murderous action or an accidental event (I owe the example to Marcus Willaschek), we try to establish whether the dinner was cooked with the intention of killing the guest. So, what we seem to be doing is looking at the same thing and trying to identify the kind of thing it is. This is certainly not possible when we deal with things determined by fundamental metaphysical categories. I would not be taken seriously if, when asked what I am doing, I would reply that I am trying to determine whether something is a substance or a cause.

The reason why Josie would need in her argument a radical difference between action and experience is that only in this way they can be distinct fundamental categories. But, as distinct fundamental categories, they would no longer be able to account for what we do when we try to determine whether some bodily movements represent an event or an action.

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