Weak Wills

Colin McGinn

Donald Davidson has this year been George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford: only the second philosopher to hold the august position (the first being W.V. Quine, a teacher of Davidson’s at Harvard and his greatest philosophical influence). This honour reflects his present stature in the academic world. Last year he was the subject of a massive conference held in New Jersey, organised by the indefatigable Ernie Lepore. It was probably the largest philosophical conference ever held, and it attracted nearly all of the world’s leading philosophers. Most of the papers delivered were addressed (often critically) to some aspect of Davidson’s work. For a philosophical event, it was undoubtedly a great occasion, if a somewhat overwhelming one (especially for Davidson, who attended as many of the papers as was humanly possible). Probably no other philosopher now working has been discussed as much during the last decade.

It was not always so. Davidson was something of a late-developer, or at least a late publisher. His publishing career did not seriously get off the ground until the early Sixties, when he was into his forties. It was in the Seventies that his writings really took hold, passing from cult status into virtual orthodoxy (in certain circles). There has yet to be a significant reaction. He has still not published a single book setting forth his ideas systematically, preferring to publish short pithy articles, intricately interrelated, which have eventually been bound together into collections. Davidson is not an easy writer. He makes free use of technical ideas and results, which he assumes the reader to have mastered, and his predilection for economical and aphoristic formulations sometimes shades into elusiveness. But there is a firm respect for our ordinary thinking, and his feet never lose contact with the ground. Hard persistent thinking is always much in evidence – Davidson always pushes the subject just that little bit further (the bit that makes all the difference). A Davidson paper invariably gets somewhere.

Davidson has worked principally in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, occasionally spilling over into metaphysics and (latterly) epistemology. Essays on Davidson, a collection of papers by ‘students, colleagues, collaborators and adversaries’ of Davidson’s, deals mainly with the work relating to philosophy of mind, though there are three essays (by Chisholm, Strawson and Thalberg) addressed to the metaphysics of events and causation. Davidson’s treatment of intention is discussed in five papers (by Bratman, Grice and Baker, Peacocke, Pears and Vermazen), three of which also discuss the allied topic of weakness of the will. The third main section of the book is about Davidson’s views in the philosophy of psychology, in particular his theory of the mind-body relation (here the discussants are Lewis, Smart and Suppes). There is one rather strange three-page piece by Dan Bennett on pride. Davidson gets to reply to each paper at the end of the volume, and a new paper by him called ‘Adverbs of Action’ has been included. Before commenting on these various contributions it is as well to remind oneself of Davidson’s principal doctrines.

Practical reasoning (the kind addressed to the question ‘What shall I do?’) consists in a transition from premisses expressing beliefs and desires to a conclusion expressing an intention to act. This type of reasoning is not deductive in character, since the addition of new premisses can invalidate the inference: what it is reasonable to do in the light of one set of beliefs and desires may not be reasonable when further reasons for action are adduced. So we cannot represent the conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning, premissed on a particular pair of belief and desire, with an unqualified ‘Doing a is desirable.’ Instead, Davidson suggests, we should compare practical reasoning with inductive or probabilistic reasoning, in which the addition of new evidence can also serve to discourage us from drawing the initially reasonable conclusion. What we should then say is that the agent’s reasons give prima facie support to a certain practical conclusion. Thus the form of a practical inference is something like this: ‘Reason r gives prima facie support to doing a’; in symbols ‘pf(doing a, r), which resembles the ‘prob(H, e)’ (where H is a hypothesis and e some evidence) of probabilistic reasoning. However, this cannot be the end of the story, for an agent must act, and prima facie judgments of desirability don’t get him there – an agent can make far too many of these at any given time. A new type of judgment is therefore needed: this is what Davidson calls an unconditional or ‘all-out’ judgment of desirability, and it has the adventurous form ‘Doing a would be best.’ This unconditional judgment Davidson identifies with intention. Accordingly, the agent is seen as engaging in three stages of practical reasoning: first, he makes a number of prima facie judgments, each relativised to a particular desire; second, he judges on the basis of this that, all things (desires) considered, he should do a, thus making a generalised conditional judgment; third, he makes the all-out judgment ‘a would be (is) best.’ When the agent reaches the third stage he is intending to do a, and if he does not temporise he is actually doing a.

This apparatus is used by Davidson to give an account of the reasoning of the weak-willed agent – the akratic, as he has quaintly come to be called. To act akratically is, pre-theoretically, to act against one’s better judgment. Thus the akratic judges that he should do a rather than b (his preference is for a), yet he does b, and does it intentionally. How, Davidson asks, is this possible? If the intention to do b is, or involves, the judgment that doing b is best, then how can the will be weak – won’t it always follow the counsels of practical reason? The solution to this apparent paradox, Davidson suggests, lies in the distinction between conditional and unconditional judgments of value: the akratic judges that all things considered he should do a rather than b (a generalised prima facie judgment), but he does not detach the corresponding all-out judgment – indeed, he judges all-out that b is better than a. His error resembles that of the scientist who judges that all his evidence supports a certain conclusion but then irrationally believes its opposite. The akratic lets his all-out judgments get uncoupled from his prima facie judgments: this is irrational all right, but it is perfectly possible – it does not require the agent knowingly to believe a contradiction. The key idea here is that the akratic agent’s intention fails to be shaped by his practical reasoning in the same sort of way that the theoretical reasoner’s beliefs about the world may fail to be determined by his evidence. The non-deductive gap in both cases is the point at which the weak of mind trip up. What happens every day has thus been shown possible.

This account of practical reasoning and its deformations is criticised by several contributors. The results do not make light reading; one might be forgiven for nominating the topic of weakness of will for the prize for the driest treatment of a juicy-sounding topic in analytical philosophy. Much heavy technical weather is made of Davidson’s writings on intention and prima facie judgments. Davidson cuts through this thicket in his replies, which contain many accusations of misunderstanding. These protests seem to me largely justified: one has the impression that Davidson’s critics have become swamped in technical detail and allowed the wood to be occluded by the trees. Incidentally some worthwhile points are made, but the core of Davidson’s theory emerges unscathed, as he is not slow to point out. This is not to say that the theory is unfaultable: indeed, I think it contains some highly questionable elements. The central implausibility is the ascription to the akratic of the all-out judgment that his weak act is best. For the weak-willed agent acts against his better judgment, not in conformity with it: he precisely does not judge that what he is doing is the best thing to do. Davidson’s distinction between two sorts of value-judgment does not help overcome this point, since his theory still represents the akratic as having his will shaped by his best judgment – the kind of judgment that in ordinary cases triggers non-akratic action. Surely it is more plausible, if we are to use Davidson’s apparatus, to suppose that the akratic judges both that all things considered he should do a rather than b and that he should do a tout court – yet he weakly does b rather than a. On this way of representing the agent’s state of mind, the intention to do b cannot be identified with (nor can it entail) the all-out judgment that b should be done, so Davidson’s theory of intention goes by the board: but this, too, strikes me as a welcome result, since that theory assimilates the will too closely to the cognitive faculty. Intending belongs with trying, and surely it is unplausible to think of trying as a kind of judgment. Weakness of will is a failure of the ratiocinative faculties to shape the executive faculties; it is not, as Davidson’s theory describes it, a foul-up within the ratiocinative faculties. So there is no paradox to resolve about how the agent can form conflicting judgments about what he should do.

Weakness of will is in a certain respect analogous with perceptual illusion. It is possible for a perceiver to see the world otherwise than he believes and knows it to be, as when a straight stick looks bent in water. The operation of the perceptual system is here not being controlled by what the perceiver’s beliefs tell him. How is this possible? It can seem that there is a puzzle here if one insists that experiencing is a species of judging: for it will then seem that the illuded perceiver must be making contradictory judgments about how the world is – he must believe both that the stick is straight and that it is bent. The solution to this alleged puzzle is clearly not to distinguish two categories of judgment differing in their logical form – such that the illuded perceiver judges that all things considered the stick is straight but also judges all-out that it is bent. Rather, we must recognise that the perceptual system can operate autonomously with respect to the belief system. Seeing is thus not a kind of judging – and nor is willing. In both cases the solution is to acknowledge what has come to be called the modularity of mind. At any rate, this sort of approach seems to me to make the right assumptions.

The middle section of Essays on Davidson deals with events, causation and states of affairs. Much of this is routine (which is not to say without value), but an issue of some significance crops up in the exchange between Strawson and Davidson. This concerns whether causation and causal explanation are relations ‘in nature’. Both Strawson and Davidson wish to distinguish between the relation of causation holding between events in the world and the relation of causal explanation which ‘holds between facts or truths’. Strawson scolds certain unidentified authors for employing the confused locution ‘under a description’ when speaking of causation and explanation. Since Davidson has used this locution himself, he naturally wonders whether he is one of those Strawson has it in mind to censure. He points out in his reply that it is directly contrary to his view of causation to speak this way of what events do causally to other events, but that he has spoken in this way of explanation, and, moreover, has warned of the misunderstandings the locution can invite. Properly construed, talk of explanation ‘under a description’ is simply a handy way of acknowledging the intensionality of explanation-claims, and is thus entirely innocent of the confusion Strawson stigmatises.

On this point Davidson seems to me completely in the clear. But there is another potential confusion lurking, and I am not sure that it is avoided by either Strawson or Davidson. Strawson describes causal explanation as ‘an intellectual or rational or intentional relation’, and Davidson comes close to calling it ‘language-dependent’. The suggestion in both authors is that while causation is objectively out there in the world there is something essentially mind- or language-dependent about that which is reported when we explain one event in terms of another. If this were so, then natural laws would be similarly people-dependent, since these are what provide our (best) explanations of what goes on. But this cannot be right: nature was governed by laws before we came on the scene to say so. And events have explanations whether we are here to give them or not. Laws and explanations (considered as sentences) pick out properties of events and substances which are lawfully and explanatorily related: these properties are just as independent of mind and language as the entities that instantiate them (or if they are not, this has nothing in particular to do with the nature of laws and explanation). It does not follow from the fact that a certain type of sentence is semantically intensional that what it reports is mind- or language-dependent. Perhaps neither Strawson nor Davidson think it does, but then I cannot see what other basis their claim might have.

The third section of the book discusses Davidson’s doctrine of ‘anomalous monism’ – the thesis that all mental events are physical but there are no psycho-physical laws. The importance of this doctrine is that it offers the hope of reconciling the ontological materiality of the mind with its conceptual irreducibility to the physical. It does this by identifying mental events with physical events while insisting that the mental properties of those events are not physical properties. The papers in this section raise some natural queries about Davidson’s arguments – in particular, his reasons for removing psychology from the realm of the strictly lawful. Thus Suppes claims that physics is less strictly lawlike (deterministic) than Davidson suggests and that psychology is more so. Again, it seems to me that Davidson’s fundamental contentions survive, though his earlier formulations need to be qualified somewhat. Nothing particularly new emerges from the three papers in this section. I think again, however, that Davidson’s critics have here missed the chance to urge deeper objections: I will mention just two.

First, Davidson’s reasons for contesting the reducibility of mental notions focus on the logical and semantic features consequent upon the possession of propositional content. This has the look of a sound thought when the reducing vocabulary consists exclusively of terms from physics and chemistry. But what about the vocabulary used by cognitive scientists to describe the informational and computational properties of the brain? This vocabulary has the resources to speak of propositional content – so might not the mental vocabulary be reducible to it? And if it is, as many cognitive scientists believe, then how will matters look when we enquire how the physical and computational properties of the brain are related? Perhaps this intermediate way of describing the brain will bring mind and matter closer together than now seems to us possible. There is, at any rate, an issue here for Davidson to address.

Secondly, what are we to make of those irreducible mental properties of the brain – what is their ‘ontological status’? They are said to be fixed by physical properties of the brain, but how can they be, given their categorial difference from physical properties? What kind of dependence is this? What is its explanation? How in the course of evolution did merely material things come to have irreducible mental properties? These are natural questions, but we search in vain for an answer to them in Davidson’s writings (this is why many materialistic philosophers feel that anomalous monism does not say enough). I suspect that Davidson does not get himself worked up about these questions because of a more or less tacit instrumentalism about mental ascriptions: to have mental properties is to be interpretable by the ascription of mental predicates – having a mind is as much dependent upon the interpreter as the interpretee. Suppose one were such an instrumentalist: then one would not be excessively concerned about how the physical properties of a subject fix his mental properties, since these latter properties are possessed, as it were, only by courtesy – they are projected onto the subject by the interpreter. I think this kind of instrumentalism does alleviate the worry about irreducible mental properties – but at an obvious cost. The question to worry about is: can one rest content with anomalous monism if one believes that mental properties are objectively determined?

In a charming Postscript to the volume Davidson says that he used to think that replying to critics was easy and so didn’t bother to do it, but that replying to his critics in this volume has changed his attitude: critics sometimes have good points, hard as it may be to admit it. Davidson here shows a degree of honesty and modesty seldom found among philosophers, but I have to say that on this occasion his critics have not given him a particularly hard time. For all they have said, the Davidsonian edifice still stands.