Intentions and action: grasping the practical propositionally?

The question – what is the status of an intention in an action? Or, how should we speak of the presence of an intention in an (intentional) action. We act constantly, and see others act. We say of other’s acts that they are either intentional or not – we don’t know with certainty, but we know to the extent that we make judgments on the basis of knowing whether another’s actions are intentional or not – i.e. we ascribe blame. But what do we mean when we say of other’s acts that they are intentional?

In many cases we say that intentions predate actions – we have an intention to fetch a quart of milk, and then we fetch the quart of milk intentionally. So we might say that an intention is simply the propositional attitude (a mental state which can be captured/described in a proposition) expressed in the assertion “I intend to fetch a quart of milk”, and that the act of fetching the milk is intentional because it is brought into being by the propositional attitude expressed in such a proposition. Such an account grasps the practical syllogism on the basis of the theoretical one – allows for no fundamental difference between a theoretical decision, I.e. a logical formulation made up of propositions and an inference. The advantages of such a philosophical position are obvious – there is no difference between theoretical and practical knowledge – anything knowable is knowable in one way – as knowledge of a proposition. Simplicity reigns.

However, such an account of practical action breaks down when we examine actual cases of action. An action is a decision, because at any moment multiple possibilities for actions are reduced to one, are closed off, by the decision – by the movement into action. For example, if one is traveling along a highway at sixty miles per hour, and one comes upon an exit, there is for a time the possibility of exiting the highway. One must de-cide whether or not to take the exit on the basis of intentions – one might have conflicting intentions in this case, I.e. an intention to make good time, an intention to stay well fed, an intention to take advantage of clean roadside bathrooms, etc… The practical syllogism is made up of all of my intentions, as well as the concrete situation (the possibility of exiting or continuing onward). My intentions are diverse, contradictory, complex, and the concrete situation is poorly grasped (I do not, for example, know the quality of the food or the cleanliness of the bathroom, although I may have indicators in the form of intuitions about brands).The propositional story declares that all my intentions, as well as all the “information” about the concrete situation, are propositional content – and that my decision to exit or not to exit is also, or is extend-able to, a proposition, i.e. “I decide to exit the highway”. For an action to be intentional is then for it to be motivated by my intentions and the concrete situation, which are combined in the “I decide”. However, the proposition “I decide” always follows the decision. When I say “I decide”, I have already decided, my hands are already turning the wheel. The “I decide” is merely a description of a decision.

But, one might reply, the propositional account never claimed to be more than a description of the decision – a description which is the extension of the propositional attitude named by the “I decide”. But a decision is not a propositional attitude – it is a closing of possibilities. One might have a propositional attitude of a decision – I might recognize that I have decided. But, crucially, this self-recognition is a re-cognition, a cognition again, a repetition which looks back. This recognition is not itself the decision at all!

This is all the more apparent when we look at a decision made in a situation of emergency – for example, when driving and some lumber falls out of a truck ahead. In an instant, one surveys the concrete situation – what are the dangers of driving over the lumber? What are the dangers of swerving to avoid? What are the dangers of breaking? It is a mistake, however, to think that in a situation of emergency these angers are recognized as propositions – when a decision in one second is demanded there is no time to represent to oneself the possibilities in propositions. One does not “think” the situation, in the sense of self-represent the possibilities in words. However, the decision either to swerve, break, or run over the lumber is clearly a deliberate, which means deliberative, which means intentional, decision. One is responsible for the decision – if an accident ensues (i.e. if one side swipes into a car by trying to swerve around the obstacle), one can be held responsible, if it is decide that the decision made was wrong. This legal recognition of a decision is of the same sort as the self recognition of having made a decision (i.e. the “I have decided”, even the “I decide” because it is always a report even in present tense).

The sensible conclusion to these examples is to say that the solution to the practical syllogism is the decision itself, and not an idealization/representation of that decision which very well can be expressed afterwards in a proposition. What significance might this realization have? Simply this – that there are two kinds of knowledge, the kind proper to practical recognition of what to do given intentions and a situation, and th kind proper to the theoretical working through of inferences. As for the relation between them, one can always use theoretical knowledge to inquire into, to talk about, to better understand, all the parts of the practical syllogism – but that does not mean the practical one is reducible to the theoretical. What do I mean by this? Quite simply – we express the practical syllogism as having a kind of structure: intentions, situations, decisions. This structure does not change in each situation of choice. Ergo, the structure itself is propositional knowledge, proper to theoretical reasoning. Furthermore, each part of the syllogism can be described insofar as it remains the same (i.e. what is an intention/what do all intentions have in common? What is the structure of intention? Same for situation, same for decision). But, the operation of the syllogism itself can be grasped only in particular examples of its working through (i.e. my two examples above). Theoretical reasoning can not inquire into the decision itself because it is different every time, it is not the right kind of knowledge for propositions.

So, we can understand now what kind of mistake is being made when we grasp the practical syllogism on the basis of the theoretical one. The practical syllogism can be inquired into on through the theoretical one, it can even be represented in theory. However, it can not be reproduced in theory because it has a fundamentally different relation to content: theory inquires into things insofar as their principles remain constant, practical inquires into things insofar as their principles change. What do I mean by this? Quite literally, practical knowledge can say nothing decisively in advance of situations – situations are not neutral matter with respect to the form of our intentions, situations challenge our intentions, demand we re-evaluate them in the light of the new. Nothing is pure and unchanging about situations, and since they infect our intentions, nothing is pure or unchanging in them either. We can represent our intentions at a given time in theory, but this is only a representation – a holding fixed of what is inherently in flux. Thus, theory always remains on the level of representation of re-cognition, with respect to the practical. Only the practical engages directly with the instability of the world.


2 thoughts on “Intentions and action: grasping the practical propositionally?

  1. “However, the decision either to swerve, break, or run over the lumber is clearly a deliberate, which means deliberative, which means intentional, decision.”

    Why? You’ve given no evidence to support rapid reactions as intentional because the response is triggered by specific content. The dogs still hear the whistle, but no one would consider the response intentional. You’re simply asserting what you set out to prove.

    “One is responsible for the decision – if an accident ensues (i.e. if one side swipes into a car by trying to swerve around the obstacle), one can be held responsible, if it is decide that the decision made was wrong.”

    This is very questionable. The reason one might be held responsible for swerving into the other lane rather than applying the break is because there is a directive to maintain proper stopping distance behind all other vechicles. The responsibility people have results from the breach of some duty of care that is meant to insulate people from having to make snap judgments. To stick with your scenario, suppose the following car was a safe distance behind the truck, but the lumber was thrown back towards them (somehow). If there was no consideration of the reaction (a swerve into opposing traffic) it wouldn’t be intentional, and they wouldn’t be legally responsible. The presence of content isn’t what differentiates intention from involuntary action. Even if there was a breif consideration, or the individual admits being vague aware of potential outcomes afterwards, it is extremely unlikely they would be legally or moral responsible for the ensuing outcome, despite being causally responsible. The problem doesn’t even work with your definition of intent. Ability to forsee the possible effects of the action and comprehend a range of possible actions does have implications for the intentional status of an action.

    I think you also need to consider intentions for impossible outcomes. It might be instructive to examine some sort of ‘the road to hell’ scenarios whereby the intentional aspect involuntarily overwhelms or overestimates the practical wisdom. This disjointing might give you a better understanding of the relationship of intent and expertise and suggests a separation between ‘intent to’ and the actual (to use your strange vocabulary) closing down of other possibilities.

  2. Peter,

    “intentional” means “has an object”. Intentions are always “of” or “about” something. The question about dogs is silly, we can’t know that, it’s outside our experience. Whether the dog is poor in world or not, nothing I say will clarify or settle this issue.

    The passages you question are just me saying things everyone already agrees to. Everyone agrees that if you see something on the road and swerve, it’s you doing it, you meant to do it. And you can be held responsible if you swerve into someone because you should have looked. Of course the particularities are settled in court. The fact we don’t know the details of my thought experiment case doesn’t make it controversial.

    I mean, seriously, look at what you are complaining about: “the decision either to swerve, break, or run over the lumber is clearly a deliberate, which means deliberative, which means intentional, decision.””

    This takes for granted that there are options – swerving, breaking, running over the lumber. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think in this situation you have different options, then don’t expect to agree that the decision is intentional. But, you would be hard pressed to agree that it is a decision at all, since de-scision means to un-make a schism, a fork, choosing one possibility over others. If you just pick one action without alternatives, its hard to see how it was a de-scision at all.

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