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3 The Standard Story of Action: An Exchange (1) Michael Smith Suppose an agent acts in some way. What makes it the case that he acted, as distinct from his having been involved in some mere happening or other? What makes him an agent, rather than a patient? According to the standard story of action that gets told by philosophers, the answer lies in the causal etiology of what happened (Hume 1777/1975; Hempel 1961; Davidson 1963). We begin by identifying some putative action that the agent performed by tracing its effects back to some bodily movement. This bodily movement has to be one that the agent knows how to perform, and it further has to be the case that his knowledge how to perform it isn’t explained by his knowledge how to do something else: in other words, it must be one that could be a basic action (Danto 1963; Davidson 1971). We then establish whether the agent acted by seeing whether this bodily movement was caused and rationalized in the right kind of way by some desire the agent had that things be a certain way and a belief he had that something he can just do, namely, move his body in the relevant way, has some suitable chance of making things the way he desired them to be. If so, then that bodily movement is an action; if not, then it is not. It is easy to imagine someone objecting to this standard story right from the outset: “If the standard story of action says that I act only if I move my body, then it entails that there are no actions like those performed by children who stand absolutely motionless when given the direction to do so in a game of Freeze, or actions like sitting still in a chair or lying on a bed. In these and a host of similar cases we plainly act, but we do so without moving our bodies.” Despite its rhetorical force, however, this objection rests on an uncharitable interpretation of what the standard view has in mind when it talks about bodily movements. When a defender of the standard view says that actions are bodily movements , this has to be interpreted so that any orientation of the body counts 46 M. Smith as a bodily movement. Think of sitting in a chair. Sometimes the orientation of your body when you sit in a chair is under your control. Even if you’re sitting still, your doing what you’re doing is sustained by some desire you have and the belief that you can get what you desire by simply sitting still. It is this feature of the orientation of your body—the fact that it is under your control in the sense of being sensitive to what you desire and believe—that the standard story says makes it an action, whether or not you happen to be actually moving. Sometimes, however, when you’re sitting perfectly still the orientation of your body isn’t under your control. This is the case when (say) you’re sitting in a chair but you’re fast asleep. You’re sitting perfectly still, but you’re not acting. As I understand it, the standard story offers an account of what this difference consists in. In the former case, the orientation of your body is sensitive to what you desire and believe, whereas in the latter it isn’t. From here on I will therefore simply assume that any way in which an agent might orient his body counts as a bodily movement. To see how all of this works in practice, consider a simple example. Suppose that John flicks a switch. What makes it the case that he acted? According to the standard story, we answer this question by first of all identifying what we are imagining to be an action, John’s flicking the switch, with some relevant bodily movement of his by tracing back from the imagined action’s effects. Let’s suppose that the bodily movement we discover when we trace back is John’s moving his finger in some way. If John’s flicking the switch is to be an action then this bodily movement has to be one that John knows how to perform, and his knowledge how to perform it mustn’t be explained by his knowledge how to do something else. It must be the sort of bodily movement that could be a basic action...


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