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Springs of Action: Understanding Intentional Behavior.

This book is a very good example of a movement in contemporary analytic philosophy propounding "the philosophy of action." This movement begins with work by Donald Davidson in the 1960s and 1970s in which he argues for the intelligibility of the belief-desire model of rational behavior implicit in common sense and in much of social science. Major contributors to the school include William Alston, Robert Audi, and Alvin Goldman. This movement has three essential characteristics: a conservative attitude toward the basic elements of common-sense or "folk" psychology; an armchair, nonexperimental methodology; and the avoidance of formal logic, and a concomitant lack of interest in the logical issues arising from the investigation of intentional notions. This book exemplifies well all three of these characteristics.

The book is divided into two parts. In Part 1 Mele examines the connection between intentional behavior and the strength of the underlying motivation. He attempts to answer the question, Do we always do what we want most to do? This part culminates in the construction of a theory of irresistible desires. In Part 2 Mele takes up a number of issues concerning the place of intentions in the commonsense model of rational behavior.

Chapter 2, "Mental Causation," is devoted to the mind-body problem, in particular to the problem of reconciling our commonsense view that intentional states qua intentional states cause observable behavior with the assumption that a comprehensive account of all causal connections can be rendered in the language of physics (a language lacking the idiom of intentionality). Mele argues convincingly that a physicalistic basis can be provided for certain counterfactuals relating intentionality and behavior, such as, If Jones had not decided to make his bed, he would not be making it. As Mele recognizes, however, there is a gap between the truth of such counterfactuals and the existence of genuine causal connections. Given our present lack of an adequate theory of the semantics of caustion, no one knows how to fill that gap.

The bulk of Part 1 is taken up with an examination of a thesis proposed by Donald Davidson, which Mele labels P1: If we act intentionally at all, we do whatever we want most to do, among what we believe to be the available options. Mele accepts P1 as approximately true, and in a method similar to Chisholm's, he modifies P1 by adding a series of epicycles, each added in response to a putative counter-example. The result is quite complicated, and the whole exercise left me unconvinced of its value.

In Part 1, chapter 5, Mele presents his account of irresistible desires. I gained something valuable from this chapter: I became convinced of the importance of taking into account the possibility of plans and strategies for intentionally modifying one's own desires. In the preceding chapter, Mele discusses some important work on this topic by the psychologists George Ainslie and Walter Mischel. Nonetheless, I found Mele's definition of irresistible desires quite unenlightening (which is not to say false). In effect, Mele defines an irresistible desire as one for which one lacks the "physical and psychological skills and capacities" needed to resist it. This definition comes fairly close to "dormitive virtue."

The focus of Part 2 is the claim that there are very real but defeasible connections between evaluative judgments and intention, between preponderant motivation and intention, and between intention and action. The role of intentions is to mediate between evaluative judgments and desires on the one hand and overt intentional behavior on the other. Mele argues that preponderant motivation can override present intention (as in certain cases of akrasia), but that future desires can be altered through the adoption of appropriate plans. Neither judgments nor desires can produce action directly: both must first effect appropriate present-directed intentions. These claims by Mele are plausible conjectures, but I am worried that thanks to the law of diminishing returns there may be little expected payoff from pushing the project of clarifying and elaborating the commonsense model of the mind so far.
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Author:Koons, Robert C.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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