16 August 2007

"Davidson might have avoided my criticism by changing these aspects of his theory" - a rant on philosophy

I am reading Bratman's criticism of Donald Davidson's theory of intentions. (Davidson is one of the biggest names within the tradition of philosophy of action) Bratman is criticizing Davidson for having given a picture of future intentions that will lead to some unacceptable results and paradoxes. But instead of grappling with the things we say about intentions and planning, Bratman tends to focus on a philosophical theory that somehow is to cover all aspects of "the phenomenon of" intentions. Davidson's theory is not satisfactory to Bratman, who tries to review the parts of it that needs to be revised for it to be a sound account of actions, planning and intentions.

Is this a problem about reductio ad absurdum arguments? In short, these are: "a type of logical argument where one assumes a claim for the sake of argument, derives an absurd or ridiculous outcome, and then concludes that the original assumption must have been wrong as it led to an absurd result." (Wikipedia) No, I guess not. As I see it, it is often important to ask questions such as: "do you really mean this, if what it in the end will come to mean is that?" If reductio arguments are simply about that, then I suppose they are quite essential in our conversations about what we mean when we say things that sound good but are quite problematic when one takes a closer look. (I don't to want to go into the use of reductio in formal logic, as I don't know much about that)

No, the problem is that "philosophical theories" sometimes, quite often, lead the life of a vampire: they are dependent on life - sucking the blood of the living, while being themselves dead. What I mean by this scary analogy is: of course there is something in what Bratman says that has to do with our life and the way we think and talk about life. Bratman talks, for example, about how we plan and coordinate things (even if his descriptions are quite strange and bloodless). The examples he mentions are seemlingly ordinary - buying books, eating yogurt - but the only place they have in his text is to shed light on some quite formal mistake of Davidson: Davidson's view of how beliefs, desires and actions are related to each other will allow for some paradoxical and unacceptable results: for example that he cannot give a decent description of how we choose between two alternatives of which none of them is better or worse than the other.

Well, of course we might have real, non-philosophical problems choosing between alternatives that we have a hard time comparing. But rather than trying to come up with a philosophical theory that will encompass "this type of scenario" we should look into, for example, what it means to see something "as an alternative", "as something I can see as a possibility". To be more concrete: there is something fishy about a project of creating an "all-embracing theory" that contains no paradoxes or contradictions, and does not involve any obvious clashes with "how we normally speak". How would this type of theory help us understand anything? Or is it aimed at understanding something? If not - what function is it supposed to have?

Bratman writes of his own suggestion: "The theory avoids my problems at the cost of others." Okay, that's interesting. - I would be a thousand times more sympathetic to Bratman's essay if it would somehow set out to, in light of these "paradoxes" of Davidson's theory, analyze in what way Davidson has got things the wrong way. For example: what is wrong with Davidson's descriptions of "intentionality" and "future intentions"?
As it is now, Bratman appears as a mechanic trying to "fix" the small inconveniences of Davidson's theory.

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