[hist-analytic] Notes on Davidson

steve bayne baynesrb at yahoo.com
Thu Apr 9 17:03:47 EDT 2009

here are some, more or less, random thoughts on Davidson. I've had to "lay off" of the analytic/synthetic distinction. I will return to this but until the book is done the focus has to be this stuff. Again, these are musings; things that came to mind on a sunny morning.

Davidson (AE p. 81) says that one may intend to do something without forming an intention. One can, also, perform an action with an intention without forming the intention. The former case may consist in intending to build a squirrel house; the latter may be a case of nailing two boards together with the intention of building a squirrel house. In the first instance we may be dealing with a “pure intention,” unsullied by action. Practical reasoning understood as Aristotle understood it requires action in its conclusion, thus practical reasoning never has a pure intention, or for that matter an intention, as its conclusion. Moreover, an act of will, as we have come to understand it as something different from a willful act, is always the result of an intention, even if we have not formed it. Anscombe speaks of forming an intention. I do nor form an intention with an intention in mind, otherwise forming an intention would, itself, be an intentional
 action. According to Davidson, pure intentions pose the problem in giving them some account: if we do not introduce “mysterious” mental episodes or acts we are at a loss to make explicit what they are exactly. In the case of actually nailing two boards together we can appeal to a desire to build a squirrel house combined with a belief that nailing two boards together is, at least, a first step. In some sense the belief and the desire “rationalize” the action and what rationalizes the action serves as the cause of the action.

Davidson tells us of that a man’s boarding a plane marked ‘London’, intentionally, might be explained by his belief that it was headed for London. But under what description is his behavior intentional? Surely, not under the description ‘one who believes that it was headed for London’; for if this is what someone were to have in mind it ought to occur to them that what makes something intentional cannot be what, also, explains it.  But isn’t the reason we ask for when we ask “Why?” in the sense relevant to intention what explains the action?

Not all propositional attitudes have an opaque reading (‘sees that’) but all “pro” attitudes must be read as opaque. Why? Opacity does not explain the attitude (Brentano?), rather the attitude explains the opacity. What is there about this feature that requires the attitude to select for opaque complements? Further, what is the negative correlative of the “pro” attitude class? To the best of my knowledge there is no negative class!

I can see how one might believe that in order to act with an intention a belief and a desire must provide a reason; but in the case of, merely, intentional actions such as bending down to pick up a rock on the lawn requires anything like a belief or desire. Now an explanation of my action may involve this, but what goes into an explanation of my action need not be what causes me to act. In addition, in the case of Davidsonian causation no signal is transmitted. 

Is all intentional action acting with an intention? I think not. Only in those cases where we form an intention does it seem reasonable to say that we act with an intention. 

Can I have a belief in the desirability of loving my enemies without having the desire to love my enemies? If so a practical syllogism may be satisfied but the action may not follow. Mightn’t this describe akrasia of a sort? Or, to take an example drawn from Davidson, himself, (AE p. 86) can’t I believe in the desirability of not smoking while having no desire not to smoke? What, precisely, is the difference between belief in the desirability of not smoking and desiring not to smoke? If there were none, couldn’t we always speak in terms of belief without introducing desire? Suppose I believe it is desirable to torture someone in a ticking bomb situation, but I do not desire to torture someone in a ticking bomb situation. I do not desire what I believe to be desirable. This is a form of weakness of the will. I believe that everyone should avoid red meat; but I do not desire to avoid red meat. ‘Everyone’ is not such that instantiation is valid,
 nor is exportation. Now I may be able to instantiate for any name of a person: I believe that everyone should eat red meat; so I believe Steve Bayne should eat red meat. If I don’t then I may be contradicting myself: I believe everyone should eat red meat but I don’t believe Steve Bayne should eat red meat.

Davidson is pleased that his belief plus desire account of intention does not require mysterious entities. (AE p. 87) But reason may suggest that the euphoria comes with an eventual let down. He notes not all intentional actions require “forming” an intention. But if intentions are not entities or states or something over and above beliefs or desires what is an intentional action which does not follow upon the formation of an intention and how does it differ from other intentional acts? His language, particularly, in his discussion of what goes on in writing the word ‘action’ suggests that the distinction he draws is little more than the distinction between the, merely, “ideo-motor” actions and voluntary actions we find in James. If so, then, there is little reason to believe that writing the letter ‘a’ with the intention of writing the word ‘action’ is intentional at all. Isn’t writing ‘a’ under these circumstances much like
 taking off my coat in order to take off my shirt. In this case, according to James, my action fall short of, even, being voluntary (Psychology vol. II, p. 519); and if it isn’t voluntary it is doubtful that it is intentional. Why would James say such a thing? I believe that what he had in mind was that the action of taking off my coat was no part of any voluntary action, which requires attending to an idea. There is an interesting difference between James’ case and Davidson’s. In James’ case it is not always true that I have to remove my coat to get to my shirt; but in Davidson’s case I must always write ‘a’ if I’m going to write ‘action’. So what leads Davidson to believe that writing ‘a’ in such a case is intentional except maybe that I had something to do with the fact that it was no accident? If we take a “pure intention” as Davidson says to be “intending that is not accompanied by an action” (AE p. 88) and, yet,
 insist on writing ‘a’ as something intentional then what would rule out a pure intention to write ‘a’ with the further intention of writing the word ‘action’? Doesn’t it make better sense to say that pure intentions are possible only when an intention has been formed? If I’m interrupted while trying to writing ‘a’ can’t I say, retrospectively, “It was my intention to write ‘a’ but I was stopped”? But if so aren’t intentions possible without having associated with them a belief and a desire? These sorts of problems accrue to thinking of the theory of action as terminological proposals for avoiding an explicit ontology of intentions. No embarrassment, maybe, but only if there is nothing embarrassing about making progress only by rejecting the problem.

There are many puzzling things Davidson has to say about pure intentions. For example he remarks (AE, p. 89) that that when the intended action is consummated the intention is present, the same intention as the one that would have existed had it remained pure, or at least of the “same kind.” But what is puzzling is this: if the action has taken place the intention no longer exists as such. 

Perhaps we should say that a person has an intention the way a penny has a shape: we are not to conceive of the shape and the penny coming into some relation, nor the intention as coming into some relation to the person.

Suppose someone gives me an order consistent with everything I believe and desire, at the time. Is this a new reason to act or not act? Suppose I have a “pure intention,” but act only when ordered to do so. Is the command upon which I act a cause? Call it what you will; it is not a volition, although we accept volitions over and above intentional actions.
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