Intro to: Naïve Action Theory

By David North

Michael Thompson, in his book Life & Action, argues for what he calls “naïve action theory.” Naïve action theory is set in contrast to what he calls the predominant “sophisticated theory.”

Naïve action explanations have the general form “Why is X doing Z?” – “She’s doing B.” Or, “why are you cutting that wood?” “I’m making a table.”

Sophisticated action explanations have the general form “Why is X doing Z?” – “She wants to do B.” Or, “why are you cutting that wood?” “I want to make a table.”

There are also non-final forms of each: “X is doing Y because she is doing Z” and “X is doing Y because she wants to do Z.” Or, “I’m cutting wood because I’m preparing planks because I’m making a table” and “I’m cutting wood because I want to prepare planks because I want to make a table.”

There is a final form of explanation shared by both: “X is doing Y in order to do Z.” Or, “I’m cutting wood in order to make a table.”

One final note in preparation of Thompson’s proposal: wanting can be explained by actions in progress and vice versa. “Why are you cutting wood?” “I want to prepare planks.” “Why do you want to prepare wood?” “I’m making a table.” Here, an action, cutting, is explained by wanting, of planks, which is explained by action, making a table.

Given these patterns of explanation, there are four possibilities of rationalizing wanting and action: want by action (I want planks because I’m making a table), want by want (I want planks because I want to make a table), action by want (I’m cutting because I want planks), and action by action (I’m cutting because I’m making a table). We can capture these patterns of rationalization by the following table (which includes additional sophisticated rationalizations like “trying” and “intending” which operate the same as wanting).

I’m doing B I’m trying to do B I intend to do B I want to do B
I’m doing A I’m doing A because I’m doing A I’m doing A because I’m trying to do B I’m doing A because I intend to do B I’m doing A because I want to do B
I’m trying to do A I’m trying to do A because I’m doing B I’m trying to do A because I’m trying to do B I’m trying to do A because I intend to do B I’m trying to do A because I want to do B
I intend to do A I intend to do A because I’m doing B I intend to do A because I’m trying to do B I intend to do A because I intend to do B I want to do A because I want to do B
I want to do A I want to do A because I’m doing B I want to do A because I’m trying to do B I want to do A because I intend to do B I want to do A because I want to do B

We can simplify this into just the general naïve and the sophisticated:

Naïve rationalization Sophisticated rationalizations
I’m doing Y because I’m doing Z I’m doing Y because I want to do Z
I want to do Y because I’m doing Z I want to do Y because I want to do Z

The sophisticated theorist claims that rationalizations in the left column can be explained by rationalizations in the right. That is, the left merely adds the non-explanatory content “I am in fact succeeding in doing Z” and the sophisticated theorist maintains the true explanation of action is wanting to do Z, as expressed in the right column.

Thompson rejects the sophisticated picture, instead arguing that the leftmost column holds the explanatory content of rationalization, the naïve theory of action. He offers multiple arguments why, but I’ll focus on one.

Naïve rationalization, says Thompson, is not co-equal, but prior to sophisticated rationalization. It is only because we can make naïve rationalizations that we can make sophisticated ones. The reason why will seem familiar to those who’ve read Sellars’ Myth of Jones.

Naïve rationalization is prior because we can imagine a form of life in which the naïve rationalizations are intelligible and the sophisticated nonsense but not vice versa. Here’s a helpful analogy. Bartering is prior to credit, for we can imagine a bartering society that has no idea of credit, but not the other way around.. In order for it to be possible to spend value I don’t presently have in order to purchase something on credit, I must already have the idea that I could exchange value for the thing I want. This is bartering. And I can have a conception of bartering without also finding the idea of money intelligible — something with no functional value that stands in place of bartering units.

Naïve rationalization stands in relation to the sophisticated as bartering stands in relation to credit. But what about naïve rationalization makes it possible to be able to make sophisticated rationalizations?

First, a contrast in the english language to get into view: the imperfective and perfective aspect. Most should be familiar with the past and present tense, but there is another distinction to be made aspectually. That is, a sentence could be written in the past tense, but it may appear in the perfective or imperfective aspect. Here are two sentences, both in the past tense, but with different aspects: “I crossed the street” and “I was crossing the street.” The first is perfective, a completed action and the second, being incomplete, is the imperfective.

Wanting, trying, intending, all invoke the imperfective aspect of event-processes, of which must be understood by a prior concept of the present progressive action description. That is, wanting, trying, and intending imply a certain inference pattern of action descriptions which contain them: a non-inference to the perfective aspect. I can be trying to make a table but never have made a table. I can want to make a table and never have made a table. I can intend to make a table and never have made a table. These all follow the generic inference of “was doing” =/= “have done.”

Invoking the imperfective aspect via sophisticated rationalizations like wanting is only possible if we understand the non-inference from “was doing” to “have done” in terms of the present progressive action description “am doing,” which is the content of naïve rationalization. Just as bartering was the concept under which credit was understood, so too are the naïve rationalizations, the present progressive, the concept under which sophisticated rationalizations, invocations of the imperfective aspect, are understood.

What’s it matter if naïve rationalizations are prior? Accepting this argument boils down to the radical suggestion that wanting, intending, trying, and doing all belong to the same genus which reduces to the progressive aspect. This is an expansion of a very common understanding of intentional action (canonically attributed to Elizabeth Anscombe): “for some reason R, X is doing B because R.” Thompson’s view suggests that intentionality is an internal feature of the action process itself. An action is intentional when its phases are united under the genus of naive rationalization in terms of the process as a whole. Rewritten, this is something like “for some naïve rationalization of action B – R(B), X’s doing B is intentional for X’s ability to give R(B).”

This definition of intentional action is to maintain Anscombe’s knowledge requirement in action, which states “if X does B intentionally then X knows she is doing B.” What X knows precisely is R(B). This knowledge requirement is famously denied by Donald Davidson and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the knowledge requirement is beyond this introduction. To learn more, I’d recommend:

Intention by G.E.M. Anscombe

“Intending” by Donald Davidson

“How receptive knowledge relates to practical knowledge” by John McDowell

“Knowing What I Have Done” by Matthias Haase

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