In the last twenty-five years there has been increasing interest in the philosophy of action, and many different theories have been put forward. The revival of this subject had several causes. If we are going to impute responsibility to agents, we need to know what action is, what makes it voluntary and what makes it intentional. So ethics and the philosophy of law have promoted interest in these questions. They are also worth investigating for their own sakes simply in order to find out the truth of the matter. Wittgenstein treated them in this way when he was working on his first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and his answers, enigmatic but fascinating, reflect the ideas of Schopenhauer, However, it was his later work that gave a real impetus to the philosophical analysis of action, and in it his special concern was the connection between intending and meaning. There are also earlier influences discernible in recent philosophy of action, and some of the theories that have been proposed go back to Aquinas and Aristotle.
We might expect a renaissance of this kind to produce rich and satisfying works. In fact, most of its participants have offered rather meagre fare. The deficiency, which is one that people feel immediately, is easier to identify than to correct. Either the mind is detached and exalted to the point of losing any intelligible connection with its body, or else its life is reduced without residue to the life of its body, lived openly in observable actions and secretly only in neural events that may soon become accessible to observation. When the mind is reduced in this way, it becomes unrecognisable, especially to its owner. Only a resolute refusal to admit anything impalpable could push philosophers to such an extreme, but the refusal would be understandable if it were the sole way of rescuing the mind from the lofty isolation of Cartesianism.
There must be some other way, and Brian O’Shaughnessy’s book is the record of a search for one. As its title indicates, it does not deal with the general question of the relation between mind and brain, nor does it cover in equal detail every type of interaction between mind and body involving the peripheral nervous system. It focuses on the connection between wanting to do something here and now and doing it. However, because action is guided by sensory feed-back of various kinds, it includes a theory of perception and a particularly thorough examination of sensory feed-back from within the body. So while the central topic is interaction at points of output, a lot is said about interaction at points of input.
He starts his search within the mind. That may seem unsurprising, but, in fact, analytic philosophers seldom feel able to begin at this point. They survey the scene with narrow, sceptical eyes, and conclude that the only reliable procedure is to confine themselves to observable input and output, like those Phoenician traders who, when they wanted to do business with people too shy to encounter them, left their goods on the beach and returned later to collect payment.
O’Shaughnessy’s choice of the point to start his search places his book in an earlier tradition, preserved in certain schools of German and French philosophy and in the psychology of Freud. However, the spirit in which the choice is made is very British. We could imagine G.E. Moore proving the existence of the internal world by helping himself to it in this sensible way. Certainly, this is very different from Wittgenstein’s cautious argument that self-consciousness depends on consciousness of others, both expressed in a common language. But O’Shaughnessy is not trying to prove anything at this point. He simply wants to liberate his inquiry from the new scepticism about the internal world, and equally, but less controversially, from the older scepticism about the external world that is so often the dénouement of Cartesianism. This is reasonable, because his is an ontological inquiry into the nature of mind and its interaction with its body and eventually with its body’s environment.
The immediate result is a rich and impressive piece of work. The mind under examination is recognisably one’s own. The mental landscape, denuded by recent scepticism, has been reclaimed, and the continuity of the philosophy of mind with other investigations of the human spirit has been restored.
The ultimate result is a pair of related theories. One is a theory of action, and the other, more general and developing out of it, a theory of mind. The theory of action is designed to explain how the mind can interact with the body and yet not be absorbed into it without residue. The explanation is that willing is an event with two equally essential aspects, one psychological and the other physical. Considered as a physical event, willing is a kind of trying or striving. But it is not, at least on its first appearance, the tensing of muscles or even the activation of motor nerves: those are later effects. Willing is the original striving that marks the beginning of action. It is, to use O’Shaughnessy’s metaphor, the smallest neural bud of action, which, if all goes well, will expand into movement, and achievement of the desired goal. But willing is also an object of direct awareness and so, he argues, it must have a psychological aspect.
The theory of mind comes in at this point and puts the psychological aspect of willing in its place in a system. The suggestion is that the contents of the mind are of two different types. One type includes thoughts, beliefs and intentions, and the other includes sensations and original strivings or acts of will. The difference between them is, very roughly, that elements of the first type are more sophisticated and elements of the second type more primitive. If we made a causal flow chart of the interaction between mind and body, the zone of contact would be the mind’s outer layer of primitive elements wrapped around the central core of sophisticated elements.
This topography is appropriate to a concept of action with an unusually wide scope – wider, for example, than the scope of Donald Davidson’s concept, which is the concept of intentional action. Davidson’s idea is that, if we take the class of physical actions, subtract from it all actions that have purely external causes and are, therefore, passive, and then subtract reflexes and all movements with internal causes other than desires, the remainder will be intentional actions. This is a restriction of the concept of action with which many philosophers agree, but not O’Shaughnessy. He argues that there is also a class of ‘sub-intentional’ actions, done as a result of the desire to do them, but without any awareness at the time and, therefore, not intentionally. For example, people sometimes move their tongues in this way when they are ruminating, or tap with their feet in this way when they are listening to music.
This enlargement of the scope of the concept might look like a mere footnote to the theory. O’Shaughnessy, like H. Frankfurt, argues that it is nothing of the kind, not only because a very large proportion of our actions are sub-intentional, but also because they provide a link between our actions and the actions of animals that lack the sophisticated equipment of our minds. O’Shaughnessy’s objection to Davidson’s theory is that it exaggerates the importance of intentions and rational control. Intention, when it is present, unlocks the door to action, but there would be no action without the primitive force of a desire waiting to be let out in an act of will, which is not to be identified with the formation of an intention to act here and now. When this is recognised, continuity is restored between the more sophisticated actions of human beings and the rudimentary actions of simpler animals. The thrust behind acts of will is the force of life.
Some of these ideas go back to Aristotle, who might have welcomed the theory of evolution as confirmation of his intuition that different forms of life can be arranged on a scale of increasing complexity with the simpler structures retained as the bases of the more complex ones. However, the strongest influence on O’Shaughnessy’s work is Schopenhauer’s. Like Schopenhauer, he writes about the will with passion and never without a sense of its mysteriousness. This feeling is the force behind the strongly argued and highly imaginative development of his theories.
The scientific view of the world, or at least one such view, is that it is an array of possibly interesting facts presented to an alert but passive observer. Many philosophers since Kant have protested against this detachment of perception from action. Merleau-Ponty argued that the two can only be understood together because they can only operate together. O’Shaughnessy’s theories belong to this tradition. He maintains that a person’s conception of the external world is based on one privileged object, his own body, which he can move at will, aware of its posture and internal space in ways in which he cannot be aware of the arrangement of a folded garment.
Schopenhauer’s protest against the detached scientific view of the world went deeper. He believed that it is not perception but the will that puts us in direct contact with reality. This mysterious thesis probably means that we understand the world through the force that drives it because it is the same as the force that drives us. O’Shaughnessy too claims a special position for the will, but his point is a different one. It is that we know a priori (in advance) that willing is a go-between with properties that make the interaction between mind and body intelligible. We know this, not as the result of empirical investigation, but by pure analysis of the concept of action. Furthermore, he claims, willing is the unique occupant of this key ontological position.
Since this is the main conclusion of his book, it deserves closer scrutiny. First, something needs to be said about the way in which he formulates it, and then there is the question whether it is true. On the face of it, sensations have an equally strong claim to the role of self-explanatory go-between with two aspects deducible a priori from the concept of perception.
O’Shaughnessy identifies willing with trying. But he also identifies trying with succeeding when the attempt is successful. Therefore, in cases of successful movement of the body, he formulates his conclusion as a thesis about physical action. It is physical action that has a psychological aspect deducibie a priori, and so it is physical action that uniquely functions as a self-explanatory go-between. He regards this formulation as indispensable, and the underlying identification of trying with succeeding in cases of success as an essential feature of his theory of action.
It is paradoxical to say that physical action has a psychological aspect, but the paradox would become innocuous if it were watered down with the observation that, of course, it is only original trying, the very beginning of action, that has a psychological aspect. Obviously, sensory feed-back from later stages does not require us to ascribe a psychological aspect to them, or to suppose that the mind reaches quite so far out into the physical world. However, O’Shaughnessy does not go for this dilution of the paradox. He maintains that trying is literally identical with succeeding in cases of success, and he says that the identity is essential to his theory of action. It is puzzling that he attaches so much importance to the identity, and it is also worrying for those who are not convinced by his arguments for it, and maybe agree with I. Thalberg and V. Weil that a successful action is a complex event with several components, only one of which – the first one – is a candidate for a psychological aspect.
If action is not allowed to benefit from the supposed identity of trying with succeeding in cases of success, is it true that it functions as a uniquely self-explanatory go-between, and that this is deducible a priori by pure analysis of the concept of action? First, the meaning of this complicated question needs to be explained. O’Shaughnessy argues a priori for the thesis that action – or, as I shall now say, in order to avoid the illusion of the long arm of the mind, original trying or striving – must have both a physical aspect and a psychological aspect, and, therefore, it is a key point at which the essential mutual dependence of mind and body ‘can be openly seen to be part of the scheme of things’ – he calls it ‘a psychic promontory that openly juts into the physical world’. This is the main thesis of his book, and it is deduced entirely from the essential nature of physical action. His idea is that, whatever the ultimate truth about the relation between mind and body, we can see now that original striving must have its two aspects.
When he is explaining how we see this, he mentions, but does not put much weight on, the controversial identity. His main contention about original striving in its physical aspect is that it must be linked to further appropriate effects within the agent’s body. He is surely right in regarding this as an essential feature. If there were no neural events on the threshold of an organism’s mind in a position to exploit this kind of linkage, the organism could not control its body, and, therefore, could not even try to control it. He suggests that it was for this reason that Schopenhauer described the body as ‘objectified will’.
The essential psychological aspect of striving is that the agent must be directly aware of its occurrence and its target. If, for example, he is trying to raise his right arm, he must be directly aware that he is trying to raise it. That, too, is deduced in the same a priori way from the concept of action. But consideration of that side of his theory may wait while we ask whether the physical side of it can be matched for perception and sensations. If it can, the claim made for the unique position of action and striving might be weakened.
The rival claim for sensations would be based on the evident fact that the physical aspects of many types of sensation must be linked through the mantle of the body to constant types of stimulus. When O’Shaughnessy claims a unique position for action, he must be relying on the equally evident fact that there are also big differences between the two cases. So what does action have, but perception lack, such that action can, but perception cannot, make interaction between mind and body intelligible?
One possible answer would be that, whereas it is essential to trying that it should be linked to further appropriate effects within the agent’s body, it is not essential to a stimulus that it should be linked to a constant type of sensation. Heat would still have been heat even if it had produced varying sensations in us or none at all. However, little weight can be put on this difference. We have to compare like with like, and so, in the case of perception, we should not choose heat as the cause but, rather, the emission of radiation, which is the first component of the complex event of being perceived. If we coin the name ‘give-away’ for this beginning of being perceived, it will be essential to give-aways that they be linked to a constant type of sensation, and so parallelism at this point is restored.
It is more probable that any decisive difference between the two cases would lie, not in the cause, but in the effect, which in the case of perception is the sensation. For that is the actual go-between. Now in the case of action the go-between, original trying, has to satisfy two basic descriptions. One is the description that gives its essential physical aspect – for example, ‘causing the agent’s right arm to rise’ – and the other is the description under which he is directly aware of it in its essential psychological aspect: i.e. ‘trying to raise his right arm’. O’Shaughnessy requires that these two basic descriptions be very tightly bonded together. His idea is that, if anything had slipped in between them, the relation between mind and body at this point would be unintelligible. Apparently he means more than that trying would cease to be the go-between that makes it intelligible, because he says that the consequences would be Cartesianism and the impossibility of animal action. It is, therefore, important to discover his view of the tight bond that he requires between the two basic descriptions of trying, and then we may ask whether the same requirement should be imposed on sensations, and, if so, whether they meet it.
His view about the bond between the two basic descriptions of trying is that we can see in advance that the description, ‘trying to raise one’s right arm’, must be immediately attached to the event that satisfies the description, ‘causing one’s right arm to rise’. This means that there must not be another phenomenal description of the trying sandwiched in between these two basic descriptions. For suppose that the trying had an independent phenomenal description which provided us with our original way of identifying it. Then it would come as a stunning discovery that an event identified in this way satisfied the basic description, ‘causing one’s right arm to rise’. After the discovery, it would be possible to attach the other basic description, ‘trying to raise one’s right arm’, to the underlying event, and this description would be a late addition completing the third deck of the sandwich. But how would organisms manage in the period leading up to the discovery? Their difficulty would be that after a bout of desire, culminating perhaps in an intention, their line of action would go underground and only emerge later in sensory feed-back from the movements of their limbs.
O’Shaughnessy regards this as an impossible history. He thinks that there could be no action in such circumstances because there could be no trying, and that there could be no trying because it is a necessary feature of trying de re (as such) that it is monitored directly rather than through some phenomenal property. Now it is certainly true that trying, as we now have it, is monitored directly, but is it necessarily true? Could nature really not have produced trying in two stages, beginning with the stage in which O’Shaughnessy refuses to allow the possibility of action? What makes his invocation of de re necessity so compelling? Wings evolved before they were used for flying, and similarly sensitivity to embryonic trying could have evolved before it was used, as we now use it, to adjust our expectations and future actions to our current actions.
If, however, O’Shaughnessy were right in thinking that there could be no trying in such circumstances, he would be right in drawing the conclusion that there could be no action. But he also concludes that, if we believed in the possibility of action in such circumstances, we would be committed to Cartesianism. This is puzzling because it looks as if we might still hold a double-aspect theory about the antecedents of trying, but one which, if he is right, would be inadequate to explain action.
There is also another strand in his argument that needs to be considered separately. He is rightly impressed by the fact that the basic description, ‘trying to raise one’s right arm’, unlike any independent phenomenal description, connects the underlying event necessarily in favourable circumstances with actual rising of the arm. How can the psychological description make such an impudent claim on the future? C. Peacocke’s book, Holistic Explanation,offers an answer to this question within the general framework of physicalism. O’Shaughnessy’s restricted double-aspect theory is an attempt to answer it without commitment to physicalism. The particular argument that needed to be singled out from his treatment of this problem is that trying and physical action plainly presuppose each other. That, however, is not the same thing as making interaction between mind and body intelligible at this point. It is true that we cannot imagine trying and physical action completely detached from one another, but maybe it takes a general theory of the relation between mind and body to make even this very special piece of interaction intelligible.
Be that as it may, there is still the question whether sensations do less to advance our understanding of the interaction than trying. Is there a decisive difference between the two? Is it perhaps that the two basic descriptions of sensations are not tightly bonded in the way that O’Shaughnessy requires the two basic descriptions of trying to be tightly bonded? But it seems implausible to apply this thesis to all types of sensation. For perception of objects outside the body, in which we all really believe, has led us to describe many types of sensation in ways that refer to their external causes, and it is arguable that some of these descriptions must be original, like the basic description ‘trying to raise one’s right arm’ in O’Shaughnessy’s theory.
It is worth observing that this argument cannot be extended to all original descriptions of types of sensation, because some are clearly phenomenal. This suggests that tight bonding of the two basic descriptions of go-betweens is not a general condition of the intelligibility of interactions between mind and body. When tight bonding is required, it is required for special reasons that vary from case to case. In fact, it may never be a condition of the intelligibility of interaction, but only the basis of a dialectical argument against those who claim to be able to understand the mind without reference to the body.
Perhaps O’Shaughnessy’s theory of perception commits him to rejecting the argument that some original descriptions of types of sensation must refer to their external causes. If so, we can see why he thinks that sensations are less self-explanatory go-betweens than tryings. The rejection of the argument would be questionable, but a proper discussion of it would lead deep into the philosophy of perception, and it is not possible to summarise here, still less to discuss, his views on this topic. His theory is mainly concerned with the outer layer of the mind, containing sensations, and with the perception of one’s own body. It is packed with original and interesting ideas.
Two theses really have to be mentioned, however briefly. First, he argues that the agent’s direct awareness of his own tryings is exactly like his direct awareness of his own sensations. That is one of his reasons for assigning those two elements to the outer layer of the mind, another being their immediate outward connections with the peripheral nervous system. Second, he argues that an agent is continuously aware of the presence of his own body and of some of its spatial properties, and that, though this awareness is caused by sensations, it is not mediated by them, because his body is always the direct object of his attention. Now his body is also the immediate target of his will. So the second thesis explains the body’s availability to the will, while the first thesis explains why willed changes in the body never surprise its owner even for a fraction of a second.
Whatever view is taken of its main thesis, this is a richly rewarding book.